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In Tumblr, Yahoo Acquires an Audience and an Activist Edge, Too

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Monday, May 20 2013

David Karp, May 16, 2013. Photo: Flickr/Digitas Photos

With a sticker price of approximately $1.1 billion, Yahoo's Tumblr acquisition doesn't just come with an audience CEO Marissa Mayer expects will grow Yahoo's footprint by 50 percent. Whether Yahoo knew it or not, the struggling Internet ur-company has also bought itself a political constituency.

Commentators are focusing on Yahoo's dismal track record with acquisitions, up to and including the picture-sharing site Flickr, which Mayer discussed Monday while announcing new Yahoo digs in the former New York Times building. Much of what Yahoo has touched in the past has either folded or flopped. But it's more than just a startup on the chopping block here — Tumblr, and its founder in particular, set a new precedent for how an Internet company talks to its users about perceived threats to their community.

This creates a new, unanswered question: Could a Yahoo company do the same thing?

In late 2011 and early 2012, Tumblr CEO David Karp — now, thanks to the acquisition, a well-monied scruffy American — had a choice. Internet industry figures from New York and San Francisco started meeting in October about the Stop Online Piracy Act, legislation they came to view as an existential threat to their business. If passed, SOPA would have put restraints on shared content that would be untenable for companies like Tumblr and would have mandated infrastructural changes to the Internet's inner workings. Google's lobbyists had been pushing against the legislation in various iterations going back years, but activists and tech figures were agitating for a more public campaign as SOPA and a companion Senate bill came closer to becoming law.

In November, Karp recorded a message about the legislation that Tumblr users heard when they clicked a link on the site's homepage. Partnering with a third-party provider, Mobile Commons, Tumblr set up a system to identify users' members of Congress by taking their ZIP codes and respond by connecting them with the right lawmaker's office, the better to voice their opposition to SOPA. Tumblr later reported that users made 87,834 calls to representatives, and spent a total of 1,293 hours talking to staffers on Capitol Hill. Karp joined a coordinated group of Internet businesses who weren't just using lobbyists to fight SOPA — they were turning to their users, pleading with them to find common cause, and giving them tools to join them in protest. In January, Tumblr joined an Internet "blackout," called "American Censorship Day" and organized by the advocacy group Fight for the Future, alongside sites like BoingBoing and Wikipedia by interrupting their users' experiences to ask them to protest. Users found some of the text on their dashboards blacked out to drive the idea of censorship home.

Of all the companies to participate in the "blackout," Tumblr went as far or further than any for-profit, corporate going concern. The same user base Yahoo covets for the possibility of ad revenue became the force for a snap grassroots mobilization, helping to transform an obscure inside-the-Beltway fight between Hollywood and Silicon Valley into a turning point for the formerly wonks-only world of Internet policy.

"Tumblr really did lead as a startup in the early days of the SOPA fight," recalls Mike McGeary, co-founder of the tech startup advocacy group Engine in San Francisco, which was established as a result of the protests. "They helped rally on American Censorship Day with Fight for the Future and Electronic Frontier Foundation, and a lot of others, and really did take a stand while other organizations were still getting their proverbial boots on."

"They did take an immense risk by doing so, and while I can't speak to their internal deliberations on how they got there, the calculus of being so dependent on user-generated content probably galvanized it more than anything," he said.

Karp was in a community where the math was likely to have skewed towards activism. Another founder at a popular New York City startup, Reddit's Alexis Ohanian, was also a vocal SOPA opponent — and Reddit took an early stance against the legislation as well. Union Square Ventures' Brad Burnham spoke out publicly against the bill and was involved in the bi-coastal organizing against it — he's on Karp's board at Tumblr. Also spotted at a rally against SOPA was Andrew McLaughlin, the former White House deputy chief technology officer. When this fight took place, McLaughlin was a Tumblr vice president.

But activists credit Karp with pushing Tumblr into the center of debate.

"David Karp was the leading visionary leader behind a company that really helped to make the SOPA protests that something that millions of people ended up helping to fight," said Fight for the Future's Co-Founder Tiffiniy Cheng, who was one of the lead organizers and originators of some of the ideas that activists used to frame the debate over the Stop Online Piracy Act and the PROTECT IP Act.

Cheng noted that Karp kept involved even later on in the process, hosting a hackathon organized by Demand Progress to create "I Work for the Internet," a campaign that publicized how the proposed legislation would impact the Web and its businesses.

Yahoo — not yet in the Mayer era — did not take part in protests.

The Tumblr acquisition is worrisome for a subset of observers who think big companies that buy smaller companies for their audience tend to scare that audience away as soon as they can. It's also an opportunity to watch a large company try to learn from the mistakes of others when it comes to becoming the patron of a big online community.

It's also interesting because it puts real money in Karp's hands. A founder who has cashed in on one company tends to move on to another one, of course, but there's another club he might join — one that includes politically active entrepreneurs like fellow New Yorker Ohanian, Sean Parker, who just co-hosted a congressional candidate's fundraiser, or Chris Hughes, who bought himself a magazine. Of course, Karp isn't going anywhere right away — he has announced he'll stick around at Tumblr as CEO. (At least for now.)

"I believe that David Karp has the ingenuity for building really fun and stomach-tickling parts of the Web," Cheng says. "I don’t think he’ll change as a result of Yahoo acquiring Tumblr, but I hope we don’t lose David Karp as that creative genius. He can be really effective politically, and he’s really awesome at creating culture."

Miranda Neubauer contributed to this report