January 7, 2020

Running a Successful Tumblr: my journey with A Sea of Quotes

8 years, 7000+ quotes, and 320K+ followers later.

Running a Successful Tumblr: my journey with A Sea of Quotes

The Blogger: what teenage me did since I had no social life

Imagine it’s Tumblr in 2011. GIFs are a wondrous novelty and people who made them essentially wizards. Memes are in their infancy. Social Justice Warriors aren’t really a thing yet. Doctor Who and Harry Potter were the shit. We were young teens yearning to express ourselves. Our Tumblr pages reflected our desires, our secrets, and our souls. We followed strangers but over thousands of likes and reblogs formed silent bonds with each other.

Some of us were more popular than others. “Tumblr Famous” was the term. Pretty girls, curators of funny GIFs, fashion blogs, and some melodramatic teenagers posting some cliche angst were among them.

There were already Tumblr Famous quotes blogs out there but they were pretty cheesy and usually used ~fancy~ fonts over random background images. To give you an idea, they were something like what these fake A Sea of Quotes Instagram accounts posted:

Please don’t follow those haha. I’ll put links to official A Sea of Quotes’ social media later.

So enter me, a junior in high school, aspiring published author with a love for books and the written word. I don’t remember what compelled me to start it but I do remember trying to name it, searching for quotes about quotes when I found:

I swim across a sea of quotes, splashing in the words and riding the waves of wisdom.

~Terri Guillemets

So I settled on naming it “A Sea of Quotes”, thinking this name sucks but I can change it later. (Spoiler: I never changed it.)

The Quotes: my secret to "quote hunting" revealed

On October 1, 2011 I uploaded the first quote and A Sea of Quotes was born.


That was the first quote and looking back it set the tone for the rest of the quotes. Kind of dark, kind of depressing, but refreshing and written well.

First I scoured the Internet for quotes by going through the quotes page on Goodreads, picked out the ones that gave me some kind of feeling, and straight up screenshotted them. So a lot of the earlier quotes look like the Lemony Snicket one above with the author and work in the screenshot in green. I think that's the origin of A Sea of Quotes’ green accent color. Then when uploading the quotes to Tumblr, I would tag them with the author, the work, and any related keywords. I believe the tags are what really got me those initial likes, reblogs, and followers.

I would upload about fourteen of these quotes a day on Tumblr, only posting original content, never reblogging, from other Tumblr blogs. By mid-November I started to get fanmail and the quotes would average maybe 80 or so notes each.

(Fun fact: I snuck in some of my own original quotes from books I was writing under a pseudonym and was super proud when some of them got over 100 notes.)

At some point I played around with a different format for the quotes that looked like:


But making these quotes on Photoshop turned out to be too time consuming so I stopped.

Then sometime in late November I began finding the quotes on Google Books or Amazon’s book previews and screenshotted the book scans themselves, erasing the parts that I didn’t want on basic photo editors. Then since the quote images themselves didn’t have the author or work anymore, I would add it in the description of the Tumblr post.


This quote from Edgar Allan Poe’s, “Annabel Lee” got over 800 notes. After switching to this quote format with the original black, typewriter-like fonts and white background my follower count skyrocketed. Tumblr values aesthetics and these quotes could complement almost any Tumblr theme. Over time I fully switched to this style. My archive of posts looked like:

Eventually I started running out of quotes on Goodreads so I went through the "book quote", "book quotes", and "literature" tags on Tumblr, filtering through quotes for ones I liked.

The Logo: why learning Photoshop in digital photography class was one of the most useful things from high school

A Sea of Quotes’ first logo looked something like this:

From which I later stole the quotation marks and designed the logo in its final form:

Keeping up with the sea theme, of course.

The Theme: I don't know what I'm doing but it works

HTML, CSS and JS were just meaningless acronyms back then so I took a premade Tumblr theme from somewhere and at one point in A Sea of Quotes’ early months looked like:

(Not sure why there’s also fanmail in this screenshot.)

Also, I had tried to incorporate French songs and lyrics in ASQ (I had taken French in high school so I went through a French phase but French proved to be a lot less useful than Photoshop) but quickly pivoted from that direction. I moved them to A Sea of Lyrics, gained a few hundred followers there, but couldn’t figure out my aesthetic for that or a sustainable way of finding and creating the lyrics images so it died pretty quick.

