Should We Have Been So Mad at Tumblr for Being Down?

(Or, why Social Media is Like Drug Dealing)

Earlier this week, the micro-blogging site Tumblr went down for more than a day. This situation caused a backlash, notably on Twitter, with many expressing surprising levels of anger.

But checking today, there’s nary a negative mention.

(If you don’t know Tumblr, it’s a micro-blogging site offering a few more bells and whistles than Twitter, but is much simpler then WordPress or Blogger. It’s a simple, stripped-down site for posting a basic photo or message. And it’s free.)

During the downtime, I was taken aback by the outpouring of hate, and said as much in a snarky Twitter post.

And I have a Tumblr site for my Wisdom for the Day blog, which posts to my Twitter account as well as Facebook via porting an RSS feed through TwitterFeed, so I was affected.

But I’ve been giving this situation some thought and maybe the haters had a point.

Why Was Everyone So Mad?

On the Web, we expect 100% uptime and quickly get frustrated when Facebook is down or we hit the Fail Whale, but a few minutes later the site returns and all is forgiven. Perhaps this behavior is a bit unreasonable, but it is not unlike the behavior of an addict: so long as one can access their drug—even if they do not use it—they’re fine. Threatened or delay the drug and an irrational response results. Return access to the drug and the user will quickly become calm again.

Sounds familiar? The Web is an integral part of our lives now. We are addicted. The response to Tumblr being down had less to do with the actual inconvenience than the violation of our assumption and expectation that it would always be there for us.

People Should Have Remembered It’s Free, Right?

The fact that Tumblr is free did not seem to taper people’s anger. If anything, it heightened it.

When we pay for something that does not perform as we would like, we can ask for a refund or some other monetary redress. When something is offered for free, we pay with trust and loyalty. Much like the study about charging late parents at a day care center, a social and moral contract can be stronger than a financial one.

In other words, we didn’t feel ripped off, we felt betrayed. Tumblr entered into a social contract with us and didn’t live up to their end of the bargain, leaving us with no mechanism for redress except anger. With that in mind, the frustration is justified (though some comments were over the top).

Lessons for Tumblr to Learn

Like most social media sites just starting out, Tumblr is free. But like Facebook, Twitter, Hootsuite, YouTube and others, it’s only a matter of time before they find a way to monetize the site via paid advertising or a a freemium model. Returning to the drug analogy, this is like street dealers who offer free samples of drugs. Once someone is hooked, the dealer begins to charge.

With such a massive period of downtime, Tumblr became to its users like a drug dealer who is only occasionally on his corner—unreliable. In a social contract, this is the worst thing you can do. And Tumblr users let this fact be known loud and clear.

Now, I cannot comment on what happened to Tumblr’s infrastructure. I’ve worked in high tech and know servers crash and databases go down. No matter your skills, there is nothing you can do to make a server reboot faster or copy data from one database to another quicker.

What I can comment on is their response. Their blog has one post about the event and their Twitter feed only has a handful of mentions. Tumblr should have seen the firestorm brewing and responded to it. It would not have taken much for one or two staff members—even admins not involved in the technology—to jump on Twitter and post periodic updates. Even something like “Databases backed up; restarting servers” would have shown they were working on the problem. As well, replying to some of the negative comments would have shown Tumblr was listening and cared.

Unlike the examples of Air Canada and United Airlines that I’ve talked about, Tumblr is in the social media business. Their failure to use social media to deal with the crisis could shake a lot of people’s faith in Tumblr holding up their end of the social and moral contract, especially when Tumblr begins to monetize their site.

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