Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg details Tumblr’s future after re-org


This week, WordPress.com owner Matt Mullenweg confirmed his company would be shifting the majority of Tumblr’s workforce to other areas at parent company Automattic in light of the social blogging site’s continued financial woes. After acknowledging and explaining the meaning behind a leaked internal memo detailing the staff changes, Mullenweg then went on to field a number of questions about Tumblr’s future in an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session on his own Tumblr blog. Here, the exec responded to questions about Tumblr’s plans for existing products, like Tumblr Live, its monetization efforts, policies, and its planned integration with the decentralized social networking protocol ActivityPub, which Mullenweg had earlier said was in the works.

TechCrunch’s Amanda Silberling broke the news of the Tumblr re-org, noting that 139 of the site’s workers would be moved to other projects at Automattic, the parent company to not only Tumblr and WordPress.com, but also WP VIP, Day One, Pocket Casts, WooCommerce, and other apps and services, including the recently acquired all-in-one texting app Texts.com.

But Mullenweg’s AMA offered a lot more insight into how the company plans to run Tumblr, the blogging site it picked up from Verizon for $3 million in 2019 Though the acquisition price was a steal — especially given Yahoo earlier bought it for over a billion dollars — the business itself is losing $30 million per year. That necessitated the re-org.

Below are some of the key takeaways from Mullenweg’s exchange with Tumblr users during the AMA, which shed light on what’s ahead for Tumblr in 2024 and beyond.

When are the staff changes happening?

Mullenweg said the changes to the Tumblr team will happen on December 31, 2023. He said the team will be presented with other projects at Automattic and will be able to rank their top three picks, as staff is reassigned. The team impacted is known as “Bumblr” which is the internal name for the product side of Tumblr.

The move was not a surprise, he added — the Tumblr team has known for over a year that if it couldn’t get the revenue up, some of them would have to work on other things that make the company money.

Tumblr staff being reassigned will be able to choose from the following: WP.com, WooCommerce, Jetpack, Day One, Pocket Casts, WP VIP, .Org, Applied AI, Texts, self-serve advertising (Blaze), Newspack, Pressable, and Gravatar.

Why were some people laid off without being reassigned?

Mullenweg admitted that the company, like many, does engage in performance management reviews and sometimes that means people are let go.

“Automattic is continuously hiring and firing people to try to create the best open web tech team in the world,” he wrote.

In other words, some people were laid off but it wasn’t because of Tumblr’s financial woes.

Will Tumblr’s localization plans be impacted by the staff changes?

Mullenweg confirmed that translation and localization will continue, and are not impacted by the changes.

What does success at Tumblr look like?

The WordPress exec said a successful version of Tumblr would see it becoming a place that “everyone goes to hang out online” with a “billion micro-communities.” He didn’t share specifics, like how much money that would require, though.

What are Tumblr’s monetization plans?

Tumblr today offers a subscription which is currently the best way to support the site, Mullenweg said. Users can choose from either the Tumblr Supporter badge for $29.99/year or $2.99/month or subscribe to a similarly-priced ad-free offering. Subscribing on the web instead of in-app allows Tumblr to keep more of the revenue as it doesn’t have to pay app store commissions.

However, out of Tumblr’s 11.5 million monthly active users, only 27,000 are subscribers (0.2%). If 10-20% subscribed, Tumblr would be in good shape, Mullenweg noted. Then, “we could run the site forever,” he shared.

What’s more, he said the Tumblr Supporter badge hasn’t been very successful on its own, with only 2,300 total subscribers to that product.

In response to another question, Mullenweg suggested that Tumblr users could gift subscriptions, ask people to subscribe, and be supportive of advertisers and brands that are supporting Tumblr.

He mentioned, too, some changes ahead for TumblrMart. While the virtual goods and subscriptions will continue, Tumblr will likely have to “scale back the physical stuff” as it was only profitable on a small scale. (And the person running it doesn’t want to anymore, Mullenweg noted.)

