The Uses and Limits of Tumblr

I’ve had a tumblr blog since 2007—well before it was cool :)—but never really used it. As I got more into ds106 and creating stuff on the web the design culture coming out of tumblr kept coming on my radar through blogs I follow, links on twitter, student work, etc. Not to mention the PSU blog creation crew of Brak Kozlek and Cole Camplese went all-in on tumblr, seeing WordPress as a bit bloated for quickly posting lifebits.

I think Bryan Alexander turned me onto a blogger on tumblr called Sarkos who is exceptionally good, with constant flow of compelling and interesting stuff. And of course the amazing De La Soul’s First Serve tumblr. Long story short, I recently starting using tumblr as a space where I post images, video, animated GIFs that I see on the web and want to save somewhere. And while my uses is somewhat pedestrian, I love how the dashboard is designed to simply show you what the people you follow post. That’s a feature that I think would be amazing for a course, especially if the aggregation was that seamlessly filtered and streamlined. In fact, streamlining syndicating is one of the course elements to making aggregation models like this smoother when approaching faculty and students.

But all that said the problem with tumblr—or maybe its the genius, I don’t know—is the context. You never really know who posted what, who re-blogged what, who is sharing what. I love this platform for promotion, but it gets tricky for attribution. What’s more, the simplified interface makes adding titles, tags, categories and other assorted metadata less likely. I imported 60 posts from my Tumblr blog into a WordPress blog on UMW Blogs to see how that works (the Stumblr theme is nice, thanks D’Arcy!), and it’s interesting how there’s no information available about any of the posts in the WP interface. Take a look at the last 20 posts I imported:

Absolutely nothing to search for or organize by when I import it from tumblr, which is distressing. Add to that, at least on UMW Blogs, the video links get lost in the import, leaving me with about 10 dead posts with no trace of the original YouTube link. I like a lot of things about tumblr—particularly the way it creates loose community and allows for quick promotion—but I also feel like my stuff is so fragile there, just like the thousands of links languishing on my Delicious account. After almost seven years of intensive blogging it really doesn’t make sense for me to go down a tumblr hole—it’s not open source, the importer is only decent at best, and the quick and easy nature may prove more work over time when it comes to archiving. That said, I would love to start thinking about how we might design an aggregation hub/space that allows people to follow, promote, and feature recent work like what’s going on in tumblr. I don’t necessarily want to put my data there, I just want something I can use to read, subscribe, discover, and promote stuff in a more compelling way than through an RSS reader. And for me this is kind of where the culture around RSS has been kinda lame, there haven’t been easy and creative ways to aggregate, explore and reframe the various feeds to make them attractive, accessible, and discoverable.

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7 Responses to The Uses and Limits of Tumblr

  1. the culture around RSS has been completely lame because the energy of the coolest/smartest/most-innovative folks has been drained by the shiny one-clickness of Tumblr/Posterous/Facebook/Google+/etc…

    Imagine where we’d be now if startups and innovators had focused on the syndication bus, rather than on building silos or building farm games for those silos. It’s depressing.

    There is absolutely no reason why you can’t (or shouldn’t) host your own stuff, for everything you do. Where there are gaps in social layers, we have stuff like Twitter etc… to provide the interstitial connections. I know I’m being naive, but I don’t plan to host anything I care about on any third party service. It’s tempting, because it’s easy and shiny, but the whole Reclaim thing has shown me that it’s definitely possible to own your own stuff. Sure, it’s different than buying completely into the third-party-silos, but that’s kinda the point…

  2. Reverend says:


    Yeah, I hear you about the syndication bus, but I am still holding out hope. I do enjoy having all my stuff on bavatuesdays and my server, I do think more ways for folks who are managing all their stuff to create a seamless bus would be cool. That said, folks like Mike Caulfield have mapped their own domain to tumblr, and are doing regular posts that they can ultimately import if they want, and I imagine more data will come if it is a post. But after YouTube cut off the lights on me I am even more skittish. I am becoming a reclaimer, I’m just not technical enough to make it any good 🙂

  3. Yes, I came crawling back.

    Two reasons. One — the reason you cite above, the metadata is a mess. Part of the genius of tumblr is headerless posts. You don’t have to sweat over what your post is *about*, there’s no blinking cursor in a title box. I love that in a lot of ways, but man does it make things a mess outside of it. I syndicate my own posts into Google reader because when I search I like to see my own stuff come up too, but when I search stuff pulled in from tumblr I waste too much time clicking “No Title” posts.

    The second reason is that even though basic image sharing is a snap in tumblr, which was an attraction. But If you say want an inline image there are no affordances at all for that. You end up storing your image on photobucket and feeling cheap and used. And you know that linkrot is just around the corner. You can, of course, upload the image to your own server, but if you’re doing that, why use tumblr?

    (Incidentally, this is one area that Canvas actually seems broken too — at least in the free version if I drop an image in a quiz question I have to store it external to Canvas — that’s going to be a heck of a nightmare if linkrot ever hits those 100 question quizbanks — 100 questions based on graphs, and we no longer know what the graphs look like! Am I missing something here?)

    In short, what’s so hard about an upload media button? Is it 1997 or something? Or do people know we’re heading towards a linkrot apocalypse and they just don’t care?

    Anyway Jim, sorry to lead you astray. We still might use tumblr for the students in Making Fair Comparisons, because it’s a great entry into blogging (which the structure of tumblr forces to be reactive — and I think that’s how blogging has to start out or it becomes too self-indulgent). But it’s not for me anymore….

  4. Brad Kozlek says:

    Jim, These are issues that churn within me on a daily basis. I could go on and on about the pros and cons of tumblr, and one day I may write a proper post on the matter from my POV. What I will say is that there are too many benefits and too much discovery and fun to be had on tumblr for me not be on there right now. Although I still have my own wordpress blog, but that may become a more quarterly affair. Some other thoughts:

    A) Permanence may not be the most important feature for many (most?) people. I am not simply saying that people don’t care (to which one could argue that maybe they should), but that it is actually not that important in some sort of objective sense.

    B) A tumblr really isn’t a collection of individual posts. tumblrs tend to be an integrated whole. A single artifact. The design and presentation is essential, inseparable to this artifact. I believe this is different than most proper blogs.

    C) The things collected on a tumblr can easily be reblogs from other tumblrs. Not just links to or copes of other’s posts, but the actual post of another can be inserted into my design and collection context. This is big.

  5. I agree with D’Arcy about the foolish drop in RSS attention. Bah, I say.

    Good analysis, Jim. The Delicious comparison is one I’ve been using to explain Tumblr to folks.

    Glad you like Sarkos. You might dig the Black Gang: . Oh, my pal Burnett and I were using Tumblr to read a great weird book together,; wish we had more time for it.

  6. Pingback: Now on Tumblr | Side Quest Publications

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