The market for blogging and microblogging services is quite competitive, but one of the simplest, Tumblr, has also managed to build a large and loyal following.

But keeping up with that large following as it grows is proving to be tough, and after experiencing 24 hours of downtime the other day, some are questioning whether more tumbles will take their toll on user loyalty.

According to David Karp, Tumblr’s CEO, the downtime was the result of “planned maintenance” gone wild:

Yesterday afternoon, during planned maintenance that was not intended to
interrupt service, an issue arose that took down a critical database cluster.
This brought down our entire network while our engineers worked feverishly to
restore these databases and bring your blogs back online.

Needless to say, many of Tumblr’s users were not happy to find their ‘tumblogs‘ down, and took to Twitter to question, complain and commiserate. The number of Tumblr users who flocked to Twitter is reflective of Tumblr’s popularity. The company now generates more than 3bn pageviews per month, and has up until now been managing its impressive growth with a relatively small team.

If Twitter’s past is Tumblr’s prologue, chances are that most of Tumblr’s users will stick by the company — for now at least. But Tumblr’s epic day of downtime does highlight a few important things:

  • Money alone aren’t likely to stop the growing pains. Tumblr reportedly just closed a $25-30m financing round, which adds to the $10m the company had raised previously. But faced with massive growth that now has the New York-based adding more than 500mn pageviews per month, it will take more than just boatloads of money (and a quadrupling of engineering staff) to avoid Twitter-like scaling issues.
  • Even if you give your users get what you pay for, they’ll expect a lot. Most of Tumblr’s users don’t pay the company a cent. But you might assume otherwise reading some of the comments left by disappointed and frustrated Tumblr users. Which demonstrates a simple fact: just because your users aren’t paying you doesn’t mean they won’t act like they are.
  • For professionals and businesses, using free services carries a lot of risk. Tumblr has become quite popular with a number of media organizations, including The Economist, The Atlantic and Newsweek. While there have always been questions about whether or not a service like Tumblr can produce real value for these organizations, Tumblr’s downtime does raise an important question: should businesses invest in platforms they don’t control when those platforms provide basic functionality that can be hosted in-house?

Of course, this isn’t really a new discussion. We’ve been here before. Popularity is a double-edged sword for free consumer internet services, and embarrassing technical problems are common when growth reaches a certain level. The only question for services that take a tumble: how invested are the users?

In the case of Friendster, for instance, the level of user investment wasn’t high enough to stop an exodus. In the case of Twitter, on the other hand, it seems that users would gladly go down with the ship. If Tumblr can’t get its act together and quick, we might soon learn whether it’s Friendster or Twitter.