I’ve been playing around with Tumblr a lot, mostly to help a friend get set up on it, but also because they didn’t publicize they had a way to ‘black out’ your site for SOPA day until the last minute, and I wanted to help my friends join in.
Tumblr pitches itself as sort of a blog version of Twitter.
Tumblr lets you effortlessly share anything. Post text, photos, quotes, links, music, and videos, from your browser, phone, desktop, email, or wherever you happen to be. You can customize everything, from colors, to your theme’s HTML.
At it’s heart, it sounds really wonderful. You can share anything, as long or as short as you want, with anyone. They can retumbl it and share it, adding on their commentary, and so on and so forth. But when you compare it to either Twitter or a blog, the analogy collapses and Tumblr becomes insanely complex. By trying to be both, it’s effectively neither.
The tl;dr for this post is that I don’t like Tumblr, and find it a clunky, poorly supported psudeo-blog and you should use something else.
I should say that there are things I think Tumblr gets right. They make it very easy to publish your content with a few clicks. Uploading media is simple, and ‘reblogging’ content is a simple click. However that’s only true if the content comes from Tumblr to begin with, or if the external source has coded in a ‘tumble’ button (similar to the tweet/facebook buttons I have here). Tumblr can make a decent ‘community,’ however allowing multiple people to manage a Tumblr site is cryptic.
When you go to tumblr.com, you’re presented with a signup screen:
That’s it. A very simple and direct screen, much more like Twitter.com than something like LiveJournal or WordPress.com. You’re told ‘Sign up.’ But what if you’ve already signed up? Unlike LJ or WP, there’s no bar at the top of the page to let you sign in anywhere.
On Tumblr, tucked way off to the upper right, is a little Log in button. Points for not making the word ‘login’ (though that is a valid use), but it’s not where people generally look first. Jakob Nielsen has been touting the F-shaped reading pattern since 2006. That is most of the weight of a reader’s attention is to the left, though the top right corner is a good place to use too. At the same time, horizontal attention still leans left. So while the location is decent, the button’s efficacy strikes me as diluted.
Once you’ve logged in, you go to the Dashboard. This is pretty standard stuff. If you log in to WordPress, Blogger or even LiveJournal, you go to the back end. On the other hand, if you log in to Twitter, you see your Twitter stream. In keeping with Tumblr’s dichotomy, you get both:
The green icon is ‘me’ and right away I see that someone’s started following me, and two people I follow (CBS Television Studios and a friend) have posted something. Above that is a list of ‘types’ of posts I can make, and on my right is basic information about me. I follow people, I’ve liked posts, I can explore, and here’s a random photo we like.
It’s not terrible, and the implication is ‘Just start posting!’ At this point, any time I go back to tumblr.com, I will be sent to my dashboard. Period. And there’s no obvious link to show me what my site looks like. As it happens, I have to click my ‘icon’ (the green box) to see my site. The row on the very top has ‘Dashboard’ and then ‘My blog name’ (which I fuzzed out) and ‘My second blog name’ (ditto), is followed by four icons. The plus sign makes a new blog, the question mark is for help, the grommet is for settings and the power button is to log out. I don’t know why they have ‘make a new blog!’ so prominent.
I’m not going to get into how you post in detail. This is pretty straight forward and my only real complaint is tags, but it’s a big complaint.
I can’t see my commonly used tags, and that actually bothers me a lot. On WordPress, I can see my regularly used tags (and my categories) right away. With this simple screen, I get a blank area to add in my tags, which is nice, but I like to use some of the same tags over and over. It’s at the point where I’ve stopped tagging things because it’s a hassle. That’s a problem because other people can search for ‘tagged Ipstenu’ and find anything tagged that way. I’m devaluing the search because the functionality as a content create is onerous. Compare this to WordPress, where I can click on ‘Recently used tags’ and there the ones I use are, and I can click on them to add them. Done. Categories are easy to find and now I’ve created a robust multi-level way to search for content on my site!
Furthermore, if I reblog something, I lose all their tags and have to start over.
The Other Dashboard
Well, now here’s where it’s a mess.
My blog names were listed on that top row, so when I click on one, I get another dashboard. This one is very similar to the first, only now I see all my reblogs and all comments.
Oh, wait. No. I don’t see any comments. That’s because Tumblr doesn’t have an easy way for my visitors to leave comments on my site!
