Karp showed up late and wearing a blue button-down shirt that billowed in the places where other men might have arm muscles. The enormous features that read so well in photos looked cartoonish in person: Chiclet teeth, rubbery grin, duck-feathery hair. Flustered, he apologized for his lateness and sat; a waiter immediately appeared with a latte, which Karp frowned at. He doesn’t drink coffee these days. “It’s way too spiky for me,” he said. “It was screwing up my sleep. I was exhausted in the afternoon. And when I did have coffee, I’d have to run around the block a few times to wear it off.” The jumpy metabolism is a product of spending hours on the computer as a kid, when he taught himself the skills that would get him hired as CTO of a site called UrbanBaby at age 16. “It’s just hacker culture. If you grew up as an insomniac coding all the time, it’s hard to get on a good eating schedule.” Karp is six-foot-one, 145 pounds. “Rachel, my girlfriend, if she’s an hour behind on having dinner, she’s bouncing off the walls, grumpy, needs food. I don’t need any meal.”
Karp has been something of a New York microcelebrity since 2008, when Gawker began reporting on his dating activities, net worth, and habit of cuddling with male friends (there was even a term for this species of renown: Internet fameball). Since the Yahoo acquisition—the biggest venture-backed exit of a New York company in the city’s history and one that left its founder worth around $200 million—Karp has notched up into a different kind of notoriety, posting selfies with the musician Grimes, posing for photos with Heidi Klum, partying in Cannes with Sean Combs (New York Post headline: NIGHT WAS A BLR) and blogging “I think I’m friends with Spike Lee now.” He has appeared on Charlie Rose, The Colbert Report, and Good Morning America, greeting fame the way he greets everyone, which is politely and wearing a tight sweatshirt-shaped armor of affability. This includes the editor of Fortune, who interceded at breakfast to introduce himself:
EDITOR: “I’m sorry to interrupt. Love to catch up with you at some point. I don’t want to interrupt.”
KARP: “Oh, pleasure to meet you! Love to! I really appreciate it. Thank you so much! Bye-bye!”
The interaction between dark-suited editor and smiley Karp looked less a power move than that of a bar mitzvah accepting congrats on his big day; you could see Karp applying himself, but he hasn’t quite grown out of his executive-puberty stage. When asked a question that bores him, his eyes go unreactive, and there’s a nearly audible shutdown noise as he disengages. Among the topics that bore him are cars (“I don’t like cars anymore”); Internet comments (“Gross”); his company’s colossally expensive infrastructure (“I have a very rudimentary understanding of how Tumblr actually works these days”); and management (“I’m not super-passionate about how we run the company”).
This final aversion is borne out by a stream of high-profile departures from Tumblr over the past couple years—including a president, two executive vice-presidents, a V.P. of engineering, and a V.P. of tech support—which has raised the question of whether Karp is actually capable of running the business he created. To be fair, most young people do not found start-ups because they are passionate about management, and when conversation turns to a subject that interests Karp, his personality returns.
Among his latest obsessions are drones: “I’m obsessed with drones right now. I fly my drones all over Brooklyn. These things are amazing. These things are not regulated. I keep destroying them. I’ve had five of them.” He spoke rapidly as he ate, bouncing both feet and palpating a knee. “You get them from China, so they all come HK Post, which means that you have to wait for them for, like—you’re lucky if they come within two months. So I usually have a few on order at any given time. Here, I’ll show you.” He took out his iPhone and brought up a homemade video scored with trippy music. “See? The Domino Sugar Factory. Flying. Water.” He brings a smaller drone—one with eight minutes of flight time and “a decent range”—to the office for indoor use. “I can have it over on the other side of the office, bothering people while I’m at my desk. Usually I send it straight over my lawyer’s head.” It is, Karp said, “really pretty frickin’ cool.” He worries they’ll be regulated soon.
Tumblr’s appeal can be summed up in one word, which is “easy.” If you traveled back in time to 1996 and took a grandmother whose understanding of the web was AOL and wormholed her to 2013, she’d be able to create a Tumblr blog in less than three minutes with no direction. The site’s posting icons are big, the fonts are big, everything is big: The whole thesis is that there’s no fine print and no learning curve. Generating new blogs is so easy that Tumblr limits the number that users are allowed to create in a single day. (The limit is ten.)