The CEO of Tumblr—a social platform that was once worth more than $1 billion, and in its time was among the internet’s most popular and talked-about cultural spaces—quietly worked his last day on January 21. The company has not explained Jeff D’Onofrio’s departure, nor even referenced it publicly; I learned about it incidentally, several weeks after speaking with him, in a “wanted to let you know” email from a company spokesperson. Five days after that, Matt Mullenweg, whose company, Automattic, now owns Tumblr, emailed me to say that he wasn’t planning to “make a big deal out of it” in deference to D’Onofrio’s “privacy and safety.” He did not elaborate.
The news (and the refusal to present it as news) is sort of sad, sort of odd, and maybe ominous. Tumblr, launched 15 years ago this month, once had a reputation that was as big and confusing as that of Texas or Taylor Swift: It wasn’t just a blogging platform, but a staging ground for an array of political movements, the birthplace of all manner of digital aesthetics, and the site of freaky in-groups, niche conspiracy theories, community meltdowns, and one very famous grave-robbing scandal. At various points during the platform’s reign of online influence—from roughly 2010 to 2015—the phrase Tumblr user served as a proud identity marker, or something like a slur. Today, it’s an archaism.
According to data provided by the analytics company Similarweb, visits to Tumblr’s website and mobile apps declined more than 40 percent from October 2018 to October 2021, while the number of unique visitors dropped 17.5 percent. Tumblr no longer has its place on the list of internet spaces—Instagram, TikTok, Discord—that seem most responsible for driving internet culture and shaping the sensibilities of the up-and-coming generation. The site has been sold and sold again, shedding clout through both the natural aging process for social-media platforms and an unnatural run of tragic corporate mismanagement. (Also: It has seemingly never figured out how to make money.)
“We’re redoubling our efforts to make Tumblr awesome,” Mullenweg assured me via email last week. “I’ll be working with the Tumblr teams directly to fill in the gaps in the meantime, and launch an internal and external search for new leaders including a new CEO for Tumblr.” Yet this latest upheaval lends some urgency to a provocative question: If Tumblr disappeared from the internet tomorrow, how would it be eulogized? The site was once the anti-Facebook—a thriving, less exploitative avenue for social media—as well as a bulwark in the culture wars, fending off the irony-addled lunatics of 4chan and …….