Tumblr may be known for moving images, but by and large that's been the GIF — not videos. Tumblr is today trying to address that, changing what it's like to watch videos in its mobile apps and on the desktop. On mobile, Tumblr is actually making videos seem a lot like GIFs: they'll automatically start playing when you're on Wi-Fi, they'll be muted by default, and they'll loop endlessly. Tumblr also says that videos may now be played back at a lower resolution so that they'll begin playing quickly, adding in to the impression that it shouldn't matter what format you're actually seeing.
Dock a video, then keep scrolling
That said, Tumblr is taking a different approach on the desktop. Rather than trying to play off of its users' love of the GIF, Tumblr is trying to create a sort of second-screen experience right on the web. The video will still play automatically, but you'll also get the option to dock it to the side of your Dashboard, almost like a picture-in-picture mode. That way, you can continue to watch the video while still scrolling through your Tumblr feed, rather than requiring you to either stay put or just move past it as it does today. Tumblr says that it's beginning to support videos in a higher quality as well, up to 720p on the desktop, which could make it a more appealing format to use.
While today's update sounds like a basic feature improvement on the surface, for Tumblr this could be the start of a bigger story. Tumblr CEO David Karp says that an improved video player is "by far and away the most requested feature by our users," adding that video posts are now growing at twice the rate of photo posts. An improved video player may only further that: though you're able to embed YouTube or other video players on Tumblr, Tumblr's own video player has actually become the most used on its site.
"It’s been pretty clear for a while that there’s been a huge huge opportunity to stretch the canvas in video," Karp says. "The opportunities in video on the internet in the mobile world jumped in the last couple years." Karp says that Tumblr's goal is to effectively be a huge canvas for people to create work on, and part of that "means staying up with the bleeding edge of technology."
"I hope that we’re building the biggest canvas for [creators]."
That doesn't necessarily mean that Tumblr wants to become a 'video site,' but it does believe it has something different to offer than sites like YouTube and Vimeo. On Tumblr, Karp says, videos range from "all the stuff you would find on other platforms" to "a whole host of diverse genres." He also sees Tumblr's lack of constraints as something that's allowed users to "run a little bit more wild" than they might elsewhere, leading to an eclectic selection of content.
Earlier this month, Business Insider reported that Yahoo, which bought Tumblr last year, wants to see Tumblr overtake YouTube as the platform that video creators use when they want to build an audience. It had even heard that Yahoo was interested in poaching stars away from YouTube, which could make today's changes seem like they're a step toward that goal. However, Karp says that Tumblr isn't interested in stealing stars. "I was pretty upset with that message," Karp says. "It really doesn’t at all represent how we look at the rest of this ecosystem. I hope that we’re building the biggest canvas for [creators] ... YouTube makes up a huge amount of content on our network we are always trying to extend support for third party platforms, you can see that in a big way."
Karp doesn't want to see Tumblr ever become dominated by a single medium. Video may be expanding, but Tumblr would like it to be just one of many options for publishers. "I worry if we over-invest in one place, if video gets too good, if GIFs ever suffer, if text ever suffers, then you’re becoming a video network," he says. For Tumblr, that also means not giving creators a specific way to monetize their content, like the ad tools they might find on YouTube. That may be limiting for some, but Karp says he's concerned that adding such tools would homogenize content as "all our users optimize for one way of making money." Instead, Karp sees the ability for Tumblr users to tap into a whole host of other services, websites, and techniques — "Kickstarting, selling merch, going on tour" — as a way to let publishers monetize their content while remaining diverse.
"One of the things that I really cherish about Tumblr is that it’s a network of creators that include emerging talents," Karp says, "everything from Pusheen to Lawrence Lessig, everything from Grimes to Humans of New York." Karp hopes that today's update will get more people watching video on Tumblr, ultimately strengthening the tools that publishers have to reach people across its network.