What Tumblr can tell us about the future of media

If there was any doubt left that Tumblr is trying to become more of a mainstream media entity, albeit with its own odd twist, it was removed recently when the service hired bloggers to cover the Republican and Democratic national conventions in a kind of Tumblr-style stab at political journalism. But that’s just one side of the equation: While Tumblr is becoming more like the traditional media, many media outlets also seem to be working hard to become more like Tumblr — not only adopting the platform, but taking on a lot of its characteristics as well, including a fascination for animated GIFs and memes. You could argue about whether that’s good or bad for journalism, but there’s no question it is happening.

The presidential debates are a perfect example of how Tumblr handles a news event: as described by The Verge in a recent post, the blogging platform partnered with Livestream for something it called “Live GIFing the 2012 Debates,” which involved half a dozen digital artists and Tumblr bloggers watching the debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney, and creating animated GIF images of what they felt were key moments. By the end of the event — which took place in the middle of a party in Livestream’s office in New York’s West Village — more than 80 GIFs had been created.

The animated GIF is a shortcut to going “viral”

This wasn’t just a nerd-off involving a few Tumblr bloggers and similar “meme-driven” sites like BuzzFeed: More mainstream sites such as The Guardian and The Atlantic have also spent a considerable amount of time during the presidential debates generating animated GIFs (which are like tiny video clips) of the participants. In some cases it’s a gesture such as Joe Biden’s repetitive smile, and in others it’s what viewers might have seen as a key turning point, such as Obama’s line about the military not needing more horses and bayonets during his debate with Mitt Romney.

The drive to capture these moments is powered by a desire to spot the next “meme,” the viral photo or phrase or snapshot in time that will reverberate long after the debate is over — and for media companies, the desire to capture some of the pageviews and traffic that they generate. And this adoption of the animated GIF as a story-telling element for major news events is just one offshoot of the ongoing socialization of media and the news industry, something that has been driven by Twitter and other social tools.

One of the reasons why Tumblr is at the core of this phenomenon is that the platform is almost perfectly positioned between traditional blogging and the real-time distribution of content offered by Twitter: the “reblog” button that Tumblr offers is a lot like Twitter’s retweet function, and it can send a new animated GIF or other meme rocketing through the blogosphere within minutes, which has helped Tumblr generate a massive 15 billion pageviews monthly (the social element of Tumblr’s design is one of the things I’ll be talking with founder David Karp about at the RoadMap conference on November 5th).

As more than one person has pointed out, this process has telescoped the political news cycle (and arguably every other news cycle) to the point where stories about a newsworthy moment or event emerge within minutes of it occurring, as it sweeps through Twitter and then becomes the fuel for real-time commentary by news pundits and mainstream channels like CNN. The news cycle — which used to last for days or even weeks in some cases — now has a half-life of about an hour.

Does shareable also have to mean shallow?

Is this kind of thing good or bad for journalism about politics and other serious topics? There are plenty who argue that it is bad, because it focuses on the ephemeral or the trivial — like the obsession with Mitt Romney’s attack on Big Bird during the second debate, which produced lots of hilarious parody Twitter accounts and GIFs but not a lot of political commentary worth reading, or the similar profusion of memes around Romney’s more recent “binders full of women” comment. The potential problem this raises was highlighted by one Tumblr blogger’s comments during the last debate, as described by The Verge:

“This debate was more serious, so it was harder to find GIF-able moments,” said Dianna McDougall, a designer and social media consultant who served as one of the featured Tumblr GIF artists. Her career in live GIF-making started with the VMAs, when she discovered that instant GIFs tended to get instant traction. She also GIF-ed the last two debates. “People were picking it up, saying ‘wow, I don’t even have to watch,’” she said.

The alternative view of this digital version of the sound-bite is that it allows non-important stories to burn themselves out more quickly, rather than taking days or even weeks to be debunked, as Vivian Schiller of NBC News pointed out at the paidContent conference earlier this year, while on a panel with Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo. The risk is that people — including journalists themselves, as a Mother Jones writer noted in a recent post — become consumed with the ephemera on Twitter instead of paying attention to the important issues in the election campaign or any other news event.

And Tumblr is also only part of a larger trend that includes other sites such as BuzzFeed, which added a political channel earlier this year and hired Ben Smith from Politico to run it. That has raised the question of whether it’s even possible to cover politics and other serious issues in the same way BuzzFeed does a celebrity rehab stint or some other news story. Are animated GIFs and slideshows enough to get across an important political topic? Or is politics just another form of entertainment now?

Smith has argued that these tools that BuzzFeed and others like Tumblr use are simply part of the way media operates now, and any news category — whether politics or anything else — is going to have to figure out how to take advantage of it and make use of it. As the father of two teenaged daughters, I can vouch for the fact that the vast majority of the content they consume comes via Twitter and Tumblr and similar sites, through mashups and parody accounts and animated GIFs. Whether we like it or not, that is a large and growing part of the future of content.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr users Nils Geylen and See-ming Lee and The Atlantic