Exclusive: Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg on the future of Tumblr

It has been a long and winding road for Tumblr, the blog site that has launched a thousand writing careers. It sold to Yahoo for $ 1.1 billion dollars in 2013, and withdrew when Yahoo sold itself to AOL, AOL sold itself to Verizon, and Verizon realized it was a telephone company anyway. Because of all this, the fierce community of the site got stuck: it's still Taylor Swift & # 39; s social media platform and all kinds of fandoms have a home there.

Verizon sold Tumblr this week for $ 3 million, far removed from the billion dollars it once had. But thanks to Verizon, it chose to sell Tumblr to Automattic, the company behind WordPress, the publishing platform that controls around 34 percent of the world's websites. And Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg thinks the future of Tumblr looks bright – he wants the platform to bring back the best of old-school blogging, reinvented for mobile and connected to the still vibrant community of Tumblr. And he retains all 200 Tumblr employees to build that future. It is the most exciting vision for Tumblr in years.

Matt participated Verge reporter Julia Alexander and I in a special episode of the Vergecast interview to talk about the deal, how it came together, what the Automattic plans for Tumblr look like and whether Tumblr could become an open source project, such as WordPress itself. ("That would be pretty cool," Matt said.)

Oh, and that porn prohibition.

Interview transcription condensed and edited for clarity.

Nilay Patel: How did this deal come about? Did Verizon call you? Did they send you a 5G Samsung phone with a note on the screen?

That would have been great.

I have been a Tumblr fan for a long time, I have been using it almost since it started. There have been some features on WordPress that have certainly been inspired by Tumblr over the years, and I was shocked when it was sold to Yahoo, now 2013.

For $ 1.1 billion dollars.

$ 1.1 billion dollars. And I was very happy for the team. And I was a bit relieved as a competitor, because that was Tumblr so cool, and Yahoo wasn't cool at the time. But around this (deal), you know, I believe Verizon contacted a number of people, and a lot of people came in, because the news from Tumblr that went on sale leaked to the Wall Street Journal a few months ago.

So I know there were many incoming, many good bidders. I am really glad they chose to be Automattic because I believe we are the best place where Tumblr could be in terms of what we do, what we are passionate about, what the teams are already doing. There is a lot of overlap in between WordPress.com and Tumblr. I am really happy that this has become the case. It was a difficult process.

I want to talk about the future of Tumblr, but the purchase price was reportedly three million dollars. Can you confirm that?

I like that you just ask the same questions.

Her the Question, so A, I think I am obliged. And B, it's a pretty steep fall in value. So I am curious if you can discuss that.

Certainly. We postpone all details there to Verizon. It is really up to them what to disclose or not.

I can talk more generally. I just made a blog post about this. Verizon is a company with a turnover of more than $ 120 billion. They got Tumblr through Yahoo, which then merged with AOL, became Oath, was purchased, became Verizon Media. It is something that they have inherited a few levels lower.

Their top priority was not to try to maximize the purchase price – there could even be a business reason that the purchase price is lower, before taxes or something. They were really looking for where the best house would be. That was really where we tried to optimize the deal, especially with regard to persuading nearly 200 people. We accept them all. I am aware of some details of some bidders – you know they were not going to keep much or no part of the team going.

We have taken a Berkshire Hathaway approach more: we really want to take over the management team, take what worked well, what Tumblr's involvement is, and grow from there.

Most people who listen to such a & # 39; n program are not often in your shoes, where you go out to buy a legendary internet property. Describe what it was like to go through that process.

People actually always send us stuff, so we look at at least a few acquisitions a week. Most do not fit well.

There was a deck that they had. We went there and met the management team and a few people who work on the Verizon Media and Verizon side. I had a number of contacts at Verizon that I ping separately. Then there was a care process to find out as much information as possible about the company. You talk about possible results. You just sort out what works best for both parties. We always approach deals based on a kind of win-win. What I like to do is to understand what motivates the other side and what is most important to them and then to know how to overlap the intersection, the Venn diagram of what you can do and what is important to you.

Were you most concerned with Verizon or with Tumblr people?

That is actually a good question. Both. We were both in contact with the Tumblr people and it is a sort of Verizon who carries out the process. They have some very experienced business development and lawyers and everything.

Verizon? Lawyers? I do not believe it.

I will say that their lawyers are super good. Some of the similarities that happened resembled whoa!

The Automattic team is very small but powerful and we really worked very hard to make this possible. There was an exclusive period and then the deadline, and we registered everything on Sunday.

So the deal is closed? Is Tumblr now an Automattic property?

We are all signed. I believe that terminology is the deal & # 39; subject to customary closing conditions & # 39 ;. So it takes a few months to transfer everything. But now we are all signed and agreed, so it's actually 99 percent of the way there.

