Is Tumblr Just an Art Project?

by Kyle Chayka on January 2, 2013

David Karp (Illustration by Hyperallergic)

David Karp (Illustration by Hyperallergic)

The new issue of Forbes magazine comes with a cover story on David Karp, the founder of the social media behemoth Tumblr. The profile, included as part of the magazine’s 30 Under 30 list of “prodigies” (Karp is 26) is titled, “Tumblr: David Karp’s $800 Million Art Project.” What do they mean by that, exactly?

Sure, Tumblr is a great venue for producing and consuming art. Its design is super image-friendly, and the dashboard feed is a perfect vehicle to devour any kind of multimedia experience in bulk. Artists also use Tumblr to make discrete art projects, as in the case of Joe Hamilton’s epic “Hypergeography.” But can the social network itself actually be called art? The good news is that Forbes isn’t trying to do anything of the sort. The bad news is the profile is just a little derogatory when it comes to the significance of art.

The thrust of the article is that Karp is having a tough time monetizing Tumblr, creating profits to match their $800 million valuation and $125 million in investment. The writer barely mentions art outside of the headline, except perhaps in the context of a blinged-out (yet still minimalist) Williamsburg loft that Karp is renovating, the “artistry” of advertising, and a side comment that the artist community it grew on will likely not be enough for Tumblr to survive.

In the context, “art” is used to signify something that has little or no definable purpose, fights against the inexorable tides of capitalism and the market, and has no essential value. The provocative headline isn’t backed up by anything, turning “art” into a term used to cast doubt on something — in this case, a company. The writer could call the valuation of Tumblr overblown, call it illogical, or call the investors misguided — but don’t call it art.

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  • punktoad

    Just caught Biz and Ev of Twitter talking about “the art and value of technology.” Concepts came up like “unleashing empathy.” If Karp is creating Tumbler, not for money, but because he has to, aka Kafka’s “The Hunger Artist,” maybe it is an art project.

    Fortune’s focus on monetization makes it difficult for them to understand Tumbler’s focus on creativity. But they did seem to understand the value in generating emotional connections to brands on Tumbler over straight forward sales of products on other systems like Facebook or Google. Think of the “1984” Apple Superbowl ad that only showed once commercially. It was quite arty and defined Apple for decades.

  • eddie dowling

    And now he has sold it to the highest bidder for a billion $. This may be the end of Tumblr as we know it: a great and facile place to share art.

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