Wed 04 Aug
The micro-blogging service Tumblr is among the most impressive startups I’ve seen rise in popularity over the past few years and yet when I look at it, I’m filled with ambivalence. On the one hand, it makes me mad as heck because I feel a sense of personal failure for not having thought of it. Its essential formula is so obvious as to be nearly banal: make the act of blogging absurdly simple. Not ‘make the act of blogging simpler,’ or even ‘much, much simpler,’ but rather ‘make the act of blogging as absurdly simple as it can possibly be made.’
And in the execution of this idea, there is great beauty. Throughout, Tumblr is intoxicatingly easy to use, to peruse and to participate in. A surprisingly high percentage of its templates are uncommonly attractive, thoughtfully assembled and worthwhile. And the gentle, effortless satisfaction of its “reblog” feature is a milestone in interaction design. In fact, I’d go so far as to say Tumblr’s central innovation is its design. The technology is relatively mundane, with seemingly very little of it being particularly new or interesting. Nevertheless, it weaves these pieces together into a transcendently superb user experience. More than nearly any other new venture in recent memory, Tumblr seems like one of the great new design companies.
As much as I admire it, though, I can’t bring myself to use it. Partly this is because one of its key ideas, the conspicuous omission of comments, is a deal breaker for me. I really value the comments that I get here on Subtraction.com and can’t imagine blogging without the continually rewarding intimacy of that feedback loop. I also have some dispute with the way Tumblr handles image-only posts, repeating the text in the body of the post as its title — my RSS reader is riddled with these kinds of duplicative entries from image-heavy Tumblr blogs.
Those are relatively minor quibbles though. My biggest complaint, by far, has bothered me for some time but has taken me only until recently to put my finger on. Tumblr discourages identity. Or, to be more specific, it promotes shallow identity. Moreso than other blogging systems like WordPress or ExpressionEngine, Tumblr blogs frequently offer only scant few details about their authors. I can’t recall how many Tumblr sites I’ve visited where it wasn’t clear who was behind the posts, what their background was, or what their intent was. Many of these sites are artful, well designed and are actually quite engaging, but I guess I’m old fashioned in that I like to know who’s behind them.
Everyone praises the power of anonymity that the Internet makes possible, and I’m firmly in that camp. At the same time, I prefer it when people use their real identities. It just makes for a better experience. When you post or contribute anything online and you use your real name, and you provide authentic details about your station in life or your passions, it works as a multiplier of the value of your contribution — and for the richness of the network, too.
That’s what was so compelling, I think, about the first few waves of blogs. By and large, they weren’t just venues for the publication of content. They also served as outposts for your identity, a representation of who you were on the World Wide Web. By contrast, Tumblr blogs often seem more like something dishonest — well, dishonest is too strong a word. But when I browse through many of these tumblelogs, they feel as if their authors are trying to get away with something, trying to sneak something past somebody. There’s a sense of evasiveness, or vagueness, of no one really standing behind what’s been published, or no one being sufficiently committed to the content to offer up their name.
Before readers here post vociferous defenses of this approach, let me clear, I don’t think that Tumblr’s dynamic of shallow identity is wrong. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, the highly fungible nature of identity that Tumblr makes possible is a welcome ballast against the deeper identity dynamic that Facebook makes possible — or that Facebook makes inevitable, depending on how you look at it. The Tumblr approach is much more tolerant of ambiguity, of irony and artfulness, and that’s a good thing. I only wish that particular quality was also a bit more conducive to its users putting forward their real identities. Still, that doesn’t mean I’m still not jealous as heck I didn’t come up with the whole thing.