Tumblr for diplomats

Why is the social media platform not popular with the foreign policy community?

Andreas Sandre
May 22, 2017 · 11 min read

Tumblr might no longer be the trendy social media platform that it was when Texts From Hillary become viral with photos of then US Secretary Hillary Clinton, or when former US President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign chose it to innovate and explore more tools in the social media sphere.

Texts From Hillary remains quite unique in its nature and scope, winning not only as Best Tumblr at the 2013 Shorty Awards, but also the stamp of approval of none other than Hillary Clinton, who dedicated her first ever post on Twitter to the two creators of the Tumblr, Adam Smith and Stacy Lambe.

But wait…

The hype around Tumblr might have dissipated a bit, especially on mainstream media, but the numbers have kept growing to a total of almost 150 billion posts and around 350 billion blogs since its launch in 2007. According to Statista, the social networking site has grown almost 2,000% since May 2011 when it hosted 17.5 billion posts.

“Tumblr claims it now reaches 600 million people, which is double the number it reached at the time of the Yahoo! acquisition,” Campaign reported in 2016.

“More than 80% of users access Tumblr via mobile devices as well and daily active users have grown 34% year over year.”

To target mobile users, Tumblr recently launched Cabana, a new app dedicated entirely to video chatting and watching videos together with other users while chatting.

“In Cabana, we try to blend the experience of hanging out and watching,” said Jason Lee of Yahoo!’s internal incubator Polyvore Labs, which worked with Tumblr to develop the app. “We keep your face front-and-center along with the video. Instead of focusing on text-based on emoji-based conversations, we give you friends’ full face and range of emotions…we think that’s pretty unique and differentiating feature that allows you to really recreate the experience of being together while you’re apart.”

Mashable commented: “It’s clear that there’s room for something in this vague space of video chat and video streaming, but less clear that Tumblr is the right company to take it on.”

What is clear is that with Cabana, Tumblr is trying not only to conquer the online video market but in doing so also to leverage the unicity of its distinctive user base.

In addition, while Tumblr is a US-only company in terms of operations — unlike other competitors with offices around the globe — only 30% of the site’s traffic is from the US, making international markets a huge opportunity of growth for both the company and its users. Among Tumblr’s top countries are Brazil, Japan, Turkey, and Russia, with users posting in 13 languages.

The reason of its strong popularity?

Tumblr helps people form powerful connections to other users and individuals with similar life experiences.

As Lambe, one of the brains behind Texts From Hillary, told Mashable: “I met my first boyfriend — after coming out — through a group of Tumblr gays that I eventually met in real life.”

Those same personal connections and unique experiences are still the driving force behind Tumblr.

But today, videos and images thrive more than anything else on the site with 77% of its users uploading and sharing videos on the platform, according to data by the GlobalWebIndex. Of Tumblr’s users, 99% have shown interest in online videos, while 66% have watched a vlog.

In June last year, Tumblr announced its live feature, allowing users to broadcast directly into their followers’ dashboards.

“We trust you all to be beautiful, weird, compelling, and just generally Tumblr about this whole thing,” Tumblr’s announcement reads.

The novelty is not in the live feature per se, but rather in how it works. The company didn’t develop its own streaming platform — like other social networks have done — but it integrated existing solutions.

“Tumblr’s current set of partners gives users plenty of options to choose from, and strikes smart balance between ubiquity (YouTube) and niche features (everything else),” The Next Web reports, highlighting .

“It also makes Tumblr pretty much the only major social network you can go to find livestreams from a variety of apps, instead of just on Facebook or Twitter.”

In terms of audience, during the years, its demographics have not changed much.

Like Instagram and Snapchat, Tumblr skews young.

“With 23% of teenage girl internet users on Tumblr, and an estimated 50% of Tumblr’s users under the age of 34, it’s easy to deride Tumblr as a hub of immaturity,” The Establishment writes.

“But the youth of Tumblr allows for experimentation. Delving into Tumblr’s tags and communities can often feel like a little kid lifting a rock to reveal the grubs squirming underneath — fascinating, kind of gross, somehow sweet before our adult instincts of revulsion kick in.”

Tumblr’s audience not only is young, but it stands out in terms of time spent on the platform, devoting an average of more than 3 hours a day on social networks.

Because of its demographics, Tumblr has been very popular in American politics.

So much so that the company has released data on the most popular politicians on the site in their 2015 Year In Review, ranked by the amount of reblogs. Not surprisingly, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton topped the list. But Russian President Vladimir Putin and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — together with a handful of former western Prime Ministers — made the top 15. Not all of them have necessarily established a presence on the blogging site: only the Obama White House and the Sanders campaign had a verified official Tumblr.

No data are however available after the 2015 Year in Review.

It’s interesting to notice that foreign policy is quite a popular theme on Tumblr.

In fact, if we look at 2015, the site’s 2015 Year in Review also shows that topics like terrorism and refugees have been discussed as frequently as the elections in the US, Australia, and the UK, as well as issues like immigration, equality, celebrities, pop culture, and more.

The company states: “We spent several weeks sorting through hundreds of lists pulled by a program that showed us the cold, hard numbers on the millions of different Tumblrs with billions of posts and quadrillions of notes on them. We analyzed web traffic, follower growth, and so much more.”

Back in 2014, the White House hosted Obama’s first Tumblr Q&A, moderated by the platform co-founder David Karp.

“We’re constantly looking for new ways to reach audiences that are relevant to the things we’re talking about,” Obama stated. “And obviously young people disproportionately use Tumblr.”

Political elections are also a key priority. In June 2016, Tumblr launched a social impact campaign “with a series of initiatives meant to engage and educate users on how to take action on issues surrounding the 2016 presidential election,” as reported by Digital Trends.

