Tumblr is an immense sea of valuable, publicly available user data just waiting to be tapped by marketers interested in how the cool internet teens use their products—just search "Starbucks" to see what I mean.
Tumblr, it seems, is also ready to help corporations cash in on its users’ impeccably curated tastes. It just inked a deal with Ditto, a company that scans images on the web for branded products and sells the results to multinationals like Coca-Cola and Kraft, and part of the deal involves giving Ditto wholesale access to all of Tumblr's (which is to say Tumblr users') photos.
"Twitter and Instagram have been suppliers of data to us for over a year and we're able to look on behalf of brands at what the conversation about them looks like through photos," David Rose, CEO of Ditto, told Motherboard. "What’s different about Tumblr is that they’re supplying us with the entire firehose of all photos that we’re then able to interpret."
Ditto's algorithm identifies products that it's been trained to recognize via a machine learning process, as well as indicators of users' feelings towards the brand like a smile or a frown. By picking out the brands or goods said product is paired with in a given image, Ditto builds maps of product affiliations.
"We look at every photo, and we look for about 2,500 things in every photo," Rosin explained. "We're primarily doing a pattern-matching algorithm that is matching brands and products that we have taught the system about. We're looking for the presences of faces, and the expressions of faces, but not for individual people."
Though the system doesn't necessarily identify individuals in their corporeal form, it can pinpoint the top influencers on a given social network and give their online identities to companies looking to partner with their biggest fans in promotional campaigns.
To get a sense of how the system works in real-time, you can view a live stream of images sourced from the web being scanned for brands on Ditto’s website. As images fly across the screen, the algorithm singles out any brand logos and human faces. The images are paired with information like the user’s handle and click through to their personal accounts.
When Motherboard contacted Tumblr for comment, the company was unwilling to confirm if photo data could be paired with account information to identify a user, which brands will have access to the data, if users will be alerted to the new system, or if Tumblr is receiving any financial compensation in return for all of their users' images. Rose also declined to comment on what Tumblr is getting, financially speaking, from the partnership.
Although one must wonder what Tumblr has to gain, or, as the case may be, lose. Since the site was bought by Yahoo for over a billion dollars this year, it's been under pressure to turn a profit big enough to recoup the buyout cost. Tumblr’s focus on photos could make its partnership with Ditto an extremely lucrative one, if it is a financially motivated relationship.
Indeed, images make for an ideal medium from which to mine users' tastes. You know the old cliché, "A picture is worth a thousand words"? Well, Ditto and Tumblr are building an entire ecosystem of millennial consumer data from that old chestnut.
"Most people just don’t talk about most of the things in photos," Rose said. “People never mention, like, 'Me and a Corona at the beach.' They just say, 'The high point of my day,' 'Enjoying a great time,' or, 'Booyah.' And so most of the signal is completely invisible to product companies.”
In other words, Ditto allows for unprecedented levels of access to users' product affinities by cataloging information-rich photos instead of the comparatively narrow and willfully selective medium of text.
Tumblr's marketing efforts have thus far largely relied on companies creating their own blogs and sharing posts meant to go viral with the site's millennial denizens. It was a sly way to co-mingle user posts with ads, but it at least provided users with some content of substance, however promotional in nature. The site's new deal with Ditto seems like a raw deal in contrast; users are being sold off to the highest bidder, without any kind of tangible return.
Founded in 2007, Tumblr has long been a sanctum for misfit millennials meticulously crafting identities for themselves by posting and sharing images. Surely it was only a matter of time until the site figured out a way to monetize its sizable cultural cachet, but for a platform that prides itself on facilitating self-expression and a degree of anonymity, it's an unsettling move at the very least.