So far, Tumblr is growing, but it’s nowhere near MySpace’s 70 million users or Facebook’s 61 million or even WordPress’ 3 to 4 million—which seems fine to Mr. Karp. Implicit in his discussion of other social networking and blogging platforms is that they got too big, too fast, and lost something in the process. As Tumblr grows, the challenge will be to maintain the sense of ownership its users have over the site, while being forward-thinking enough to change. It’s a tall order.
Mr. Karp grew up on the Upper West Side, the older of two sons of a composer and a science teacher at his school, Calhoun, which he attended before his brief spell at Bronx Science. “He was a child who, even at a very young age, knew what he wanted to be,” said Mr. Karp’s mother, Barbara Ackerman. “He was very focused, very driven.”
Home schooling is hardly a conventional choice for parents in Manhattan. “It’s a great leap of faith to do that for any kid,” said Ms. Ackerman. “It was a huge decision, but in this particular instance
it was the right one.” Likewise, the decision to go to Tokyo—alone, at 17—was one that Ms. Ackerman could only endorse. “He worked it all out. It was all paid for ahead of time—I didn’t have much to do with that decision,” she said. “He had everything lined up.”
“To have your child get on a plane and move to Japan …” Ms. Ackerman paused. “Well, he’s like a little adult..”
If Mr. Karp was a little adult at 17, at 21 he’s like a real adult. He lives alone in an apartment on West 71st Street that his parents own; he pays the maintenance. He owns a car, an Acura RSX, that he keeps in a garage. “I learned how to drive stick on that car,” he tells me proudly. “I mostly use it for weekend trips out of the city—Bear Mountain, the Palisades, that kind of thing.” During the week, though, his life consists mostly of work—he gets in around 9 or 10 and leaves around 7, walking the 40 minutes home to his apartment. “Usually I just end up crashing,” he said.
For another meeting a couple weeks after our initial conversation, he suggests the Time Warner Center branch of Landmarc, where he says he enjoys eating breakfast. Over two iced cappuccinos and a chicken Caesar salad, Mr. Karp says, “The whole binge-drinking, staying-up-late, hipster lifestyle has never been attractive to me.
“I never spent much time with people my own age.”
His girlfriend is 22, a recent Drexel University grad who lives on Long Island. A couple weeks ago he took her on a surprise trip to Puerto Rico. “At 4 a.m., I woke her up and told her we were getting breakfast,” he said. “I had packed her bag already, and she wasn’t sure where we were going until we got on the plane. It was total downtime—I was on a beach, drunk, for five days. I didn’t bring my computer, just an iPhone and camera.” Mr. Karp posted to his Tumblr the entire time he was there.
I decided to see if Mr. Karp’s evangelistic zeal for Tumblr would be borne out by starting a Tumblr blog of my own. Mr. Karp had assured me repeatedly that Tumblr is incredibly easy to use, comparing it to other blogging platforms, such as Blogger, that set a certain level of expectation for what a “post” is. Or as Mr. Sabet put it: “I’ve seen friends and colleagues start blogs and then abandon them because they’re too difficult to use or they create a type of publishing system where you feel that you really have to write something profound every day.” (“If blogs are journals, tumblelogs are scrapbooks,” according to the Tumblr website.)
Aha, I thought. A system that required little to no profundity! Sign me up.
Tumblr’s appeal lies in its simplicity. Users can post via the dashboard, which has buttons for different types of posts (text, video, audio, photo, etc.), but can also post from a bookmarklet in their browser (a bookmarklet is a bookmark that shows up in your browser’s toolbar), instant messenger, a mobile phone or a desktop widget. I posted a photo of my dog and then a video of my dog (videos are hosted by Vimeo, which was started by Mr. Lodwick and owned by Barry Diller’s Internet conglomerate IAC), and then an IM conversation, a photo of a candle my friend got me, and an image of a very large stuffed duck from a Web site specializing in oversize stuffed animals. It was kind of fun! Then I saw that a couple of people were following me, which made me feel good: I had fans! I found a couple other Tumblrs that I wanted to follow, and like magic, they started showing up on the Tumblr feed on my dashboard. I had joined Tumblrville.
“It was a really selfish thing in the beginning,” Mr. Karp said. “I wanted a tumblelog and nobody had it.” And so in many ways Tumblr is an embodiment of Mr. Karp’s personality. The interface is so simple that it’s appealing to people who have little technical expertise, but also to people who see the Tumblr platform as a blank slate that they can write code for and make their own; Mr. Karp encourages both types of users. Also implicit in Tumblr’s design is how it allows its users to use their own initiative to create the kind of experience they want. “David hates Amazon’s ‘what is this?’ button,” Mr. Seibert told me. “He has self-selected to a small group of people who can figure everything out.”
“Right now, we’re going after artists,” said Mr. Karp. “Before that we were thinking students and young people, but it’s much easier to target an adult who wants to express themselves online. Artists and producers have YouTube, and musicians are relegated to MySpace. They’re the worst platforms.” Tumblr, says Mr. Karp, is a natural fit.
Then again, perhaps Tumblr makes sharing thoughts with the world almost too easy. “If every shitty thing you said ended up at the top of your Facebook profile,” Mr. Karp said, “you would probably reconsider it.”