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
Show Hide image

Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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

0800 7318496