Rediscovering Tumblr With Tumby

Tumblr and Tumby

Last fall I began talking with Robert Buckley about a startup he founded called Tumby.

At a high level, this is a Tumblr discoverability platform to help Users sift and sort through topics of interest with greater precision than, say, Tumblr’s “Explore Page“. Buckley believes that Tumblr is a “treasure trove of awesome content” and his goal is to innovate and deliver tools that help Users “discover, enjoy and share” it quickly and easily.

While the Explore Page works for posts chosen by designated editors and tagged within a category (eg., LOL, Art, Food, Vintage, etc.), Tumby shifts the control back to you. Tumby lets you create lists of Tumblrs who create content specific to your interests and put them in one or more topic categories you choose. This helps with your focus, as well as making sure you don’t miss posts that might be important to you but passed you on your Tumblr dashboard. You get control of topics and post types with built-in filtering mechanisms too.

You do this two ways: as curated list called a “TumbyLand” (here’s one for /r/tumblr on reddit) or with a personalized list called a “myTumbyLand”. In both cases, they are wired to a “Tumby Page” (here’s ours) which displays snapshots of the latest posts from the associated Tumblr and more.

The TumbyLands aggregate Tumblrs, their content and include various useful discoverability widgets. You can get a Tumby Page for any Tumblr on the planet — you just need its name. The TumbyLand lists can be public, private, or shared among users you authorize. Lists can have multiple collaborators too.

While Tumby’s currently in invitation mode, you can take a look and get your invite by visiting If you’re interested in curating a TumbyLand, email

Tumby Search adds another level of discoverability by integrating full-text search capability to your Tumblr. Tumblr’s standard search bar searches through blog tags, not through blog content. And in Buckley’s view, tagging is a limited, manual and subjective process. Full-text search, he says, is the opposite and its indexing is automatic. This ensures that readers don’t miss posts you made about specific topics.

For example, we’ve integrated Tumby search here at The FJP’s Tumblr. Here’s what a search for “newsroom disruption” looks like. The results, in our opinion, are richer than what would have been returned with Tumblr’s native search.

Buckley, a software veteran who’s been involved in the introduction of advanced technologies with companies such as Sun Microsystems, IBM’s ILOG, and Kodak, recognized an opportunity to do what he’d always done, but this time with Tumblr. He’s been working and thinking about Tumby and Tumblr discoverability for about a year now, and is rolling out what he considers a “final beta” for public view.

Below is a Q&A where Buckley explains what Tumby is, how it came about, and while not quite revealing the secret sauce about how it all works, he does explain what it’s like working with Tumblr as a platform and issues of discoverability in general. — Michael

FJP: What is Tumby and why did you create it?

Robert Buckley: We make it faster and easier to discover, enjoy, and share the treasure trove of awesome stuff on Tumblr. We did it because we recognize the value and the promise of the platform. As users, we recognized some ways to improve the experience too.

An analyst summed one aspect best during the demonstration of an early prototype: “you’re bringing order to the chaos”. I recognized our first opportunity to innovate when I couldn’t find a post I’d written on my own Tumblr. That’s how our full-text Tumby Search was born.

What does Tumby do and how are people and organizations using it?

Robert Buckley: We innovate to make our “discover, enjoy, and share” mantra happen and easy to adopt. We seamlessly integrate full-text search functionality into the native Tumblr themes of content producers and curators. Changing a single line of code change on your side enables this. We do the rest.

Our other innovations are in the cloud. You use a modern browser to access them. The keystone is a discoverability mechanism that efficiently delivers snapshots of the newest posts from any Tumblr on the planet. We have an aggregated list management approach to complement that. Anyone who has a Tumblr or who knows a Tumblr’s name gets to play.

Lately, we’re seeing folks with multiple Tumblrs using our stuff as an administration tool since they get a single view into all of their stuff.

What discoverability issues are you trying to tackle, and how do you go about doing it?

Robert Buckley: Let me start by answering “why”. There’s a treasure trove of stuff already on Tumblr and more arriving by the minute. The challenge is it’s difficult and time-consuming to find. That’s true for folks who are already in the Tumblrverse and more so for folks outside of it. The stereotype of Tumblr being the land of animated cat GIFs and porn is true for too many.

The reality is there’s lots of serious, meaningful, and relevant “adult material” — yes, pun intended — ready and waiting for you. There’s awesome stuff that spans interesting subject matter including journalism, photography, art, news, politics, culture, history, and lots more. We don’t want you to miss the good stuff and we make it easy for you to avoid the bad. There’s room for fandoms but it should not be at the risk of obscuring work like yours at The FJP.

