Pillowfort wants to be the Tumblr alternative, but it’s not ready yet

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Tumblr users are on the brink of an exodus. In the search for a new home, many are pointing toward a relatively new and unheard-of website to house its orphans: Pillowfort.

Pillowfort is a young, blog-centric social platform inspired by early LiveJournal communities and Tumblr fans. People can post their photos, written text, illustrations, and GIFs, and share those creations with others. There are options for both public and private settings, but the site is designed to allow people to spread their work, connect with like-minded individuals, and create communities — including ones that appreciate sexual writing and imagery.

Now, it’s being thrust into the spotlight ahead of Tumblr’s decision to remove “adult content,” a controversial change met with scorn from its impassioned community. But Pillowfort remains a work in progress. Since launching on Kickstarter and Indiegogo earlier this year, Pillowfort has only rolled out beta invites to a small group of people for testing. And although it’s active, the site is often barely functional, according to people who have used the service over the past couple of months.

As people look for a new website to host their writing and photos, Pillowfort is the name on everyone’s tongue. Thousands of requests have flooded the team’s inbox since Tumblr made its announcement on Monday, the site’s leader says. It’s unclear, however, whether a site without a dedicated development team that’s still in its early planning stages and is unprepared for an influx of users can act as a suitable replacement for Tumblr’s vibrant communities and millions of users.

Pillowfort
Pillowfort’s design.
Image: Pillowfort

It’s not ready yet

Julia Baritz launched Pillowfort in February 2017, but she acknowledges that no one was really paying attention to what her team was doing. Only 700 people signed up for the site less than two years ago, and that was a small enough group for her team — herself and two other full-time developers — to focus on without much concern.

That changed following Tumblr’s announcement. Baritz tells The Verge that suddenly the company’s inbox was overflowing with requests from people looking to set up camp on a new platform. It came at the most inopportune time; Baritz had to take the site down for maintenance over the weekend to fix a security flaw pointed out by people using Pillowfort, and the sudden influx in people trying to access the site made every issue feel bigger.

Pillowfort wasn’t designed to be Tumblr. It was an alternative, based on years spent in fandom communities on sites like LiveJournal and Dreamwidth, a similar journaling and blogging tool. Now, however, Baritz realizes there’s an additional responsibility that comes with the explosion of attention Pillowfort is receiving. The team is putting together a plan to try and accommodate newcomers’ interest in the site, but they understand it’s going to take a bit of balancing.

“I’m definitely excited that so many people are interested in the site, but it’s true that we didn’t expect this much attention all at once,” Baritz says. The site’s infrastructure was designed for the smaller audience Pillowfort saw at launch, and Baritz says the team is rushing to catch up as Tumblr users flood in. “It’s going to take a little while for us to be ready and to be able to accommodate all this attention.”

Part of that balancing act includes keeping the number of people who are allowed on the site to a minimum. Those who have received beta invites in the past, or have had their registration approved will be allowed to start or continue posting, but there will be a limit to how many newcomers are granted site privileges. The current one-time $5 fee will remain in place, Baritz says. And although there’s a possibility it will disappear in the future, the fee also acts as a good way of keeping people at bay until development picks up and more support is available.

Functionality is a big concern right now.

Pear Waldorf, a longtime Tumblr user, has been using Pillowfort for a couple of months and says that the site isn’t nearly prepared enough for the influx in users headed its way. Waldorf was invited to join the service through a second-wave beta invite and, hearing hopeful remarks from their friends, decided to check out the possible Tumblr alternative. They didn’t have any intention to jump ship, but they told The Verge that following the company’s announcement about 18+ content, they’ve also started looking for a new home.

This isn’t unusual for Waldorf. They’ve been in the fandom community for long enough to remember the fall of LiveJournal, the unfortunate shift to Dreamwidth, and the eventual migration to Tumblr. Communities shift when the websites no longer meet the needs of their creators, Waldorf says, and Tumblr provided a specific tool that neither LiveJournal nor Dreamwidth could: accessible sharing.

Tumblr was easy to use, but Waldorf tells The Verge that Pillowfort isn’t close to that. They say the site is barely functional.

“It needs more money,” Waldorf says. “It needs somebody that actually knows how to code … The site is barely functional. You have very, very basic functionality, but it’s not a place that I feel like I would spend a lot of time in the way that it is now.”

Baritz is aware that there are aspects of Pillowfort that need to be worked on. Pillowfort wasn’t supposed to be this popular this quickly. It wasn’t supposed to house all of Tumblr’s lost devotees looking for a new place to live, and it was never supposed to be a Tumblr duplicate. Baritz wants people to enjoy Pillowfort, build lasting communities, and blog without fear of repercussion over content that’s being posted. Pillowfort is committed to allowing adult content on the site as long as it doesn’t violate any laws or people’s well-being.

“I want our users to be able to create whatever they want and not have to worry about having their content moved or censored,” Baritz says.

Baritz clearly has big plans for Pillowfort, but she’s also aware of how current users feel, telling The Verge it’s something the team is working diligently on. She only has one request for the people flooding the site and looking for a new home: be patient.

Pillowfort
An example of how the Pillowfort community works.
Image: Pillowfort

Patience, patience, patience

Kari Lottle is a longtime Tumblr user who signed up for Pillowfort and was granted access the day Tumblr’s announcement was made. She’s spent her time playing around with the website, and although it’s clearly not a Tumblr replacement yet, she has hope that it can become exactly what the community needs it to be. Right now, while people are looking for a new digital space to call home, that’s more than enough.

“I don’t think it’s going to become a new Tumblr anytime soon, but I think that it might, it might be able to come close, especially on the fandom side,” Lottle tells The Verge. “Pillowfort is the closest we have. It’s entirely possible. The big thing holding it back right now would be the $5 entry fee.”

At the end of the interview, Baritz paused and asked if she could add a quick note. As someone who has spent years on different websites building communities, she understands the sense of urgency people have, but she wants people to remember that Pillowfort wasn’t built to replace Tumblr. She wants people to remember that websites take time to build and maintain. Pillowfort is a team of fewer than five people. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Pillowfort won’t be either.