The rise and fall of once-$1 billion Tumblr, the early 2010s blogging site that defined a generation before fizzling out via a measly $3 million sale

·6 min read
lana del rey albums
Artist Lana Del Rey became a Tumblr icon after releasing her 2012 album "Born To Die."Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic
  • Tumblr remains one of the most defining internet platforms of the new millennium.

  • But it notoriously struggled to be profitable after it stood up in 2007 and was bought and sold twice.

  • Tumblr was valued at $800 million in 2012. It was last sold for $3 million.

If TikTok is Generation Z's favorite social media platform, Tumblr was arguably Millennials.'

It's hard to deny the blogging website's influence on the generation's adolescent years — the site allowed users to curate photos, posts, links, and other media into their own customized blog, birthing its own specific brand of internet culture that walked so today's online zeitgeist could run.

But, like Vine, the beloved platform has gradually transformed into a vestige of the early 2010s. It's been passed from corporation to corporation in the last decade after the free-spirited company struggled with profitability.

And while it may or may not see a Gen Z-led comeback soon, it's likely earned its spot on the list of most influential internet platforms to ever exist.

Here's the rise and fall of the website that bred the "Tumblr girl."

Tumblr was founded in 2007 by David Karp.

david karp tumblr
Karp in 2012.Ramin Talaie/Corbis via Getty Images

The entrepreneur taught himself to code at age 11, dropped out of high school when he was 15, and later founded Tumblr at age 21 from his mom's apartment. He was known for commuting into the company's New York City office via Vespa.

He told venture capitalist Chris Dixon in 2011 that he started Tumblr to give users a different kind of blogging platform that was more free-form and less complicated than the likes of WordPress and Blogger.

It wasn't a social networking site like Facebook that required you to "friend" other users, though there was a community-building aspect to it — it was a blogging (or microblogging, depending on who you asked) platform for sharing all sorts of media.

Bands like Arctic Monkeys, Lana Del Rey, and The Neighborhood were popularized on the website.

Source: Inc, The Guardian

Lady Gaga and former President Barack Obama famously used the platform.

lady gaga
Lady Gaga in 2012.JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP/GettyImages

Users from all walks of life could celebrate freedom of expression and quickly compile their random thoughts and photos into one curated, design-focused space that could be entirely customized.

Karp took an idea called "tumblelogging," a trend originally created by a 2005 site called anarchaia.org, and ran with it.

Source: Business Insider, The Atlantic, Wired

Tumblr grew to an $800 million valuation within five years.

richard branson
Sir Richard Branson.Danny Moloshok/Reuters

By 2012, Tumblr was hosting more than 42 million blogs and was valued at $800 million, according to a report from The Guardian at the time. Investors included the likes of Virgin visionary Sir Richard Branson.

However, Tumblr never really had a proven, profitable business model, although that wasn't a rarity in the world of buzzy startups in realms like Silicon Valley. It got part of its revenue from advertising.

In April 2013, Karp said internet users spend more time on Tumblr than they do on Facebook and Twitter.

david karp tumblr
Karp in 2012.DON EMMERT/AFP via Getty Images

"I don't think that Tumblr is so much better; I think that it's a very different behavior," Karp said, according to CNET. "It's media — something to do before checking your email."

Tumblr boasted over 100 million blogs in 2013. It was around this time that users began to openly post and consume sexual content on Tumblr, a feat especially helpful for minority groups seeking more inclusive depictions of sex, as The Conversation noted recently.

Karp was even on board with the sexual openness on Tumblr, calling it "an excellent platform for porn" in early 2012.

However, the NSFW content spooked advertisers, and Tumblr lost that would-be revenue.

Source: Wired

Karp wasn't necessarily after a big-name acquisition.

david karp tumblr
Karp at Austin's SXSW festival in 2013.Heather Kennedy/Getty Images for SXSW

Karp told the New York Observer in 2008 that "we would really rather not be gobbled up by a big media company."

But nevertheless, that's exactly what ended up happening.

Yahoo bought Tumblr for about $1 billion in 2013.

marissa mayer david karp tumblr yahoo
Karp and then-Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer in 2013.Mario Tama, Getty Images

Tumblr users were so upset by the idea that they signed a petition with about 170,000 signatures protesting the deal, which went through anyway.

 

Then Verizon purchased Yahoo.

Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg
Verizon CEO Hans Vestberg.Reuters/Steve Marcus

The telecoms giant bought the media firm in early 2017 for $4.5 billion, lumping Yahoo and AOL together into a new entity dubbed Oath.

There was a reported culture clash between Tumblr and its acquirers, and a product marketing manager at the time told Mashable in February that the team was "severely under-appreciated, understaffed, underfunded, and lacked a lot of tools that could have made our work great and potentially grown the business."

 

Karp left that same year.

david karp tumblr
Karp at an event in 2016.Mireya Acierto/Getty Images

After 10 years as CEO of his company — a rarity in the world of tech — Karp announced on Twitter in 2017 that he was stepping away "after months of reflection on my personal ambitions."

 

Shortly after, Apple dropped Tumblr from the App Store.

tim cook apple
Tim Cook in November 2021.Mario Tama/Getty Images

In 2018, the so-called Tumblr apocalypse set in when the company controversially banned sexually explicit content after Apple removed the app from its store, citing evidence of child pornography.

It was a pivotal moment in the company's history and prompted scores of users to flee.

Tumblr website visits dropped 40% from October 2018 to October 2021, according to data from Similarweb, as The Atlantic reported.

And then in 2019, Verizon sold Tumblr for a mere $3 million.

matt mullenweg automattic wordpress
Automattic founder Matt Mullenweg.ERIC PIERMONT/AFP via Getty Images

Verizon sold to Automattic, the parent company of WordPress — the very publishing site that Karp sought to rival upon founding Tumblr.

Tumblr company news has been mostly quiet since ...

taylor swift
Swift in late 2019.Roy Rochlin/FilmMagic

... except for popstar Taylor Swift claiming that Tumblr is still her favorite social media platform in late 2019.

She told Billboard that it "feels like a neighborhood rather than an entire continent."

Swift is one of many to have gone viral via Tumblr posts, such as one of her excitedly welcoming autumn in 2014.

 

But there may be hope for Tumblr yet.

olivia rodrigo
Popstar Olivia Rodrigo in June.Samir Hussein/WireImage

Tumblr might be readying to experience a comeback thanks to the same youths currently romanticizing the early aughts: Gen Z.

Sixty-one percent of new Tumblr users as of early this year were under 24, Quartz reported in March.

And Vogue in January penned a blog entitled "The 2014 Tumblr Girl is Back," pointing out both the lingering cultural effects on millennials today — as well as Gen Z's interest.

The style is "gaining significant traction thanks to content creators and fashionistas reviving their adolescent aesthetics," Vogue wrote. "Now the Tumblr girl style is being revisited by its millennial originators, but also Gen Z, which has discovered and altered the trend."

Read the original article on Business Insider