We do this by sticking with our vision to innovate new ways to make it easier and quicker to discover, enjoy, and share content. That’s a win for the consumers and a win for the producers.

How? Make it easier to triage the stuff most relevant to one’s particular interests. Make it easier to find stuff focused on specific subject matter. Make it easier to consume and to share it so the content producers get more amplification. Make it easier to prolong the content’s shelf-life, so deserved by its producers for their efforts. Make it easier to introduce the Tumblrverse to outsiders — they just may join the party and create Tumblrs that add value too.

We started with search. We do a seamless integration of full-text search — beyond keywords — into your Tumblr so folks can find your stuff. That’s Tumby Search.

Next, we tackled the creation of snapshots of the newest posts from any Tumblr on the planet. We display them in an attractive, consistent format so folks can quickly scan the newest content, drill down further when it piques their interest, and share it if they consider it valuable. Sharing on social media like Twitter or Google+ or doing Tumblr likes, follows, and reblogs are one-click away. That’s a Tumby Page.

Then, we used what has become the Tumby platform to integrate various bits and widgets among the presentation layers to deliver list management. TumbyLand is the curated version for shared interests or specific genres. myTumbyLand is the personal version. For example, there’s a TumbyLand for the /r/tumblr subreddit so fellow redditors can submit, find, and become more familiar with each other’s Tumblrs. Now, they can efficiently keep tabs on the latest posts there — aggregated or individually by Tumblr or by category. That was a manual and repetitive process prior.

myTumbyLand is similar except you control who’s on your list, you define the categories, you decide what, when, and where to share. In either case you can quickly pinpoint exactly what you’re looking for with easy-to-use searches, filters, drilldowns, and more.

What’s it like to trying to create a service like Tumby on top of Tumblr? Easy, difficult? What unexpected issues did you come across?

Robert Buckley: “It’s not so easy telling people that after all those years of eating toast for breakfast, now there’s something better,” said Murray Lender, the man who bagelized America. “But it’s not so hard either.”

The UX design is usually more difficult to refine than to implement. Fortunately, our technology underpinnings allow us to be nimble when we recognize — or our users raise useful new ways — to enhance their Tumblr experience.

We’re not really on top of the Tumblr platform. We’re more of a complementary array of mechanisms working in concert with the Tumblrs themselves. Biggest surprise? We spent a lot of time sorting out the odd stuff folks often do with HTML markup. That would cause us rendering problems. We solved 99.9% of those issues although won’t be surprised to be challenged again.

No new news that introducing change is somewhat challenging. Some get comfortable with inefficient methods. Some Tumblrs have removed the search boxes in their themes because of the inefficiencies of keyword search. Some have resolved themselves to knowing they’re missing stuff but don’t have the luxury of spending lots of time muddling through the Dashboard. Some know there’s great content in some Tumblrs but the themes are too difficult to navigate so they avoid them.

We believe we’re addressing all of those issues. One on my favorite emails was “Wow. My Tumblr looks awesome on my Tumby Page. I just linked to it from my homepage.”

Get technical: how does Tumby work under the hood (eg., are you using Tumblr’s API’s, RSS, etc.)?

I’m not inclined to reveal the “11 herbs and spices” but we’re definitely using some of the coolest stuff out there: jQuery Mobile, HTML5, MISO datasets, Google stuff, and more. Our use of Tumblr’s API is minor.

Of course, being on the leading-edge brings challenges along with the rewards. For example, we’re not supporting IE or Opera at the moment but our data shows Chrome, Firefox, and Safari as the preferred browsers among our users so we see no downside to our adoption. Nevertheless, we’re writing once to support both desktop and mobile platforms so we can be in many places quickly.

Are there plans to apply Tumby to other social platforms (eg., Pinterest,Twitter, etc.)?

Robert Buckley: We’re ferociously focused on Tumblr. However, we carefully architected the Tumby platform to be able to incorporate other stuff fairly quickly and easily. Many Tumby Pages already have Twitter timelines embedded. The /r/tumblr TumbyLand includes a short-form RSS of its hot posts. New stuff like Vine is quickly integrated by default since it’s now yet another form of Tumblr content like YouTube, Vimeo, Screenr, SoundCloud, Spotify, and others which all run natively on Tumby Pages.

Our users will drive those decisions. If they want it — and it adds value — then you’ll find it in Tumby.

Michael Cervieri

Michael Cervieri is the creator of the Future Journalism Project where he explores better ways to produce, consume and understand the news. He has taught Internet and Mobile communication technologies at both the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the university’s School of International and Public Affairs. (Twitter | Contact)