Tumblr: getting interaction right

Jan 7, 2010 11:48 · 1055 words · 5 minute read

Tumblr is a fascinating example of how to get user generated and community sites right.   Fundamentally it’s a microblogging platform, but I think this sells it very short of the whole picture.  It’s succeeding by taking the interaction patterns that are part of a whole variety of other services, and creating something which is more than the sum of the parts.

Not only is it a compelling user experience, but it’s also become the basis of some very interesting virtual communities.   Amongst a certain subsection of teenagers, Tumblr has gone viral and is getting a significant amount of their online time - in fact, for heavy users, I’d say it’s overtaken Facebook as their “platform of choice”.

Stripping the platform down, I think you can identify six key reasons why Tumblr’s become so “sticky”.

Ease of use

As a microblogging service, it’s trivially easy to post content via the web interface.   There’s a simple rich text interface for text, as well as single-click post options for rich content like photos, audio and video.   There’s also some Tumblr-specific functionality like quoting existing posts, and embedding chat-like Q&A functions - but all of this is done through a very simple dashboard.   There’s the ability to personalise the appearance of your blog through themes, as well.   The content that gets created seems to lean towards the creative end of the spectrum from what I’ve seen - there’s a lot of striking photography being posted alongside the more angsty outpourings of stereotypical blogs posts.

Community

Although each Tumblr blog is a separate property - each one has a unique URL - they’ve very cleverly baked in some community functionality.   You can “follow” other posters Twitter-style so that their posts show up on your dashboard, as well as interacting with their content either by commenting or “liking”.  Liking seems an incredibly simple but powerful function to me - it doesn’t require the amount of effort that writing and posting a comment takes, but it allows you to flag to someone else that you’ve read their content.  Facebook have made this a central part of their user experience as well, and I think that it works powerfully in both directions.   As the author, I know that my postings are being read and assessed; as the liker, I’ve got a quick way of interacting with people without the overhead of a full comment.   There seems to be a trend going on here of enabling lighter-and-lighter touch interactions - responding to an email takes a large amount of effort compared with posting a quick comment, which is more effort than a simple “like” or “digg” or “vote”.

Recycling content

Reblogging is another facet where Tumblr overcomes the silo-like nature of most blogging platforms.   Reblogging content from someone else’s Tumblr is trivially easy, and is bidirectional - the reblogging shows up on the original post as well as on the blog of the reblogger.   By also bringing through comments that rebloggers make - and threading the responses - it turns a basic blogging service into something more akin to a forum; but without the topic-centricity that forums have.   This is something that has been tried many times through aggregated comment networks that attempt to connect many disparate blogs - Tumblr has an advantage in owning the core platform, but nevertheless it’s still a neat implementation of something that never really seemed to work too well previously.

Competition

Being able to create and publish your own content is incentive enough for a significant number of users, but Tumblr has taken a leaf from the book that Flickr wrote when they introduced tumblarity.   It’s a mystical calculation of popularity based on a “secret” algorithm - half of Tumblr’s users take it very seriously and spend time trying to reverse-engineer the calculations in an attempt to game it, while the other half profess to be above such sordid considerations and ignore it.

Whether you love or loathe this kind of ranking, to many it’s a compelling feature - particularly for the teenage Tumblr population.  Having an external metric of your “popularity” is something that seems to appeal to teenagers - and it’s made a richer process by the way in which tumblarity is also measured across different groupings of blogs - UK blogs, male bloggers, music bloggers and so on.

Reinforcement

Even the most elegant user interface and richest feature set is of little use if use is irregular.   A phrase I hear often from my own tame sample set is “keeping up with my dashboard”.  The flow of content from other bloggers, and the flow of their likes and comments, means that there’s a constant reason to check back and see what’s going on - and then post new content while you’re there.   It makes the site very sticky, to the point of overtaking other service like Facebook and Bebo for some users.

Bridges to the real world

The final piece of the usability jigsaw is the real-world aspect.   The sterotypical picture of bloggers are sad, pasty individuals who hide in bedrooms and don’t interact with the real world.  No doubt there are plenty of those on Tumblr, but there’s also a significant portion of users who DO interact offline, to the extent of meeting in real life.   Tumblr facilitate this by listing real-world meetups and providing schwag - stickers, name tags, badges and so on - that they provide free of charge.   Quite what the real world makes of gangs of teenagers descending on public spaces to meet face-to-face for the first time I’m not sure, but it’s a fascinating process to watch being organised by people who’ve never met other than online.

Having said all this, there are the standard questions of how Tumblr’s business model will fare in the long-term.  It’s a free service, it doesn’t carry ads, and there are no premium options that can be purchased.  It can’t be cheap to operate, either - bandwidth and hosting bills must be significant.  Ultimately this will probably be its downfall, assuming that it can manage to ride out changes in fashion - while Tumblr users are undoubtedly passionate about it, they’re also likely to be fairly fickle over the long-term.  But nevertheless it’s a fascinating case study for the kind of interaction patterns that make a service attractive to those kind passionate users.