It was New Years Eve 2011 and while the TV displayed all the NYEs festivities I, being a homebody, tweaked a premade Tumblr theme on Tumblr's editor, changing colors and hardcoding images and text. This would become my NYE tradition for the next few years, finding my way around ASQ's HTML and CSS, learning how to distinguish the two, how adding this class here applies these styles, differences between divs and a tags, how Tumblr's templating language can represent a post and so on. I also copied a script to disable right clicks so no one could save the quote images and repost them as their own to make it even harder for the people who would take the quote photos and repost them as their own.

iOS App Attempt 1: I don't know what I'm doing and it doesn't work

I wanted to expand A Sea of Quotes as an iOS app but didn't know where the hell to even start. I looked up things like "free app maker" but they didn't achieve the functionality or personalization I wanted so I gave up.

The Surveys: wow people actually voted

Using Polldaddy (which I guess is now called Crowd Signal lol), I created surveys like “How do you read?” options: “I taste books”, “I devour books”, or “I chew and digest books”. Every vote for these polls gave me an inkling of how many people were visiting ASQ. I eventually ran out of survey ideas though.

The Visitor Statistics: wow people actually visited

In January 2012 I added a RevolverMap to ASQ which leaves eternal dots of visitors on a globe. I loved to watch as the dots would pulse in and out of life, knowing they were people, here in this corner of the world, now in that corner, all on ASQ.

Here's a screenshot of the kind of traffic it used to get at any given moment of time back then.

As of Jan 2020, ASQ has had 2,452,614 visits since Jan 16, 2012 from 215 countries.

I also stuck in a Google Analytics tracker on ASQ which was especially cool because I could see who was on what page in real time, what were the most popular pages, and from where.

I'd click on the link of the quote a person was on, read over the quote in some anonymous perspective, trying to imagine what they thought of it.

More fun facts from Google Analytics:

Top cities: London, New York, Singapore

75.8 % Female and 24.2% male

Top age range: 18 - 24

I also checked the Alexa traffic rank regularly back when Alexa was free. This was it at its height.

The Ads: I had to justify spending so much time on the Internet to my parents in some way

By February 2012, I had 18,000 to 20,000 followers. This was something more than I anticipated. And I, a junior in high school who had never held a job thus far in life, had a chance to make some money.

Other popular Tumblr blogs put ads on their page, often in very annoying places. For instance with barely a pixel between an ad and the pagination to get to the next page. Or text ads that looked like navigation links. All to accumulate accidental clicks.

Then I added Google Ads to ASQ. As you can see below, some of the ad placement may have been deceitful to be honest haha but I tried to give some breathing room there.

Google Adsense wouldn't pay you until you reached $100 but from March 13 - March 31 I made $146 and got my first check from Google in the mail. And next month I made $256. In what I refer to as the "glory days" of ASQ defined from beginning of 2012 to the end of 2014, I made on average $255 a month, with the most amount a month I made being $1361.

I opened up my first bank account to put all this money somewhere with the Google Adsense pay stubs as proof of my income. With this money I bought myself my first Mac laptop and other various things for college.

Nowadays I make about 3 cents a day. I blame ad blockers, the decreasing popularity of Tumblr, and the last ASQ design.

Quotes Submissions: some good, some bad

I also allowed quote submissions and if I liked the quote submission, I would include "Submitted by XXXX" in the post description. This incentivized people to submit quotes to promote their own Tumblrs. I also received submissions from authors themselves attempting to promote their own work.

At this point I would post seven quotes a day — five new quotes, reblog two random old quotes, and one submitted quote — for the next few years.

Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and an attempt at Instagram: honing my marketing skills

I made a Facebook page (which currently has about 11K likes), Twitter (currently has about 900 followers), Pinterest (currently about 2K followers), and Instagram (currently at about 100 followers). Back in the day, Instagram only allowed square pictures and it was too much effort to convert the quotes into square photos and upload on my phone so I quickly abandoned that. Then I'd post one quote on Facebook, Twitter, and Pinterest everyday. Although Twitter and Pinterest were not as conducive to the quote reading experience as Facebook and Tumblr because the pictures of the quotes were either smaller or cut off, needing to click in to view the whole thing at once.

