Tumblr's current status as a communications platform -- as a digital space that is, with more than 82 million quirky blogs hosted, popular and niche at the same time -- gave Olin and her team additional freedom when it came to using, and leveraging, its network. Tumblr, Olin points out, is creation-oriented as much as it's sharing-oriented: It's a platform that, in particular, rewards originality. That meant that Tumblr, as a broad community, was generally receptive to the original art and graphics being generated by the campaign itself; but it also meant that, in curating other people's content, the campaign could meet the medium on its own terms, serving up stuff that was a little more insider-y, a little more experimental, a little more creative.
"No one had done a campaign Tumblr before, obviously," Olin points out, "so we didn't entirely know how it would go." But uncharted territory is also open territory. And "because Tumblr is a younger community, and a bit more obscure," Olin says, "we had more freedom to do stuff we wouldn't necessarily do elsewhere." The Tumblr could be part of a strategy, without being obviously strategic.
Olin, who joined the campaign in its early days of March 2011, began pitching the idea of a Tumblr to the rest of the campaign's then-small digital team that summer -- "knowing," she said, "that the demographics skew toward young and progressive people." It didn't take much convincing. Tumblr's power as a network was obvious, particularly when it came to reaching those young progressives -- a key constituency for the campaign. ("The Tumblr," Olin told me, "grew out of a desire to reach younger voters.") The site, Obama for America digital chiefs Joe Rospars and Teddy Goff having signed off on it, launched in October 2011, with a post titled "HI, TUMBLR." That message set the tone for the posts that would follow: It emphasized both earnestness and whimsy, idiosyncrasy and community. "We're looking at this as an opportunity to create something that's not just ours," it said, "but yours, too."
As the months passed -- some of them seeing more than 100 updates to the Tumblr -- the initial and collaborative ethos remained. It was evident in this voter-produced take on the benefits of Obamacare. And in this user-submitted letter chastising Mitt Romney's dismissal of youthful Democrats. And in this student-written testimony to student loans. As a mechanism of political engagement, the Tumblr, for all its webbiness, embraced a kind of back-to-the-future sensibility: a suggestion of what campaign messaging looked like in previous ages, when it played out on the community level. But it also hints at what can happen when political communication trades the massness of TV and radio for the web's ability to target taillored groups. As an experimental side project, Barackobama (dot-tumblr-dot-com) had an opportunity that was less plainly available on the campaign's official website, or its more traditional social media outlets, or its outreach efforts on TV or radio or direct mail: It could, basically, preach to the choir. It could take its community, in the best way possible, for granted.
And it could, crucially, communicate with that group in an environment that was particularly friendly to community itself. "We encountered a lot of trolls on other other platforms," Olin points out -- an inevitability, probably, given the inherent partisanship of presidential campaigns. And yet! "There was so little hate on Tumblr," she says. Part of that was by design. Tumblr founder David Karp's development of the platform's reblog feature -- which requires that comments be posted on users' own streams, rather than on traditional comments sections -- means that nasty or otherwise ill-advised comments show up on your own property, rather than on someone else's. On Tumblr, you own your trolling. "It's such a small thing," Olin says. But it "makes a world of difference."