Apparently, studying through Obama and Romney’s town hall debate on October 16 was a mistake. When I logged on to Facebook the next morning, my newsfeed was clogged with an endless stream of variations on the themes of ‘Romney,’ ‘binders,’ and ‘women.’ Jokes, memes, pictures, charts, outraged screeds of varying grammatical proficiency. One thing was missing: an explanation. This Romney-binders-women constellation was, according to my regular internet haunts, endlessly funny and controversial, but I had no idea why. As an internet-savvy, politically-minded American teenager, this was the ultimate embarrassment. Being outside of my home country was no excuse (as many are aware, Canada isn’t a very good place to hide if you’re trying to escape U.S. politics): I was out of the loop.
Things didn’t exactly improve when I ventured beyond social media. I had a better idea of what Romney’s comment meant after a few clicks, but not why it was so pervasive, or why it was more important than anything else said that night. Debate recaps dwelt on the comment, pundits offered endless over-analysis, political discussions among my friends began and ended with “binders full of women.” What was so special about this one blunder? So Mitt has a bit of a women problem. So he highlighted this with an amusingly out-of-touch turn of phrase. So what? He does that pretty frequently. Why was this moment representative of the entire debate?
The reason is simple: because while it was far from the most enlightening moment of the night, it was the most meme-worthy by a long shot. It was a phrase born for image macros (pictures with superimposed white text – you’ve seen them before). “NO ONE PUTS BABY IN A BINDER” captioned an image of Patrick Swayze from Dirty Dancing. “DID SOMEONE SAY BINDERS FULL OF WOMEN???” adorned a randy-looking Bill Clinton. Characters from Futurama offered their two cents on the matter. A twitter feed or four manifested from the ether. Halloween costumes appeared. And suddenly, the young folk talking about the issues with their voices rather than their keyboard strokes were a bit hard to hear over those doing the reverse. The implications were tipping the scales toward scary: how are we, the future ‘movers and shakers’ of North America ever going to get anything done if all we can do is snicker at caricatures of reality, rather than face it head on?
The interplay of internet memes and democratic discourse begs many questions, but it’s probably best to start with the basics: what is a meme anyway? For many of us, it falls under the heading of “I know it when I see it, but I couldn’t exactly explain it.” Pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream,’ the term was originally coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins as a device for discussing the cultural transmission of ideas, and how they can sometimes function as a form of evolution. “Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.” This was all the way back in 1989. ‘Meme’ didn’t really gain legs and invade the public consciousness until the dawn of the 21st century, and the explosion of internet-based culture that followed. Presumably, we weren’t entirely sure what ‘lolcats’ were, so ‘meme’ seemed as good a label as anything.
In 2012, a meme generally begins its life in the depths of Reddit or 4chan, gets passed up through Twitter and Tumblr (where it will inevitably gain its own accounts), then to blogs, internet magazines, and maybe a geeky t-shirt or two. After this, a select few make it to the mainstream media – talk shows for the fluffier ones (cats and cute kids), maybe the website of a mainstream newspaper for the more topical. This is the point when you’re sick of hearing about them, and your parents want you to explain what they are. This all generally happens within a few weeks, and all but the most memorable tend to settle into comfortable irrelevance by the end of the cycle, the province of message board inside jokes rather than new material. Memes are ephemeral by their very nature.
It’s become a cliche to speak of how “things move faster” in this, the grandly-titled Age of Information in which we now live. But like most cliches, it holds a grain of truth: a meme can blow and plaster itself all over the internet in a matter of hours, but who will remember it next year? “What diminishes their significance is the rapidity of the cycle in which memes are replaced by other memes,” said Professor Darin Barney, an associate professor in the Department of Art History and Communication Studies at McGill. “And so any given meme kind of loses its impact value or its shock value because the public comes to know that there’s going to be something else coming down the pipe tomorrow… The impact of any given individual meme is diminished by what can reasonably be expected to be a surplus of subsequent memes.”
But beyond the digital window-dressing, the problem of spectacle over substance in democracy is nothing new, according to communications professor Jonathan Sterne. “If you look at the history of American elections, they’ve been tied to spectacle since before we had any electronic media. Election day was associated with parades and drinking in the 19th century.” He cites the proliferation of flashy meme-inflected political discourse as a modern manifestation of an old problem. “It’s a sad fact of mass democracy that spectacle becomes so important to the campaign machinery.”
The United States is a democracy, and a democracy depends on people. People, as a rule, are attracted to spectacle dressed in the latest technology. Campaign buttons, radio jingles, and now the internet. The new boss, it would appear, is the same as the old boss, just with a bit more caffeine in its system.