The Seas Apparel: let's just keep rolling with the sea motif

In June 2013 I unveiled The Seas Apparel: a shirt store based off of A Sea of Quotes. I created the shirt designs on Photoshop, using Spreadshirt to print the shirts and host the online store where I sold them.

Among the shirts are those that support ASQ, reading, and Tumblr in different variations. There are shirts of punctuation marks, shirts designed as title pages of novels, books listing popular writers in certain genres. And of course quotes on shirts. Although I couldn't sell anything copyrighted so whatever literature I quoted was hella old.

I advertised The Seas Apparel twice, making about $100 each time I mentioned it except...I started to feel bad about advertising these shirts which to be honest I thought were kind of overpriced. So I stopped and sales eventually stopped with it.

College: wtf do I major in

I didn't think I needed to major in Creative Writing to pursue my love for my writing. Pharmacy and Econ (the parents' choices) weren't too enticing to me so I looked up what jobs Tumblr was hiring for. Software engineers. In NYC! And software engineers got computer science degrees. And I never even heard of CS since there were no CS classes at my high school but I wanted to try it out so one day I could apply for my dream job at Tumblr. So fall of 2013, I tried out the most basic introductory CS course in college. If it wasn't for Tumblr, I'm certain I'd be miserable and bored out of my mind dispersing pharmaceutical drugs at some Walgreens somewhere.

(Tumblr did end up rejecting me later on though.)

(But I still ended up as a software engineer in NYC at a company I love.)

In Which I Accidentally Post to ASQ Instead of My Private Diary Tumblr: be careful with multiple Tumblrs

During this time I owned a few Tumblr blogs: A Sea of Quotes, A Sea of Lyrics, my public personal Tumblr, and then my private, password protected diary Tumblr. One day I accidentally posted what was meant for my diary Tumblr to ASQ. And it just so happened to be on the worst day I had in a long time.

A few hours passed until someone messaged me that screenshot with "I think you posted to the wrong blog". I was very secretive about the person behind ASQ and now my followers saw a picture of my crying face and ugliest feelings. Mortified, I deleted the posts. I can't even remember what I was upset about. But what I did save and what I remember the most were the kind, kind words people sent me after that I am forever grateful for.

Web Design Class: finding out what the heck HTML, CSS, and JS was

Spring 2014 I took one of my most useful classes in college: web design. Our final project could be anything and I decided to redesign A Sea of Quotes. Eventually I put out this design live and it was there for the next 5 years.

I wanted it to look like a true sea of quotes (keeping up with the motif) but looking back this theme isn't very user friendly so I redesigned to be more simple and clean a few days ago.

iOS Class: ASQ iOS App Attempt 2

Fast forward to Spring 2016. I've got a few more CS classes under my belt by now and I've still been updating the 7 quotes to ASQ everyday. I take maybe my sixth most useful class in college: iOS Development. Our final project could be anything so naturally I fulfilled my dreams of building an iOS App for ASQ.

The app could bookmark quotes so you could save your favorites and refer back to them, search quotes, and was more consistent with the feel/look of the Tumblr website. Unfortunately, it never made it to the App Store and is now written in some outdated version of Swift so if I try to open it, it will break. But it was rewarding to realize my dreams four years prior of building an iOS app for ASQ. And I have future plans for ASQ apps I'll talk about later.

The End of an Era: the blogger graduates college and gets a social life

Imagine it's 2017. Tumblr belongs to Yahoo and has the reputation of being a place where toxic Tumblerinas who hate men and are too politically correct inhabit. Quotes that used to get 1K notes in one hour now get 100. I spend more of my Internet time on Reddit now. And with graduation approaching, most of my time was consumed by searching for a job (this Google Adsense stuff wasn't cutting it anymore) and spending last moments with friends anyway. So I'd only update ASQ here and there. Then I got a job (yay!) but had to move across the country from California to NYC. Had to start my new job. Had to find new friends. Had to finish a new side project. And months would pass by with not even a reblog of old quotes.

