By: Hannah Baker


Discussion: This post by Adam Rifkin on discusses Tumblr, one of the newer social networking/blogging websites. According to a quoted survey, Tumblr is now the most-used social networking site among both the 13-18 and the 19-25 age groups. While the survey’s informality and small sample size make its conclusions less than certain, there can be no denying the increasing popularity of Tumblr, especially amongst teenagers.

But, I can’t be the only one who has been frustrated by trying to read anything on Tumblr. The search is poor, the comment threads are impossible to follow, and the “reblogging” mechanism can make it difficult to figure out who originally posted any particular picture or piece of information.

What I found most intriguing about the post was its suggestion that Tumblr’s technological limitations may be a feature rather than a bug. Rifkin suggests that the problems people have in searching Tumblr is a bonus for many of its users, who want to be anonymous without necessarily gaining a large audience of unknown anonymous internet people. They want a personal page, like a Facebook page, but without Facebook’s corresponding public visibility.

Rifkin’s idea can be extended to some of Tumblr’s other seeming problems. Conversations and comment threads are difficult to follow, giving people the freedom to comment without complete accountability even to their online personas, yet without having to resort to complete anonymity.

I like the suggestion that privacy can be protected, not by deliberate privacy controls such as those offered on Facebook, nor by complete anonymity, but by less-than-perfect design. Whether or not Tumblr’s poor search system and lack of a good commenting system are deliberate, they function to protect the users’ privacy, to the point where better technology might be bad for the site.

This raises the larger question of whether better technology will always take off if it leads to a decrease in privacy. On the one hand, older, more private forms of technology seem generally to be abandoned. Few modifications to a cell phone will give a call the total privacy that comes when calling from a payphone, but payphones are now few and far between. Kindles and other e-readers are becoming increasingly popular, even though the readers’ notes and highlighting may be collected and seen in a way that is impossible with a physical book. On the other hand, Tumblr’s new popularity– despite the fact that, as Rifkin describes, it is a terrible platform by most standard metrics– may point in a new direction.