Posterous vs. Tumblr: which is best for blogging, lifestreaming and tweeting?

I’ve seen an incalculable number of articles recently boasting about how wonderful Tumblr was, and about the number of well-known people, such as someone called Mr John Mayer—apparently some sort of pop musician—that supposedly used it. I was actually a much earlier user of Tumblr than this Mr Mayer [i], opening an account in April 2007. I used it, at the time, mainly, though not exclusively, as a lifestream [ii] for my existing web presence (tweets, Flickr photos, and blog posts). I’ve found that quite a lot of people, when initially using Tumblr, expect to use it in this way, and usually end up neglecting either their original blog or their Tumblr account: in fact this seems to apply to the aforementioned Mr Mayer, who appears to have both a blog and a Tumblr account. The (dead) link to his closed Twitter account is even still on his blog home page. Thus while I have no idea whether his music reflects this, since he apparently started composing after the death of Debussy, Mr Mayer’s web presence is fairly typical of how dispersion among blogging tools can mess things up badly.

Because I was focusing exclusively on my blog, by early 2009, I’d stopped even looking at my Tumblr account, although I knew was a still there, and assumed naively it was still more or less updating the different components of my web presence. In any case, I had since found a much better vehicle for displaying my lifestream, Friendfeed.

When I eventually did look under the bonnet, I found there were issues with Tumblr, especially a growing habit of constantly ceasing to update imported feeds without apparent reason: at the time, support claimed that the issue had been resolved; but, as I will explain below, it hadn’t. Because support were unable to solve these issues, my Tumblr blog, which has sporadically stopped importing my feeds right from the very beginning, stopped updating altogether in March 2010:

My Tumblr blog
My Tumblr blog, showing a video about the Stone of Scone imported from Vimeo. You can customise the layout, but the interface is confusing and dated. It's also stopped importing feeds unless you log in regularly, meaning it can't be used as a pure lifestream any longer.

Enter Posterous, founded in May 2008 [iii]. Posterous, like Tumblr, is a hosted blogging platform focused on keeping posting hassle-free. Like Tumblr, it comes with a set of out-of-the-box themes and the option of using your own HTML and CSS to customize your blog’s appearance:

My Posterous blog
My Posterous blog. At present, I use this only to post images and videos to Twitter, because the result is nicer-looking than Twitpic, yFrog or other picture-hosting services. But Posterous is so flexible that you can use it for practically anything—even blogging.

But unlike Tumblr, Posterous doesn’t pretend that it can be used for keeping a lifestream either: in fact, it can’t import feeds at all, apart from Twitter updates. I suspect the reluctance to import feeds on a large scale is actually due to the unreliability of many RSS feeds, Twitter being a prime example. Instead, Posterous does the exact mirror opposite of Tumblr: it acts as a single location from which you can update all your other websites, on a completely customisable basis [iv].

Posterous and Tumblr both offer customisable hassle-free blogging, but function in exactly opposite ways

So Posterous and Tumblr are both perfectly good hosted blogging tools: both are unquestionably superior to earlier platforms in that category that are beginning to show their age, such as Blogger or WordPress.com, which have become totally obsolete. If your’re thinking of setting up a new hosted blog and don’t want to bother with too much hassle, you should unquestionably choose one of the two.

Where they differ—a fact of which most observers are unaware—is actually in what you can do with them:

  • Posterous really shines in its ability to act as a central point from which you can dispatch content to anywhere you like on the social net; your posts can be log or short, and contain images, video or text; Posterous will publish your content formatted appropriately and optionally post it to anywhere else you specify (Flickr, Twitter or Facebook);
  • Tumblr is best used as a repository for incoming items from your other web profiles and sites; I used it for this—and this only—for three years after I opened an account when the service started in 2007.
Posterous and Tumblr compared
Posterous and Tumblr compared. Tumblr, which when it launched could import quite a wide range of feeds, now only offers Delicious, Digg, Twitter, WordPress.com, Blogger, Livejournal, Vimeo and Youtube—when the imports work, and only if you log in regularly. Posterous actually does the opposite: it posts to your other sites, and doesn't import anything. The post.ly service, which you can access on the web or, via an API, from any enabled Twitter client, allows you to effectively push your tweets to Posterous.

Using Posterous or Tumblr as blogging adjuncts to your main blog is not a good idea: you’re best off keeping all your blog posts in one single location: a self-hosted WordPress blog, Tumblr or Posterous

Of course, in both cases, you can actually use these services as your main blogging site and publish original stories on them. You can also use them in conjunction with a ‘pure’ blog, with Tumblr or Posterous containing short items and thoughts you want to share on the spur of the moment, leaving your actual blog to host the more serious and lengthy stuff. That was actually how I intended to use Tumblr initially; in practice, however, actively maintaining two blogs is something few people manage to do consistently for a any length of time: I’ve found maintaining even one difficult without those lengthy—and embarrassing—periods of what I call ‘non-blogging rut’ during which people wonder whether my blog is dead.