The Past: what made ASQ successful

Since no one had any idea what ASQ was when starting out, tags and posting a LOT were essential for initial discovery. Tags allowed people to find out about ASQ and if they clicked on the Tumblr blog and saw a lot of similar content already there and that you’re active recently and often then that gives them incentive to follow.

But you cannot post just anything. Since I only ever posted original content and never reblogged from any other Tumblr, people knew that they had to follow me directly to get more of that content. Also, it’s good to stay niche and keep posting high quality, consistent content as well. I focused my niche on quotes from literature or writers. That meant no lyrics or quotes said by actors. And hardly ever did I post something that wasn’t a quote. Only when I had important announcements to make that had to do with the state of ASQ or my own projects still related to writing or reading. The content also has to be easy enough for you to make so that you don't get burnt out making the content and can produce a lot of it. Also ensure that the content you make is aesthetically pleasing enough so people will want to reblog it onto their own personal blogs since reblogs (versus likes) are the fastest way to reach a wider audience.

Design and branding also go a long way, something I did so-so on. The A Sea of Quotes logo clearly represented what the Tumblr was about and I reused this logo on Facebook, Pinterest, and Instagram. A brand will help if you want to expand your Tumblr more for monetization, like making a shirt store. A clean Tumblr layout will also help when people browse through your Tumblr. I got a few complaints that the theme I had was hard to navigate. I hope it is better now.

Asking for submissions from followers also helps with acquiring content and giving credit to the Tumblr that submitted the submission also helps them as well and signals to the rest of your followers that people are interacting and finding value from your Tumblr.

I struggled with the naming of this blog post, particularly with the word "successful". How can one define success? There are other Tumblrs that have millions more followers, that make more money, that are more creative than mine. How could I claim ASQ was successful?

I decided to keep the word. Success is relative and subjective. I was able to devote a large portion of my life to something I loved: the written word. While sometimes it did feel like tedious work I never felt it was useless. And along the way the quotes have inspired and comforted others around the world, helping them find books to read and helping others share their thoughts and feelings. And I got to make some money that aided in my education to learn how to support and sustain ASQ and my own life even further. ASQ is the longest project of my life so far and if I were to die today I would be proud that ASQ is something I would be remembered by. And that to me is success.

The Future: ASQ V2

Just recently I've started reblogging one old quote a day, chosen by a random number generator since there is A LOT of good content (about 7,000 quotes) that only a subset of people have gotten a chance to see. Looking back on old quotes I realize a lot of them are really depressing, self-deprecating, and negative haha. It's no wonder my followers sometimes asked:

I think although I mostly stayed anonymous, throughout the years A Sea of Quotes has reflected whoever I was at any given point in time. 2011 as angsty, lonely teenager to now 2020 well adjusted and optimistic adult. I try to not reblog quotes that are too negative anymore but still keep them on the blog as a reminder of who I was back then.

So now my follower count still grows (68 new ones in the last 3 days) but more slowly and steadily. I've been updating ASQ just enough so that people don't forget. Because the day has come where I need to prepare ASQ's final resting place.

I plan on copying the quotes over to my own self-hosted website (taking the domain name with me) and mobile apps (this time on the app stores) with better search capabilities where users can make their own profiles to save their favorite quotes to.

Last week Tumblr terminated my account (presumably accidentally but they never gave me a reason) and ASQ was offline for 2 days which has made building my own ASQ separate from Tumblr even more urgent.

I don't know when this will go live as there's still a lot technically I'll need to learn to do this but hopefully will start sometime this year.

The Followers: thank you

A Sea of Quotes was made possible by all of you as much as it was by me. Every reblog and every like for every post was an acknowledgement that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way, who thought about these things. Know that I read every single kind message you sent me and feel great gratitude toward you back. This is really a special age we live in where I can take screenshots of books I don’t even own, post them in one place, and share them with you all and we can connect in that way. And also amazing that authors themselves writing their own words and their own quotes, from new eBook authors to indie authors to established authors I read in middle school, followed A Sea of Quote and reblogged the quotes there as well. These connections have been so special to me throughout all these years, feeling the love from strangers all over the world looking after me, and have enriched my life and given it more meaning. I hope to send you my love back in quotes that express it much better than I ever can.

Here were some of my favorite messages I’ve received throughout the years since I never really got to share them on A Sea of Quotes before: