July 17, 2013 at 12:34 PM EDT
David Karp Knows How Tumblr Will Handle Porn, Is Not So Sure About NSA
Tumblr founder David Karp was a guest on The Colbert Report last night - an appearance he wrote would be "one of the scariest moments of my life." But as it turned out, the interview went fairly well, and even had some laugh-out-loud moments, although some seemingly at Karp's expense - like the digs about whether he even knew what "cool" was, given he had dropped out of high school and never had to deal with the whole lunch table situation. (This, following a question about whether Yahoo bought Tumblr in order to buy itself some "cool.")
Tumblr founder David Karp was a guest on The Colbert Report last night – an appearance he wrote would be “one of the scariest moments of my life.” But as it turned out, the interview went fairly well, and even had some laugh-out-loud moments, although some seemingly at Karp’s expense – like the digs about whether he even knew what “cool” was, given he had dropped out of high school and never had to deal with the whole lunch table situation. (This, following a question about whether Yahoo bought Tumblr in order to buy itself some “cool.”)
But amid the lighter banter, Colbert also tried to pin Karp down on a few more serious topics as well, including the inevitable questions about all that Tumblr porn, and more importantly, whether or not Tumblr, now owned by Yahoo, would have to cater to NSA demands for user data.
On the subject of adult content on Tumblr, Karp’s position was the same as usual – explaining how Tumblr is essentially an open platform.
Does Tumblr Have A Brand Problem?
After Colbert referred to Tumblr as “porn central,” Karp responded that “it’s got everything!” – a phrase Colbert then repeated to comedic effect. “There’s a lot of everything on there,” he deadpanned.
“Look,” Karp explained, “we’ve taken a pretty hard line on freedom of speech, supporting our users’ creation, whatever that looks like, and that’s just not something we want to police. When you have somebody like Terry Richardson or any number of very talented photographers posting tasteful photography, I don’t want to have to go in there to draw the line between this photo and the behind-the-scenes photo of lady gaga and like, her nip,” he added.
Of course, the age-old argument that what some may consider “adult fare,” others consider art is not the point. The problem with Tumblr being associated with pornography is that it potentially impacts Tumblr’s ability to grow its advertising business – a key focus for the company now at Yahoo – given that some advertisers may be concerned about having their content appearing next to pornography.
Tumblr’s position, however, has always been that users have to opt-in to see that sort of thing, but it remains to be seen if that line is enough to sooth the majority of advertisers’ concerns. As in print and TV, there will always be a portion of this market that’s very careful to avoid any potential association with adult content – whether it’s opt-in or not.
Tumblr may have perfectly good controls for managing who sees adult material, but what’s more damaging to its goal of becoming a platform for “brand advertising” is that it has developed a reputation – a brand of its own, if you will – of being a home to porn.
Tumblr, Yahoo And The NSA
Colbert’s other, more serious question to Karp last night involved what protections the site offered users in the wake of the PRISM scandal. Would Tumblr turn over data to the NSA? Karp didn’t immediately have a pre-rehearsed response at the ready.
“That’s a complicated question, Stephen, you’re putting me on the spot,” he deferred. ”We don’t want to give you anything that’s not in the best interest of our users. We’ve fought for that for six years,” he added when pressed.
Colbert, following the line of questioning with his trademark humor, asked what if the NSA just asked for data on one user – like himself, referencing an earlier part of the conversation where he told Karp he had his own Tumblr. (Colbert Nation does, but Colbert having a personal Tumblr was a joke).
“Never. I don’t know how to find you!,” laughed Karp.
That’s actually a good point. Tumblr can allow for semi-anonymity.
Tumblr allows users to express their sometimes darker desires, which could certainly help to paint a picture of an individual thought to be on the wrong side of the law for whatever reason. But today, the site allows users to sign up with just an email, which puts it in a group of social networks where “real identities” don’t have to come into play.
Nearly two months post Yahoo acquisition, Tumblr still has a lot of work ahead of it if it wants to establish itself as a home to brand advertising, while still assuring users than the encroaching ads don’t mar the Tumblr experience. And more importantly, it will somehow need to assure users that Tumblr, a place often thought of as an escape from “big social media” and all the troubles – PRISM and otherwise – that accompany that, can still remain intact as Tumblr becomes more integrated with its parent company.
Karp, at least, admits this too, saying “I’ve got lots to prove… We’ve got to get this thing to profitability first, that’s a pretty big milestone.”
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