In practice, therefore, it’s best to keep things consistent and simple and to stick with one location for blog posts, long or short. This can be your choice of Tumblr or Posterous, depending on how you want that blog to interact with the rest of your web presence; or it can be a dedicated blog, more probably of the hosted variety and typically running WordPress.

Tumblr has become useless as a pure lifestream vehicle, a policy it now actively discourages: Friendfeed or, even better, a self-hosted Sweetcron lifestream are better alternatives

My web presence currently consists essentially of this blog, a Flickr account, my Twitter, all of which are public, and my Facebook profile, which only friends can access. I’ve always wanted to have a place of record—usually called a Lifestream in web parlance—in which all my posts (except the Facebook ones of course) could be viewed together.

For three years, Tumblr served that purpose, although the site frequently stopped aggregating my RSS feeds, or did so with a long time lag, or with the wrong date stamp. Then in about March of this year, my Tumblr ground to a complete halt. After failing to reactivate the RSS feeds, I contacted support. Our exchange went like this:

I have been using Tumblr, since 2007, as a lifestream for my content posted on other sites. It worked beautifully for this, but it sounds as if the people at Tumblr aren’t keen on their service being used in this way. Over time I’ve noticed you’ve made it steadily harder and harder to import feeds.

Today, however, I noticed my feeds had stopped importing fifteen days ago. After looking at the help section, I discovered this, which must be a relatively recent addition as I had not seen it before:

“You must log into Tumblr frequently or directly post to Tumblr frequently in order for feed imports to remain active.”

So… this basically means people like me, who don’t use Tumblr as their main blog but like to use it as a lifestream, are now not welcome and encouraged to take their custom elsewhere. Correct?

This got the following reply:

Hello, Donald.

We just ask that you log into Tumblr frequently or directly post to Tumblr frequently in order for feed imports to remain active.

Please let me know if there’s anything else I can help you with.

Thanks for using Tumblr!

Thomas

Posterous's customer service, in contrast, actively welcome suggestions, and have been helpful and responsive, especially to my suggestion that they make the service available in other languages than English.

A lifestream is useful as a repository of your online presence, but should be kept separate from your blog

It seems clear that Tumblr don’t like you using their service purely for lifestreaming purposes and that it isn’t a priority for them correcting the admittedly tricky—though not insoluble—issues associated with importing feeds. I eventually settled for my present Sweetcron [v]-powered Lifestream. Although it is a bit time-consuming to set up [vi] and requires hosting on your own server, once it’s in place it does everything Tumblr used to do, much more elegantly, concisely and reliably:

My Lifestream page
My Lifestream page, based on the open-source Sweetcron code, which ReadWriteWeb eulogised when it launched. The code is no longer maintained (see why below), but it's still the best way of maintaining a record of your online presence if you're fed up with Tumblr's bugs, don't want the noise of Friendfeed and dont mind hosting it on your own server and putting your head under the bonnet a bit. The clever Derek Punsalan had some useful things to say about this.

Ironically, Sweetcron developer Yongfook himself actually migrated his blog to Posterous and simultaneously announced he wouldn’t be updating the code anymore. His reason was candidly explained:

If I’m honest, I started lifestreaming for me, not my audience. There’s definitely a strong value proposition for blog owners who are thinking to switch to a stream - it’s maintenance free. No more writing blog posts! That value doesn’t translate into audience value so well, though. I think my audience quickly got bored of seeing blurry food snapshots or out-of-context quips from my Twitter feed. Your mileage may vary.

Unlike me, however, Yongfook actually used Sweetcron as his main blog, something which I agree is extremely limiting in scope—and arguably not what Sweetcron was primarily intended to do in the first place: for those maintaining an actual blog, while also wanting a pure lifestream as a record of their online presence, Sweetcron remains an excellent option, though.

Anyone who wants a lifestream without the issues of Tumblr or the effort of Sweetcron can still use Friendfeed. I started using it in October 2007 as a repository of everything I did online, and it has been working like clockwork ever since. Friendfeed never really took off as a high-end social network, which was what it was designed to be, but the design, structure and underlying code of the site are incredibly robust and have never let me down. Despite Friendfeed effectively having ground to a halt after its acquisition by Facebook in August 2009, it has continued functioning flawlessly: I still use it for my lifestream feed; it is actually what you subscribe to when you choose ‘Lifestream (posts and links)’ as your RSS subscription to this site:

My Friendfeed profile
My Friendfeed profile. Although Friendfeed, not surprisingly, has gone completely dead as a social network after it was acquired by Facebook, it still manages the difficult trick of importing a wide range of feeds more reliably and cleanly than any other site, giving you a convenient place to display them without having to worry about maintenance. It also provides excellent RSS feeds,and is in fact used for the RSS for everything (posts and links) that you can subscribe to on this site.