What’s going on here? It’s Tumblr’s dichotomy. It’s both a social site, like Facebook and Twitter, and a blog, except right here, in this one moment, it’s magically neither. Facebook lets you leave comments, Twitter lets you leave @-replies. WordPress (and LiveJournal) live and die by the comments. Comments are how you connect, interact, and grow your audience.
And you can’t do it (easily) on Tumblr. Oh, sure, I figured it out in about an hour, with a tweet to a friend and some reading about Disqus, but that’s not the point. You cannot be a blogging system without a comment system. That may be a strong statement, but there it is.
You’ve heard people say that if you’re not paying for something, then you’re the product? That’s never more true than with Tumblr. On this site, my content is generated by me, and the additional UGC (User Generated Content) comes in the form of comments. I can see my ‘value’ based on retweets, +1s and likes, but it’s in communicating with you commenters (and I try to talk to everyone) that I find out what’s engaging in my posts, what’s important, and what I get wrong. Oh yes, I get things wrong.
It’s talking with people that help me grow as a writer, a technologist and a thinker. So while some themes on Tumblr have Disqus built in, I’ve found more that don’t and more that don’t explain it. And worse? If you google ‘Tumblr comments’ the first hit is not a ‘How to turn on comments on Tumblr!’ from Tumblr, but a how to from Disqus.
There’s nothing wrong with Disqus, I like it and use it on some sites. But. There’s something wrong when your communication platform relies on third party vendors for communication. Sharing? No problem. Communicating? You better be a techie.
Where are those settings at?
And now we’re at the crux of why Tumblr is so cumbersome.
Where the hell are my settings!? If you go click on that gear icon, which is logically at https://www.tumblr.com/preferences, you may notice everything’s about you. It’s your user preferences. Okay, so that’s acceptable. And they even put a nice link to customize your blog. But … have you looked at their options?
This is where I wanted to get a screenshot of the clunky ‘pick a theme’ interface (though they get small props for being able to select ‘free only’), or how you have to know how to edit HTML/CSS to customize and add ‘pages’ to your site, or how you don’t see how your content will look, only their sample. I tried to get a screenshot, but it was too complicated to even begin to explain.
And that’s the problem right there. Tumblr’s too hard to customize for the novice. It’s not too hard for me, I have no problem with it. But my partner (a non-tech) and my friends (non-tech) all appealed to me for help around SOPA day to make their sites go black. It took me 10 minutes to sort out how to make a WP.com site go black by adding a widget. It took me 10 minutes to find a plugin I liked for self hosted, fork it to what I wanted, and implement it. I was able to logic out how to apply my wp.com change to Blogger (via a ‘widget’) and Tumblr, but the minute I told the Tumblr’s “You need to edit the site’s HTML…” they balked.
So what’s really the problem here?
The problem is Tumblr’s attempt to be the best of both worlds, a blog and a social networking site, means they offer up more customization then that of a traditional blog, but less that running your own site. Twitter has very little customization you can do, but really it’s like saying you can’t design your email. Few people I know actually go look at your Twitter page. We use apps, or aggregate you onto own own streams. It doesn’t need it, and wisely leave it alone. WordPress.com (I’m harping on them because I know them best) lets you use themes that allow customization, but you have to pay for CSS or a custom domain. Tumblr lets you do these things for free.
Now, to be fair, Tumblr doesn’t claim to be a blog. And they’re right, they’re not a blog. What they are is a way to make a share things. Easily. And you know, to that end, they succeed. It’s very easy to share. What is not easy is to stand out from the crowd, use Tumblr in a new and amazing way. What’s not easy is to be unique.
I’ve seen memes, photoblogs, Q&As, and mostly just people sharing posts. I’ve seen amazingly creative designs. What I haven’t see is something that changed the entire way I’ve thought of publishing. And I haven’t seen it in a way that let me grow, adapt, and spin off it as far as I want. I don’t want to get this confused with beautiful sites like capitolcouture.pn, which is just lovely. But it looks … like a webpage. I can think of ways to do that on any platform. In this case, though, they picked Tumblr I would guess because of the ease of re-sharing content. They exist with a massive amount of user generated content, by copying the posts to their own site (with a link back of course). That’s cool, but it’s not a game changer. In it’s own way, it’s just the best designed meme I’ve ever seen.
Have you seen a site on Tumblr that made you re-think everything about a website?