Who's Afraid Of The Big, Bad Yahoo? Tumblr Users!

My Spotify is on a Pearl Jam jag, so I’d rather be listening to that, but instead I’m listening to the interview that Tumblr founder David Karp did last night with Charlie Rose about why he sold to Yahoo last week for $1.1 billion.

This is what he said:  “It was a company with a legacy, doing exactly the same kind of stuff that we’re hinging our business on, which is really creative brand advertising.”

I’m not sure that Charlie Rose is the best outlet for Karp right now, because -- rightly or wrongly -- he has a lot of explaining to do among the prime users of Tumblr, many of whom are less than a third of Mr. Rose’s age, and might not even know who he is. Alternate theory: Karp picked Charlie Rose because he knows that most of the platform’s users don’t want to hear that Tumblr is hinging its business on brand advertising.

But much as Karp says that the two companies’ visions dovetail, the headlines about Tumblr in the last few days show how difficult the marriage of hot, young Tumblr to old, arthritic Yahoo may be. Unfortunately for Karp, these difficulties may be entirely about the perception among users that instead of playing off one another’s similarities, Yahoo and Tumblr should always stay radically different. That may not be realistic, but it is what it is.

What have those headlines said? Things like: “Tumblr Ups Its Ads, Users Freak Out On Cue.” Yes, Tumblr has rolled out more front-and-center advertising into users’ dashboards, and fooled around with some icons --  and the PEOPLE are PISSED!!!

“thanks tumblr but i dont want ads about nickelodeon on my dash… already changing the old tumblr. even though tumblr claims they have had ads for a year….bullshit, ive never seen one until today … “ -- giantbananas

“Is this posting fucking ads shit on my tumblr feed a part of this yahoo shit?” -- wonderlesssims

OK, that’s just input from two highly eloquent Tumblr users, but you get the underlying theme: It’s all Yahoo’s fault that more prominent ads are now on Tumblr.

That idea, as most people who read this column know, is ridiculous. It’s logistically impossible for an acquirer to swoop in, introduce a big, new feature, come to agreement with a few advertisers for it and launch it, all within a week and a half. If you’ve been following Tumblr, you know full well that Tumblr has been moving to more advertising for some time now. (Oh, and BTW, the Yahoo/Tumblr deal hasn’t even closed yet.)

To the typical 20something, these fine points -- if accurate -- mean absolutely nothing. The perception that Yahoo is (to borrow a word from Tumblr users)  “fucking” with Tumblr, will persist.

And therein lies the big, big problem with Tumblr’s attempts at moving forward as a more commercial platform: Users will probably balk, in a way they might not have if Yahoo hadn’t entered the scene. It’s part of the strange psychology of the InterWebs that passionate users of a platform always seem to need a villain. They need to identify an entity that will come in and wreck paradise, so they can fold their cards and go elsewhere.

Now that Tumblr is being bought by Yahoo, Tumblr users finally have their villain. It may not be fair -- but, to that end, Yahoo is a perfect fit.

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