Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
People appreciate a good diversion. The humdrum routine of day-to-day life can be so dull, so alienating and stultifying that people yearn for a good laugh. To wrench these guffaws from tight lips was the stock and trade of the tummler: the official comedians/pranksters/master of ceremonies/and life enliveners who used to work the resorts in the Borsht Belt. Hold steady, for a second, I promise I’ll get to the point.
Outlandish humor, witty puns, audience interaction, outright plagiarism of other’s routines, and plenty of lewd material kept the audience laughing, kept them amused, kept them engaged, kept them distracted from the humdrum routine that awaited them at vacation’s end. The role of the tummler – the word is actually Yiddish – is described by Leo Rosten in his book The Joys of Yiddish as:
“he tells stories, cracks jokes, plays prank. He wears outlandish costumes, imitates peculiar people, trips over chairs, falls off diving boards. He leads songs like “Old MacDonald Had a Farm,” and games like “Simon Says.” He perpetrates broad hoaxes and risqué treasure hunts.” (417)
Indeed a successful tummler presented an amusing façade of wit, quotations, pulse quickening lines, simultaneously revealing all and keeping everything hidden. One could almost say that tummlers were a sort of live action precursor for a sort of micro-blogging platform that would have a similar name. You can almost imagine a tummler taking to the stage, making faces at the audience and jesting:
“What do you call somebody who thinks some cat videos and racy pictures are worth over a billion dollars?
Wait for audience reaction.
I told you I’d get to the point.
Congratulations Tumblr users! You’re rich! You’ve just been sold to Yahoo for $1.1 billion. Ok, you’re probably not rich. Sorry. The vast (vast!) majority of you won’t see any of that money personally, except in the form of advertisements that will begin to pop up on your and your friends Tumblrs.
It’s really kind of a shame; after all, Tumblr was every users chance to be a sort of blogging tummler as people created sites filled with “stories…jokes…prank[s]…costumes…falls off diving boards…songs…hoaxes and risqué treasure hunts.” But who’s laughing now? The user/tummlers or Tumblr?
Yahoo did not buy Tumblr for its fantastic capabilities, or the great blogs created on the platform. This is not meant as a denigration of Tumblr, but if Yahoo wanted a blogging platform like Tumblr they could have designed and launched a fairly similar platform for substantially less than a billion dollars. Thus, it is rather clear, that Yahoo wasn’t buying Tumblr it was buying Tumblr’s users (and more specifically their information). So if you are a Tumblr user, congratulations, your effort on your blog has proved to be extremely valuable. But you won’t see the money from it. In the Internet age if you aren’t the one doing the selling, you are the one being sold out.
Continuing in her role of anointed-savior-of-the-brand, Yahoo Chief Executive Marissa Meyer (formerly of Google) has seen to it that a substantial piece of Yahoo’s cash has gone to purchase the micro-blogging platform Tumblr (actual coverage of this here). Credit is due to Meyer, and to Yahoo, for their relative openness in explaining the purchase: Yahoo needs to attract a younger group of users, and frankly it’s a lot easier to just buy them wholesale than to perform the difficult work of attracting them. And one can’t help but give a slight chuckle with a sad shake of the head to Yahoo’s self deprecating inclusion of a “promise not to screw it up,” in the announcement of the deal.
It’s almost like one of the old tummler’s is helping them draft their press materials.
Yahoo’s prominence has waned over the last few years, the hiring of Meyer and high profile moves such as this acquisition are clear attempts by Yahoo to reassert themselves and to attempt to reclaim some digital terrain. Yahoo is aware that it still has a solid base of users, but it appears that it wants to sink its informational fangs into the sought after “youth demographic” and thus (as was noted above) the purchase of Tumblr is an easy choice. And the timing was beautiful, coinciding as it did with a new Pew study that shows (amongst many other things) that teens are growing increasingly tired of Facebook.
While some of the coverage of this acquisition has noted that Tumblr is not the most profitable of platforms, such analysis largely misses the point, this is less about profit than it is about people (or information about people, if you prefer). This extends in two ways simultaneously. Firstly, and more simply, it is about the number of new people that Yahoo can now target advertising towards, for Tumblr gives Yahoo quite the appealing bunch of users at which to target advertisements. More eyes to put ads in front of, equals more advertising dollars for Yahoo. Simple.
Secondly, and not quite as simply, what Tumblr gives Yahoo is a heck of a lot of data. Large amounts of data that in turn feed into the “big data” horde of Yahoo (more on “big data” here), while this may not be as immediately profitable in and of itself, when all of this data on Tumblr users is harnessed by a telecom of Yahoo’s size this data begins to tell new stories and to show new connections. And in that it has tremendous value. In the war to have the biggest “big data” Yahoo’s pile just grew substantially.
