Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Yahoo wants Tumblr's teens

By Douglas Rushkoff, Special to CNN
May 21, 2013 -- Updated 1621 GMT (0021 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Douglas Rushkoff: Web giant Yahoo bought Tumblr for $1 billion to attract young people
  • He says kids use mobile Web far more than desktop that requires heavier engagement
  • Now that it's been swallowed, Tumblr risks turning uncool, he says
  • Rushkoff: Kids' tweets about end of an era show challenge of being bought by Yahoo

Editor's note: Douglas Rushkoff writes a regular column for CNN.com. He is a media theorist and the author of the new book "Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now."

(CNN) -- So why would Yahoo -- the original king of Internet discussion groups -- pay over $1 billion for a simple little blog-publishing tool like Tumblr? Doesn't the giant Web company have the ability to create its own application that lets people post words and pictures online? Of course it does.

No, Yahoo isn't buying a technology company so much as the community that uses it. It paid a billion bucks for Tumblr for the very same reason that Facebook paid a billion dollars last year for web-sharing app Instagram: for the kids.

That's right, the net's biggest corporations are willing to pay through the nose to acquire teenagers -- that coveted yet slippery demographic for whom the Web is a tired old workplace, Facebook is their parents' (or grandparents') social network, and Yahoo has something to do with stock quotes and sports scores. A new generation of apps and networks -- from Tumblr and Instagram to Snapchat and Pinterest -- has emerged alongside this new generation of users, and if traditional companies can't beat them, they may as well buy them.

Douglas Rushkoff
Douglas Rushkoff

Teens and young 20-somethings have been drifting away from what over-30s people think of as the Internet for years now. The World Wide Web is flat, static, and largely dependent on desktop and laptop computers to work right. Younger people are much less likely to connect to the net -- or to each other -- through these cumbersome devices than they are to use smartphones.

The mobile Web, as it's called, works differently. It's navigated by thumb, through separate apps, and in shorthand. The big websites and search engines of yesteryear (well, at least yesterweek) -- like Yahoo, for example -- just weren't built for this kind of light engagement. They're meant for keyboards and mice, not swiping and txt shorthand.

Meanwhile, the corporations running big websites and social networks might seem like upstarts to older users, but to young people they are pre-existing conditions of the universe. Just as the Beatles might as well be Frank Sinatra, Facebook might as well be Microsoft or IBM. The big established networks just aren't cool. Mark Zuckerberg is already almost 30. Plus, his social network -- just like those of his peers at Google+ -- feels unnecessarily complex and requires a big commitment.

Everything one does in the adult social media world goes down on one's permanent record. The experience on a site like Facebook is so involved -- friends lists, updates, photo streams, timelines, advertisements -- from the teen perspective, it's a Whole Big Thing. Compare that to something like Instagram. You take a picture and it goes up and out. That's it. Or Snapchat: You take a picture and it goes to a friend, and then it disappears. How cool is that?

The less weighty and permanent and stickily complex a social networking experience, the less it feels like it's the province of marketers, too. Every keystroke, recommendation, follow, like and update is recorded and stored. Kids are becoming aware that the more involved the data footprint they create somewhere, the more it will be used against them by big data researchers looking to predict their future activities and then market to them the things they don't yet know they're about to desire. Which is just creepy.

This is why the real job of younger companies is to prove they are not your parents' social apps. That's why it becomes particularly challenging when a hip "young person's" social app is swallowed by a big, old, uncool Web company.

After Tumblr's base of young users found out about the sale, they went into a near state of panic. Many posted on Twitter and elsewhere how this represents the end of an era, and how they are now destined to move on to the next frontier.

For its part, Tumblr is working hard to prove it still has indie cool street cred. In his blog post responding to the angst around his "selling out," Tumblr founder David Karp sounded like a young Steve Jobs by insisting "how awesome this is." Then, as if to prove Tumblr is still cool enough to do naughty things even though it's now owned by a zillion-dollar corporate conglomerate, he signed his post, "F*** yeah."

Maybe that'll work, but it looks to me like Tumblr has gone from being cool to trying to sound cool. And we all know where that leads.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Douglas Rushkoff.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT