Automattic Acquires Tumblr, Plans to Rebuild the Backend Powered by WordPress

Automattic has acquired Tumblr, a long-time friendly rival company, for an undisclosed sum. Just six years after Yahoo acquired Tumblr for $1.1 billion, the company is said to have been acquired for “a nominal amount” from Verizon, who indirectly acquired Tumblr when it bought Yahoo in 2017.

Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg declined to comment on the financial deals of the acquisition, but a source familiar to Axios puts the deal “well south of $20 million.”

Tumblr is Automattic’s biggest acquisition yet in terms of product users and employees gained. The microblogging and social networking website currently hosts 475.1 million blogs, for which Automattic will now assume operating costs. All 200 of Tumblr’s employees will be moving over to Automattic, bringing the company’s total employee count over 1,000.

Mullenweg took to the Post Status community Slack channel for an impromptu Q&A this afternoon where he discussed more of Automattic’s plans for Tumblr. He outlined a brief roadmap for Tumblr’s future that includes re-architecting its backend with WordPress:

  1. Move infrastructure off Verizon
  2. Support same APIs on both WP.com and Tumblr
  3. Switch backend to be WP
  4. Open source Tumblr.com client similar to Calypso

“WordPress is an open source web operating system that can power pretty much anything, including Tumblr.com, but it’s also a large property so will take a bit to figure out and migrate,” Mullenweg said.

Automattic doesn’t currently have plans to change the frontend Tumblr experience. Mullenweg said the Tumblr mobile app gets 20x more daily signups than the WordPress app. “It’s working amazingly well, despite being fairly constrained in what they can launch the past few years,” he said.

Tumblr changed its adult content policy in December 2018, banning pornographic content which reportedly accounted for 22.37 percent of incoming referral traffic from external sites in 2013 when it was acquired by Yahoo. Automattic has a similar content policy in place for WordPress.com and Mullenweg confirmed that the company does not plan to lift the ban on adult content.

“Adult content is not our forte either, and it creates a huge number of potential issues with app stores, payment providers, trust and safety… it’s a problem area best suited for companies fully dedicated to creating a great experience there,” Mullenweg said in response to questions on Hacker News. “I personally have very liberal views on these things, but supporting adult content as a business is very different.”

Automattic’s Tumblr Acquisition Opens Up New Possibilities for E-Commerce, Plugins, and Themes

Beyond this initial roadmap Mullenweg outlined, he also said he thinks “e-commerce on Tumblr is a great idea,” with simpler features developed first. In the past, Tumblr users who wanted to add e-commerce to their sites would need to use a service like Shopify or Ecwid and generate a Tumblr-compatible widget. Users would have to move to a self-hosted site on another platform in order to get more full-featured e-commerce capabilities. Automattic has the ability to build e-commerce into the platform using WooCommerce or any number of other existing solutions for simpler sales features.

An emerging Tumblr/WordPress plugin and theme ecosystem is also a possibility but may not affect the wider WordPress ecosystem as much unless Automattic opens up the Tumblr marketplace to third-party developers. Mullenweg said once Tumblr’s backend is on WordPress, the idea of plugins can be explored. Whether that is on a private network, like WordPress.com, or a new breed of self-hosted Tumblr sites, is yet to be seen.

Automattic’s apparent bargain basement deal on Tumblr is good news for the preservation of the open web, as the company is committed to supporting independent publishing. Migrating Tumblr’s infrastructure to WordPress also expands WordPress’ market share with a significantly younger user base. A study conducted by We Are Flint in 2018 found 43 percent of internet users between the ages of 18 to 24 years old used Tumblr.

Tumblr’s primary demographic thrives on community and its current feature set is built to support that. If Automattic can preserve Tumblr’s distinct community and convenient publishing, while invisibly re-architecting it to use WordPress, users could potentially enjoy seamless transitions across platforms to suit their publishing needs. This improves the likelihood that this generation of internet users will continue to own their own content instead of tossing it away on social media silos that feed on users’ most important thoughts, writings, and memories.

“I’m very excited about Tumblr’s next chapter and looking forward working with Matt Mullenweg and the entire team at Automattic,” Tumblr CEO Jeff D’Onofrio said. “I’m most excited for what this means for the entire Tumblr community. There is much more to do to make your experience a better one, and I’m super confident that we are in great hands with this news. Tumblr and WordPress share common founding principles. The plane has landed on a friendly runway. Now it is time to freshen up the jets.”

In the announcement on his Tumblr blog, Mullenweg said he sees “some good opportunities to standardize on the Open Source WordPress tech stack.” This migration will undoubtedly be a formidable technical challenge and Mullenweg promised to document the team’s work after it is complete. In the meantime, the Tumblr team has new functionality they plan to introduce after the acquisition is officially closed.

“When the possibility to join forces became concrete, it felt like a once-in-a-generation opportunity to have two beloved platforms work alongside each other to build a better, more open, more inclusive – and, frankly, more fun web,” Mullenweg said. “I knew we had to do it.”