The purchase of Tumblr is not about Yahoo’s need for a blogging platform it is about Yahoo’s need to get more actively involved in the data game. Other’s have already written about Yahoo’s risk in purchasing Tumblr – as young users are always somewhat fickle in their platform choices – but should many of Tumblr’s users up and leave the site after the merger much of their information will be left behind, already incorporated into the algorithms of Yahoo. Indeed, Yahoo is taking a longer view of the current situation. Yahoo knows that people can walk away from a given service, but they leave their footprints behind. And if those footprints inform Yahoo of your shoe size well now Yahoo knows that and can send you proper offers, or perhaps your footprints reveal you walk with a limp well now Yahoo can send you information about a podiatrist or let your health insurer know (you went for a premium hike!).
To fully appreciate this acquisition it is also important to view it not within the context of desperate-to-be-relevant-again-Yahoo but within the larger context of the companies that have been dividing up the Internet and associated fiefdoms. Increasingly a relatively small handful of companies (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Yahoo, Microsoft [and some others]) control quite an outsized portion of what happens online, how people reach what happens online, how people get online, and control the tracking of the information gathered online. Google, Amazon, Facebook, etc…are all competing with each other to have the most information about you and they have been fighting proxy skirmishes across the web and the world of technology for an edge. Yahoo had increasingly been pushed out of the group of major competitors, and in order to reassert dominance (or to demonstrate that they’re still in the fight) actions needed to be taken to reclaim some territory.
While it is true (at least according to the press release) that Tumblr will remain relatively independent, this is independence in the same vein as that enjoyed by Instagram after it was purchased by Facebook. The company will keep doing what it was doing before but now it will funnel all of its users’ information back to Big Brother, I mean, the bigger company. Despite what some may think, most of these large companies are surprisingly savvy and recognize that it may backfire on them if they overplay their brand, thus it is much simpler to buy a new popular company (Tumblr, Instagram) keep it looking as it did before, pour all of that information into the larger entity that now owns it, and hope that after the initial hoopla that everybody forgets who really owns a given service.
For further examples of this consider Zappos an online retailer now owned by online retailer Amazon…but for many consumers it may seem different from Amazon; or YouTube owned and controlled by Google…but it still provides some frail image of independence from Google; or take the physical world example of Seattle’s Best Coffee which is now owned and operated by…Starbucks. Such acquisitions are an easy way for a corporation to increase their control while providing the public with the illusion that they have options.
This question of options is an important one when it comes to the Internet as many an upstart social network or shopping site may owe some of its initial success to those who have made an active decision to move away from an older platform (be it for ethical reasons or in pursuit of something “cooler”). If a person creates a profile on Platform D because they’ve grown frustrated with Platform A and then Platform B buys Platform D, what has really been achieved? Especially if Platform B is no less objectionable than Platform A. Granted, many people may not particularly care that the platform they use has been purchased; however, when platforms are bought and sold by larger companies it removes much (if any) weight that might have existed in users “choosing with their feet.” Indeed its an amusing sort of scenario if a user group grows tired of a platform, chooses to move to a different service, and then finds that this service has been bought. Yahoo has done a poor job of attracting users, and instead of trying to figure out how to attract users, they’ve realized it’s easier to just buy another company.
All of which brings us back to the earlier point: this really isn’t about Tumblr, it’s about you, even if you aren’t a Tumblr user (after all, you’ve probably visited a Tumblr site before). And this is also why it is somewhat inaccurate to say that the Tumblr buy was about “Youths” instead of “Yous”. There is precious little content to be found on Tumblr without users (and the same can certainly be said of Facebook or YouTube [or WordPress]), the default setting of these services is to provide easy tools which users can utilize to upload information of their own and thereby create all of the content which then makes these sites valuable. Companies are fighting for ownership of the flow of information, and every bit of information that is not feeding to a particular company is a piece of information that could be sucked up by a competitor, and thus every opportunity for consolidation must at least be considered (recall Amazon’s recent purchase of GoodReads).