You can post to either Posterous or to Tumblr in Markdown

You can post to Posterous or to Tumblr by email, which I personally don’t find particularly appealing, but is probably useful to some. In fact those who are so inclined can send their posts in Markdown, of which my regular readers know I’m a great fan: a rather clever universal app for the iPad or the iPhone, also called Markdown, allows you to do precisely that after previewing your post in the same interface. A great time saver for anyone who wants to blog to either Tumblr or to Posterous from his iPad.

Posterous is a good place to post pictures to Twitter

Although I prefer posting all my blog posts, however short, on this blog, I find myself constantly using Posterous’s post.ly Twitter bookmarklet-cum-url-shortening service. This comes in a standalone web application, or can be accessed as a client from quite a few Twitter apps, including the official Twitter for iPhone and Twitter for iPad, which I currently use. This means Twitter is actually the only service that will send items to Posterous as opposed to from it:

the post.ly web interface
The post.ly web interface: you can add files of any kind (images, videos, documents, etc.), a title and body text. The result will then be posted to Posterous, then to Twitter with a link to your Posterous post, and dispatched to whatever services you've activated in your Posterous account to autopost to, if desired.

So while I don’t use Posterous to blog, I do use it when I want to share a picture on Twitter. I post it to Posterous, via the bookmark let or the Twitter clients. The resulting collection of images is ad-free, with a customizable layout and initially nicer to look at than Twitpic, yfrog and other Twitter picture sites.

Posterous’s iPhone app is infinitely superior to Tumblr’s

Posterous also recently developed a free iPhone app: it’s got an amazingly intuitive interface and allows you to do everything that you want natively including, crucially for me, sending photos I’ve just taken on my iPhone straight to Posterous—and thence to Twitter:

The Posterous iPhone app
The recently-released Posterous iPhone app: this allows you to do everything you'd want to do on a desktop comper directly from your iPhone, including full blog posts and posting images and video from your phone library.

By comparison, Tumblr’s iPhone app is showing its age, and its unintuitive interface has been unfavourably reviewed by users in the iTunes Store. For a site that focuses on spur-of-the-moment blogging, this is a major drawback.

In conclusion, I can’t really see any good reason to use Tumblr in preference to Posterous. Much has been made of the fact that Tumblr is actually easier to sign up for, because it doesn’t rely on the same rather convoluted procedure used by Posterous, which requires you to sign up by email. This may explain why Tumblr has continued to attract users in recent months despite its increasingly buggy RSS importing and relatively outdated structure. But signing-up for a service is a one-off process, and once you’ve done this, Posterous clearly offers a superior range of options and a better-designed experience.

Tumblr’s conscious decision to downgrade its lifestreaming capability, probably due to its inability to master the technical issues involved, was a strategic error. All things considered, even though I personally use it only for a niche segment, my vote goes to Posterous: it’s better maintained, more reliable, better designed, more convenient to use, much more flexible, and better in tune with the needs of today’s users. Support for foreign languages is all it needs to become the best blogging platform available.

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  1. David Karp founded Tumblr in 2007 with Marco Arment as lead developer. About 75,000 existing bloggers soon switched to the platform, and since that time, the service has garnered more than three million users. []
  2. The term lifestream was coined by Eric Freeman and David Gelernter at Yale University in the mid-1990s to describe “…a time-ordered stream of documents that functions as a diary of your electronic life.” []
  3. Posterous is a blogging platform started in May 2008, funded by Y Combinator. It boasts integrated and automatic posting to other social media tools such as Flickr, Twitter, and Facebook, a built-in Google Analytics package, and custom themes. It is based in San Francisco. []
  4. One thing Posterous can’t do, and which I miss, is display a random post, which was perhaps the one feature of Tumblr that I really liked. []
  5. Sweetcron is an open source lifestreaming blog software created by Jon “Yongfook” Cockle based on the CodeIgniter framework. It was originally released on 3 September 2008 and the latest version following on 22 September. Sweetcron is similar to other web applications such as Tumblr and Friendfeed, but users are able to host their own lifestream on their own server and customize it in any way they want with the Sweetcron API. []
  6. I’m indebted to Derek Punsalan of 5Thirtyone whose lifestream code I used as basis for my own. []