Tumblring the presidential debates

A gifessay.

My first reaction to the news that the Guardian and Tumblr are going to be livegiffing the presidential debates was:


After all, the American debates have always been about surface rather than depth, with the candidates attempting to do nothing so much as look more presidential than the other guy. There may be a bit of policy discussion, but nothing that we haven't heard ad nauseam. And as for the idea that the candidates might actually respond to each other's points, forget about it.

As a result, there's no particular reason to be concerned that a complex economic argument may be reduced to a 10-frame looping image of Mitt Romney's creepy smile , when it will be reduced to who had the best "zingers" on the front pages of most newspapers anyway.

But I am concerned nonetheless. Not for democracy, but for Tumblr.

I still remember watching the 2008 presidential debates with an IRC chatroom open on my lap, watching the wall of text scroll upwards faster than I could possibly read it. My perfect night out, then as now, was online.


I managed to catch a couple of good jokes, before making a bad one myself and getting banned from the room.

By 2010, and the UK's first copycat leader's debates, Twitter had really come into its own. It was still a moderately niche pursuit – many people in Britain knew it, if at all, as that thing Stephen Fry used to tell the world he was stuck in a lift – but it was busy enough that the debates proved that live-tweeting political events was a going concern.

This year, non-social-media has finally caught up with social-media, and the smart ones – the Guardian, as well as Newsweek and even the Times – are trying to get on board early. Twitter will likely be the most active site, but it's also too big for any one company to dominate. Twitter's response, paraphrased:

Tumblr, though – that's different.

It's nice to see companies getting involved, and even more so when the do it according to the style of the network – compared to the first corporate twitter accounts, which were (and usually still are) just links to their own content, the publications are going about it admirably.

But I can't shake the feeling that, in livegiffing the debate, the Guardian is repeating a category error which has plagued Tumblr for years. As Tom Ewing writes (on Tumblr, of course):

People think of Tumblr as a blogging platform not a social media service so it gets filed somewhere differently. But this is dumb. The mechanisms of Tumblr (followers/follows, sharing, liking, etc) are exactly the same as any other social network. It’s a social network.

Ewing's post addresses why market researchers ignore Tumblr, but many of the same arguments apply to the press overall. But the difference between the two is that the press' confusion has the power to actually change how Tumblr works. If they treat it as "that place where gifs come from" long enough, then it runs the risk of fundamentally changing how new users see the site.

Interestingly, one of the organisations that really gets tumblr is Barack Obama's re-election campaign. Its official tumblr, does a bit of traditional "broadcast" blogging, but it also reblogs others' posts, accepts submissions, and posts video and images as well. It's not a campaign trying to look cool by being on the hot new social network, but a more genuine attempt to win round people who are already on that network.

And yes, it does have gifs too.

Obama and Romney, in a non-animated, or "still", image. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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How “cli-fi” novels humanise the science of climate change

The paradox is that the harder climate-fiction novels try, the less effective they are.

When the Paris UN Climate Change Conference begins at the end of November, the world’s leaders will review the climate framework agreed in Rio in 1992. For well over 20 years, the world has not just been thinking and talking about climate change, it has also been writing and reading about it, in blogs, newspapers, magazines – and in novels.

Climate change fiction is now a recognisable literary phenomenon replete with its own nickname: “cli-fi”. The term was coined in 2007 by Taiwan-based blogger Dan Bloom. Since then, its use has spread: it was even tweeted by Margaret Atwood in 2013:

It is not a genre in the accepted scholarly sense, since it lacks the plot formulas or stylistic conventions that tend to define genres (such as science fiction or the western). However, it does name a remarkable recent literary and publishing trend.

A 21st-century phenomenon?

Putting a number to this phenomenon depends, partly, on how one defines cli-fi. How much of a novel has to be devoted to climate change before it is considered cli-fi? Should we restrict the term to novels about man-made global warming? (If we don’t, we should remember that narratives about global climatic change are as old as The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical story of the flood.) If we define cli-fi as fictional treatments of climate change caused by human activity in terms of setting, theme or plot – and accept there will be grey areas in the extent of this treatment – a conservative estimate would put the all-time number of cli-fi novels at 150 and growing. This is the figure put forward by Adam Trexler, who has worked with me to survey the development of cli-fi.

This definition also gives us a start date for cli-fi’s history. While planetary climatic change occurs in much 20th-century science fiction, it is only after growing scientific awareness of specifically man-made, carbon-induced climate change in the 1960s and 1970s that novels on this subject emerged. The first is Arthur Herzog’s Heat in 1976, followed by George Turner’s The Sun and the Summer (published in the US as Drowning Towers) in 1987.

At the turn of this century, Maggie Gee and TC Boyle were among the first mainstream authors to publish climate change novels. In this century, we can count Atwood, Michael Crichton, Barbara Kingsolver, Ian McEwan, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ilija Trojanow and Jeanette Winterson as major authors who have written about climate change. The past five years have given us notable examples of cli-fi by emerging authors, such as Steven Amsterdam, Edan Lepucki, Jane Rawson, Nathaniel Rich and Antti Tuomainen.

Creative challenges

Cli-fi is all the more noteworthy considering the creative challenge posed by climate change. First, there is the problem of scale – spatial and temporal. Climate change affects the entire planet and all its species – and concerns the end of this planet as we know it. Novels, by contrast, conventionally concern the actions of individual protagonists and/or, sometimes, small communities.

Added to this is the networked nature of climate change: in physical terms, the climate is a large, complex system whose effects are difficult to model. In socio-cultural terms, solutions require intergovernmental agreement – just what COP21 intends – and various top-down and bottom-up transformations. Finally, there exists the difficulty of translating scientific information, with all its predictive uncertainty, into something both accurate and interesting to the average reader.

Still, cli-fi writers have adopted a range of strategies to engage their readers. Many cli-fi novels could be classified as dystopian, post-apocalyptic or, indeed, both – depicting nightmarish societies triggered by sometimes catastrophic climate events. A future world is one effective way of narrating the planetary condition of climate change.

Some novelists are also careful to underpin their scenarios with rigorous climatic predictions and, in this way, translate science fact into a fictional setting. Kingsolver, who trained as an ecologist, is the best example of this – and Atwood and Robinson are also known for their attempts at making their speculations scientifically plausible. Also, cli-fi novels, particularly those set in the present day or very near future rather than in a dystopian future, tend to show the political or psychological dimensions of living with climate change. Readers can identify with protagonists. To some extent, the global community is represented in fictional everymen or everywomen. Or, often, it is through such characters that science is humanised and its role in combating climate change better understood.

Can cli-fi lead to change?

Could cli-fi affect how we think and act on climate change? The paradox is that the harder cli-fi tries, the less effective it is. Many writers want to inspire change, not insist on it: the line between literature and propaganda is one that most novelists respect. Literature invites us to inhabit other worlds and live other lives. Cli-fi at its best lets us travel to climate-changed worlds, to strive there alongside others and then to return armed with that experience.

In Paris, the UN will seek a global agreement on climate action for the first time in more than 20 years. There is plenty of climate change fiction out there to help provide the mental and psychological space to consider that action.

The Conversation

Adeline Johns-Putra, Reader in English Literature, University of Surrey

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.