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Tumblr's CEO on the future of social, remote work and learning from TikTok

Jeff D'Onofrio joins us on the Source Code podcast.

Tumblr selections

Tumblr's plan is the same as ever: to be the internet's best canvas for all creative work.

Photo: Tumblr

Jeff D'Onofrio has been at Tumblr for seven years. But that's long enough to have experienced several corporate lifetimes.

D'Onofrio, who's been CEO since 2018, witnessed the $1.1 billion acquisition by Yahoo, the company being swallowed by Verizon Media, and most recently its sale to Automattic, reportedly for less than $3 million.

Along the way there have been an uncountable number of twists and turns in the social landscape. Questions of safety versus freedom, free speech versus moderation, and how a bunch of people on a website could upend the democratic process; they all challenge Tumblr as much as they do Twitter, TikTok or Facebook.

One thing that hasn't changed, D'Onofrio said? Tumblr's plan to be an "infinitely expandable" creative canvas where people can post, share and discuss virtually anything they can think of. More than a decade after the company started, he said, that vision hasn't changed. And he's convinced nobody does it better than Tumblr.

Jeff joined the Source Code Podcast this week to talk about all that, and why he wants Tumblr creators to make money directly through their Tumblr.

Below are excerpts from the interview, condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Before we get into Tumblr stuff, I'm curious what you're seeing this week, looking at this New York Post / Biden / Facebook / Twitter thing. What do you make of what those companies are doing?

Look, these are tricky situations for everybody. And, you know, how we approach them really is deterministic on what our values are and things like that. And we look at things like inciting violence and hate speech and all those kinds of things. We take very clear direct stances against stuff like that. The lens that we look through is really one of, "Hey, is this going to be harmful for our community," right? That's what drives everything that we do. We've got an amazing trust and safety team that looks after everything that we do through that lens.

And if we find ourselves in a situation where that content is on the platform that puts our community at risk, puts the integrity of the platform at risk, we'll take the appropriate action. I don't want to get into critiquing how other platforms are doing this. They may have different sets of values and different lenses with which they look at things. I just know how we feel about certain situations, and the lenses that we apply to specific situations.

Is it different to say your responsibility is to do what's right for your community versus to do what's right for, like, the world? Is it useful in your position to spend time thinking about what this means for the broader universe?

Yeah, and let me give you an illustrative example. When we were looking in particular at what was going on, for instance, in Charlottesville a few years ago, we decided at that point that it was time for us to take more aggressive action on things like hate speech. The powder keg that was developing around political situations, rhetoric and everything else led us to the conclusion at that time that we needed to do more.

But I remember having this conversation with our team, because there were folks that were obviously really exercised about what was happening in the world, our place in it and what they thought we needed to be doing. And one of the things that I said to them at the time was, "Look, we have to look at the entire spectrum of hate speech." It can't be just far right, or it's just this or that. There are lunatic fringes, if you will, on both sides of the political spectrum. You know, you learn this in like, high school civics class, right? So we can't take an approach where it's, well, all right-wing hate speech is bad but ultra left-wing hate speech isn't bad. That's not the lens you have to use.

Is it hateful against particular groups? Is it inciting violence? Is it racist rhetoric? We spent a lot of time making sure that when we were developing this policy, and how we would adjudicate this policy, that we were looking through a fair and balanced lens the whole time. And I think we've done it pretty well. There are always gray areas — in particular here there are gray areas — and you have to carefully investigate the content and people's intent. The consistent application of the policies is critically important, because you open yourself up to situations where you get into trouble if you're not consistently applying them.

Let's talk about Tumblr more broadly here. What's it like going from a company like Yahoo to a company like Automattic? I was reading an interview Matt did a year or so ago talking about the machinations but I'm curious about your perspective inside. What's that transition like?

When we got approval [from Verizon Media] to sell, I remember calling David [Karp] and saying, "Hey, you know, confidentially, we're gonna be selling Tumblr. Who should I have near the top of my list?" He rattled off a couple names. And then he said: "You know what, just called Matt Mullenweg over at Automattic." And it turns out, obviously, he won the deal. But there was a reason that he mentioned Matt: Matt and David are both just incredible visionaries. So to have the opportunity to work alongside David, for as long as I did, and now be part of Matt's team? I couldn't be luckier.

On the business side of things, if you rewind and go back in time to when I first started, we were really in the throes of launching a completely new, truly native advertising business at that time. We hired a purpose-built direct sales team with a CMO and CRO, and built 10 new native ad products. Our exit run rate that year was like, 6-7x where we were the prior year in terms of revenue, so we felt like we were about to kind of blow the top off of this thing.

