Could WordPress + Tumblr —

create an alternative to Facebook? – Columbia Journalism Review


In an interview with The Verge, WordPress creator Matt Mullenweg emphasized the purchase of Tumblr was to try and bring back some of the “magic” of the old days where individuals wrote on their own blogs and websites instead of posting to a Facebook news feed. This social alternative would include the fun, DIY community aspects of many Automattic platforms, but without some of the harmful effects of current social media.

By the numbers

  • Over $1 billion: the current value of Automattic, WordPress’ parent company.

  • Over 35%: Portion of the world’s 1 million most popular websites running on WP (or 10x the number of those using its next closest competitor).

  • $1.1 billion: how much Yahoo bought Tumblr for in 2013.

  • <$3 million: how much Verizon (which acquired Yahoo) is selling Tumblr for to Automattic.

Back to the old days

As we’ve discussed in the past, some users are looking for a return to simpler times before the main social media platforms became as influential as they are damaging. This could be through indie social media or a more mainstream alternative that Mullenweg envisions, one that draws on the strengths of both platforms.

These include WordPress’ over 16 years of experience with blogging technologies and Tumblr’s ability to combine different media types into highly shareable formats: “It’s funny because almost every social network evolved to incorporate forms of blogging. There was microblogging, photo blogging, audio blogging, which is podcasting. These are all kind of forms of things that were originally pioneered on blogging,” he said in his interview with The Verge. “Yet all of these things have become so balkanized. I think it’s very, very interesting to see if you can bring them together a bit, as Tumblr post formats do.”

Is it too late for Tumblr?

Because of Tumblr’s versatility, it made it easy for people to get a visually appealing blog up and running quickly and for free. This created a particular crowd that was as much known for sharing the experimental and provocative work of artists as it was for fandom, dank memes and other internet culture staples. However, this same relaxed content moderation also gave rise to more troubling content that escaped Tumblr’s filters such as hate speech and child pornography. The untamable nature of this community means the platform has experienced rocky transition periods between owners:

  • Yahoo era: CEO Marissa Mayer bought Tumblr hoping to revitalize the aging tech company, which failed to understand its user base. Brands and advertisers failed many times to integrate into the community, which ridiculed them in the process.

  • Verizon era: Even after Verizon acquired Yahoo, things got worse. In November 2018, Apple removed Tumblr from the iOS store, which prompted the platform to enact a wide-reaching ban on all adult content.

  • Ban impacts community: The ban was enforced through an unrefined algorithm and also snared content from artists and marginalized communities including queer youth.


After the ban, Tumblr lost almost a third of its traffic as users migrated to other platforms. Bringing them back from the likes of Instagram will be hard now and the platform is so far behind in the advertising race, it would likely not fair well even if it could convince its mostly anti-ad community.

Free to be itself

Even after acquiring Tumblr, WordPress plans to keep the content ban in place, which allows it to remain in Google and Apple’s app stores. But this also means it might make a play for business again in the future. For now, it’s unclear how that will happen. Mullenweg emphasizes that Automattic isn’t an advertising company, but a subscription and upgrades company (these include the plugins and other paid features that increase functionality for website owners).

This means they have no undue pressure to flood their new acquisition with sponsors, as we saw how that attempt turned out. As new platforms continue to pop up, companies and brands might be scurrying over to other platforms like the youth-heavy TikTok to try and commercialize their presence there.

But seeing as Automattic isn’t running on quite the same culture of chasing sellable metrics and shares like Facebook and Instagram, a WordPress-powered Tumblr might be free to do its own thing, re-grow and take the internet in its own direction—not quite where it went ten years ago, but hopefully somewhere better.