Rise of the debate memes

Have you seen the memes from the latest presidential debate? Even though the debate just aired last night, the Twitterverse and other social media networks have already been busily circulating memes from the candidate’s comments. So far the most popular seem to be based on Mitt Romney’s remark about being given a “binder full of women” when considering potential nominees for a position on his gubernatorial staff.

During the days of “traditional media,” when newspapers and then broadcast news dominated political coverage, it was up to professional journalists to introduce such memes into the popular consciousness. When print was enjoying its supremacy the public perception was influenced by the next day’s headlines and op-ed columnists. Television and radio sped up this process, allowing for analysis and commentary to immediately follow a debate. In the era of the Internet, however, live viewer feedback and comments can be shared with the world wide web while the debate is still happening.

One important consequence of this development is that popular sentiment is now shaped and spread by amateurs, before professional pundits and journalists are able to give their two cents. In the first debate Internet users pounced upon Romney’s invocation of Sesame Street character Big Bird when discussing his intention to cut funding for PBS and similar services. People began creating and posting memes based on the Big Bird comments almost immediately, and then the media establishment followed suit: for a solid week after the debate much news coverage of the debate’s consequences and the candidates’ continuing campaigning focused on Big Bird as a rhetorical device, and suddenly funding for PBS became a major issue in the campaign.

Perhaps this focus on the Big Bird comments would’ve gotten media attention regardless of the influence of meme sites and social network users, but I think it is significant that the discourse about that remark started with Internet users and not with professional political pundits. It also leads to a rapid fatigue in the exposure to these memes: the “binder full of women” comment was made less than 24 hours ago, but already I have seen jokes about it posted to Facebook, Twitter and elsewhere so many times that I am sick of it and ready to move on. Twenty years ago media coverage of “Bindergate” would’ve been limited to daily newspapers and evening newscasts. And around the water cooler, of course, but these days it seems like the water cooler discussion comes to us without our having to seek it out.

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