Once companies move in and purchase a platform a user’s ability to protest is effectively quite low. If tomorrow, half of Tumblr’s users leave the site, Yahoo will still own the trove of information they leave behind; and wherever those users choose to plant their flag next may eventually be purchased once its user base reaches a suitable mass. Some of the frustration that is expressed by users when their beloved platform is sold seems to evince a certain feeling of betrayal – not because they won’t receive any of the money – but from a sense that they put their trust in a given platform…and now that platform is acting just like all of those other crappy platforms. You can call it web 2.0 or the mobile web or web 3.0 or whatever you like, but the best descriptor remains “capitalism.” Regardless of a smiling young CEO or a vaguely “geek cool” designer, bromides about free information and the open Internet turn into little more than the high fiving bro-isms of the free market.
While it is not necessarily wrong to read into Tumblr’s purchase a story about an older media company buying a newer one for access to a younger demographic, this explanation serves as too convenient and amusing (“promise not to screw it up”) a narrative, one that masks the more concerning aspects of what is truly at work. When we treat Yahoo’s buy as a desperate attempt by Yahoo to sit with “the cool kids” it hides the other narrative, a clearer, and less amusing tale at that: Yahoo is just going after data. Lots of it. And regulators did little.
Lost in all of this, naturally, are the wishes of users. Of course, Tumblr had no real obligation to its user base in this regard. Some may say it had a moral obligation, but people have moral obligations not corporations. The same is true of community obligations. Tumblr’s only obligation was to capital, and it did right by that. And yes, the commitment to capital always trumps the commitment to protecting users’ privacy. Tumblr did not need to consult its users about whether or not it should sell, it did not need to consult its users about what the terms of the sale should be, it did not need to give its users a chance to exit the service (along with all [ALL] of their data) before the sale. No, Tumblr needed users to make the site valuable, but once the users did this, the users were just there to be sold off to the highest bidder. Which was Yahoo in this case.
Yahoo’s purchase of Tumblr is not about an old company buying young users, it’s about an entrenched telecom strengthening its position by buying more personal data about a broad user base. Indeed it is here that all of the silliness about Tumblr and pornography reveals itself in its full absurdity. Yahoo doesn’t care that Tumblr is filled with pornography, it probably loves the fact (even if it doesn’t want to come out and say it); after all, this means that Yahoo has just accumulated a heck of a lot of information about people’s sexual preferences. Which is perhaps the type of data about themselves that some people would prefer a giant company like Yahoo doesn’t know. But now this is just another easy data point mixed in with the rest of the “big data.” And as we know about “big data” (again, more on that here) it doesn’t take much to turn those anonymous details into a far more pointed picture, and now preferences of a – shall we say, more private variety – are in the mix as well. Now Yahoo knows you like cat gifs, inspirational quotes, pictures of antique furniture, and [Insert something sexual that makes you blush].
The story of Yahoo buying Tumblr is a story of monopoly and consolidation. A tale of more information and more areas of the web, being concentrated in the digital clutches of fewer and fewer companies. It is the carving up of the digital range into counties that are carefully watched over at all times by paid off sheriffs (Tumblr) in the employ of dubious corporate interests (Yahoo). And wherever you choose to ride to, will also be controlled.
Does Yahoo want younger users? Sure. But what Yahoo really wants is for Yahoo to increase in power and wealth, and it is going to go about doing that in whatever way best serves its interests. As long as such consolidations are viewed in the humorous context of an old property desperately trying to seem cool, we fail to see the evidence of an increasing monopolization of the digital realm, and we fail to see the ever growing trove of “big data” that is being gathered on us, in many cases by companies that we did not foresee would have access to that data. When you entrusted your data, some of your privacy, to Tumblr, did you envision that it would become the property of Yahoo? Might you have acted differently had you known this?
At a time when it is still somewhat popular to discuss firms that are “too big to fail” perhaps it is time to turn this attention to telecom enterprises that are becoming awfully big. Perhaps instead of Yahoo buying Tumblr, or Facebook buying Instagram, or Google controlling everything, steps need to be taken to reverse this process. To break up these monopolies instead of giving them a pass as they further entrench themselves and begin to know more about us than we may know about ourselves. When purchases such as the acquisition of Tumblr by Yahoo occurs it helps construct edifice that (as Google’s Eric Schmidt knows) can all too easily be used for quite unsavory and unsafe purposes.
Tumblr users created many an amusing blog filled with all manner of content, but this content was simply the jester distracting us from the informational grab that was less a punch line and more a punch to the throat. Like a good tummler, Tumblr got the audience up on stage with them, and though we’ve had a grand old time laughing, and had plenty of opportunities to blush profusely, it is time for our vacation to stop and for us to realize that the jokes on us.
Otherwise we’re the real yahoos.
This Post Cites the Following Book:
Rostein, Leo. The Joys of Yiddish. Pocket Book, 1970.