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.

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What I learnt when my wife and I went to Brexit: the Musical

This week in the media, from laughing as the world order crumbles to what Tristram Hunt got wrong – and Leicester’s big fall.

As my wife and I watched Brexit: the Musical, performed in a tiny theatre above a pub in London’s Little Venice, I thought of the American novelist Lionel Shriver’s comment on Donald Trump’s inauguration: “A sense of humour is going to get us through better than indignation.” It is an entertaining, engaging and amusing show, which makes the point that none of the main actors in the Brexit drama – whether supporters of Leave or Remain – achieved quite what they had intended. The biggest laugh went to the actor playing Boris Johnson (James Sanderson), the wannabe Tory leader who blew his chance. The mere appearance of an overweight man of dishevelled appearance with a mop of blond hair is enough to have the audience rolling in the aisles.

The lesson we should take from Brexit and from Trump’s election is that politicians of all shades, including those who claim to be non-political insurgents, have zero control of events, whether we are talking about immigration, economic growth or the Middle East. We need to tweak Yeats’s lines: the best may lack all conviction but the worst are full not so much of passionate intensity – who knows what Trump or Johnson really believe? – as bumbling incompetence. The sun will still rise in the morning (as
Barack Obama observed when Trump’s win became evident), and multi­national capital will still rule the world. Meanwhile, we may as well enjoy the show.

 

Danger of Donald

Nevertheless, we shouldn’t deny the risks of having incompetents in charge. The biggest concerns Trump’s geopolitical strategy, or rather his lack of one. Great power relations since 1945 have been based on mutual understanding of what each country wants to achieve, of its red lines and national ambitions. The scariest moments come when one leader miscalculates how another will react. Of all figures in recent history, the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, with his flamboyant manner and erratic temperament, was probably the most similar to Trump. In 1962, he thought President Kennedy, inexperienced and idealistic, would tolerate Soviet missiles in Cuba. He was wrong and the world only narrowly avoided nuclear war.

How would Trump respond to a Russian invasion of the Baltic states? Will he recognise Taiwan as an independent country? Will he scrap Obama’s deal with Iran and support a pre-emptive strike against its nuclear ambitions? Nobody knows, probably not even Trump. He seems to think that keeping your options open and your adversaries guessing leads to “great deals”. That may work in business, in which the worst that can happen is that one of your companies goes bankrupt – an outcome of which Americans take a relaxed view. In international relations, the stakes are higher.

 

Right job, wrong time

I rather like Tristram Hunt, who started contributing to the New Statesman during my editorship. He may be the son of a life peer and a protégé of Peter Mandelson, but he is an all-too-rare example of a politician with a hinterland, having written a biography of Engels and a study of the English Civil War and presented successful TV documentaries. In a parallel universe, he could have made an inspirational Labour leader,
a more thoughtful and trustworthy version of Tony Blair.

No doubt, having resigned his Stoke-on-Trent Central seat, he will make a success of his new job as director of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If nothing else, he will learn a little about the arts of management and leadership. But isn’t this the wrong way round? Wouldn’t it be better if people first ran museums or other cultural and public institutions and then carried such experience into parliament and government?

 

Pointless palace

When the Palace of Westminster was largely destroyed by fire in 1834, thousands gathered to enjoy the spectacle. Thomas Carlyle noted that the crowd “whew’d and whistled when the breeze came as if to encourage it” and that “a man sorry I did not anywhere see”.

Now, with MPs reportedly refusing to move out to allow vital renovation work from 2023, we can expect a repeat performance. Given the unpopularity of politicians, public enthusiasm may be even greater than it was two centuries ago. Yet what is going through MPs’ minds is anyone’s guess. Since Theresa May refuses them a vote on Brexit, prefers the Foreign Office’s Lancaster House as the location to deliver her most important speech to date and intends to amend or replace Brussels-originated laws with ministerial orders under “Henry VIII powers”, perhaps they have concluded that there’s no longer much point to the place.

 

As good as it gets

What a difference a year makes. In January 2016, supporters of Leicester City, my home-town team, were beginning to contemplate the unthinkable: that they could win football’s Premier League. Now, five places off the bottom, they contemplate the equally unthinkable idea of relegation.

With the exception of one player, N’Golo Kanté (now at Chelsea), the team is identical to last season’s. So how can this be? The sophisticated, mathematical answer is “regression to the mean”. In a league where money, wages and performance are usually linked rigidly, a team that does much better than you’d predict one season is likely to do much worse the next. I’d suggest something else, though. For those who won last season’s title against such overwhelming odds, life can never be as good again. Anything short of winning the Champions League (in which Leicester have so far flourished) would seem an anti­climax. In the same way, the England cricket team that won the Ashes in 2005 – after the Australians had dominated for 16 years – fell apart almost as soon as its Trafalgar Square parade was over. Beating other international teams wouldn’t have delivered the same adrenalin surge.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era