A beautiful design and no jerks: how Tumblr did it

Tumblr is a platform for sharing pictures, stories and memes that has grown to tens of millions of users but still retained an intimate, community feel. Speaking at GigaOM’s Roadmap 2012 conference, CEO David Karp explained how Tumblr’s design allowed it to grow to an enormous scale without losing its core appeal.

“Good products are built by people who want to use it themselves,” said Karp, pointing to Apple’s (s aapl) Steve Jobs and Instagram’s (s fb) Kevin Systrom as examples of executives who loved what they were building. He added that aesthetics are important because a platform’s expression is also a form of identity for its users.

In the case of Tumblr, that sense of design extended not only to the platform itself but to the structure of the community as well. Karp explained that Tumblr deliberately chose “reblogging” as an alternative to commenting because, at a certain scale, internet forums degenerate into a “horrible world of internet anonymousness and awfulness.”

What Tumblr did instead was to design a more thoughtful form of community engagement by requiring people to repost content in its original context rather than simply piping in an anonymous comment. According to Karp, this meant that people who had “put themselves out there” through a guitar performance or a poem were more likely to attract a sympathetic, encouraging community rather than trolls.

He added that comments are “a second class feature” because a commentator is subsumed to a tiny text stream below the main piece of content. To foster engagement, Tumblr is instead choosing options like “Fan mail” which aspire to create more careful, thoughtful and elegant interactions.

The ultimate result, said Karp, is an eco-system in which creators love curators who share their work and curators who love the creators who help them build a sense of identity.

This helps explain why Tumblr is helping shape the future of media and, according to Karp, is now serving 20 billion page views a month.

Check out the rest of our RoadMap 2012 live coverage here, and a video recording of this session follow below: