US politics from outside the beltway

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Tumblring the presidential debates

A gifessay.

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

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, barackobama.tumblr.com 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.