In the hours that have passed since Monday night’s debate, horses and bayonets have taken over the Internet. There is an @horsebayonette Twitter feed, several Tumblrs devoted to horse and bayonet jokes, and — I’m guessing here, but I’m probably right — a run on plastic bayonets for Halloween.
This is 2012, the year of the meme, when people simultaneously watch the debates and snark on Twitter — and when every week, another term seems to bubble into the lexicon and swirl around online. First we got “Etch A Sketch” and “you didn’t build that,” followed by “literally” and “47 percent,” “Big Bird,” and “binders full of women.”
Every election has signature moments, and in a way, the current online frenzy is just a form of amplification. (Imagine if we’d had Tumblr in 1988, when Mike Dukakis took that picture in that tank.) But this presidential race is also notable for its tone. Yes, we’ve seen the standard voter fearmongering, about Medicare and socialism and women’s health. But this cycle, the most potent weapon might turn out to be not fear, but a certain brand of subversive humor.
It’s doubtful, after all, that Mitt Romney’s unfortunately worded “binders full of women” comment would have turned into such a thing if it hadn’t been so suitable for jokes. They swiftly spread from Twitter to the web, where they merged with other memes (Ryan Gosling says, “Hey girl, I won’t put you in a binder”) and then landed, perhaps inevitably, on Amazon.com.
By late last week, the Amazon customer reviews for Avery-brand durable three-ring binders were overtaken by snide political commentary. Sample: “I was originally going to rate this only 1 star. You see, I’m a big girl and I can only squeeze about 53% of myself into this binder. But then I decided that I’m not going to worry about the other 47%.”
The Amazon pages are worth a read, because they double as commentary on the usefulness of consumer reviews — and because they often make a point, not just a joke. Whether they’ll sway the vote is a different question. The answer depends on who’s listening, and who’s talking.
A recent survey released by the Pew Internet & American Life Project outlines some general qualities of our nation’s social media users. They’re somewhat more likely to be liberal than conservative, they’re generally more female than male, and they’re young. About 32 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds use Twitter, compared to 15 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds and 4 percent of people over 65.
About a third of all social media users comment or repost about political topics, the survey found. And the younger you are, the more likely you are to put your politics online — to use your social network to persuade, or at least make use of the echo chamber.
If voter turnout holds the key to winning this election, then can social-networking humor campaigns rally the base? It’s a fairly revolutionary idea. For as long as I can remember, the folks who run campaigns and media operations have been hunting for the magic elixir to energize the youth vote, whether it’s saxophone playing on late-night TV or bullying from P. Diddy (“Vote or Die!”). Maybe we’ve found the secret formula at last.
If so, the best thing the campaigns can do, to help themselves, is absoutely nothing. When a campaign staff tries to peddle sarcasm, it’s almost always a bust. The Obama campaign’s “Big Bird” ad, a spoof attack spot launched after the first presidential debate, fell flat and sounded forced. So do the president’s current campaign-trail jokes about binders.
And on the Internet, if there’s anything worse than sounding forced, it’s looking inauthentic. Take the Facebook profile for “Dawn Berkley,” a beautiful woman who appeared in 2012 out of the blue, posts exclusively about how much she loves guns and hates Democrats, and happens to share a headshot with a South Korean pop star. It’s unclear who created her, but the method reeks of corporate PR. When Chick-fil-A was tussling with Mayor Menino over gay marriage, a teenager with a stock-photo face turned up online to defend the chicken chain.
On Amazon, on the other hand, the kids write their own jokes, and nobody has to act presidential. When it comes to campaigns, some things are best left to the amateurs.Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.