Jenna Wortham of the New York Times business section asks: do traditional media companies "have the time and resources to work yet another Web outlet into their daily routine?"
She's writing about Tumblr , which just hired Newsweek's Tumblr guy to act as a "media evangelist" for the unreadably involuted blogging/reblogging platform. It is crucial that news organizations establish themselves in Tumblr-space, so that their words and images can be decontextualized and reposted by other people with incomprehensible comments layered around them, like so:
|||| iliketumblr said:
||||| it is very important that news organizations establish themselves in
|||| SO TRUE
|||| is that you, matty?
||| just like tumblrixy was saying before....
|| Team Jacob FTW!!!
This is Tumblr's fundamental design; as its 24-year-old founder, David Karp, tells the Times,
"It’s not about getting to the 10,000-follower count. It’s less about broadcasting to an audience and more about communicating with a community."
Confusion about the boundary between professionally broadcasting and personally communicating is one of the biggest headaches for old media in this new-media age. That's what got CNN's
senior Middle East editor fired
. So why should the press be in a hurry to join in a group-grope in which authority and authorship are old-fashioned affectations? Rutgers communications professor James E. Katz tried to explain:
The ability to respond online turns readers into co-creators, he said, which can give them a sense of ownership.
"That is an extremely valuable commodity for publishers these days, even if it does not yet translate to revenue," Mr. Katz said.
Sooner or later, publishers will find it extremely valuable to level the difference between people who are paid to report and write things and the unpaid co-creators who read and comment on things. It's all words! People will definitely want to pay money once they can't even tell where the words are coming from.
Then there is that little matter of "community." Every media property has a back story. Facebook got founded by a guy who did kind of shifty things with other people's information and ideas, and left people feeling like he'd broken agreements—and hey, now it is a gigantic company that does shifty things with 500 million people's personal information and changes the terms of its user agreements.
The Times is writing about Tumblr as something "new" on the scene. But Tumblr has a history. Back in January of 2009, when it really was more newish, Tumblr shut down and locked out five blogs that Karp had deemed overly critical toward other Tumblr blogs. Then Karp rewrote the terms of service to justify the move:
But after serious consideration, we recently decided that accounts with the explicit purpose of reblogging content in a derogatory way are a detriment to our community. Although these accounts were removed prematurely, we’re confident this was the right decision, and have updated our Content Policy accordingly:
Harassment. Accounts with the sole or primary purpose of repeatedly harassing or abusing specific members or groups within the Tumblr community will be suspended.
Tumblr, in other words, was a safe space—one in which users were not allowed to dislike someone else's Tumblr. A month later, after getting many cold pricklies instead of warm fuzzies about it, Karp dropped the harassment section and informed users that "we think it would be more appropriate for us to give you the control to police this content, rather than our moderators." Still, that's where the site comes from: community over conflict. Sharing instead of owning. No visible metrics of success. The prize is to be liked. The Times writes:
Unlike Twitter, where it is not uncommon for publishers to simply set up accounts that automatically publish links to their articles and blog posts, Tumblr requires publishers to add more commentary and interaction if they want to win favor with its community.
It's not obvious from Tumblr's current terms of service what "requires" would mean, or "win favor." There used to be something called "Tumblarity," by which the Tumblrgarteners could give each other stickers or something. Then that got dropped because it was too invidious or too self-reinforcing.
For the past 20 years, old media have been chasing the lowest common denominator and endlessly wondering why people don't like them more. The last thing they need is a Web service that makes those activities into a full-time job.