Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Usage Analysis: Tumblr


So, about a month ago, I decided to create a Tumblr.  (Note: I'm not sharing my personal "blog;" sorry).  While many people have used the social network for the last few years, I never quite "got it."  Though, in my quest to stay current and understand why people are using certain services, I set out on creating a profile.  The following are my beliefs on why the website is so popular and why users return to it.  Also, please note that this is more of an analysis on why users return to the site, not an analysis on what's wrong with the design or what makes the site special.

Finding #1:  This Isn't a "Normal" Social Network

One of the first things I learned about Tumblr was that it's not like Facebook, Google+, or Twitter in that it's a "social network" mostly for strangers.  I'm not trying to impress my friends, family, or coworkers; I'm trying to connect with others on a global scale.  This small difference has several large impacts on the site's users.  For one, I was no longer attached to my own life!  I was no longer defined as "that guy who played percussion" or "that guy who moved to Oregon to work with Intel;" I could be anyone I wanted to be.  My identity was reset and I was allowed to create an Internet personality based solely on my interests or others' interests that I thought were interesting.  In my opinion, this is a huge benefit that Facebook, et. all can't replicate; the users are free to be whoever and whatever they want to be in real life.  Examples of this include gay high schoolers who are finally able to express their inner-selves in some public facet or people without money "reblogging" high-end fashion despite it being out of their price range.  People love talking about themselves and now they love showing their true (and to some extent ideal) selves.

Finding #2:  Tumblr: The Fountain of Content

Companies need to learn how to engage their users to keep their userbase.  People obviously don't repeatedly return to websites they find boring.  So what makes Tumblr so "addictive?"  There are three highly-addictive reward systems that are extremely powerful.  The first is the user's "Dashboard."  Thanks in part to Finding #1, the Dashboard should be filled with content tailored directly towards you.  I would describe it as a mixture of Facebook's News Feed, Reddit's homepage, and crack.  Due to most posts being images or text, scrolling through a dozen posts on the Dashboard takes seconds.  It's a constantly replenished source of content that you know you'll enjoy.  The Dashboard also has infinite scrolling enabled so users aren't jarred back to reality after X amount of posts.  These two facts make Tumblr extremely addicting to visit.  Though, Tumblr isn't just about visiting; it's about sharing.

Finding #3: Followers! Followers! Followers! 

The second reward system on Tumblr is the amount of "followers" one has.  It's an odd form of social validation; if you get a new follower, you feel like they "like" you.  Due to this, the user seemingly tries to be more interactive on the site in hopes of impressing them and convincing others to follow their blog.  This near-instant validation leads to users getting caught in a cycle; to get another follower you have to interact more which leads to more followers which leads to more interaction, and so on, and so on.  As an aside, Tumblr did something remarkably intelligent; they made your follower count private.  This reminds me of a decision Facebook made years ago regarding wall posts.  If I remember correctly, due to fears of people comparing wall post counts and feeling inadequate, Facebook removed the number from their site.  Tumblr, on the other hand, has made their follower count private which means no one feels bad about their count and they have a gauge on how "popular" or "liked" they are.

Finally, the third reward system is likes and reblogs.  This is very similar to the second reward system, but it shows you not only how many people like your content, but what they like.  This allows the user to tailor their blog to hone in on what they know will be "popular" amongst followers.

Conclusion: There Are Many Things Others Can Learn From Tumblr

After my first month on Tumblr, I can see what other companies should learn from this site.  I've listed these thoughts below and I hope to hear about others' opinions on the subject! 
  1. Put the users first and get out of the way.  No one wants to use your service; they want to express themselves or help their lives and the less they have to deal with you the better.
  2. Gone are the days of static content.  Today, the user needs to be able to determine your site's content and should be able to perfectly tailor it to their identity.  
  3. If users are allowed to fully express who they are on the inside, you most likely have a disruptive product.
  4. Implement rewards systems that are less about arbitrary "scores" (Klout) and more about sociability and validating the user's identity.
  5. People are becoming more private and weary about posting their lives online.  Allow users to remain public yet private!  Tumblr allows people to blog about their lives or remain 100% anonymous.  This freedom allows the platform to be used in various ways without hurting the either experience.  For example, a user could use a Tumblr to blog about color palettes or they could use it to upload photos of their daily lives.  Either way, the platform supports both degrees of privacy.
  6. Implementing infinite scrolling is dangerously addictive and you should always use it.  Always.


  1. yeah I recently decided tumblr has all the best content for pretty much every subject. it's an amazing gold mine.

  2. Try this tumblr browser: http://min-s.com/ it turns any tumblr/tag into a super fast infinite scroll of images.

  3. Your analysis feels like it could be summed up as "Tumblr is Twitter without the 140 character limit". The centering of identity on the content someone produces rather than who they happen to be in real life, the interaction with strangers who happen to be interested in the same things, the routine use of pseudonyms, the way reposting other content is considered a valid and useful thing to do, and the way all of the preceding turns the news feed into a rich source of interesting content.

    Perhaps this could be summed up even more strongly as "Tumblr is like the web was before social networks ruined it". The points i list above would be a pretty good description of usenet back in its heyday.

    1. Thanks for the great comment! I feel like your first point is largely right but I think comparing Tumblr to "Twitter without the 140 character limit" is unfair to the platform. It almost feels like you're saying that "a bird without wings, beak, and feathers would look like a mouse." IMO, when you strip away what makes something special to make a comparison, it's not terribly accurate. While you can retweet and reblog other people's content, I feel like the identity created through reblogging others' images is much stronger than retweeting 140 characters. I've yet to see many Twitter accounts specifically dedicated to "retro video games" or "clothing from the 1930's," though that could be anecdotal.

      Also, would you mind going into more of how the internet was before the social networks? I've used usenet before, but only on a limited basis and for a less-than-legitimate purpose heh. To be fair, I was 13 at the time hahah.

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