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Yahoo researchers try to understand the mythical Tumblr

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The vast amounts of information collected by social networks have raised many concerns among privacy advocates in recent years. Drilling into the data willingly forked over by users, researchers have been able to glean a lot about people from sites like Facebook and Twitter.

But there's one social network that's managed to remain a bit more mysterious. Tumblr is often overlooked by social media scientists who have a hard time sketching a reliable demographic picture of the social blogging platform.

That's changed this week, with a wealth of new information coming from a team of researchers at Yahoo Labs in Sunnyvale. Yahoo made waves when it announced the purchase of Tumblr last year. Some were optimistic about the purchase, but many were concerned that Yahoo’s ownership might drive the network into the ground, a la Flickr. But it seems Yahoo is dedicated to helping the network thrive by better understanding what they've acquired.

"While many articles about Tumblr have been published in major press, there is not much scholar work so far," reads the study published by Yi Chang and his team of researchers.

The basics were already publicly known. With more than 166 million users and 73 billion posts, Tumblr has risen to become the 16th most popular site in the United States. The researchers also confirmed that the network is immensely popular with younger users. Most people on Tumblr are under 25.

But popularity with the kids is common for social networks—at least in their early days. Chang and his team were looking for what distinguishes Tumblr from its peers. It was a challenge partially because Tumblr doesn't require basic biographical sign-up information like gender or location.

However, looking at a subset of nearly 600 million posts published in August and September of 2013, the researchers learned a lot about the behavior of users. For one thing, Tumblr is a fairly incestuous group, consisting of a dense Web of connections between blogs.

The researchers looked at the rate of reciprocity on the site (i.e. If person A follows person B, does person B follow person A in return?). Traditionally blogs have a low rate of reciprocity—about 3 percent—meaning most communication is a one way street. But on Twitter, the rate of reciprocity is much higher, closer to 22 percent.

Somewhat surprisingly, researchers learned that on Tumblr, the rate of reciprocity was nearly 30 percent. Furthermore, Chang and his colleagues found that the average distance between any two Tumblr users was 4.7 steps.

This intertwinedness exists even though the average Tumbler post is longer than Twitter with its self imposed 140-character limit. Researchers found that the average Tumblr post was 427 characters (not including quotes or URLs), compared to the average Twitter post of 68 characters. The study also found that most of these posts—90 percent—involved either text or photos, even though Tumblr is designed to support a range of other media.

Perhaps the heightened connectedness of Tumblr is also what helps content spread more quickly than it does on Twitter.

"Compared with Twitter, Tumblr is more vibrant and faster in terms of reblog and interactions," the researchers write. "Tumblr reblog has a strong bias toward recency. Approximately three-fourths of the first reblogs occur within the first hour and 95.84 percent appear within one day."

All this information is illuminating, but how Yahoo intends to put it to good use is still anyone's guess. There has been plenty of skepticism around the company's decision to buy Yahoo for more than $1 billion last year. Tumblr users petitioned to stop it, pointing toward the company's management of Flickr as evidence that Yahoo is more concerned about advertising revenue than fostering online communities. There haven't been too many significant changes or mass exoduses since the deal was finalized, but only time will tell. Hopefully Yahoo can put its newly acquired information to good use.

H/T MIT Technology Review | Photo via Romain Toornier/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)