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Not So Humble Opinion: November 7, 2012

The Election Commentary We Deserve

I’m not sure whether I count as a “digital native.” When I was a kid, we had no computers in the house. Eventually we bought a word processor (hey, remember those?) for middle school reports and my mother’s grad school papers, and received a non-Internet connected computer a few years later. It wasn’t until I was well into my high school years that “going online” became a regular thing. Digital native or not, I consider myself fortunate to have been born at precisely the right time to feel comfortable with the Internet, but not for it to have become so second nature to me that I can’t even really see it anymore.

One way to appreciate the exhilarating and at times peculiar culture of the Internet was to follow the recent presidential and vice-presidential debates not on television, but on Twitter. I didn’t really consciously decide to do it; I just happened to be otherwise occupied when the first debate was airing, and it was easy enough to check my phone periodically to see what some people I followed were tweeting about it. Amazed at the speed with which statements from the candidates became Internet memes, I then followed the rest of the debates on Twitter to observe more of this process.

I realize that not everyone is familiar with “memes.” Basically, a meme is a joke that is only funny if you’re aware of the original context. Romney’s “binders full of women” comment from the second debate is a classic example, because it sounds like a nonsensical fragment unless you know the story behind it. We had memes before the Internet (jokes that are funny because of the original context, not because they are inherently funny), but we didn’t have a well-known term for it until the Internet made it necessary.

In any case, the amount of memes that were spawned from the debates, and the speed with which they proliferated online in text, parody images, and videos, was staggering. I believe it was within minutes of Romney’s statement about cutting funding for PBS during the first debate that Photoshopped images featuring Secretary of State Clinton rescuing Big Bird, Mission-Impossible style, began to surface. The VP debate spawned numerous photo memes and “Biden-to-English” translation charts. “Horses and Bayonets” didn’t seem to be quite as popular, but I know I saw at least one image of famous TV horse Mr. Ed asking, quite forcefully, for his very own bayonet.

It goes without saying that a lot of this is frequently crass and silly, but not always; a lot of the responses to Romney’s proposal to cut PBS funding led to impassioned, informed statements about the role and value of Sesame Street and public television in general (and Big Bird parody Twitter accounts). Some of the otherwise sophomoric responses to the VP debate provoked a lot of discussion over whose economic plans really did hold water, and which were “Malarkey!” In general, the people circulating these memes often seemed surprisingly well-informed about the issues.

Some would probably write all of this stuff off as a waste of time, but I think the debates are getting the response they deserve— and in some cases, better than they deserve. When the candidates are forced to summarize complex policies in a sentence or two to try to distill them down into something that can become a sound bite, responses that focus on those fragmentary ideas are only logical. The fact that these memes often include or provoke discussion more substantive than what was featured in the actual debate is what’s really disturbing.

If we want our post-debate commentary to feature intelligent analysis, we need to start by giving people something intelligent to analyze. It’s not that the current debates are entirely without merit, but something more akin to the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, with a length that allows for in-depth policy discussion, would be a better use of everyone’s time. You can argue that people these days don’t have the attention span for that, but sometimes when you test that theory, you end up with a surprise. People told J.K. Rowling over and over again that modern kids didn’t have the attention span for Harry Potter; that seems to have worked out okay.

We could also make the candidates stand out in the rain for five hours while they verbally spar like Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas did in 1858; then we’ll find out who’s really committed to being President. Anyway, if someone wants to make a dumb joke based on something one of the candidates said and share it with millions online via a photo manipulation, we should at least make them work for it; right now, it’s easy. The disjointed quality of the discourse lends itself to mockery entirely too well.

Karen Gellender is editor of the Syosset-Jericho Tribune and Plainview-Old Bethpage Herald.