I'll Tumblr For Ya
Vice's 2009 interview with David Karp. "We checked the domain name for 'Tumbler.com' and it was this mom and pop store for tumbler glasses. We thought it'd be pretty fun one day, when we got enough money, to acquire their whole business."
With Yahoo's acquisiton of Tumblr for $1.1 billion, we thought we'd dig up this interview with David Karp, the site's founder, from November 2009. - The eds.
David Karp is 23 and the founder and creator of Tumblr, and probably everyone but my editor (even though Vice has one and Motherboard too) knows what that is. He is also a millionaire. Which is hilarious, because when I was 23 I was running around with a rolled-up $20 bill up my nose, stealing day-old bagels from dumpsters, memorizing Nation of Ulysses lyrics, drinking midrange gin, and trying to sleep with art school girls. I was most certainly not flying around the world with my hot girlfriend being a genius. I called David up for an interview the other day to see just exactly how someone got the whole "being young and fucking smart" thing totally right.
VICE: So, first things first. It looks like you're giving the "early Prince album cover" look in almost every single picture taken of you. Why is this?
David Karp: I have like two different faces for photographs. I practice them. I've never heard the Prince thing before.
In all stories about you people like to mention how you dropped out of high school and moved to Japan at, what, 18? That's insane.
Yeah, I actually dropped out at 15 to work on my own business making websites for people. I grew up in New York, and you're very much spoiled living here, so I tried to think what other city was going to be totally different yet offer similar attributes. I picked Tokyo.
So not for the usual "I'm really into Anime" sort of thing?
I was actually still working tech and just had a Vonage account that they'd call me on. They thought I was in New York for the first eight months or so before I finally let it slip I was half way across the fucking world.
There's a certain stigma when someone names you Boy Wonder Of The Internet or what have you. A lot of the time it's some phony bullshit. How do you feel about the stigmas being attached to yourself and Tumblr so early on?
Hmm... I don't think I've actually accomplished all that much. More than anything I'm glad to have, by total dumb luck, been able to work with all these people [at Tumblr]. When I sit down with a blank sheet of paper I'm excited to figure out the problems. I mean, I get a kick out of it--the "Boy Wonder" stuff. Obviously.
Define "entrepreneur." Is it more along the lines of the 1985 Val Kilmer movie Real Genius or more like Warren Buffet in a suit and tie?
It's... someone who has a vision for something and a want to create. People creating.
Would you actually consider yourself an entrepreneur? Why do you think you've succeeded and other people who might have similar goals haven't succeeded?
I think I'm doing OK. It's a lot to do with the people around me. The idea behind it all is to keep it simple, and I think we've always looked for a place to express ourself as simply and honestly and expressly... like, being dragged over to our grandma's house to look at a family photo book... now there's a medium to see that or do that as it's being done and not be bombarded with seven photobooks every time you stop by. You can view it at your own pace, and they too, at their own pace. It's a new mechanism for people to express themselves.
So, social media and social networking are blurring the lines between public interaction and "internet" interaction. We are using them for the same reasons, almost.
Remember how much of an issue privacy online was, like, five years ago? And now it's totally gone. People our age aren't hung up on photos of themselves that people can Google and find, it's kind of a given now. It's become so socially accepted so quickly. Your online persona is now an extension of your actual persona--you can go to someone's blog and have an extension of them up there that's much more personable and customizable to fit YOU than, say, a Facebook or Myspace page. I think it's more cool that the photos online aren't just some crappy Facebook photos that someone tagged me in after a long night at a party... [on Tumblr] they're things that I've found, or taken right away to share. It's really me.
What about oversharing? Is this the Age Of Oversharing?
I hesitate to use the word overshare, because... well... it's more that our personalities are now able to reach out a lot further than they would ten years ago. Ten years ago there simply wasn't an option to find like-minded individuals so easily, but now if someone somehow get to your blog they can decide that you're like-minded and might want to get a drink with you next time they're in New York. Or get married. Or whatever.
So people from the site are meeting up and having babies. Do you own the rights to these babies? Are you going to make people call the babies "Reblog"?
Fuck! We should really change the Terms Of Service so that can happen. I thought it'd would be cool to be invited to a Tumblr wedding; never really thought about the baby aspect of it. Hmm. That's a good idea.
Where do you see the lines of public and internet interactions going in five years?
Everything should be more accessible. And the community and social stuff. I don't think the paradigm will jump that much, I think it'll focus more on the idea of identity, which is what we've been very careful about. Even Third World countries have high speed cell phone networks now.
While the site is designed to be incredibly user friendly, there's no denying that just under the surface there's a vast amount porn. How do you feel about that?
It's only about four percent.
We actually track it now. One of the first guy's original jobs was to troll Tumblr for porn. That was pretty much his job for a while.
That sounds AWESOME.
Yeah. Now it's the editorial staff's job to flag it.
Any favorite Tumblr porn blogs?
I hear that you think that robots are better than humans and that you want to have robot children.
I'm going to have one human baby and one robot baby.
So you do think robots are superior to humans?
I've always more than anything wanted to work with robots, and thought that working in media and information would be a good place to start. For example, I've always wanted to evolve Tumblr into this sort of giant AI that's built on top of all this information it gathers in real time, and then turn that into this giant army of machines that knows what everyone in the world is thinking. And the robots would be able to protect us from "bad." I trust the robots.
Why do you trust the robots?
I think we'd be stupid not to trust the machines.
OK, last question. I'm gonna ask a hard-hitting one. Tumblr. Why no "e"?
We checked the domain name for 'Tumbler.com' and it was this mom and pop store for tumbler glasses. We thought it'd be pretty fun one day, when we got enough money, to acquire their whole business. No joke! Actually, that's a joke.
This interview was published on November 23, 2009.