Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Yahoo wants Tumblr's teens

By Douglas Rushkoff, Special to CNN
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Tue May 21, 2013
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
updated 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT