How TikTok Can Avoid the Same Fate as Tumblr: Disrupting Network Effects and Building Defensibility



Sep 07, 20235 min read


How TikTok Can Avoid the Same Fate as Tumblr: Disrupting Network Effects and Building Defensibility

In the world of social media, trends come and go, and platforms rise and fall. One platform that experienced a slow and painful death was Tumblr. The question now is, how can TikTok avoid the same fate? By examining the downfall of Tumblr and understanding the concept of network effects, we can uncover actionable advice for TikTok's future.

The first key factor that contributed to Tumblr's demise was its failure to match the direction that society was heading. The atmosphere of Tumblr was centered around curating content and mood boards, which didn't align with the growing vanity and self-expression found on other social media platforms. In contrast, platforms like TikTok offer users the ability to interact with others through features like live-streaming, and the focus is more on the user themselves rather than solely on the content. This shift in direction allowed users on other platforms to become influencers more easily, while Tumblr struggled to keep up.

Another aspect that played a significant role in Tumblr's downfall was its lack of emphasis on video content. While users could post videos on Tumblr, the platform's utility for video content was not up to par. Vine and YouTube dominated the short-form video market, leaving Tumblr behind. The social media world has a strong preference for videos, as they provide a hit of dopamine in a way that static posts cannot. Tumblr's inability to adapt to this video-centric trend prevented true Tumblr personalities from developing. Unlike other platforms where influencers show their face and directly interact with their followers, Tumblr allowed for success without ever revealing oneself. This distinction between influencer-type success and blogging fame ultimately hindered the growth of Tumblr's user base.

Furthermore, Tumblr's culture revolved around niche interests that people didn't want to broadcast publicly. This anonymity was both a strength and a weakness. While it allowed users to be vulnerable about mental health or discuss taboo topics, it also led to a lack of regulation and sometimes toxic behavior. The absence of proper regulation and the presence of adult content through anonymous accounts eventually compelled Tumblr to ban adult content altogether. This decision resulted in a mass exodus of users, as a significant part of Tumblr culture relied on the ability to express themselves creatively through erotic content.

So, how can TikTok learn from Tumblr's mistakes and avoid a similar fate? The answer lies in understanding and disrupting network effects while building defensibility.

Network effects are a powerful force that contribute to the success of social media platforms. They create a feedback loop where the value of the network increases as more users join. However, disrupting network effects can be a potent strategy for startups looking to challenge incumbents. One way to disrupt network effects is by making the incumbent's network redundant and creating a better customer experience in the process.

Startups that follow this approach target novel, low-value markets initially and gradually encroach on the incumbent's market. By eliminating points of friction and creating a superior user experience, these startups can challenge the incumbents' networks. Zoom, for example, attacked Skype by allowing its users to call anyone, even if they did not have a Zoom account. This move turned Skype's closed network into a weakness and helped Zoom rapidly overtake its competitor.

Similarly, Opendoor disrupted Zillow's network effects by pioneering the iBuyer model in the real estate industry. While Zillow relied on the network effect between agents and buyers, Opendoor purchased homes from sellers, refurbished them, and sold them directly to buyers. This model created a different customer experience and made it difficult for Zillow to respond effectively.

In the case of TikTok, its decision to abandon the follower graph and distribute content algorithmically helped it scale rapidly. By doing so, TikTok weakened its network effect, allowing copycats like Triller to gain traction. While this strategy helped TikTok scale, it also sacrificed defensibility.

While disrupting network effects can be a successful strategy for startups, it is crucial to build in some form of defensibility as you scale. Building strong switching costs, like Substack did, can help sustain a startup's position. Substack turned Medium's model on its head by making its network redundant. Writers on Substack have a stronger relationship with subscribers compared to Medium followers, creating a switching cost that benefits the platform.

To avoid the same fate as Tumblr, TikTok should consider the following actionable advice:

  • 1. Focus on the power of video content: TikTok's strength lies in its ability to deliver short-form videos that capture users' attention. Continuously innovate and improve the video experience to keep users engaged and excited.
  • 2. Establish clear policies on harmful content and offer support for mental health: Toxic behavior and lack of regulation were significant issues on Tumblr. By taking a proactive approach to address harmful content and providing resources for mental health support, TikTok can create a safer and more positive environment for its users.
  • 3. Value and support sex creators who are of-age: TikTok, like Tumblr, faces challenges regarding adult content. However, there is a growing community of creators who focus on consensual, educational sex content. By finding a balance between regulation and supporting creators, TikTok can avoid alienating this user base while still maintaining a safe and inclusive platform.

In conclusion, TikTok has the opportunity to learn from Tumblr's mistakes and build a sustainable future. By understanding network effects, disrupting them when necessary, and building defensibility, TikTok can continue to thrive in the ever-evolving world of social media.


  1. "Tumblr died a slow and painful death. Here's how TikTok can avoid the same fate.", (Glasp)
  2. "How to Disrupt Network Effects", (Glasp)

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