Tumblr CEO David Karp Discusses the Roots of Tumblr

Tumblr CEO David Karp discussed how the social networking site got to its current level of success, revealed some early inspirations and explained why he prefers New York over Silicon Valley.

Where is the best location to start up a social media company? New York City or California?

The Big Apple, of course.

That was the hoodie-wearing Tumblr CEO David Karp’s answer to the question posed by The Webby Awards executive director David Michel-Davies during the keynote presentation at Internet Week New York on May 16.

“New York is way cooler than Palo Alto,” he said.

Karp added that New York City is the “heart of the creative world” and that it makes more sense for Tumblr to be based there because many media companies it is partnering with are headquartered there.

In addition, Karp said, half of his 100 staff members relocated from outside the area, and New York City provides an attractive area for them to move to.

“We can say, ‘Hey, come over for a weekend,'” he said. “We’ve had a fair bit of luck just bringing them to hang out here.”

Karp, who launched blogging platform Tumblr in February 2007, after running his own consulting company at age 20 for a year-and-a-half, said when he envisioned Tumblr he wanted the design to be sparing, for there only to be one navigation bar, and the interface to be “discoverable and intuitive.”

“That was the stuff we really valued, and something that I think was characteristic of a fair number of apps at the time. You know, Twitter was around at the time, and I thought it had an incredibly beautiful, focused interface. So, I don’t think that was terribly of a unique invention, but something we definitely valued from the very beginning,” said Karp.

The now 25-year-old entrepreneur explained that before launching Tumblr, when he was trying out other blogging platforms, he didn’t like the fact that they had complicated interfaces and the focus of the content was predominantly on writing.

“You get that big empty box, and it demands that you come up with like a witty headline that convinces people to click over and care about your post, it demands several paragraphs of nicely formatted HTML with little aligned images, and a real editorial voice, real writing. And I can write. I can compose an email OK, but I’m not a writer. I don’t enjoy writing,” said Karp, who added that there was a community of people out there who wanted a presence online. However, the other social media platforms, such as Flickr, Twitter, YouTube and Facebook, didn’t allow users to share all types of media, such as video, audio and quotes.

But Karp never intended Tumblr to be used by anyone but himself. He explained that he just wanted it to be useful and have the functionality that he didn’t find in other blogging platforms.

“I think something that is still very true of Tumblr today is it is still a product our team builds for ourselves first and foremost and something we’re excited to use every day, and we spend hours every day using. I’d like to believe that not only comes through in the product, but that it’s kept us close to what Tumblr is really about, kept us from straying too far from that, and that I think kept it true to the original vision,” he said.

The native New Yorker said there was a movement in the blogosphere among hackers to put together different types of media, and these hackers were the first community on Tumblr. Karp said they were working on projects that looked like the old AOL and Geocities pages, which were “beautiful” and had “design sensibilities” incorporating multiple types of media.

“You probably noted that’s what Tumblr is today. So, instead of the long post, you have an interesting quote from that article I just read, you have a funny video I just watched, you have the thought that popped into my head, you have the long essay, when I sit down and decide I really want to express myself. All of that, but presented in a way that kind of makes up for the lack of an editorial voice, and instead uses the strong aesthetic sense to make every little piece of media it’s own beautiful thing to present. So, that community was there already hacking these tools together themselves,” Karp said.

The CEO said 75,000 people had signed up for Tumblr within the first two weeks of operations.

“One of the novel things Tumblr had from the very beginning was, we let you change everything about the way your blog looks on Tumblr, something that no other blogging platform included. You certainly couldn’t do it on Twitter or Facebook or YouTube at the time and still can’t,” Karp said.

Three years after Tumblr’s launch, the company approached brands about using the platform.

“Where it gets really interesting is when The New York Times or Newsweek, when a publisher that has great brand recognition, an amazing reputation and a real audience already shows up on Tumblr and is able to tap an audience that maybe doesn’t care about Newsweek, maybe doesn’t read The New York Times every day, but is now kind of connecting with the brand or the company, the people at the company, and even some of the things that they’re putting out there …,” Karp said, elaborating on the Tumblr blogs created by The New York Times (recently) and Newsweek (early on).

The Times’ Tumblr is called The Lively Morgue. The newspaper posts photos from its archives going back years. (Are you wondering why The New York Times chose this name for its Tumblr? This excerpt from The Lively Morgue helps explain: “The Times’s picture library was originally part of the art department, not the news department. Once it was consolidated with the newsroom clipping file, however, it came to be called the morgue. Explanations differ as to the origins of that name, but it’s safe to say that the clippings were originally biographical and kept close at hand in case a subject dropped dead around deadline, requiring an instant obituary”).

Karp also explained that Newsweek was one of the first publishers to show up on Tumblr and used the platform to play to its features rather than use it straight as an RSS feed.

“They were able to show up and be this really valuable presence at the center of our news community, and as a great source of discovery. Daily, I get so much great stuff from Newsweek, and have an attachment to that brand now that has me buying that magazine when I’m at the airport. That’s a pretty remarkable thing that a few creative people over there were able to invent,” he said.

Karp also mentioned that the Hunger Games launched a promotion on Tumblr called Capital Couture all focused on fashion and which invited fan submissions.

“People who really really wanted to get into the world, the people who’d read the trilogy – now they had a whole new angle to this world to explore,” he said.

Tim Sohn is editor of the mediabistro Morning Social Media Newsfeed, and freelance writer and editor for a number of other print and online-only tech-related publications. Follow him on Twitter @editortim.