To be clear: Yahoo is not outright killing Tumblr. Unlike other Silicon Valley acquisitions, in which larger fish buy up smaller ones for their engineering talent only to kill the original company, Tumblr will continue to operate much like it did in the pre-Yahoo days. "This is obviously an exception," Mayer said of the deal during a conference call today. Mayer even said Yahoo wouldn't touch the porn that peppers the blogs. "The width and breadth of content on Tumblr is what's exciting and has allowed it to reach more users," she said in response to a question about "brand safe" content. And yet, a search for "Yahoo" on Tumblr right now yields a lot of very angry users. "I like that on Tumblr I can get my 'weird visuals fix without seeing any cousins talking about babies," said our own resident Tumblr aficionado, Elspeth Reeve. "What if they put a purple exclamation point after Tumblr?" (While Mayer addressed that point, saying she wouldn't brand Tumblr with Yahoo logos, Tumblr HQ was quick to the joke) But people are still complaining, because that's what they have to do.
The loudness of the grumbling, however, has nothing to do with how successful an acquisition turns out to be. A look back at similar situations in which a big fish bought up a smaller one and decided not to kill it for its talent, shows that these situations always breed angry users, but rarely does it indicate how well the integration goes.
Instagram: The Empty Backlash
The hate: Just about a year ago, Facebook announced that it had bought up Instagram, which yielded a very similar response to today's Yahoo/Tumblr news. People vowed to quit the site, fearing that Facebook would bring all of its dorky users to the niche community of tech early adopters. In addition, just as the company was readying itself to IPO, others worried that the social network would pepper the pristine service with terrible Facebook ads.
Was the complaining justified? Not yet. So far Facebook hasn't much changed the service. It has added a tagging feature that led to some minor grumbling. There has been talk of ads, but so far nothing concrete has appeared. The only possibly, Facebook motivated snafu happened when Instagram changed its terms of services to reflect a more monetarily motivated policy. But it quickly apologized and placated the masses.
The result: People haven't left the site, as this chart from MacStories shows:
Even Wired's Mat Honan who famously quit Instagram amid the Terms of Service ordeal approved the company's revisions. "I appreciate the update, and Instagram’s willingness to communicate — and I’m listening," he said.
Flickr: The Justified Backlash
The hate: When Yahoo purchased the beloved photo sharing site Flickr in 2005, users revolted with a group "Flick Off," threatening to shut down their accounts as soon as the deal went through in 2006.
The result: As social photo sites became all the rage in the mobile iPhone world, Flickr has lagged, as chronicled in this Gizmodo story. Since taking on the helm, CEO Marissa Mayer has attempted to reinvigorate the site, however, with some success.
YouTube: The Legal Backlash
The hate: It's ancient Internet business history now, but when Google plunked down $1.65 billion to buy YouTube in 2006, some users worried that Google's policy of abiding by copyright laws would ruin the video service's "artistic" appeal for some users. "As a frequent viewer of YouTube, I feel that the site has already been tainted and lost that special something that once made it so interesting to visit," wrote Fast Company. "It seems that this innovative idea that once attracted the world's amateur filmmakers to put their work out there for the world to see has become a target since it's purchase by behemoth search-provider Google, dooming everyone's favorite at-work pastime to fall prey to the insecurities of media giants trying to bring down Google before the quirky search company can dominate every realm of the Web."
Was it justified: No. Despite attempts to corporatize with more legitimate offerings, YouTube is still home of the viral video. In fact, a lot of the channels that the site has created are spin-offs of viral sensations.
The result: YouTube has only flourished since the deal and Google has managed to make a real business out of it without killing the viral video character. Analysts estimate it was profitable and earned more than $1 billion a year, as of 2011.
Mailbox and Goodreads: The Rote Backlashes
Was it justified: Too soon to tell. Both of these services just got bought up.
So, in short, all those panicked Tumblr users out there need to calm down and look on the bright side of this acquisition: sometimes big companies can help smaller ones flourish. Tumblr could fall into the YouTube bucket. As you can see, fear of a new, dorky, and monetarily inclined overlord is natural. But, Tumblr's organic growth may have already plateaued: the blogging platform's traffic peaked in November, according to Quantcast numbers. And as it has matured from a start-up that could get away with making not so much cash to legitimate technology company it has faced increased pressure from investors to make more than the $13 million it pulled in 2012. The buy means that Tumblr gets more time to grow into an actual money-making business—something it hasn't quite done yet—while simultaneously making its service better using Yahoo's resources.
Of course, added resources are the cause for concern to Tumblr's users. Yahoo will help Tumblr make money, which means alienating users in some way or another. First, Yahoo will help Tumblr grow its audience, giving it access to all the old fogey users that still sign onto the dot-com era Internet giant. Sure, that's good for Tumblr, which needs to grow its audience to survive. But, Tumblr loyalists might not like that subset of people on a site that skews to a younger demographic. But, unfortunately, Tumblr — with our without Yahoo — needs to grow.
In addition, Mayer has already promised ads on Tumblr, with a "very light ad load" in the feed and also some tools for individual bloggers, if they choose. Again: Ads suck. But, that's how social networks make money. (It's either that or a subscription model, which has yet to take off.) That was the direction Tumblr was headed in without Yahoo. In fact, with the big financial cushion of a company like Yahoo it can ease into the ad process, without having the pressure of investors or an IPO to accelerate its advertising model, like we've seen over at Facebook.
Of course, bureaucracy can kill a company — look at what happened to Flickr or that $8.8 billion acquisition that ruined HP. But for now, it sounds like Tumblr is driving its destiny.