Through organizational changes and consolidations of sales teams, we got away from that. And it hurt our business. But I remember showing the trajectory of growth in that business to Matt, and saying, look, we have an opportunity to do this, we just haven't been able to execute against it for a few years now. And he said, do you think you can rebuild that? And I said, of course, it just requires the right people, a little bit of investment. And we have that.

That brings up one of the things I think is super interesting about Tumblr, which is that the world has come around to Tumblr in a really interesting way. All of the things that you and David were talking about years ago — ease of posting and multimedia and sharing and virality — are just how the internet works now, right? When you take stock of this stuff, do you just say, "OK, we've been right about this all along, we just haven't been able to execute the way that we want?" Or is there a moment where it's like, "OK, we have to rethink what Tumblr is going forward."

I don't think we have to rethink what Tumblr is. What I've been kind of preaching to my team, the last several months now that we're with Automattic, is something called founding principles. And I keep saying, and they're probably sick of me saying that, but that's OK.

That's what the CEO does. You have to have at least one thing that you say until everybody's tired of it.

I'm sure there are plenty of things I say that they don't want to hear. Or they get tired of me saying. But all joking aside: founding principles. It's something I want us getting back to in a bigger, better way. And when you go through what we've gone through, sometimes it's easy to forget about what they are. People push you in different directions, tell you you should be one thing or another, and sometimes you lose sight of those things.

If you go back and listen to or watch recordings of Karp, back when he was talking about why he set this thing up, they're still true today. And they're still differentiators. And when you think about and talk about the creative canvas that artists and creators have to play with here, our mission really is to make sure that that creative canvas is infinitely expandable. You're not limited to a particular number of characters, there's not like a predetermined-sized box that some engineers determine you have to squeeze your work into. We want that canvas to be as expandable as your imagination.

That goes to how you post: you can mix and match media types, you can intersperse text in between all this stuff, you can arrange the content inside of your posts however you want. So I want us expanding on that. Same thing with your Tumblog. You can customize it. We want to expand things like that. We want to look at opportunities on video where we need to get better and provide better tools, better discovery, better opportunities for folks in the Gen Z category, where video is really the language of expression. So we want to do more of that. We want to keep stretching, stretching, stretching as much as we can.

Are there new things you're adding or looking at adding to be part of that canvas?

I think obvious ones are things like AR, and we've had some explorations of that. It's probably something down the road we'll do more with. That's the most logical one. The other obvious medium here, and the one that we're participating in right now, is podcasts. So that's really intriguing to me: figuring out how we do it in a way that works incredibly well. But again, it's the ability to accept any kind of digital media. So we have our eyes open constantly for that stuff.

And what's your pitch to advertisers now? Obviously, nobody is short of ways to reach young people on the internet. What's your pitch?

It's not too dissimilar to what it was in, in the time when we first launched our advertising offerings. This creative canvas that we have here is a great place to show off your work, to show off your creative, put it in front of a younger audience that appreciates good creative and is going to have some affinity to your brand.

I think one of the surprising things here is that 48% of our audience is Gen Z. And the majority of our new registrations, 60% of them, are Gen Z. So it's a younger, highly engaged, active audience that cares about good creative, and will respond to brands that put that stuff forward. And that's our pitch.

We're back out there now after kind of being on hiatus for a while, relying on ad networks and some programmatic. As we're having these direct conversations with agencies and brands, it's really resonating and breaking through and we're excited about it. This is where we've wanted to play for quite a while now.

What else does it look like to execute better and differently now? You're both part of a new kind of company, but also operating more independently than maybe you were before. What does that look like in practice, what's changed about how you run the business?

I think the biggest thing is that we have some more freedom to operate. Matt's very much about, "Let's agree on what this looks like, what's the plan, and it's your plan and go and do it and we're here to help." And the help is, as I said before, amazing. The other thing is, and the pandemic has accelerated all of this, we're learning how to operate in a distributed environment. And Automattic has been doing this from essentially the beginning of time.

I was just going to say, Matt would be thrilled to hear you saying that.

Yeah, he's a pioneer. Matt and Automattic have refined this operating environment over time. It's very effective. So, internally, we have a tool that I think has been recently released externally, in this open source kind of framework, called P2. It's a WordPress theme where teams will write a post about the work that they're engaged with right now. Our one-year anniversary [since the acquisition] was the end of September, and over the last year, we've gotten an education on how to do that. And it's a very effective tool, so the need for meetings and face-to-face conversations isn't as great. I can spend more of my time, for instance, on strategy,

OK, before I let you go, fast-forward two years from now. What's something you think will be different about either Tumblr or its place in the world?

I'd really love to have the opportunity for artists and creators to make a living off of their work here on our platform. It's a good goal for us to have, because we've had so many people here create careers off of their work. And it'd be great if we could enable more of that.

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