Why Not Tumblr

June 20, 2011

I love Tumblr, somewhat for its social features, but mostly for its ease of publishing. A good blogging tool gets out of your way, and makes it so easy for you to publish your ideas and discoveries on the web that you don't even have to think about it. Tumblr does this well. I was one of the first people to write a rave review of Tumblr on Lifehacker in March of 2007, a month after it went live. One of Tumblr's co-founders said that my piece "effectively launched the site." I take pride in that, not only because Tumblr's a great tool, but because its team is located in my hometown of New York City. I've been tumblelogging at scribbling.net for four years now.

Lately Tumblr's been getting lots of attention from name bloggers like Steve Rubel (who closed all his existing blogs and moved exclusively to Tumblr), Rick Sanchez, Dan Patterson, and my friend here in San Diego Mitch Wagner. So when I began an effort to simplify my blog life, I considered switching this blog to Tumblr and making it my primary platform like Steve and Mitch did.

In the end I decided not to, for an important practical reason: the data you enter on Tumblr is locked in. While there are some hacky third-party tools that purport to do it, Tumblr itself does not offer an official export feature which lets its users move their data to another platform should they choose to do so. (Update: In late 2009, Tumblr mentioned a beta tool which can export your data in a limited way, on one platform. Doesn't count.) That, along with some doubts about site reliability and losing my existing posts and their permalinks, made me decide the posts I really care about are just too important for Tumblr.

The practical problem of data lock-in this many years into the game is indicative of a larger philosophical issue. Tumblr treats content more like a social network does than a writing/publishing/archiving tool should—with an emphasis on easy sharing, liking, and reblogging, but not enough care paid to hosting that content in a place where ideas and conversations can live and grow over time, a place where search engines of the future can find it. This is exactly what Anil was getting at in his post, If You Didn't Blog It, It Didn't Happen. Social networks are good for sharing links to ideas, not parking ideas.

Therefore, I will continue to use Tumblr more as a social network than a blogging tool: a place to share links, photos, and videos that I'd like to broadcast, but don't care enough about to give a home on a place I own, control, and intend take with me in the future.

Update: Mitch's response, Why Tumblr, gets to the heart of our different attitudes about publishing web content. Is it "tears in rain" or "books on a shelf"? Both are valid approaches, and the tools you use should suit the one you choose.

I agree with this. I was planning on launching my blog on Tumblr, but I noticed that it’s very much a closed ecosystem. WordPress seems to be the stronger, more flexible platform to me. And I know that if anything I do ever takes off (Read: If Hell freezes over), I can then detach it from WordPress and hoist it up on my own domain after the fact, or export it to Squarespace. Tumblr would much rather its data stay within its own little ecosystem, and I’m not a fan of putting walls around data.

Blake Bouchard
Jun 20 11 at 3:43 pm

it’s not entirely closed, but it’s not entirely open either. there’s this:


no idea if that ever got updated at all.

i have a throwaway blog there, but i’m thinking about switching back to my own domain now that there’s WP quickposting. the only reason i’m there is because of the ease of posting and the relative beauty of the templates.

Jun 20 11 at 4:19 pm

After reading the article cited in this post I would go as far as to say that you should blog the same content on multiple platforms.

Just as a good plan for backing up includes an extra back up on a different medium offsite it seems you should do the same with your content.

Interesting take. I have a long-dormant Tumblr blog that I’ve mostly abandoned for a Posterous site.

I can’t say that the switch was because I had done my homework about export. Instead, I like Posterous’ social media integration and ease of posting everything from documents to video.

Lately I’ve noticed, though, that Posterous’ once ambitious pace of developing new features has ground to a halt and that has me a little concerned.

Craig Kirchoff
Jun 20 11 at 4:34 pm

@pk: Thanks! I saw them mention that tool in the help, but hadn’t found the permalink. Updated the post.

Gina Trapani [+195]
Jun 20 11 at 4:34 pm

Gina, sounds like we need to collaborate and make something with the api?

Ian Van Ness
Jun 20 11 at 5:24 pm

For me, the worst part about Tumblr is that the search is broken. I use it as a bookmarking and sharing tool so I was trying to find something I had previously posted and couldn’t find it. Thus making it useless as a bookmark tool unless they fix it!

