Yahoo’s acquisition of Tumblr this week upset the balance of power in social networking among tech giants. Yahoo is now in possession of one of the Internet’s most popular social sites.
Tumblr is, or was, an isolationist. Some call it a social network; others call it a blogging platform. But Tumblr is really neither of these.
It’s a kind of blogging platform that emphasizes re-sharing and viral popularity. It’s less of a social network in the sense that the identity of the blogger isn’t central, important or even recommended.
And it’s not really a blogging site, per se. TechCruch even goes so far as to call it an anti-blogging site. While blogging has become a way to “build an audience,” readership or following, Tumblr has become popular for young people looking to avoid an audience.
Unlike Facebook, which feels like a family and high school reunion happening simultaneously, and which young people increasingly view as an obligation, Tumblr is a place where people can post publicly without worrying that anyone but close friends will ever see it. And even if outsiders see a conversation, there’s so much pseudonymity and anonymity that it doesn’t matter.
Fans enjoy Tumblr for many reasons. But one of the biggest is that it’s an independent, isolated site, rather than part of a larger program of user-data harvesting of some giant Silicon Valley company like Google or Facebook.
Other examples of isolated social networks that share the attributes of privateness or exclusivity, independence and a lack of content rules include Path, App.net and Pheed. And there are many more. But Tumblr is the biggest.
The best example of the integrationist social site is Google+. Since it was conceived, Google+ has always been about integrating existing Google properties into a single mega experience. Even before the site launched its private beta, it integrated to varying degrees Profiles, Gmail, YouTube and Picasa. And since that launch, the company has announced new integrations at the average rate of several per month.
The ultimate aim for the site, if there is one, appears to be a “social layer for the web,” with integration so massive that to use the Internet itself is to use Google+.
In the ginormous Google vision, Google Glass, Google Now, Google Search, Google everything — probably even that self-driving car — will use Google+ as their home and foundation. Behind the scenes, Google+ is a major part of Google’s integrated system for harvesting and using user activity to direct machine intelligence. For example, Google might show you ads on YouTube based in part on what it learns about your interests on Google+.
Google uses integration to compete. And so does Facebook. However, instead of integrating its own services, Facebook integrates the services of other companies. The video chat service on Facebook is Skype, for example. And just this week, Facebook announced a new level of integration with Pandora, which results in users’ profile music preferences being automatically updated with Pandora sharing on Facebook. There are many others.
In other words, Google+ and Facebook are the anti-Tumblr.
And that’s why Tumblr users are so vexed about the Yahoo acquisition. They chose isolation, but they’re probably getting integration.
Isolated vs Integrated: Which Model Will Win?
Tumblr users fear, and for good reason, that despite promises to the contrary, Yahoo really wants to integrate Tumblr into a Google+ or Facebook-like future version of Yahoo.
That sounds like a likely scenario for Yahoo and here’s why. Yahoo has always been a weird company. They’ve historically gone on buying sprees, acquiring companies like it was an automatic bodily function. Then, rather than integrating these services, they just kind of ignored them until eventually deciding to kill them off.
One of the biggest of these was the acquisition of Geocities in the late 90s. In its heyday, Geocities was much bigger than Tumblr in relative terms (at its peak the third most-visited site on the web), and Yahoo paid more — three times more. The site languished for a decade, then Yahoo killed it off.
This acquire-and-ignore “strategy” as an alternative to innovation is precisely what gave Yahoo such a bad reputation. And it’s precisely what former Google executive and current Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer was brought in to not do.
In fact, the idea that Yahoo paid a billion and change in cash for Tumblr just to own it and to integrate nothing from it is inconceivable to me.
Another reasonable fear is that Yahoo will improve Tumblr — and that’s the last thing Tumblr fans want. For example, they might improve the search, make users more discoverable, add parental controls to make it family friendly.
Why wouldn’t Yahoo integrate it? Why wouldn’t Yahoo improve it?
And that’s the trouble with isolated social sites: If they succeed, some giant company buys them and integrates them.
Increasingly, users who spend years cultivating social connections on isolated sites find themselves suddenly part of a big integrationist mashup. That’s one reason why history will favor the giant, integrated sites.
The other is that increasingly integrationist sites will be able to offer user benefits that I think will prove highly compelling. One of these is artificial intelligence assistants.
The first time I used Google Now on an Android phone, I said “call Kevin.” I have several Kevins in my Contacts, but Google Now knew I was talking about my son. It also knows my restaurant preferences.
It might have learned who my top Kevin was from Google+ or Gmail. It might have learned my restaurant preferences from reviews I’ve done on Google+ Local. Who knows?
Note that Google launched today the ability for users to enable Voice Search queries with voice commands inside Chrome. By saying “OK, Google,” the search feature starts paying attention to the user’s voice, and natural language interaction with Google’s giant server brain begins. Pervasive, ubiquitous intelligent agents are going mainstream fast.
Increasingly, social signals will be used not only for intelligent agents to know us better, but as the platform of delivery for our interaction. The big social sites will not only have the resources to offer these benefits, they’ll also have a wider range of activity to harvest from in figuring out who the users are, exactly.
It’s likely that Yahoo wants to become the third mega social site that integrates a wide range of services that is connected with a social layer and which can be used to track user activity to improve the relevance of both interaction and advertising.
Tumblr will increasingly be integrated as that social layer, I suspect. And that’s another strike against the future is isolation and independence in the world of social sites.