For several months now, Tumblr has apparently been a victim of its own success. What used to be known as a super-popular, well-designed, streamlined blogging service with lots of internet-famous blogs hosted on it, is increasingly known as all that and also as a flakey, unreliable service. Folks who host their blogs on Tumblr are up-in-arms about the frustrating error-proneness and downtime of the service.
My primary product, MarsEdit, is a desktop blogging client that interfaces with Tumblr, among dozens of other types of blogs. The reduced reliability of Tumblr, and in particular of its API, has meant a deeply compromised experience for our customers in common. This means that I also suffer some pain in the midst of Tumblr’s flakiness, because I have to support an unreliable service and explain to customers that MarsEdit is affected by Tumblr downtimes as well.
Some of Tumblr’s greatest assets are the deeply respected bloggers who trust Tumblr to host their writing. They serve as implicit spokespeople for the service each time they publish an entry, and more explicitly so when participating in Tumblr’s own social network, raving about the site on Twitter, at conferences, etc.
As flakiness continues, the tone of endorsements is turning negative. I regularly see sarcastic snipes against the service in my Twitter feed, and even on blogs that are hosted by Tumblr itself. Garrett Murray’s frustration peaked yesterday when he posted a sarcastic revision to Tumblr’s increasingly famous “downtime” graphic. Steven Frank of Panic fame chimed in today on Twitter:
It occurs to me that Tumblr is also growing exponentially with no apparent income source. I should look for a new home, pre-dickbar.
Tumblr has a problem. Since late 2010 and for all of 2011 they have been suffering enough downtime and flakiness that a growing chorus of users is lambasting the service. Without judging whether that’s fair or justified, let’s accept that what used to be a widely lauded service is becoming a widely criticized one.
But how big of a problem is it if, as Steven Frank suggested in his tweet, the service continues to grow its membership by leaps and bounds? My theory is Tumblr’s continued success in signing up new customers is both thanks to and at the expense of their influential early adopters. Folks who helped to build Tumblr’s reputation over the past several years are now suffering, presumably because of Tumblr’s ravenous ingestion of new users. If this keeps up, the influential “power-bloggers” will quit Tumblr and move on to more reliable services. Tumblr will be left with millions of users, who I’m sure are perfectly nice people, but who don’t exert as great an influence in the web world.
What should Tumblr do? If the failure to rein in performance and uptime issues is connected to success in signing up new customers, then they should stop signing up new customers. Sound foolish? In Tumblr’s position I would do whatever it takes to bring back the level of service that users enjoyed before the “great downtime of 2010.” Happy, influential customers paved the way for Tumblr’s success, and bringing back that enthusiasm is the best way to perpetuate success far into the future.
If Tumblr turned off new user registrations today and added a “notify me when more new users are being accepted” sign-up form, it would provide breathing room to focus on fixing the experience for current customers. Framed correctly, it would also make those customers feel cared for and important, something they probably aren’t feeling so much at the moment. Yes, for prospective customers it would be a slap in the face. Nobody wants to feel shut out. But if given a choice, protect your existing, not future customers. Web services build buzz all the time with limited, invitation-only beta testing intros. It would be a step backwards for Tumblr, but it would also re-establish a sense of exclusivity that would pay dividends after issues are resolved and open enrollment returns.
It’s easy to armchair-quarterback another business when you don’t know any of the details. I’m sure the challenges at Tumblr are diverse and hard to pin down to my convenient diagnosis of “too many users.” But if you’re bailing out a sinking boat, the first thing to do is stop admitting new passengers.
I hope Tumblr figures out a way to solve this for the long run. My customers depend on it. Their customers depend on it. And the longevity of the company itself depends on it.