November 8th, 2009 | Digital Strategy

Tumbling Into the Future

DISCLAIMER: Tumblr isn’t new and this is not a review.  It is an analysis of Tumblr’s past, present and future, focusing on the site’s community, etiquette, and possible implications to copyright.

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Tumblr is the future of blogging, and perhaps the future of art, and it’s going to change the world.  It’s Twitter meets WordPress meets Flickr, not in terms of its technology per se, but in terms of community and popular usage.  If you wonder how the next generation of artists feel about copyright, go to Tumblr.  They are quietly starting a revolution while the rest of the world is busy tweeting like there’s no tomorrow.  Do I think Twitter is a waste of time or that it’ll go the way of the dodo? (cough, MySpace)  Absolutely not, but much has been made about the fact that teens don’t use Twitter, I suspect that they don’t because they find it boring (words only? seriously?) compared to a service like Tumblr.  But I’ll get back to the kids in a minute.

I’ve been using Tumblr for a couple of years now with varying degrees of regularity and have watched it evolve into a robust and fun-to-use application and slowly catch on with some of my friends.  Initially, it was only two or three other early adopters I know, then a few more trickled in, and there was a half dozen or so.  But it was never enough people for it to get to my “personal” critical mass, a problem I had with Twitter for the longest time and most recently with Google Wave:  I see huge potential in an application but not enough people I know use it for it to be FUN.  Sort of like a party with great food and plenty of booze but very few attendees.  Though that can often be fun too.  But I digress.

I used to treat Tumblr like FriendFeed, and initially it was intended to be much more like that.  FriendFeed focuses on one thing only, gathering your streams from around the internet and creating what amounts to a fancy Twitter feed, and they do it better than anyone else. (cough, Facebook) Hopefully their recent purchase by Facebook won’t screw that up.  But again I digress.  Tumblr has evolved to be much more than an aggregator of your activities elsewhere, it has become an art form all its own.  The folks at Tumblr call it “the easiest way to blog” and the “scrapbook” of blogs, but it is really whatever you want to be, a seemingly endless stream of photos, poems, music, videos, diaries, paintings, reviews, rants, etc etc.  It’s beautiful, funny, chaotic, occasionally inappropriate, but often very compelling, you know, like art.  Like Twitter, it captures the pulse of the world, but in a way that Twitter cannot:  through a multimedia collage of artistic self-expression.

That’s all well and fine, but there is still this little problem of critical mass.  I recently heard from a friend that Gary Vaynerchuk, creator and host of Wine Library TV, and one of my favorite new media experts (his Mediabistro keynote from earlier this year is a must-watch), predicted that Tumblr will be the Twitter of 2010, or something along those lines, hopefully I’m paraphrasing accurately.  So hearing this prompted me to return to Tumblr for the first time in a few months to see if it was approaching my critical mass.  What I found upon my arrival was not more of my friends, but something different altogether, something that has drawn me into Tumblr, and made it my newest obsession:  a thriving community and new features that make it easier than ever to jump in and join the conversation.  The Popular tab (not sure how old this is but it looks it much different than I remember) now features The Wire, which is a continuous stream of new posts from across that network that you can just sit and watch slide by or roll over to pause the flow and click on individual posts. There is also a Directory of popular users sorted by type of content, similar to how Technorati sorts the blogosphere.

This brings me back to the teenagers.  Many of the most popular users are kids, and man oh man, they are prolific.  They are using the free form palette of Tumblr to create a new kind of art that redefines blogging and redefines the idea of ownership.  The Tumblr community has already established an etiquette of its own, largely based around the site’s “reblog” feature that makes it easy to repost others’ posts on your own tumblelog.  People appreciate when you repost their stuff because it ups their cred, but if you remove the built in crediting system, which some do for aesthetic reasons, prepare to feel the wrath.  Even if you do credit be sure not to repost someone’s stuff too often or you’ll be accused of taking too much from the community and not contributing enough of your own “original” material.

“Original” is the tricky part, and its relative meaning here is why I find Tumblr to be such a fascinating example of how kids interpret “ownership” these days.  I recently started following a popular user on the site named Spiffyrawr.  According to her tumblelog (http://spiffyrawr.tumblr.com) Spiffyrawr is a 14 year old girl from Canada that loves photography, interior design, Paramore and gummy bears, among other things, and dislikes haters, wannabes and people who ‘forget to credit’ (her quotes, not mine).  Her site is mostly a photo blog, and she consistently shares amazing, transfixing imagery.  But the other day she posted the following and it caught my attention:

@aliciamary – I like what you post a lot. Maybe it’s because you’re posting almost exactly what I have posted. Please don’t say something like “But I got it all on one site” because you didn’t. I worked hard to find all those pictures from various websites. Please at least give them credit if you don’t care to give me any credit. I’m sorry but this is starting to really bug me that you’re posting all the pictures I’ve posted. Thanks. :/

While Spiffyrawr does link the images on her site to their original sources, she doesn’t always explicitly list the source below the image and so I had never really thought about the fact that the vast majority, if not all, of what she posted was not her own ‘original’ content in the classic sense.  She obviously feels that her ‘work’ is being violated in some way when she says, “I worked hard to find all those pictures from various websites,” but the only work she’s doing is aggregating the creative work of others.  I think I have a feeling how Spiffyrawr and her peers might weigh in on the current debate about the value of news aggregators and their ongoing battle with the Associated Press and other publishers.

While I see a connection here, I don’t want to oversimplify, because there are several distinct differences.  For one, she isn’t front ending content like news aggregators do with headlines, she is posting the actual content.  But she is contributing in her own way.  Unlike many aggregators, she doesn’t use an algorithm or community voting to select and sort the content on her site.  And the last and probably most important distinction I’ll make is this:  there is NO ADVERTISING on Spiffyrawr’s site.  Profiting off the work of others is not her mission (cough, Newser).  Her goals are simple and shared by many like her.

First, she is trying to creatively express herself and she’s using a new medium to do so.  These kids are not about to limit themselves to the written word and other traditional tools as the building blocks for their work.  The Information Age has put the rest of the world’s creative work at their fingertips and they are appropriating it in ways the original creators never imagined.  These kids possess a new media literacy that most of the world has not yet begun to understand.

The second main goal is even simpler.  She wants to share cool stuff with her friends.  Unfortunately for our traditional conventions of copyright, her friends number in the thousands, and potentially in the millions.  These issues are only going to become more widespread as tools for user generated content and user generated aggregating continue to evolve.  I believe Tumblr is the next step in this evolution and its rise to mainstream adoption over the next year or so is going to ruffle some feathers and further complicate our current debate about the value, and rights, of content publishers and aggregators alike.

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  • http://heyerin.com/ erin

    Interesting writeup. I agree the idea of “ownership” is immensely convoluted on tumblr. Thoughts around what's more important – the artist of the original work (and clicking through to discover more), or the random person “collecting” the odds and ends – also seems to be up in the air. I've always been one to credit (openly and obviously) everything, believing that I am giving my followers links to inspiring work and the potential to discover new artists, but that driving sentiment does not seem to be shared by most using the service. It will be extremely interesting to see where this service goes/what it becomes in the future…

  • http://richkearney.tumblr.com/ richkearney

    Hey, thanks for reading Erin. When I wrote this I had never really thought about curating on Tumblr in terms of the “potential to discover new artists,” most likely because many on Tumblr take their images from message boards and the like rather than portfolio sites. But I've spent the last several months becoming more immersed in the music blog community (including on Tumblr), and that world is an excellent example of people who share your sentiment.

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Rich Kearney

Rich Kearney

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