By Juliana LaVita
When one thinks about social networking Facebook is the first name that comes to mind. Mark Zuckerberg’s social juggernaut is practically synonymous with the term. From relationship statuses to the newly introduced “timeline” that traces a person’s life in a variety of recordable aspects, Facebook is the source for everything anyone would wish to know about, well, anyone.
He’s no Zuckerberg – yet – but David Karp, an entrepreneur with a big idea and an even bigger following, is challenging that. He created Tumblr, an oft-overlooked social networking site that attracts hundreds of thousands of young users. The site bridges the gap between traditional blogs and social networking, blending the expression flexibility of the former with the social tools and user-friendliness of the latter. Users are free to write or share and reblog anything they find, as well as design every aspect of their own pages.
How is Tumblr Different from Facebook?
Karp learned well from Facebook’s repeated privacy snafus, because Tumblr’s less-invasive format consists of people you “follow” without even knowing their real names. The anonymity and flexibility give Tumblr a more easygoing, less regimented feeling relative to the real-name-only policy of Facebook (its own policy was likely a reaction to the decay of MySpace)
Are anonymity and flexibility enough to help Tumblr compete? Perhaps that’s the wrong question to ask, as they are distinctly different visions of social networking. Facebook requires individuals know the names of those they friend request, but following others on Tumblr offers insight into their lives without even asking for permission. Where Facebook is becoming more and more a mature platform, where adults share pictures of kids, businesses drive traffic to their own website, and Facebook rakes in the cash with user’s freely submitted personal info.
But in Tumblr’s youthful (and most of its users are young), free-form, blog style, users can glean a fundamental sense of a person simply by what he or she posts – no name, age, or kissy-face-sideways-peace-sign-picture necessary. So the cliché about a picture’s worth in words certainly holds true for Tumblr users. The pictures people choose to put on their blog can determine interests from movies to television to the bands that they admire.
In this sense, the popular blogging site has taken the simple Facebook concept of “liking” to a whole new level, to the extent of showing how much one actually cares for particular subjects by how much real-estate users devote on their Tumblr page.
Tumblr’s anonymity creates profound changes in how users interact and share. The protection it affords means followers can be anyone, from best friends to strangers from another continent. On Facebook, people often censor what they post, shying away from discussing true feelings, opinions, or pictures that might upset grandma; but Tumblr has a measure of the old-fashioned anonymity that marked the pre-Facebook Internet (so long as you withhold personal info and pictures from your Tumblr page).
Of course, Facebook continues to dwarf Tumblr by nearly every measure, but for now the smaller site offers a compelling alternative vision to the increasingly invasive, monetized, over-sharing titan.
Tumblr still faces the same obstacle as any other Internet-based business: how to turn eyeballs to dollars. Karp remains adamantly anti-ad, but Tumblr will eventually burn through its investment cash and need to generate revenue, like any other business.
Still, its design is more social than network, and that’s exactly what its growing legions of young users are looking for. Tumblr has nowhere to go but up.