But again, because of the unicity of Tumblr’s users, it’s harder for traditional media and traditional campaigns to reach them.

“They’re quite hard to reach through traditional media,” Liba Rubenstein, senior VP of social impact at Twenty-First Century Fox and former director of social impact and public policy at Tumblr, told Business Insider during the voter registration campaign ahead of the presidential election of last year. “We have an audience that is really engaged on issues, but, again, kind of hard to reach.”

The social media site also announced “media partnerships and collaborations with a number of advocacy and nonprofit organizations” to provide insights into topics from women’s rights to climate change.

“We want our community to develop a true understanding of these increasingly significant issues, develop their own educated opinions and be motivated to exercise their right to vote on Election Day,” Victoria McCullough, Tumblr’s social impact and public policy manager, told Digital Trends.

Just like for other platforms, the key is to taylor your content.

“You wouldn’t use Twitter for long-form content,” Simon Harari, Tumblr public policy and social impact analyst, said at a digital diplomacy panel discussion at the Embassy of Italy in Washington DC.

“On Tumblr we specialize on content that is not quite ephemeral,” Harari said. “Roughly 60% of the engagement we have with content, in general, happens a month after the initial post. Quality is the key to get engagement on Tumblr, […] rather than a constant flow of information.”

The company itself has been very active in the aftermath of the presidential election in the US.

“We have a very woke crowd on Tumblr,” McCullough told Mashable about the launch of Action on Tumblr, a hub to elevate marginalized voices, educate users on timely political and social issues, and provide resources that can lead to real impact — online and off. “We saw a lot of activity in that community over the election, and have since we’ve been around. What we wanted with Action was to try to add a little more volume to that conversation by creating a space.”

Mashable explains that “for Tumblr, where movements like #BlackOutDay and Black Lives Matter began, it was important to build a home for information, education and mobilization after the election.”

In terms of Tumblr as a tool for public and digital diplomacy, a look at the use of Tumblr by the U.S. Department of State, which is quite active on the platform, shows a keen interest mostly in infographics and videos, but uses less GIFs, or animated GIF images, then the previous administration, moving opposite any trend on Tumblr.

From the State Department Tumblr page (April-May 2017)

“Bloggers and meme-fanatics alike will admit that very few things can convey emotion like an animated GIF, and with almost 23 million GIFs posted to Tumblr everyday, it’s needless to say that the internet has become obsessed with the file format,” Forbes reports.

In 2015, the Office of Citizen Services and Innovative Technologies (OCSIT) in the Technology Transformation Service of the US General Services Administration, tasked with helping agencies build a 21st century digital government, hosted a seminar on how to use GIFs, not necessarily just for Tumblr. During the seminar, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence provided a few interesting insights on why GIFs can be key in the storytelling process: contextualize a quote or event; condense information, time, or process; create a narrative; portray a juxtaposition.

“It’s a Renaissance,” Rubenstein said back in 2013, highlighting the role of GIFs in the 2012 US presidential election and the many GIFs-centered initiatives, including live-GIFfing the presidential debates, that the platform has developed since.

“It’s unique to this cultural moment […] and plugs perfectly in to a lot of the trends that we are seeing. […] It has become a tool for storytelling by journalists, by political campaigns, and by non-profits and campaigners of all types. It has been called the ‘modern political cartoon’ but you can also think of it as the modern political soundbite.”

While Tumblr was the first social media tool to popularized GIFs, many followed in embracing its power — even if much later — including Twitter and Facebook.

Because GIFs have become such a key feature for Tumblr and its users, in May 2016, the platform introduced two GIFs-related updates for its IOS app: the first allows the user to add GIFs with a ad hoc button; the second is to overlay a text on top of GIFs.

But the use of Tumblr from the diplomatic community goes beyond GIFs.

For example, the United Nations Department of Political Affairs, active on the site since November 2014, posts a mix of content, including its “Week in Review” blog series, which they run until November last year.

And the United Nations Secretariat is extremely diligent and creative when it comes to Tumblr, with an extensive use of GIFs, videos, and posts that are able to attract young audiences and outreach with ad hoc content.

From the United Nations Tumblr page (April-May 2017)

“Tumblr is a particularly democratic platform when it comes to content,” Rubenstein explained in 2015 during the first-ever UN Social Media Day.

“Ultimately, it is about content itself. […] We’re a multimedia platform that doesn’t have the creative constraints of some of the other platforms. It’s really a receptacle of all types of media and content. Because we’re not attached to real identity and because we are a multimedia platform, Tumblr is a place where creators thrives but it’s not necessarily the place where you see the same celebrities and traditional influencers that you see in the news.”

Rubenstein pointed out that there’s a lot that traditional institutions like governments and non-governmental organizations can learn from organic Tumblr celebrities, who really understand the platform, its uniqueness, its authenticity and fun aspect that are the true language of Tumblr.

“Those are users that have become democratically, organically popular because their content is great and engaging,” she said to explain the concept behind the Creatrs program, a new initiative to empower emerging creatives and inspire users.

The program connects power users, campaign, causes, and brands. It is a way to help all kinds of organizations create content that can compete in today’s crowded space, even when t comes to social impact and public diplomacy.

In 2016, the White House and Civic Nation, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that uses organizing, engagement, and public awareness to address some of the nation’s most pressing challenges, partnered with Tumblr Creatrs for their #StateOfWomen Summit.

The result is a series of very immersive and engaging posts used to better their outreach.

The Tumblr is still active and offers a ton of inspiration!

Digital Diplomacy

Technology, digital, and innovation in government and foreign policy

Andreas Sandre

Written by

Comms + policy. Author of #digitaldiplomacy (2015), Twitter for Diplomats (2013). My views here.

Digital Diplomacy

Technology, digital, and innovation in government and foreign policy

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade