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, 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.

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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.