Peter Vidani: Why Tumblr Continues To Thrive
An interview with the Creative director of Tumblr reveal how this social network continues to grow, both outside and in.
Tumblr is one of the fastest growing social media platforms on the web, where users share content quickly and easily while also allowing a free space to create and communicate anonymously. With over 184 million blogs and 83 billion posts, it’s easy to see why the social network is getting a lot of attention these days. To learn more about how Tumblr began and how it’s grown, we spoke with Creative Director Peter Vidani.
What was Tumblr like when you first started in 2009?
At first, we were in a shared office with a TV producer and I want to say at the time there was five of us at Tumblr and Fred (the producer) and his assistant on the other side. We all just shared this office and it was the most colorful room. It was floor to ceiling art, super colorful, it was just wonderful, just when you stepped out of the elevator, a burst of color. Fred was kind of a role model for all of us even though he stayed out of the way when we were working and got involved any time that we needed him. He was so fun and such a hard worker.
I had never worked at a start up or any kind of Internet company before then, so I didn’t have a lot to compare it to. It was like everyone was very much in the same room, working on the same thing, even though we were all doing very different things throughout the day. Marco was writing a lot of the backend code, while me, David and Jacob were working on the front end, but we were all sharing the responsibility and the ideas. There were no meetings – it was all really a beautiful collaboration where we recognized each other’s strengths and let the best idea win. Not a lot has changed in the feeling of the company. It is still very nice and very funny and very relaxed with a really weird sense of humor. And I still think that the best ideas win and the good ideas are heard, and it is still very collaborative with a healthy level of chaos.
A lot of the casual and funny attitude that was so prevalent in the company ended up attracting similar people to the site itself.
Yeah, you know you wonder if you put your heart into something, like a website or an app, you do see that you attract some like-minded people. What we were always trying to go for was trying to attract really creative people and very nice, funny people and have a positive environment for them to come together in a safe place.
How has the platform itself evolved in that time?
It’s a lot more stable, that’s for sure. But that’s what happens in the beginning when you start hiring talented people. The product itself, it’s hard for me to say that it’s really changed a lot because I don’t think it has in a really good way. I think that we’ve done a really good job, because David and Marco got a lot of things right in the beginning just as a product. What we’ve done since then is not trying to make it this huge thing – it’s tempting to, as a product grows, tack more things onto it but I think we’ve done a really job at saying no and remembering what we got right in the beginning or trying to create things that support those features or idea. There’s a way of thinking in the company when we developed the product that was here when I first came and is still here. Keep it simple, make it really easy to use, get of the way, make it a safe place, and don’t put things into it that we don’t really need. Why change that?
What is it like making changes to the platform of Tumblr, overall?
Of course, I don’t want to make it seem like we don’t change a thing at all, otherwise what are we doing here? You know what I’ve come to realize is that it’s not ever about the product, it’s about the people we attract to the community that we respect so much and that no one can take away from us and want to care for. If that’s in the form of an iPhone app or a website or a social network, anything else you want to call it, then that’s what we’re doing right now. It is really just whatever it takes to keep that philosophy going forward and bringing the right kind of people together. That in mind, it makes it easier to make changes and it makes it easier to say no to things because you start asking yourself, “does it support this support this one idea?” A big change and a small change are all the same, it’s just a change and it should be looked at with the same level of importance. What I care about is when we made the move to mobile, what we learned from it. When you expand to any other type of platform or interface you learn new things, you see your product in a new light, you ask yourself the same questions as you had to in the beginning. What I care about right now is what Tumblr got right, including personal identity as well as creating or consuming.
Are there features you tried that didn’t make it to the webpage or the mobile app?
Definitely. We do a lot of our product testing in house, meaning that we have a lot of Tumblr fanatics here and at the point what’s cool with working at a bigger company is that you got a range of people that use Tumblr in different ways and different frequency. So it’s easy to know when a keyboard short cut for the Dashboard is right because I’m using it all day and it just needs to feel right. It’s really hard for use to see, for example, what it’s like as a new user signing up for the platform. That’s where I think we can experiment a lot, test the product, release it to a small percentage of users. We also have to take a look at the numbers, and in a sense let it go a little, to see what’s keeping people on Tumblr, what makes them love it the same way that we do.
Has Yahoo made any changes to Tumblr or does it have any input into the creative decisions of the platform itself?
That deal happened because there was mutual respect. They liked what we were doing and they recognized we were doing something they needed, and I think that they have given us our space to keep doing that. Also Yahoo has done a lot right that we need from them. They have been in this game a long time, longer than us, and they have huge technologies that we’re not even close to that we can pick up for free. This question comes up a lot and I totally understand why but there’s a lot of mutual respect so it’s a nice relationship.
Were you worried that people were not going respond well to have ads on their dashboard?
We worry about everything. Remember that we’re using this just as much as you guys are everyday so it matters to us if it starts to suck and that goes with every decision that we make. I think there was, rightfully, a lot of skepticism around advertisements on Tumblr because advertisements on the Internet aren’t great. We don’t complain about ads in magazines as we do about advertisements on the Internet because there are just not as good. But they can be. So what we’re trying to do, we’re trying to look at the whole picture and see what we like about advertising, what we don’t like about it, and ask our advertisers to put the same level of thought and care into their presence on Tumblr as our users do. Everyone responds to something delightful, something funny, something cool, advertisers just need to be right there with them.
What do you imagine is the future of Tumblr?
What Tumblr is actually going to look like it hard to tell because we ride on technology a lot. No one knew 15 years ago that the most advanced way to talking online would be your phone. It’s almost impossible to know what it would look and feel like 3 or 4 years from now. Identity is still going to be so important and still has so much work to be done if we’re going to be toward even smaller screens. That’s why it’s so much easier to think about the people that are using it and making sure that it is still attracting them and they are still delighted and it’s a joy for them to use. That just makes the rest so much easier. Because when it’s not the thing itself that you care about anymore, it’s a lot easier to change it. What counts is the community you have. But you know, maybe also a virtual helmet.