Tumblr is downscaling its ambitions after failing to reach goals for a new audience, aiming to move some staff members to other divisions of parent company Automattic. A leaked memo, which circulated on Tumblr and was confirmed in a Verge comment by Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg, says that “the majority” of Tumblr’s non-support, safety, and moderation staff will “switch to other divisions.” In follow-up posts on Tumblr, Mullenweg stated that Automattic is planning “a more focused approach in 2024,” including an emphasis on the “core functionality” of the site.
“After 600+ person-years of effort put into Tumblr since the acquisition in 2019, we have not gotten the expected results from our effort, which was to have its revenue and usage above its previous peaks,” the memo reads. It describes implementing a backup plan to “reflect and decide where else we should concentrate our energy together” without laying off staff from Automattic — which also operates the WordPress.com and WordPress VIP hosting services. “This plan is happening now.” That involves transferring the majority of 139 people on a team identified as covering product development, marketing, and other tasks outside support, moderation, and security.
Mullenweg emphasized in his comment that there would be “no changes” in the Trust and Safety team handling moderation, and “in fact we may add more people there.” On his Tumblr blog, he outlined a little of what Tumblr users can expect to change. “One thing I’m hoping with a more focused approach in 2024 is that we can streamline some of the extra things that were launched (like Live) that haven’t gotten the adoption we hoped, and focus in on the core functionality that people use a ton of on Tumblr,” he said. “We will likely be shipping less new stuff and more focused on improving existing functionality and core flows.”
Live refers to a video streaming feature Tumblr launched in late 2022 — one that has gotten prominent placement in Tumblr’s menu but remained an apparent boondoggle for many existing Tumblr users. “We have a contractual obligation to try to make Live as successful as possible through the end of the year, and we’ll do our best there,” Mullenweg said. “By January, aligned with the new more focused approached of Tumblr teams, we’ll re-assess whether it should be part of the Tumblr app anymore.”
Tumblr has attempted a variety of new monetization strategies, including Live, a sponsored post feature called Blaze, an ad-free subscription, and a paid content feature called Post Plus. Their success has apparently been mixed. Mullenweg called Post Plus the subject of a viral “misinformation” campaign that suggested monetizing fan content could lead to lawsuits, producing a backlash that included — Mullenweg said — threats against creators who used it. “Since then we’ve gotten better at managing attacks and threats, with new tools and a bigger Trust & Safety team, but Post Plus never recovered,” he said.
The other options like Blaze, it seems, haven’t made enough money to sustain the site. “Their adoption is so small relative to the use of Tumblr their revenue couldn’t support a fraction of the ~1,000 servers it takes to run Tumblr, much less any salaries,” Mullenweg said.
“What’s super clear is our previous approach wasn’t working.”
Tumblr is the latest of numerous social media sites to struggle with questions about monetization and focus — in some cases, like Reddit, sparking backlash from users in the process. Automattic acquired Tumblr from Verizon, which had alienated a significant part of its base with a poorly orchestrated ban on adult content. While Automattic didn’t roll that back, it loosened the restrictions and charmed many users with oddball fundraising techniques like meaningless, stackable verification checkmarks. Its ownership of Tumblr was marked by trends like a wave of poll-based games and a nonexistent, crowd-constructed Martin Scorsese film called Goncharov. But it seems that hasn’t been enough to make the site sustainable.
“What’s super clear is our previous approach wasn’t working,” Mullenweg elaborated in another post. “It didn’t turn around the business to make enough money to support the investment of infrastructure and staff needed to run Tumblr, and a lot of users were unhappy with some of the changes we tried. There have been a few staff changes within the team, but basically what we’re saying is starting January 1st, 2024 we’ll try a different structure with smaller, more focused teams working on the core parts of Tumblr that people say they want improved. We’ll sunset or rollback some things we tried that didn’t work.”