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Don’t Confuse the Genre for the Medium

Neal Ungerleider wrote a a funny piece on Fast Company about the State Department’s new Tumblr blog this morning, including a few suggestions on how the State Department could be more Tumblry by jumping on some of Tumblr’s most popular trends. It’s a great piece of writing, and it also says exactly what I was afraid someone would say when we started recommending Tumblr as a platform for government programs.

Tumblr has done a spectacular job of attracting a very large, very young, very diverse, and very energetic audience. Because of Tumblr’s social features, that audience has developed into a real community with a distinct culture. It’s a culture I happen to love, but it’s hard to imagine how the government could fit in with it. However, we didn’t recommend Tumblr as a tool for government on the merits of its community. We recommended it because it’s a great medium.

The title of this post, “don’t confuse the genre for the medium,” comes from an interview with comic artist Scott McCloud in which he points out that people miss out on the power of comics as a communication tool because they think comics are about men flying around in tights. They’re not. A comic is a series of sequential images with text, and is an extremely powerful means of communication. A comic can tell the story of a holocaust survivor in ways that no other medium can.

We often witness the same confusion when organizations start using new social media outlets. People look at Twitter, observe how twitterers tweet, and assume that using Twitter means mangling their organization’s voice until it sounds more like Twitter. That’s not how to do it. The TSA dabbled in this last November and it was disastrous. It’s a mistake of confusing the writing style of people on Twitter with Twitter as a medium.

The same thing, of course, applies to Tumblr. USA.gov’s Blog, while powered by Tumblr, is very un-Tumblry for specific reasons (that I’ll explain further in a later post). USA.gov uses Tumblr because it’s easy to use, allows for rapid blogging, and helps accomplish its goal of making government information more sharable. Tumblr’s community has been very welcoming to USA.gov, but it would be a mistake for USA.gov to compromise its mission and voice in order to gain more traction among the community.

Of course, Ungerleider isn’t recommending that USA.gov or the State Department do any such thing. In fact, he’s done a great job of revealing how laughable it would be if they did.

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Thanks for the post. Am I wrong to say in the end using Tumblr just as the mechansim to power and in a sense doesn’t matter that much if was WordPress, Drupal, Tumblr, etc – the key is the USA/State mission and voice. A little more shareable but pretty similar to how done in past?

Jed Sundwall

Short answer: yes. We’re essentially porting USA.gov’s existing “Facetweet” strategy to Tumblr, so it’s nothing really new. I guess that’s the point of this post. We’ve spent a few years developing a solid voice and strategy, which keeps us grounded when charting new territory.

Long answer, if “the past” refers to GovGab, we’re doing things pretty differently, in terms of content and style. However, those changes were bound to come, whether or not we chose Tumblr or another platform.

As far as the WordPress, Drupal, Tumblr not mattering, we looked at all of our options and chose Tumblr because we think it’s the best of breed right now, for us. Tumblr’s massive audience and social features make our content vastly more sharable than we’d be able to do on any other platform. It also gives us a lot of room for customization. Less customization that an installation of WordPress or Drupal, but enough for our needs and more than a WordPress.com blog. It strikes the right balance of nimbleness and power. Nimbleness is a weird word.

Oh, and I’m a contractor and nothing in this comment represents an official GSA position blah blah blah.


Really dumb question about Tumblr for a Tumblr novice (me) –

-How does a Tumblr blog that is url redirected like a blog.usa.gov show up in Tumblr ecosystem and tap into that audience?

I’m trying to understand the Tumblr follow and ecosystem…and how that is like a Twitter follow or Facebook page like

Just curious cause I think that’s a difference and I can’t quite get it. For example a WordPress/Drupal blog doesnt actually get traffic from sites built on those platforms – the main advantage is the tech plug-ins to customize the site.

Jed Sundwall

No dumb questions!

People who are logged into Tumblr see a little “Follow” icon in the top right corner of every page on blog.usa.gov. One click, and they’re following our blog, similar to following on Twitter or liking on Facebook. Now, whenever they go to Tumblr.com, our posts will appear in their dashboard, along with posts from the other blogs they follow. It’s just another newsfeed—richer than Twitter and less chatty than Facebook.

People can also “like” or reblog any of our posts, which is, again, similar to behavior on Facebook and Twitter. In terms of behavior, there’s not much of a difference. We are, however, able to reach a different audience.

As far as plugins go, Tumblr’s severely limited in comparison to WordPress or Drupal, but we’re ok with that because we don’t want the USA.gov blog to be much more than a simple blog.

Our focus is on keeping a steady stream of useful, relevant, and interesting content going out to as many people as possible (have you seen our guidelines (PDF)?). Particularly using media make our content highly sharable. We’re looking for platforms that get out of the way and let us do that.

Let me know if this makes sense. I’ve got to write another post (as promised) explaining some of the decisions we’ve made that make the USA.gov blog somewhat un-Tumblry.