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David Karp Wants to Give you an Online Identity (Or More Than One)

David Karp quit high school to pursue Web opportunities and in 2007, went on to create Tumblr, one of the trendiest and fastest growing microblogging sites on the Internet.

To describe David Karp as a precocious, incredibly successful entrepreneur of the digital age is to understate the matter. At 25, he is the founder and CEO of Tumblr, one of the trendiest and fastest growing blog sites on the Internet today. 

Tumblr, which launched in 2007, is one of a new generation of free short-form blogs—often termed microblogging—that stresses its capacity for self-expression, sharing and ease of use. After a sign-up process that can take a minute or less, users have the ability to post images, videos, songs, audio and text with the click of a single button. Another attraction is Tumblr’s Dashboard, which allows you to see, comment on, and repost content from your friends, just as they can with your material.

Karp, born in New York City, where Tumblr remains based, is tall and rail thin, with a mass of brown hair that constantly threatens to cover his eyes. His career path wasn’t that different from other young Internet entrepreneurs except that, instead of quitting college to pursue Web opportunities, Karp quit high school. He was working with a film animation producer by 14; joined the technical staff of UrbanBaby, a Web site for parents juggling careers and family; and, at 17, traveled to Japan alone to meet top-flight software engineers.

Identity and freedom

Tumblr evolved from Karp’s dissatisfaction with the blogging platforms he encountered growing up. The blogosphere was designed largely for editorial publishing, in Karp’s view, with a formulaic layout of titles, text blocks and comment pages. 

Karp had a much different vision for Tumblr, as he explained to the Web site TechCrunch. “All the blogs took the same form. I wanted something much more free-form, much less verbose.”

He decided the time was right to build his own blog, but without any anticipation of the instant popularity it enjoyed, especially among fellow Web developers, who were experimenting with new and unorthodox kinds of Web sites.

Karp sees a marked distinction between Tumblr and social networking giants like Facebook and Twitter. “Nobody is proud of their identity on Facebook. They are not tools built for creative expression,” he said in a talk to TechCrunch. “On Tumblr, people can create identities they’re really proud of…that represent you,” he told Newsweek.


The perils of popularity

Although Facebook and Twitter still dwarf Tumblr in size, the company’s recent growth has been explosive. Within two years of its launch, Tumblr had more than 3 million subscribers—and kept accelerating from there. In 2010, Karp reported that the site was averaging 2 million posts and 15,000 new users every day. By June 2011, Tumblr’s short-form blogs surpassed the number of WordPress’ generally longer postings.

On a day in August 2011, the Tumblr Web site was registering more than 25.8 million blogs with over 42 million individual daily posts. That kind of rapid expansion brought real growing pains as the company has struggled to scale up fast enough to meet the demand. In December 2010, Tumblr suffered a severe crash which Karp described as a “cascading failure” that toppled its computer servers like dominos. 

“That crash was definitely a punch in the stomach,” he commented to the publication, Adweek. Karp scrambled to reassure Tumblr users and quickly hired more technical and executive staff. Since then, Tumblr’s growth has continued unabated and its pool of investor funding has remained deep.

Tumblr is now attracting an unexpected group of subscribers—companies and commercial brand names who like the ease with which the site can repost and distribute information and images to a predominantly young, tech-savvy audience. “Any good piece of new content that you put up there can spread really, really far,” he told Adweek.

The reasons for Tumblr’s spectacular success are hardly a mystery in Karp’s view. “Tumblr is about total freedom of expression,” he said at a Mashable conference. “That means two things for us—the ability to post anything and the ability to customize everything… It is totally your space, your page to do anything you want with it.”


Howard Cincotta is a U.S. Department of State writer and editor.