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‘‘It Was the Biggest Game of Chicken I’ve Ever Seen.’’


If the “easy” mandate feels unimaginative today, it was less so in 2007. Karp has talked a lot about his frustration with tools like Wordpress and Blogger, and he is shrewder these days in his framing of Tumblr as “a novel alternative” rather than a middle finger. Blogging in 2007 required too much work: “I had all sorts of things I wanted to share, but they were screenshots, jokes, poorly formed ideas, videos that I had just watched that were hilarious, and things that I was working on.” Karp’s idea was to create a little portal to Internet heaven, with George Takei videos, Homer Simpson quotes, pictures of Italian luxury cars, dream logs, self-portraits, observations, Lost trailers, and porn (which makes up around 11 percent of the site’s content). The new blogging would be less about writing and more about declaring a personal sensibility. Thanks to an innovation called the reblog, users wouldn’t even need to create anything themselves; they could just post what they scavenged elsewhere and, Karp says, “use that curation to tell their stories.” He sees Tumblr as a tool for “the most talented people in the world.”

One issue with couching this behavior in artistic terms is that Tumblr has yet to produce anything that is especially popular outside of its own network. It has not given us a Justin Bieber, who started on YouTube, or a Kelly Oxford, the comedienne who first gained notice on Twitter. But by harder metrics, the platform is cleaning up: from three full-time employees in early 2008 to 183 today, from thousands of blogs to just below 140 million. One survey from earlier this year shows more 13-to-25-year-olds using Tumblr than Facebook.

A good measure of your influence in the tech community is how well you’ve succeeded in changing user behavior en masse, and by this metric, Karp might as well fold up his laptop and retire. His creation of reblogging in 2007 invented and then codified a behavior that everyone on the Internet now engages with, which is that of appropriating content from other users and attributing that content natively. In other words, Karp is to thank for the retweet and the repin, and he takes full responsibility: “Reblogging came first,” he says. “It was a few months into reblogging when retweeting started to become an idea.”

Users on Tumblr reblog by clicking on a symmetrical arrow button, which has the intuitive ease of Facebook’s LIKE button but doesn’t look like a weird pixelated thumb. It’s a useful point of contrast: Both Karp and Mark Zuckerberg, a fellow developer turned CEO, appreciate a cleanly designed site, but Zuckerberg is obviously more interested in using design to further Facebook’s imperial ambitions of connecting the entire world. Karp sees Tumblr’s cultural panache as the product itself. “Any successful early-stage tech company needs someone who’s strong on product, someone who’s strong on design, and someone who’s strong on development, and occasionally you find someone like David, who has all three in the same brain. That’s really, really rare,” says David Lifson, the G.M. of engineering at General Assembly. Everything at the Tumblr office is just so: exposed brick, hardwood floors, art on the walls, potted plants. Everything about Karp is just so, too; a uniform of cotton work pants, Converse or Jack Purcells, and button-down shirts is what he wears to awards ceremonies, to spray Champagne in Cannes, to ride a Segway in the park, and to meetings at Maialino. He has confidence in the authority of his taste.

Karp stopped coding two years ago, but he remains almost solely responsible for the company’s personality—a fun, slightly self-satisfied, lightly subversive disposition summed up in Tumblr’s “fuck yeah” meme, which is also the phrase Karp used to sign off his announcement of the Yahoo deal. There is beer on tap at the office and monthly parties and the kind of health-care package that pays for employees’ bikes. People get pied in the face at team meetings. At an earlier office, a law firm sharing Tumblr’s floor accused its employees of littering paper towels and posted a sign in the bathroom: PLEASE PUT YOUR PAPER TOWELS IN THE GARBAGE. Each day Tumblr employees replaced the sign, which had been printed in 48-point Times New Roman, with a sign printed in slightly smaller font, so that the text gradually vanished.

On the morning of July 11, the team collected in Times Square to ring NASDAQ’s opening bell in celebration of the acquisition. Later, a Tumblr office manager passed out plastic gift bags to employees: purple American Apparel T-shirts printed with the Yahoo logo, buttons that played the Yahoo yodel when pressed, and branded water bottles. “There was $10,000 cash inside, too,” says Peter Vidani, Tumblr’s creative director. “And a cell phone with Marissa’s number already dialed, so you just had to hit SEND.”

Not actually, but that was how things felt: Vidani and nine other early employees received around $6.2 million each. Those further down the org chart were less ebullient about the situation. “It got way less fun,” says one former employee about the past year. “Over time, they hired more HR people and all these policies came into place.” It got trickier to reach Karp, who mostly stopped going to company parties and answering e-mails. “There’s gonna be more meetings,” another former employee predicts. “I’m sure Derek and David will want to keep the core operational things the same, but Yahoo is beholden to shareholders every quarter.”


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