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Dec. 15, 2015, 1 p.m.
Mobile & Apps

For journalists, much of the conversation around the presidential debates occurs on Twitter. For non-journalists — and even for some journalists — #DebateTwitter can be an overwhelming place as the tweets are seemingly unending.

And while reporters and political junkies will surely log onto Twitter and their favorite liveblogs as they watch tonight’s Republican debate in Las Vegas, The Guardian will be experimenting with a couple hundred readers by holding a live chat on WhatsApp during the debate in addition to its other coverage. Reporter Adam Gabbatt will lead the chat, and he explained his approach to using WhatsApp in a post on The Guardian’s website:

To mark the occasion, I’ll be trying something new, adding to our usual all-out live politics coverage by taking the conversation to WhatsApp, posting updates, chatting about all the big moments, and posting a few pictures and emoji.

It’ll be just like chatting with a friend, except we aren’t friends. Yet.

The WhatsApp chat is being run as an experiment by its newly launched Mobile Innovation Lab, a two-year long Knight Foundation-funded effort that’s looking to develop new approaches to mobile news. (A couple of disclosures: Nieman Lab also receives funding from Knight and we’re partnering with the Mobile Innovation Lab to share their findings.)

Because the chat is an experiment, The Guardian is limiting participation in the chat to the first 256 users who sign up. To join, users have to add The Guardian’s number in the WhatsApp app and then text it to join the chat. There’s no confirmation text, so users will find out if they made the cut if they receive a message from Gabbatt as we get closer to 8:30 pm EST, when the debate is scheduled to start. (I’m anxiously waiting to see if I’ll make the cut. Fingers crossed!)

Chat apps, like WhatsApp, have become popular ways for outlets to share news and information. The New York Times is now targeting readers in Asia on WeChat. The BBC used Viber in the aftermath of the Nepali earthquake earlier this year to spread news. The BBC was also one of the early adopters on chat apps, using WhatsApp to cover the Ebola epidemic in West Africa in the fall of 2014.

BBC World Service mobile editor Trushar Barot told me in April that WhatsApp is actually difficult to use as a publishing platform, and instead it’s more valuable as a way to interact with readers.

“The difficulty with using it as a push distribution service is that the app is not really designed for that, Barot said of WhatsApp. “It’s really labor intensive to use WhatsApp in that way. The Ebola service was very much an exception to the rule for us, where we felt it was so important that we got additional manpower to help us.”

The BBC had about 22,000 people signed up receiving alerts on Ebola on WhatsApp, but it has since used the app in a more in a conversational way, much like how The Guardian is using it tonight for the debate.

In a report released this fall by the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, Barot and Eytan Oren, the CEO of messaging app consultancy Block Party, wrote that messaging platforms are working on adding new features to their services:

While a number of chat apps have their own Content Management Systems, they are still quite basic and lack many features that make it easy to create engaging content for the platform. Some, like WeChat and Telegram, have good APIs, but others, like LINE, Viber, Snapchat, and WhatsApp, don’t. This makes it currently difficult for centralized social media publishing tools to incorporate chat apps into their systems.

Having spoken to many of the messaging companies, we know they are working on improving these audience measurements and are thinking pointedly about what do with their APIs. The ones that move the fastest on these are likely to see the most investment in time and attention from publishers.

For The Guardian though, tonight’s WhatsApp chat will be a one-off experiment — for now, at least.

“Because this is an experiment, we don’t yet have plans to do it again, but don’t be surprised if you hear from us at some future date about similar projects,” Gabbatt wrote.

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