The Appification of Tumblr

Victoria Gomes-Boronat

For this week’s case study, I’ve decided to revisit an old friend: Tumblr. During my high school years, the visual blog platform, Tumblr, was all the rage. It also happened to give me my first coding experience, and at the time, I didn’t even realize/consider that I was acting as a coder. Tumblr is a highly customizable blog building website. I consider it a less formal version of WordPress. Users are able to share, like, reblog, and send photos, videos, texts, audios, etc. When constructing your own blog, you have the capability of customizing the theme (color, background, fonts, layout, etc.) of your blog, and all of these themes are coded with HTML and CSS. More experienced coders are able to write their own codes for themes and widgets in order to customize their blogs. As professor Irvine explains, HTML “allows a flexible, unlimited nesting of content and structure layers, embedded media types, interactive functions, and
behind the scenes communication with multiple network sources and services for
fetching and updating real-time data — all customizable for any device, OS,
interface, and screen form factor,” (2018). This essentially means that HTML is a metadata structure that is completely independent of any device or operating system.

When analyzing Tumblr as a socio-technical and modular system, it is clear that there are various unseen forces that drive the design of the site. Tumblr is still a business and therefore, there are various ads across the site and many of the already made themes hide behind a paywall. If the site detects that you’ve found a way to copy a paid theme’s HTML code without paying, it will revert your site to the default Tumblr theme,

Tumblr makes available specialized HTML and CSS code (“Tumblr Template Code”) for the design and layout of blog pages available for use on some of the Services (“Themes”). Certain Themes are available for purchase as a Paid Service (as defined below) (such Themes, “Premium Themes”). Purchased Premium Themes may not be transferred between Accounts, between blogs, or between Services on a single Account and are subject to the payment terms herein. (Tumblr Terms of Service, 2020)

However, how does the experience change with the “appification” of the website? One of the greatest functionalities of Tumblr is completely removed in the application. Users are no longer allowed to adjust the code of their theme to customize the interface of their blog on the application. The application includes a very simple, default theme and the only adjustments that one is able to make is background and accent colors. Why is it that Tumblr took away the functionality that made it so succesful in the first place? Well, as professor Irvine exaplains, “App development is Web standards-based in principle, but in practice app development is detached from the general Web and designed for the proprietary architectures of corporate brands and manufactures (Apple iOS, Google Android, Microsoft are the major device platforms), so that an app can run as a “native” piece of software in the proprietary device,” (2018). The creation of an application must abide by the regulations of and be exclusively installed and downloaded through the provider’s store i.e. the Apple App Store, “Apps thus de-Webs the Web on many levels by simultaneously exploiting modularity (and black-boxing a device as one module)
and the open architecture of the Web and Internet for bundling specific functions
and services that work only on the device-branded app,” (Irvine, 2018). If you compare the website version of my site and the appilcation version below, you’ll see their are huge visual/interface differences, even though they are the same site.

The application also differs with the website in that it has a camera capability. It draws on the modular design and camera capabilites of the phone in order to allow users to take photos and videos and post them through the application.

My question is: How can we take advantage of the safety and easy usability of app designs, while also encouraging customization and innovation? Is there a way for us to have both?


Irvine, M. (2018, Nov 12). The World Wide Web: From Open Extensible Design to Fragmented “Appification.” Unpublished Manuscript.

Tumblr. (n.d.). Retrieved November 11, 2020, from