The Tumblr Takeover: Yahoo Seeks to Remake its New Acquisition

Alison K. Lanier

In May, Yahoo made an immense purchase that sounds like the punch line to a very bad joke. David Karp, founder of Tumblr, accepted an offer from Yahoo to purchase his brainchild.

Nvate Yahoo, Tumblr by David Karp Blog, bloggers

Tumblr is the popular mass-blogging site where notoriously angsty young bloggers can post, pre-post, and protest one another’s words, pictures, videos, and cat gifs. Karp, who has become something of an icon with his Internet flock of 300 million Tumblrers, that number, taken from Yahoo’s press release, has been the subject that is up for debate. According to Forbes, for the massive social networking site, Yahoo paid Karp $1.1 billion—in cash.

While the ludicrous image of Karp driving home a U-Haul full of cash, to many of the teen bloggers who awoke one morning to a Yahoo-run Tumblr, a funnier angle yet is for what exactly Yahoo paid that none-too-small fortune. According to many bloggers in the days following the takeover, Yahoo paid for photos of cute animals, teens’ obscene online outpourings, complaints about high school, and fandom ravings. Many bloggers have adopted the habit of ending particularly pointless or ridiculous blog posts with, “This is what Yahoo paid 1.1 billion dollars for.”

The Substance of the Tumblr Takeover

What is Yahoo really paying for when they pay for however many millions of blogs run by teens all around the world? The move not only stumped the bloggers but does not make sense with Yahoo’s infamously family-friendly policies. Consider millions of uncensored teenagers communing on a mammoth scale with pictures, videos and text. It doesn’t take a great leap of logic to arrive at the conclusion of what Yahoo was in for.

The good news: Yahoo is not censoring the famously unfettered site. Tumblr is still the free and wild animal that its users signed up for. Now the site features additional, camouflaged ad posts scattered sneakily along with the blogs that users follow on their home screen dashboards. The ads use tactics like Tumblr’s popular gif moving images to mask their presence as ads.

Rather, they create the illusion of a natural popularity spike for a movie just before its release date, for example, with eye-catching gifs showing the masked antagonists of “The Purge” repeatedly approaching the user’s screen. It’s a clever marketing ploy and one that melds into the trend employed by Facebook to make ads appear, well, natural.

Using social media as a platform to artificially boost the apparent popularity of music, movies, or television—to name a few—burrows into the natural flow of information that inundates users such that, in the course of scrolling down a page, the blogger or Facebook user isn’t aware that what they see is advertising at all, but registers as just another message from online compatriots. Advertisers are friends now too; we all occupy the same digital wonderland, all appreciate the same funny cat gifs. Mumbles Yahoo—we’re hip too.

While ads have migrated from the sidebars, where they could be easily ignored, brushed past by the margins of a user’s brain, how far have they come? Sure, they aren’t rotting in the proverbial Internet ditch at the side of the screen anymore. But one moment of additional attention could inform the savvy Internet-goer that what they’re looking at is planted advertising.

Yahoo’s Makeover Aspirations

The fact is that Yahoo paid $1.1 billion for a company that only pulled in $13 million last year, according to Brand Republic’s report. What Yahoo may be aiming for is not so much a greater source of revenue. Their nonaggressive ad campaign, keeping Karp on as CEO, and the general lack of change on Tumblr as a whole, makes it apparent that Yahoo hasn’t reinvented Tumblr or dismantled it into the Tumblrers’ worst nightmare of super-corporatized, ad-saturated Yahoo/Tumblr hybrid.

No, if Yahoo’s goal is financial, the Tumblr acquisition makes far less sense than the generous takeover offer of $44.6 billion from Microsoft in February 2008, Brand Republic described.

Yahoo’s goals, with its chief executive Marissa Mayer at the helm, seems to be rounding out the first year under her new leadership with what Brand Republic calls a “quixotic bid to reinvent its challenger brand potential” and “recapture its former glories.”

Yahoo does, indeed, seem to be trying to redefine its identity by absorbing the social media hipster paradise that is Tumblr, but it’s very easy to read a sense of desperation in Yahoo’s bid. This seems especially true with Tumblr users’ extreme reluctance to accept their new overlords and Yahoo’s extremely awkward press release which includes—and this is a direct quote—a “promise not to screw it up” and not to censor Tumblr’s “irreverence.”

For now, Tumblr users can only wish Yahoo the best of luck with its identity makeover and hope that its apparent desperation does not lead it to more invasive policies.

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