Yahoo buys Tumblr: Should users of the meme machine be worried?

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Citizens of the Internet, we’ve reached a milestone: This may be the first major web acquisition announced via GIF.

Today, Yahoo and Tumblr officially revealed that the former is buying the latter for a cool $1.1 billion. (Guess all those Game of Thrones memes are worth more than just a chuckle.) As the biggest acquisition Yahoo has made since ex-Googler Marissa Mayer became its CEO last summer, this has the potential to massively change both companies forever. Since the announcement, though, both Mayer and Tumblr founder David Karp have largely refrained from trumpeting what the future may hold. Instead, they’ve spent most of the day asking Tumblr users not to panic — and reassuring them that the site will retain its idiosyncratic identity.

Here, for example, is the second sentence of the announcement Mayer posted on her personal Tumblr this morning: “We promise not to screw it up.” And here are the second, third, fourth, and fifth sentences Karp wrote in his own announcement: “Before touching on how awesome this is, let me try to allay any concerns: We’re not turning purple. Our headquarters isn’t moving. Our team isn’t changing. Our roadmap isn’t changing. And our mission — to empower creators to make their best work and get it in front of the audience they deserve — certainly isn’t changing.” Karp and Mayer reiterated these statements in an interview with the New York Times this afternoon, assuring that Yahoo will allow Tumblr to keep operating independently.

But even so, Tumblr users — a young community largely driven by “feels,” or emotions so overwhelming that they can’t properly be articulated — haven’t exactly been taking the news well. One imagined Yahoo as a Nazi drinking a jug filled with “Tumblr Tears.” (It almost sort of makes sense when you see it.) Another compared the acquisition to “someone plunging a white hot poker into the woodwork, and setting it slowly on fire.” A third took things still further:

Everything we loved and knew about Tumblr is coming to an end. Sure, most of us weren’t on the right foot when we first joined and we thought “Tumblr is dumb, it’s all pictures.” But now Tumblr isn’t just a site, it’s an escape, it’s a life for most of us; we breathe tumblr, we eat tumblr, we feel tumblr, we lick tumblr on the back of it’s ear. Just when I became acquainted with Tumblr, Yahoo goes and buys it. Now I have to find a day job and get a “social life”. Yahoo doesn’t understand us.

Is this hyperbolic hysteria a case of crying wolf — or do users have real reason to be worried? Dan Gillmor, founding director of Arizona State University’s Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship, thinks it’s the latter: “Users always should be worried when a large public company buys a smaller innovator, because the record is not altogether positive in terms of the outcome,” he told EW. “You should call up Stewart Butterfield and Caterina Fake and ask them what happened to Flickr.” (In case you’re not familiar, Gizmodo’s got a good primer on that.)

Then again, the management team that wrecked Flickr is no longer in charge at Yahoo — which is a good thing, according to Gillmor, since the old Yahoo had a knack for “either making bad acquisitions or doing too little with good ones.” And despite everything, he seems cautiously optimistic about the acquisition: “It’s good to see Yahoo shaking itself up in the last few months,” he said. “And it certainly could be good for Yahoo if Marissa Mayer keeps her promise not to screw it up.”

Wenda Harris Millard, president and COO of MediaLink LLC, has a much sunnier outlook. “Yahoo needed to make a big, bold move,” she told EW, “because they need to play big in the social space.” Tumblr will get its new parent the social hook Yahoo needs — and Millard believes the blogging platform itself will also benefit from the sale. “If Tumblr is given the freedom to grow within Yahoo and to do what it’s already doing well, and to figure out monetization with Yahoo’s strategic input, I think it could be brilliant,” she said — provided that Tumblr doesn’t get “entangled” in the challenges of being part of a large company.

Millard pointed to Google’s 2006 acquisition of YouTube as a good model for the Yahoo/Tumblr sale. While plenty of startups completely lose their culture when they’re sold, YouTube managed to keep its personality: “It’s leveraged what’s really great about Google, but built the company as its own proposition out there in the marketplace,” she noted.

So fear not, Tumblrites! As long as Karp and Mayer can be trusted, there really is no cause for panic. After all, Yahoo’s apparently laid-back enough to keep their new subsidiary’s porn sites running — and if they’re okay with that, there’s no reason they’ll take away the other things you love about Tumblr. Plus, look on the bright side — maybe Yahoo will finally make Asks rebloggable!

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Read more:
Yahoo plans to buy Tumblr for $1.1 billion
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