Why Marissa Mayer's Tumblr hip replacement won't work

I gotta like Yahoo’s move to get all young and hip by blowing a billion or so to pick up way-cool site Tumblr.

After all, Yahoo was the company with the yodeler and the fish; the company that bought an employee’s old International Harvester that he had shrink wrapped in Yahoo colors — just to be cool.

But that Yahoo was long gone even before the very cool option of working at home evaporated at the Internet pioneer.

There’s just one problem with Yahoo’s attempt at hip replacement: It’s not going to work.

You don’t get cool by buying cool. I know. I bought a hat.

OK, long story, but when my balding head was showing signs of being anything but young and hip, I decided I’d buy a snazzy hat to boost my cool cred while protecting my scalp from sunburn.

My high-school-age daughter, Riley, took one look at my charcoal grey straw fedora and fell on the floor laughing. Old dude. Young hat. Hilarious.

She then almost certainly started a Tumblr page (which I think is just called a Tumblr by those young enough to wear hip hats) called “My Dad’s Hat Sucks.”

Anyway, Yahoo might be making a hip hat mistake by going young with Tumblr. Sure, the site comes with a bushel of young consumers (they say about 100 million), who could pump energy and revenue into Yahoo’s sagging brand.

But sometimes dowdy people and dowdy companies just look silly trying to look young. OK, business isn’t a fashion show and there is more than simple appearances behind Yahoo’s billion-dollar acquisition.

Yahoo execs obviously think the purchase can help with their turn-around. I’d like it to. I’m fond of Yahoo, a nostalgic symbol of the good part of the dotcom boom. I think Marissa Mayer has done a terrific job, so far, in boosting the company’s fortunes.

But there are more ways for the Tumblr purchase to go wrong than to go right.

Remember Riley, the kid who fell down laughing at my hat? She lives on Tumblr — has for months, if not years. Of course she is worried that Yahoo will ruin Tumblr. Everybody is (link contains profanity).

Isn’t that what big, old companies do to young, hip companies?

I told Riley I wanted to get to know the service so I could see what all the fuss was about. Could she offer me some tips?

Tip No. 1: Don’t follow me Dad.

The young demographic that Yahoo covets is already bracing for a geriatric invasion of the sort that ruined Facebook for all the cool kids. And if it happens, you can bet that the youngsters that Yahoo wants will be out of there in a flash and on to the next thing some kid who didn’t even graduate from high school comes up with.

On the other hand, the Tumblr nation has something going for it. I did sign on to Tumblr and found it incomprehensible — a strange and mysterious land. Maybe parental units and such will just avoid the whole thing.

But of course, if the kids go and the old foggies never come, then there won’t be much left of Yahoo’s hot property, will there?

In any event, I’d like to thank Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer for raising the profile of Tumblr and ensuring that I know all sorts of things about the social site that I really wish I didn’t know.

For instance, now I find out that analysts say a “significant” portion of the material on Tumblr is “sordid.” Or as Brandon Bailey reported in the Mercury News:

“But some analysts noted that a significant subset of Tumblr’s audience uses the site to share pornography and other adult-oriented material that could make advertisers queasy. “

Put me down as not-an-advertiser, but also queasy. It’s a teachable moment, right?

Riley tells me that of course she’s aware there is pornography on Tumblr. Not her thing; she doesn’t go there. Though, she adds that she does occassionally “objectify men” on the site.

And I always thought that teachable moments were moments when the parent taught the kid something.

So time will tell on Tumblr, as is always the case with these things. I just hope that in the end Yahoo isn’t forced to pass the hat to pay for its mistake.

 

Mike Cassidy Mike Cassidy (173 Posts)

I write about the culture of Silicon Valley for the San Jose Mercury News.