So that's the deal. What do you want to do with it?

One of the things that really surprised me was that I thought – as many people probably do – that Tumblr had died a little among the variety of business parents. And then actually be able to see some of the numbers, including some after the change in adult policy. I was like: "Wow, there's still a lot going on."

After closing, we can talk about more of those numbers, because I think they are really very interesting. But like I said, it's not transferred yet, so I don't want to speak out of it. But there is a huge commitment. People who love Tumblr use it every day. They have more daily active users than WordPress.com has monthly active users. They really cracked a lot on the social side of it.

As for what we want to do, one thing that also impressed me was just the team, the people who are still there and working on Tumblr are really passionate about their community, about what this offer could do. I know they have many things they want to launch and do – some that are already fully built – that while this process was underway, it didn't really make sense to add new things that change your service.

It is also a very innovative team. Tumblr pioneered much of what would later appear on Twitter, Instagram, WordPress, and many other places. So it has always been a very creative team and I am really looking forward to seeing that happen.

I think we're still a parent company, but we're very friendly, and we're all talking about blogging, innovation, and publishing communities. So I would like Tumblr to become a social alternative. That's in line with Automattic's values ​​of privacy and freedom of expression and publishing, but it has the fun and friendliness of some of the other networks we use, but without destroying democracy … oh, I don't know what you want to name it.

I think you want to call it Facebook. Is that your goal, to be equal with Tumblr on Facebook and Twitter?

No, not at all, because I think we've always had a number of different models. Advertising is definitely something that we are going to investigate, we absolutely want to grow Tumblr's revenue. They are currently burning a lot of money. But in the long run I would say that I am also very interested in experimenting with upgrades. WordPress.com has always been an upgraded model. It is freemium: use it for free and then you can buy plans from 40 to 450 dollars per year to get extra functionality. I am curious about enabling things like some of the e-commerce functionality that we have developed with Woocommerce, memberships. I think those things would be very, very interesting for the Tumblr community. So there is just so much to unlock.

Julia Alexander: The Tumblr community has watched how Yahoo and Verizon executives came in and tried to grow something that they really didn't understand. Famous in 2016, a Yahoo manager reportedly said that Tumblr is the next PDF. It is now a big joke in the community.

You come in, you are the new company manager, how you are going to prove that you know what Tumblr is and should be, in a way that makes them feel no more alienated than they already are?

If anyone had nervousness now, I would just say look at the 14-year history of Automattic or the 16-year history of WordPress. We have a long track record with these things, including building a lot of trust in an open source community, which is usually also skeptical of any company.

But I would really like people to judge us on our actions in the next 18 months. Call it two months to close, it will be a few months of integration and the migrating data and servers and so on. But then really look at what is happening and ultimately that is all I always want to be judged: through our actions.

Nilay Patel: Naturally, Verizon decided that the adult content would disappear. You tweeted last night: "If people want major policy changes here, press Apple and Google app stores, no one else has a leverage effect." What did you mean by that?

This is a very nuanced problem.

Every layer of technology policy is involved in that conversation.

Yes. And some people say, well, do you have to be in the app store? Just have a web version. But apps are real the, and I believe that Tumblr is among the top 30 or 40 apps in the social networking category. It is usually top few hundred worldwide. So their app is a big part of how people deal with it.

And I don't know if you've ever gone through an app review process; we even came across this on WordPress. they will Search for porn. It is not as if it should be on the homepage or at the registration, they are really looking for it. And if they find something, you can be deleted.

And by the way, it's random. Maybe they are something you launched a year ago and now they say it is not allowed. App stores can be a little fickle. Not fickle, but sometimes it feels a bit random. Frankly, I think if you want to be there, if you go into the app store, you want to try and play on what they support.

The more nuanced and broader problem, which I believe affects every place with user-generated content, is that almost everyone has gone further than saying, "Hey, if the first amendment is, if it's not illegal, if we don't get a legal order to remove it, we're happy to host it and promote it. ”And now everyone realizes, well, there are many things that are not legal and that you might not want to spread everywhere else.

When you talk about the adult content on Tumblr and the changes they have made, it is really four or five issues that have been mixed into it. There was certainly spam. I was a more active Tumblr user eight or nine years ago, and when I logged in again to view it, my feed was full of nude photos that link to a spam site. This was not it was not something I had subscribed to, but it was a tumblog that was taken over by spammers and they placed ads for a type of chat site five times an hour. Essentially spam.

There are a lot of shades of gray in between and I definitely want to learn more. There have been many different communities on Tumblr and part of the baby may have been thrown away with the bath water, so with any kind of policy or algorithm or AI or whatever it does, you want to evolve and make sure you block what you say that you want to block, and also do not retrieve legitimate content.

