The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Tumblr once sold for $1.1 billion. The owner of WordPress just bought the site for a fraction of that.

This week, Automattic, which owns WordPress, took over Tumblr for an undisclosed amount and brought on about 200 staffers. (Scott Eells/Bloomberg)

Tumblr, the onetime darling of social media, sold for a whopping $1.1 billion in 2013. On Monday, in perhaps the latest mark of its decline, the site was reportedly bought for just $3 million.

Twitter didn’t miss a beat in pointing out that Tumblr’s reported sales price was less than that of this bluefin tuna. BuzzFeed propped up a list of seven condos you can buy in New York for the same price as Tumblr.

So how did this happen? How did Tumblr — once a booming online start-up — get swallowed up by the owner of WordPress, another blogging giant and Tumblr’s former rival?

Let’s start with Tumblr’s early days. The site launched in 2007 under David Karp, who dropped out of high school at age 15 and got Tumblr up and running when he was 20. In a 2011 interview, Karp said he had wanted to set up a blog but didn’t think the traditional, long-form formats like WordPress were the right fit.

Verizon sells early social-media darling Tumblr

“I had all these cool videos, links and projects that I wanted to put out there, and I had a really hard time doing it,” Karp told .net magazine in 2011. “I wanted to do something different. I was determined not to compete with WordPress.”

The site picked up steam as popular bloggers and whole universities moved content over to Tumblr. Musicians, photographers and writers followed suit. At the start of 2010, Tumblr was landing 100 million impressions every month, according to Karp’s 2011 interview. By the end of the year, it had reached 3 billion. The platform also caught on in the fashion world, and Tumblr eventually hired a fashion director and began sending bloggers to high-profile events like New York Fashion Week.

The popularity paid off. In 2013, Yahoo bought Tumblr for $1.1 billion. But Yahoo ultimately wrote off much of Tumblr’s value. Verizon took over Tumblr in 2017 when it acquired Yahoo.

Then, this week, Automattic, which owns WordPress, took over Tumblr for an undisclosed amount and brought on about 200 staffers. Automattic said it would not disclose terms of the deal any further.

Automattic chief executive Matt Mullenweg told the Wall Street Journal that he has long been a Tumblr user and sees the site as complementary to WordPress.

“It’s just fun,” Mullenweg said of Tumblr. “We’re not going to change any of that.”

Before Tumblr announced plan to ban adult content, it was a safe space for exploring identity

Tumblr struggled to keep pace with other social media giants such as Twitter, Facebook and Reddit. But a 2018 policy change alienated many of its users and longtime supporters. Last December, Tumblr announced a nudity ban that included photos, videos and GIFs of genitalia and female nipples, as well as any visual depictions of sex acts. At the time, chief executive Jeff D’Onofrio wrote that “there are no shortage of sites on the internet that feature adult content. We will leave it to them and focus our efforts on creating the most welcoming environment possible for our community.”

Until the ban, sex-focused subcultures and pornography had been tacitly allowed on the site. One BuzzFeed reporter estimated that there were hundreds of thousands of blogs that would be shut down, plus millions of individual posts containing adult content. (Mullenweg told the Journal that his company plans to keep the ban in place.)

As The Washington Post’s Abby Ohlheiser wrote last year, Tumblr had long been considered a safe space for exploring identity. But some creators said Tumblr’s ban eliminated a place where LGBT communities and other people with marginalized gender and sexual identities found support.

“It was a safe space for me to explore things online that I would not necessarily want to try [in] real life, where that might not be safe realistically,” one user, who called himself Mutabear on Tumblr and asked not to be named for fear of professional repercussions, told Ohlheiser. “More importantly, it was a way for me to connect with other like-minded people.” Mutabear told his followers he was leaving the site after the ban announcement.

If last year’s ban added to Tumblr’s decline, Monday’s sale was the latest kick. After Axios editor Dan Primack reported that Tumblr sold for less than $3 million, one Twitter user quipped that “Tumblr’s porn blogs could have literally had a GoFundMe to buy the entire platform.”

“I am extremely upset that no one told us Tumblr was for sale for an amount we could have Kickstarted,” said another.

Granted, not everyone was sold. Said another: “The most interesting thing about the Tumblr acquisition is that everyone on Twitter apparently has more than [$3 million] laying around.”