A lot of people these days are worried about the demise of Tumblr. The product has changed hands a few times, and neither its Yahoo! parents or its Verizon parents seem to have paid much attention to it. M.G. Siegler took his concerns to his Medium blog, 500ish Words. In the post, he evaluates the current alternatives to Tumblr. What is most interesting, to me, is his quick dismissal of Micro.blog, the platform that hosts this blog. He writes, “And other things such as the newer Micro.blog are almost too spartan.”
Micro.blog started out fairly limited, but has steadily built on a solid foundation. Truthfully, that’s the way most software developers believe products should iterate. The rate of iteration for Micro.blog has been fairly aggressive lately. So while I might have agreed with Siegler a little more than a week ago, when his post was written, I no longer do. In the past week, Micro.blog rolled out major improvements that put it on par with Tumblr for personal blog hosting.
The most important of the new improvements was a most from being built on Jekyll to being built on Hugo, and with that, the inclusion of the ability to customize the design of your blog. This in itself is a huge step for Micro.blog, which previously allowed very limited customization options such as simple CSS overrides and footer design. Now blog owners are free to customize their entire themes, as well as share those customized themes with others on GitHub.
One ancillary benefit to the switch to Hugo, though, which I haven’t seen anyone on M.b. mention yet, is the ability to use Hugo shortcodes. Shortcodes elegantly allow for embedded content, the thing for which Tumblr is perhaps best known. They do so in a minimal way that fits in nicely with the markdown language that powers posts on Micro.blog. Previously, you could use embedded content on Micro.blog but it was not guaranteed to be responsive (a limitation of the Jekyll backend). Sure, you could embed a YouTube video, but switch to a mobile device and that thing would go right off the page. To properly handle embeds such as YouTube videos in Jekyll, you would have to install a plugin, something that wasn’t supported by Micro.blog. Even on Jekyll’s preferred hosting site, GitHub Pages, you would have to use a solution like this. In other words, such a common blogging use case as YouTube embeds was pretty challenging on the Jekyll platform. Now, many popular embeds (YouTube, Vimeo, Twitter and Instagram) are supported in Micro.blog by using Hugo shortcodes.
This may sound surprising, but In some ways, the new Micro.blog platform is actually superior to Tumblr when it comes to embeds. I say this as a formerly frustrated Tumblr user. I wanted to use a professionally designed Tumblr theme, but what I discovered was that embeds would behave differently on the front end of my blog than they would in the Tumblr dashboard. Some sites, such as Bandcamp, offer Tumblr-specific embedding options. Those options make the content appear correctly if you are a Tumblr user viewing it in the dashboard or if the blog is using the default theme. If you are using another theme, all bets are off for the majority of your viewers who are seeing the content in the front end of your blog. However, if you use standard embed codes, the content will probably look right on the front end of your custom theme, but it usually wouldn’t appear correctly in the Tumblr dashboard. This inconsistency caused me much consternation when I was an active Tumblr user. With a more standard set of embedding capabilities, Hugo and now Micro.blog provide a more consistent visual experience.
In his piece, Siegler also speculates on what a more contemporary Tumblr would look like.
It’s hard to know what a more modern Tumblr would look like — it would undoubtedly be mobile-first, but would it be better as a paid product these days? One major issue Tumblr had was a complete and utter failure to monetize. Ads seemed like a straightforward proposition, perhaps in a way similar to how they work on Instagram now. But for whatever reason, they never truly worked on Tumblr.
Could it be a right place/right time thing for a paid social network, truly free from advertising? There are certainly signs. Such a product would never get to Facebook-scale, of course. But it wouldn’t have to. And actually, shouldn’t aspire to. That never seemed to be the success state for Tumblr anyway.
Micro.blog is also close to what Siegler proposes as a “paid social network, truly free from advertising.” The social component that glues blogs together is actually free, but participated in most fully by using a Micro.blog paid, hosted account. Like the paid version of Tumblr that Siegler imagines, it will never get to Facebook scale, but it doesn’t need to in order to be compelling. The people who are using the platform are there because they are invested in it. The deliberate nature of the participation elevates the level of discourse in a way that isn’t, in my experience, matched on Tumblr. Not to mention that on Micro.blog, you don’t have to see repeated ads for situational teen sex games. Most months, that alone seems worth a few bucks.