The Republican presidential debate this week was headlined by confrontations: Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz clashed over immigration and ISIS, while Donald Trump and Jeb Bush argued over whether Trump would be a “chaos candidate.”
Writing for The Guardian from Las Vegas, reporters Sabrina Siddiqui and Paul Lewis wrote that Trump and Bush “scarcely rose above the level of playground taunts about who was toughest,” while Rubio and Cruz engaged in “a series of fiery exchanges.”Adam Gabbatt, a Guardian reporter who covered the debate on the chat app WhatsApp as part of an experiment with The Guardian’s Mobile Innovation Lab, took another approach to describe the exchanges. “Here’s a reenactment of the bickering on stage just now,” Gabbatt wrote in the chat.
The Guardian’s WhatsApp chat was one of the first experiments undertaken by the Mobile Innovation Lab, which launched this fall. The goal of the experiment was to see how The Guardian could cover an event on a chat app, and also to see what it was like to use WhatsApp as a publishing platform, said Lab editor Sasha Koren.The conversational nature of the platform was a highlight for both the participants and Gabbatt, who said he enjoyed mixing the serious nature of the policy debates with more lighthearted moments — such as re-enacting the debate with stick puppets. He said he appreciated the feedback from the participants who asked thoughtful questions, made jokes, and even corrected him on occasion.
“It felt like I was talking to my friends,” Gabbatt said. “I use WhatsApp a lot anyway to talk with people in this country and people back home. Being off The Guardian website, and [because] it’s quite transient and not going to sit on the web forever, it felt like I could relax and talk as if I would talk normally — a few less swear words, but it essentially it felt really relaxed.”
Gabbatt sent out 62 messages over the course of the debate, and while he said he figured most people following would also be watching on TV, he tried to structure the chat in a way that could inform users who weren’t watching the debate broadcast.
“There was an element of commenting on what was happening and expecting that people knew it, but I was trying to do that in a way that would make sense in a way that you weren’t there,” he said. “If you weren’t watching it, you wouldn’t get the most through overview from the WhatsApp chat, but you could get that from the live blog. In my head it was, ‘Hey, we’re all watching this together, let’s have a bit of fun of it.’ It wasn’t jokes all the way through. I wasn’t up there doing a stand up set, but I felt that if you come at it from a second-screen aspect, you can have a lot more fun with it.”
The Guardian used a WhatsApp Broadcast List to hold the chat. Broadcast Lists enables users to send out messages to multiple contacts at once, but the contacts who receive the messages are only able to send responses back to the original. As a result, during the chat, Gabbatt regularly reported back to the group what people were saying to him individually.
WhatsApp also sets a limit of 256 users per Broadcast List, so The Guardian limited the number of people who could participate in the chat. Senior product manager Sarah Schmalbach said the debate chat couldn’t have been as intimate as it was if Gabbatt had used multiple broadcast lists.
Other outlets have used WhatsApp to collect user-generated content or to send out information the way they’d send out a push notification. Schmalbach pointed to the Globe and Mail, which sent out WhatsApp updates about this fall’s Canadian elections to more than 1,700 subscribers.
“That can scale a bit easier, because you’re just sending one message to everyone who signed up and aren’t trying to moderate any conversation or have an interaction one-on-one with your end user,” Schmalbach said. “What made this really different and interesting, and why we wanted to limit it to at most 256 people, was so there was time built in to read responses from users and respond to them if possible.”
The Guardian began promoting the WhatsApp chat two days before the debate with a post on its website. The chat wasn’t at capacity as the debate started, but The Guardian’s live bloggers promoted it to readers in the live blog, and ultimately more than 400 people tried to participate.WhatsApp isn’t really built for publishing, and Koren said that aspect made it difficult to manage the chat. Other news organizations have also found it difficult to use WhatsApp as a way to reach large audiences, and Koren said users were also frustrated that they couldn’t chat with one another easily.
“It was really hard to manage,” she said. “The interface makes it really hard to drop and add people. While Adam was chatting away, Sarah and I were working on that piece of it, and it was hard to really keep on top of people’s responses and requests.”
While the Lab might not use WhatsApp again in the future, it plans to continue to experiment with chat apps and other forms of live mobile-focused coverage. The Mobile Innovation Lab is a two-year project that’s being funded by a $2.6 million grant by the Knight Foundation. (Nieman Lab is partnering with The Guardian to share the Lab’s findings, and Nieman Lab also receives funding from Knight.)
Based on the results of a survey that the Lab sent out after the debate, it seems as if users are interested in this type of mobile-focused live coverage.
“People like to see short little videos, when Adam did the re-enactment,” Schmalbach said. “They like images. They like GIFs. They like to know where we are and what we’re doing. That has applications beyond just chat apps. There’s an appetite for this type of environment for sporting events, live red-carpet events, and that type of thing. Rather than doing it again, it opens three or four or five more possibilities around all kinds of platforms.”