In other responses, Mullenweg appeared to be considering how to support Tumblr via ads in different ways.

What’s the future of advertising on Tumblr?

Mullenweg said the vast majority of ad revenue on Tumblr is from programmatic ads, due to a number of factors, including the site’s declining traffic and various attacks on brands running ads from Tumblr’s user base. He added that self-serve ads with Blaze have “gone well” and that tooling can be re-used across Tumblr, WooCommerce, and WordPress.

Still, he noted that Blaze and Ad-free’s adoption is so small they can’t support Tumblr’s some 1,000 servers or its employee salaries.

The exec added he’s thinking about new ways to allow advertisers to more easily duplicate campaigns they’re running elsewhere with similar formats, which would raise the quality of Tumblr’s ads. This could be targeted at brands looking to move some percentage of their ad budget away from Twitter/X, for example.

Will Tumblr support moving blogs to WordPress.com?

Here, the exec was a bit vague on future plans, but said Tumblr today has a full export option available and WordPress can import content. However, actually moving Tumblr blogs to WordPress.com would be a “tricky migration,” Mullenweg said, but hinted that new technology like AI will make it easier.

How will Tumblr’s product change in 2024?

Mullenweg admitted the team had been spread too thin and spent too much effort on things that didn’t work. In 2024, the company will “hone in on” the parts of Tumblr people love and put an end to the things that don’t work.

He suggested that Tumblr will continue to innovate, as well, saying:

“We’ll continue [to] stay on the bleeding edge of what technology allows and enables, and hopefully provide pressure for other social networks to step up their game, as they have with dozens of features Tumblr invented and others followed.”

Areas of interest he cited were images, which he said were easy, but noted streaming high-res video would need to be paid (but not expensive.) He also noted that Automattic has some video technology it could lean on with VideoPress.

In terms of missed opportunities, Mullenweg lamented the demise of the Post+ creator subscription, which would have directed all funds to creators without Tumblr taking a cut. But misinformation about fan fic writers being sued by copyright holders led to a coordinated attack campaign that led to every launch creator canceling the program, he said.

“It was sad, because this was a feature users and creators said they wanted, and we prioritized making users money over projects that would make us money,” Mullenweg wrote.

Is Tumblr Live shutting down?

The exec hinted that Tumblr Live — a livestreaming video feature that Tumblr users haven’t liked — could be chopping block. He said that in 2024 Tumblr would “streamline some of the extra things that were launched (like Live) that haven’t gotten the adoption we hoped.”

In responses to other questions, Mullenweg also said that Tumblr would “sunset or rollback some things we tried that didn’t work,” and even outright stated that Live itself will be re-assesed in January 2024 as to “whether it should be a part of the Tumblr app anymore.”

How Tumblr is dealing with trolls?

The troll question was a bit off-topic in terms of Tumblr’s future as a business, and instead spoke to the future of the site’s culture. Mullenweg said that he believes “super trolls” only account for less than 0.5% of Tumblr’s user base. Still, they can have an outsized impact, he admitted.

Despite the staff changes, the company plans to increase its investment in Trust & Safety — the team that deals with bots, trolling, attacks, and hate speech — and will ban accounts engaging in these behaviors. It will also prevent those trolls from registering new accounts and repeating their behavior, he said.

What’s going on with the ActivityPub integration for Tumblr?

Mullenweg announced a year ago that Tumblr would add support for ActivityPub, the decentralized social networking protocol that supports apps like Twitter competitor Mastodon and others. But, apparently, that project has been put on the back burner. A Tumblr employee said it’s now something on the “Tumblr Labs” list and is being evaluated.

In the AMA, Mullenweg only vaguely cleared up the confusion over the state of the project by saying that:

“Every future for Tumblr that I’m involved in will include it being more open, supporting more standards, APIs, and open source.” 

Will Tumblr un-ban porn?

Nope. Art is allowed, but not “hardcore stuff,” Mullenweg said.



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