Some young friends both started blogs on Tumblr but were disappointed that I didn’t sign up for a Tumblr account. I explained to them that while it’s a good tool for them, it’s not so much for myself.

I’m not implying I’m any better than they, by no means whatsoever, nor in any way.

I’m a plain text guy, though and through. I give my vow to ASCII and to the standard, I am true.

Yours hopelessly silly,


Robert Bigelow [+49]
Jun 20 11 at 5:33 pm

I went through a similar thought process. I initially just had my WordPress blog, but felt that:
1. Its too many clicks etc to share small bits of text that are longer than would be appropriate for twitter
2. A mix of long-form writing and short snippets looks odd in one site.

Someone can argue that using both WordPress and Tumblr is totally sane, since the tools were written with different users in mind. WordPress is exactly that, it “presses your words” in classic blog style

Tumblr states that they envision a different type of blogging, focused on brevity and social. That just doesn’t work so well as a central professional site.

Luke Faraone [+2]
Jun 20 11 at 5:55 pm

I may be reading into this too much, but I think it’s very unhealthy that Marco Arment (the original lead dev) moved on from Tumblr, and no longer hosts his own blog there. I have a “support request” open/lingering to delete my custom domain configuration—a process which seems to have bugs.

I don’t think they can keep up with their explosive growth (especially as a totally free service), and I fear this will have an unpleasant end.

It’s too bad, because Tumblr is undeniably cool and well designed.

Ross Belmont
Jun 20 11 at 6:25 pm

From my experience, I never see any “real” posts on Tumblr. Most of the time they’re images, videos or memes that are spread and reblogged because they’re funny, and very few original content.

Anya [+1]
Jun 20 11 at 9:31 pm

I immediately thought, “tumblr DOES have an export feature.” But you say it doesn’t count. You are a technologically savvy person, how hard is it to use the RSS feed (save the xml or have feedburner republish a backup on another platform), or develop something using the API? Your complaint isn’t that it is possible, only that it isn’t easy.

Jun 21 11 at 5:01 am

Maybe they should offer a paid for Pro version that allows importing and exporting of data.

Matt Lynch [+1]
Jun 21 11 at 5:02 am

I can totally see why some people have made the move to Tumblr, but, like you, it’s just not for me. Tumblr would have to implement quite a few changes for me to want to switch… and actually… that would just make it WordPress. Hehe.

I do think Matt is right… they should offer a paid version that would allow you to have the more advanced features. Might make me reconsider.

Also… great post, Gina. Your blog is consistently good. That’s not common.

AdamVonWillis [+1]
Jun 21 11 at 6:42 am

I’ve used and recommended Tumblr for a while, but this last year after trying to use it for a side project, Hacker Newsletter, I realized just how often it was down and not accessible. I heard back from people on a weekly basis saying they couldn’t access the page to sign-up. Just setup a monitoring service on it to see how bad it is. Another big issue was the html/css customization features seemed very buggy and sometimes would revert back to older settings.

Since then I have stopped using them and if you want people to be able to access your content all the time, I wouldn’t recommend them anymore. Your point on using it as a social media site makes sense though and the interface is great for that.

Jun 21 11 at 7:08 am

Oh Gina, haven’t all those Squarespace ads got to you?

Kye Russell [+1]
Jun 21 11 at 7:08 am

Just like to say, I think a main blog and Tumblr are slightly different purposes – my solution was to have my main blog on www and map a subdomain of the domain to “scrapbook.” which has my Tumblr.

So goofy stuff I find around tumblr and the web goes on there, and the more thought out content on main blog (which I can promote via Tumblr’s social features), which links to Tumblr in a sidebar.

Works for me, anyhow.

Mark Edmondson
Jun 21 11 at 7:08 am

True, that’s why Joomla, WordPress or Drupal make complete sense!

Ogy Nikolic

Ogy Nikolic
Jun 21 11 at 7:16 am

Gina, I self host my blog and I suggest everyone else does the same. I own my content, not Facebook, not Tumblr, me, the guy that writes it.

There really is no other choice.

