Monday night, Betabeat headed downtown for a new twist on presidential debate punditry. Rather than merely wisecracking, drinking or even live-blogging, Internet types assembled for something new this election cycle: a “live GIF off” of the proceedings, arranged by Tumblr and Livestream.
Our destination was 111 8th Avenue, most famously Google’s New York HQ but also the home to Livestream, our hosts for the evening. Normally an office, the space had been transformed into a multimedia hub, with screens scattered throughout, streaming feeds from both the debate and (so meta) the event itself.
Footage from Florida showed politicians pressing the flesh even as nearby techies milled about, clustering in small knots and yelling to be heard over the music. Moving through the crowd we spotted big-time tech journalist Ben Parr, as well as the city’s Chief Digital Officer Rachel Haot. Getting the setup ready required moving the desks of Livestream’s 75 or so employees.
“We have a lot of staff who are not very happy about it,” joked Livestream CEO (and newlywed husband to Rachel) Max Haot.
Tumblr’s Liba Rubenstein, who’s responsible for building the site’s community of politicos, explained that the concept came about as her team brainstormed ideas for something different they could do around the debates. Given the popularity of GIFs on the social microblogging site, the idea stuck. The intention is to “help bring this content to a really wide audience and help people engage with something that’s more interesting and multifaceted than just watching a news network.”
To prepare for the proceedings, Tumblr built GIFwich, a new blog specially designed to serve as a hub for this kind of live event coverage. Now that it’s there, the company can conveniently host similar events in the future.
Ms. Rubenstein explained that the six bloggers picked to headline the event—including Bobby Finger and Mark Portilla, one half of a duo that goes by Mr. GIF—were power users, with significant followings and a flair for the visual. “None of them are real unknowns,” she explained over the sound of the LCD Soundsystem song “North American Scum.” “We know their work, we trust them.”
While attendees lined up for the all-American buffet, the GIF makers gathered at a table in the center of the room, prepping for the main event. Once underway, the livestream cut from laptop to laptop, an animation taking shape on each screen. Now moderator Bob Schieffer surrounded by flashing BOCA RATONs, now Barack Obama engulfed in a curtain of images of the first lady.
As the party the debate ended, Betabeat snagged Tumblr editorial director Christopher Price (better known to the Internet at large as topherchris), who’d been GIFing away all night.
He introduced us to his fellow correspondent, blogger Lacey Micallef. Asked what brought her to the event, she explained she has a popular Tumblr and “all I do is make GIFs and animate, pixel art, that kind of shit.” (She then apologized for swearing.) “It’s like a big event,” she explained, before turning to Mr. Price. “Nobody else was doing it, right?”
“We’re not saying in-depth political reporting doesn’t have a place,” Mr. Price added. “This is just this little bonus to follow along with as you’re watching it on TV.”