You could do things like that on the internet, you could evolve the content policy and perhaps make it less restrictive there. But are you still stuck in everything that Apple and Google want in the app?

That is my understanding.

You know that another thing people ask is good, how can Reddit and Twitter get away with it? Because both tons contain adult content. I do not know. I'm actually curious.

I believe that Reddit has an institution that you do on the internet, but if you disable that, can you get more things for adults in the app? But I wonder if that just works because Apple has not noticed it yet, or if it is actually something that is permitted within their policies. I do not know.

I will say that in general a really flourishing adult content house is probably the best for a company or website that is completely dedicated to it. I know that a number of sites appeared after the December policy change, so I mean that this might be a better future than somewhere with a gray line or an evolving policy.

WordPress is a huge platform for all kinds of makers. It clearly has different models for generating revenue, as you said. Entire mass media publications are hosted on WordPress and individuals use WordPress. Do you expect that kind of scale for Tumblr or do you expect it to be more a social network?

The primary user experience is that social network. But there is no reason that VIP or truly high-end users of WordPress cannot benefit from that social network and a truly native beautiful integration.

One of the things that Facebook did after Cambridge analysis is that they have already deleted their posting APIs. So you could post on WordPress earlier and we would automatically post on Tumblr, Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook etc., and they turn that API off after Cambridge Analytica. Nobody really objected to it or talked too much about it, but in fact they disabled the part that you could use to post external content in the Facebook news feed and the like.

That was actually a major change in the way the open web worked, because previously all social networks had a way to get things in and out. For example, Tumblr used to have RSS feeds, so you could follow things that were not hosted on Tumblr. I would like to bring back such functions, because I would like Tumblr to become a better part of the open web.

It really sounds like you want to be a competitor of the major social networks in terms of user attention, openness, courtesy, community power. Is that what you want?

I want to create a place on the internet that is fun, supportive and substantial. You are an old-school web user – at one point blogging really had something magical about it. A frisson. You would have blocks and links and people would follow and respond and you would keep track of things and it was a very, very nice social network. But it was also fully distributed and people had their own designs, and all that sort of thing. I think we can bring something back and think of it again in the mobile world, where Tumblr is also super strong.

Julia Alexander: Tumblr also has a number of major problems. It has seen an enormous increase in extreme ideology on the platform, it has seen major problems around mass shootings and the way (some users) glorify shooters (Tumblr). It has become a huge problem. I just have the feeling that not much is being said about it because it's not as big as Twitter. Are you planning to actively go in and clean this up, or are you just going to leave it as Verizon has?

These are very difficult problems. so I don't want to trivialize or say that everything, even if you work very hard on it, will be 100 percent. But one of the things that fascinates me is that Tumblr has a large team of trust and safety, just like the rest of Automattic that works WordPress.com. These teams have a lot of overlap and I look forward to their collaboration. One of the first things we try to harmonize in acquisition is simply saying, "Hey, we do 99 percent comparable work. Let's make sure our policies are consistent."

Tumblr has some really amazing automated tools that we don't have on WordPress.com that work really well. And what have we navigated with the nuance of content that people host on WordPress, and how can we use it to inform and really encourage a healthy community on Tumblr.

Nilay Patel: Do you see these platforms coming together? I get the feeling that you want to keep them apart, which makes sense: one is a very user-oriented social network, the other is a publication platform. But do you think they are getting closer and closer, or just more about policies, procedures, back-end things?

I think there is a lot of overlap in what both do. I would like them to work together. I really believe that in the long run there is a possibility to merge backend technology so that Tumblr is actually powered by WordPress. WordPress, we consider it the open web operating system – it now manages 34 percent of websites. It should be able to control everything that Tumblr does, but what I would call the Tumblr app, the user experience, the dashboard, that will always be its own unique thing and evolve in its own way because it is different from everything else on the Web. I think that is the most interesting thing about Tumblr: it is a unique, iconic brand that I look forward to being there for decades to come. It has something that is slightly different.

It's funny because almost every social network has evolved to include forms of blogging. There was microblogging, photo blogging, audio blogging that is podcasting. These are all kinds of things that were originally pioneered on blogging. But all these things have become so balkanized. I find it very, very interesting to see if you can bring them together a little, as Tumblr post formats do.

What kind of experience can people create for themselves and make something out of it where they choose what they follow? They are not only pushed algorithmically, which is also the most dangerous in their feed.

I get some strong Google Reader vibes from you. Not that you are going to build an RSS reader. But it is still complaining that it is gone; it was the application that brought together an entire ecosystem of blogs. Is that role something that you can fill in?

There is something super valuable there. When you think of well-spent online, when you think people get more control over how they spend their attention and their time. Think about their data: do they invest their data in a place where they can return? Where it benefits them equally, if not more, is it beneficial for the person hosting them or whatever software they use? Do they really have property?