Chris Lang
Jun 21 11 at 7:18 am

The data is not exactly locked-in, yet. It’s possible to make a backup (export) with the beta tool you mentioned. But I agree with you that given the beta nature of the tool and the fact that Tumblr has not updated that tool in 1.5 years it “doesn’t count”. They don’t openly and fully support an easy and well supported way to export your data.

I had a private blog on Tumblr and wanted to get my data out of Tumblr. It was much more involved than needed, but I got the job done only because I am a software developer; I had to write a Python script. I can’t imagine how a non-developer would get his/her data out of Tumblr in a usable format.

I’ve documented the process on http://blog.kollerie.com/2011/06/21/tumblr_to_rstblog/

Jun 21 11 at 7:20 am

I use the same kind of functional divide between more ephemeral “links to ideas” and the longer term place to actually park ideas.

While I’m not sure that the dividing line is 100% clear, I do know that I want complete control over where I keep and archive my ideas.

Don Holloway
Jun 21 11 at 8:04 am

Hey Gina, I feel the same way. I actually abandoned Tumblr, Posterous and WordPress to use Jekyll which is basically a blog-aware text parser that generates a static websites. I deploy via Git so my content is backed up locally, in my dropbox and on the server plus it is versioned in Git.
As a developer I feel that is the most efficient way to blog.

I do concur with another poster about the kind of content I find
on Tumblr: much of it is generated elsewere and linked there.

It’s likewise for other “social” blogging sites as well. Much of
the content there, too; is generated from elsewhere and liked or
embedded by the user. Is this what they call “content farming?”

FYI/META: This comment was created using the vim text editor witih
the w3m web browser.

$ w3m -cookie http://www.smarterware.org

Robert Bigelow [+49]
Jun 21 11 at 8:25 am

It just so happens that I was picked for Tumblr’s ‘developer’ spotlight, and in that I’ve seen a fairly explosive boom in my followers; which began to help me realize a very real benefit of putting the social attributes of their tumblog model first and foremost. While I tend to agree their closed attitude about your data(what goes in might not come out) is a bit short sighted, a real benefit is that the content being posted usually isn’t curated. When I see something that I feel might be of benefit to myself in the future, or to another developer, it’s incredibly easy to publish that information to Tumblr. I don’t really care if I can’t go dig that up in a few years time(or even a few months, usually) because that information is (generally)no longer pertinent.

I think blurring the lines between traditional “blogging” and “tumblogging” is pretty daring. While I’ve found highly informative posts on Tumblr, they could’ve easily belonged on a “real”(read: archival) blog application without much effort, and shared as a link to their tumblog. This is what I think Tumblr is kind’ve meant to do, be a medium between finding/sharing all kinds of cool stuff all day, and highly thoughtful personal/professional digests — following someone assures me that I’ll get the verbose version of their tweets without TL;DR content.

This is, of course, my limited experience; as I never really set out with a purpose for my tumblr other than a daily “read it” archive, my reasoning and perspective is dramatically different from someone who means create a tangible presence in the web. That being said, I think the reasonable choice was to stick with your WordPress/framework-of-choice.

I’m an engineer at Tumblr (and fairly new, so hopefully I’m not speaking out of turn). We’re working on an ‘export my blog’ feature that will completely export all your content (images, posts, etc) and allow you to download that export. I expect it to be available soon, it’s being coded now. Data portability is important to us, so I just wanted to speak up from the inside and let you all know that.

Blake Matheny
Jun 21 11 at 10:38 am

Great post, Gina. I read about Steve Rubel’s move a while ago and spent a few hours one night trying to move from Posterous to Tumblr (outlined here – http://blog.c0up.com/it-aint-easy-takin-your-blog-with-you).

It was extremely painful, but what scared me more was the terrible data portability in these blogging services, with WordPress almost having to act as an intermediary.

And now with Tumblr removing importing via RSS feeds…

Jun 21 11 at 6:22 pm

Funny, i like this topic. It’s likewise for other “social” blogging sites as well. Much of
the content there, too; is generated from elsewhere. Is this what they call “content farming?”

Đào Tạo Seo
Jun 22 11 at 9:24 am

I’m having second thoughts.

Mitch Wagner [+17]
Jul 29 11 at 12:21 pm

Comments are closed. Thanks for reading!