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From #SXSW: Tumblr founder David Karp on encouraging creativity

4 min read


David Karp says the idea for Tumblr came out of a desire for “an identity online to be proud of” and a frustration with Web tools that constrained creativity.

In an chat with The Austin Chronicle’s Dan Solomon at the SXSW Interactive Festival, the founder of the social network and blogging platform explained the two-pronged idea behind the site: Users should be able to post anything and customize everything.

The 26-year-old said he continues to focus on encouraging and facilitating creativity among the network’s users. Here are four keys to Tumblr’s success in fostering a creative community:

Customizability and curation

Karp praised Myspace during the chat, saying that while much of the site was ugly, at least users were taking the time to make the pages unique and representative of their personalities. Facebook, he said, ended the ugliness in social networking, but it did so largely by removing the freedom users had to mold their pages to their own tastes.

The ability to customize everything was a founding principle of Tumblr. In contrast to Twitter and Facebook, which are about sharing, “following” and “fans,” Tumblr is all about creating something from scratch. The encouragement of curation — users whose Tumblr pages highlight others’ posts — added a middle layer in the typical creator-audience relationship. Curating has made for a larger total audience, Karp said, and is inherently a more creative process than sharing.

Allowing flexibility

A common theme in the chat was that Tumblr had no idea how its users would react to changes. Shortly after the network started allowing animated GIFs to be posted to the site, Karp said, the cinemagraph was born. These still photographs with a subtle, repeated animation helped bring a new level of artistry and creativity to the site.

Karp said cinemagraphs are an example of how resourceful creators, when given a bigger canvas and maximum flexibility, can create entire new mediums.

Setting a tone

Tumblr doesn’t have the standard blog comment system of users adding their reactions below a post. In place of the comment is the reblog — if you have a reaction, the post is duplicated on your own page with your comment below it.

Karp said reblogging a response to the the low-quality comments on larger multimedia-sharing sites, such as YouTube. The system creates accountability: If you’re being a jerk, at least you’re doing it in your space.

Karp was critical of blogs that create a distinction between creators and commentors, saying that naturally leads to belligerence. The shape, design and tone of a network helps define the community, and the reblog encourages users to buy in, he added.

Keeping up with trends

Smartphones have been making panoramic photos easier to capture — iOS6 has the feature standard for its stock camera application. But Karp said that panoramas lost much of their magic when displayed on the Web. In January, Tumblr added a feature that allowed users to click on a panoramic photo to bring up a much larger canvas. Tumblr’s creative community again responded: Gaming companies began to post entire game boards using the feature, and illustrators took panoramic photos of their work to allow for a more detailed look.

The key is that by paying attention to the changing tools available to the community, Tumblr was able to find ways to maximize the tools’ usefulness.

Tumblr has placed its trust in its users to create an active, dynamic and artistic site, and though other text-heavy social sites and blogging platforms have been playing catch up, Karp’s intense focus on the network’s community means creatives will likely continue to find Tumblr’s pages filled with the latest tools and new, interesting creations.