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Review: Tumblr

Simon Pitt | Internet | Monday 15th March 2010

I don't know about anyone else, but my attention span online is rapidly decreasing. These days, I might as well be sitting on my own shouting "show me the funny" at the screen, like some web-meme crazed Jerry Maguire.

When I aimlessly browse the Internet, I'm constantly looking for something to make me smile, even in the slightest: no, that article is too wordy, no, too boring, no, about something I don't understand, oh here's a good one, hehe, right, now I need more. I suppose this is how a vampire must feel.

Obviously, rather than take responsibility for my laziness and decreased attention span, I'm going to blame this on technology. And blame the Internet. The Internet has always been a directory of laughs: in the 90s, I would travel to for a guaranteed guffaw. From there I gathered to a series of blogs and webcomics that I knew I could depend upon.

Now, though, with the explosion of social networking, there are funnies everywhere. If no one has done anything amusing on Facebook, I can look on Twitter, or Google Buzz, or any number of social timewasting sites.

The latest in the long line of the short-form blogging platforms is Tumblr. Of course, Tumblr isn't that new; it's three years old, has over 3 million users, and is gaining 15,000 every day. Nevertheless, most people won't have heard of it. I was able to sign up for a page with my own name, despite being a much slower adapter to new social media technology than all the other rival Simon Pitts out there.

3 million users may sound like a lot, but when you think that's 3 million users all paying the creator £0.00 a year, you realise they'll need more than an infinite number before they actually turn a profit.

But anyway, this is a review, and the whole point of reading reviews is so you can pretend to know about something you haven't seen. So I'll get on and tell you something about it. Tumblr is sort of like a feature-rich Twitter. You can post pictures, short quotes, videos, audio, and links. You can also post longer, more thoughtfully crafted pieces, but almost no one does, since you can just post a picture of a cat with a pigeon sitting on its head and get a billion page views.

If you imagine Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Digg, Flickr and Blogspot as people and that they had an orgy and one of them got pregnant (probably Twitter, she sounds like a girl), Tumblr is what the child would be like. You can "like" things, like Facebook, you can "reblog" things (like Twitter), you can create a PhotoSet (like Flickr), you can text to it (like Twitter). It also outputs automatically to Facebook and Twitter and can import your Twitter feed automatically.

In the spirit of reviewing it, I set everything on, asking it to both output my comments to Twitter, and import everything from Twitter. Part of me was slightly disappointed when this didn't result in an endless feedback loop that destroyed the Internet, but the rest of me finds it slightly weird how, when I post something on Tumblr is appears on Facebook and Twitter as well. And vice versa. It's like sneezing and someone phoning you up to say bless you.

One of Tumblr's main selling points is ease of use: especially when it comes to copying and "reblogging" material. Tumblr is the fish that the linkbait is trying to catch. The nature of the site makes it trivial to share that barbed hook between as many fish as possible.

Tumblr builds on the success of infectious diseases, by using the same fundamental principle as a pandemic. If you imagine all the content on the Internet as being a cold, Tumblr is like a megaphone that allows you to cough and splutter over all your friends at once and allow them to do the same to all their friends too. It encourages you, every time you see something even vaguely amusing, to post it to your profile, or repost anything you see on anyone else's Tumblr.

As the people behind Tumblr say (all over the place) it's easy to use. Although, I have to admit, that it's so easy that I got rather confused by it all at first. Before I really knew it, it was putting anything I wrote on it on Facebook, importing all my latest tweets, and generally exporting anything I thought to everyone in the world.

The designs and templates, though, are, at the best, faintly, annoying, and, at worst, downright difficult to use. For some reason, they seem to be working on the assumption that everyone has a tall thin monitor. I have a widescreen monitor, so on most people's Tumblogs (yes, I'm afraid you've going to have to learn a new bit of idiot-jargon), my screen looks like an anorexic line of text standing in front of a white articulated lorry. Why they thought this would make things easier to read is beyond me. The main alternative design from the skinny, wizened standard is an inexplicable load of blocks coloured text containing tiny text.

Actually, here's an idea for all you people who make social media sites: stop letting people just do what they want to their pages. Most people are stupid, and like writing everything in comic sans and think that scrolling marques are "pretty neat". If you have to let people customize their own pages, at least give an override control so I can style everyone else's page as I want. Customization is a slippery slope that ends up in the stinking cesspit on MySpace. H2G2 gave global styling as an option years ago, why has no one else realised just how awesome this was? (H2G2, for those of you that don't know, was basically Wikipedia, way before Wikipedia ever existed).

Tumblr differs from Twitter in one important way though. While Twitter has basically no features at all (you can write a message and you can click "tweet", and that's pretty much it), Tumblr has features coming out of its ears. It can do so much, I'm slightly scared it of it. It's a bit like opening your door to find a housekeeper, who rushes past you shouting "look at the state of this place! We'll have this sorted out in no time". If you imagine social networking sites as children, Tumblr is Mary Poppins.

While it's fine at what it does, I can't help thinking Tumblr is just another one of the multitude of social media things that I feel obliged to use these days. I'm also left feeling slightly confused now about what to use. If I see a funny picture, do I post it on my facebook wall? Do I tweet it, do I put in on Tumblr? The prospect of just chuckling and then going about my daily life doesn't really feel like an acceptable option anymore.



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