These are all things that never go out of style. We have peaks and troughs of openness on the web. I think we are leaving a low point. If you think that 2016 was the culmination of closed social networks and patented software, we are seeing an incredible growth of open source, of distributed systems, whether that is information, whether it is blogging, with money, with crypto and everything what is related to that. These are powerful revolutions that will take place over the next 15 to 20 years, but it only goes up from here.

This is also my life's work. I worked on this for 16 years. I literally hope to work on these issues for the rest of my life. So I want to keep working to create the kind of web I want them to grow up with if I ever have kids.

Julia Alexander: You said you wanted to introduce more advertising to Tumblr.

I don't know if & # 39; more & # 39; the best word is. But I do think the advertisements they did are considerably lower than what you would expect. It makes it considerably less than what you would expect for the amount of traffic and audience.

Tumblr is so niche audience – it's so strange. That's why people still love it. It's weird or it's fandom, or it's just weirdness in general. Are you worried that advertising will have an impact on the community?

I think there is a possibility there. I now understand that most ads are programmatic, which means network ads.

It is not true, say, a film studio or a specific advertiser who really understands the Tumblr audience, says, "this is who we want to reach with a message that we want to target specifically." So that is of course an experiment. But I have high hopes that the craziness – what I would describe as the beauty of the Tumblr community – is actually very, very attractive. And we have to do a good job with advertising. Now I will also state that by saying that Automattic is not an advertising company. We are a company for subscriptions and upgrades. So maybe the advertising reading doesn't work, and it's all more based on a subscription. I think that can be very healthy and also very positive.

Nilay Patel: What do you think about the relationship with makers? Is there a way to authorize and compensate the makers? Tumblr is such a & # 39; n cultural force. Is there a way to give it back in a way that is not just a transfer of value to BuzzFeed?

Let me talk about what we do for that on WordPress.com. So one, we have WordPress.com upgrades that you can purchase and get additional customization options. And yes, it is a cost, but you can gain so much more power and control over your site, including things like your own domain name. It's not bad, you know, it's worth a week at Starbucks or something. It is not a big investment for your full online presence.

We have a program called WordAds that allows people to display ads. We basically bundle everyone together, we can really do advanced things like top bidding and other things to ensure quality and achieve a share of revenue. So you can place your own ads on the site and make money with that traffic. We have also introduced functions for generating revenue or e-commerce. So there is a simple payment button, there are a number of membership pulses that will be launched soon, all the way to full e-commerce. There are stores that generate more than $ 100 million in annual sales built on Woocommerce.

So from the simple PayPal-like Pay Now button, all the way to sophisticated stores, are things you can do on WordPress. And we're literally seeing north of 10 billion transactions a year ago, and growing fast, so I'd like to open up some of that to the Tumblr community. These are things that we have already built.

How it fits or works with Tumblr is really up to that team. You know they understand that user base and that community better than anyone else in the world. So I am very curious to see how some of the raw materials and technical things that we have already built in the rest of Automattic, how they think that fits best with the Tumblr community. Personally, I would be very enthusiastic about memberships or some sort of recurring payment.

Are you going to try to integrate your engineering teams or will you first leave them alone?

We have previously made a few such purchases. You want to integrate carefully: see where things make sense and do that first, show success and then start expanding.

In the long term, as I said, there is a lot of overlap in between WordPress.com and Tumblr. There are also many things that are totally different, and I could be independent forever. But especially from a technical point of view, I am delighted to build more things using React and APIs that are actually reusable. So even though we could have some code exchange between apps. As you know WordPress. com including Calypso, our front-end, is one hundred percent open source. So that is all there and we can see what kind of code exchange, or maybe what we can open the source on the Tumblr side.

Are you going to open-source Tumblr?

That would be pretty cool.

How fast until the strange Tumblr ad tracking pixels have disappeared?

That is a good question. I would say because all those things expect things to stay the same until we reach the end. I think that's October. We are really going to look at our systems. So Automattic has an approach to GDPR, an approach to tracking pixels, we are a very privacy-oriented company. We will really start trying to integrate what Tumblr does with what we have found to work very well WordPress.com, Longreads, Simplenote, our other products.

You spoke with the employees of Tumblr. This is an opportunity to talk to the people who use Tumblr, the community. What do you want them to know the most?

First of all I want to thank you for using Tumblr and sticking to it. Secondly, I would say that I hope and believe that the best days of Tumblr are really there. That it is again an independent company, as part of an independent company, has the ability to be responsive, agile and creator-centric in a way that may have been limited in a certain way since 2013. Try it out and especially keep an eye out for some new things to come in the coming six to twelve months.