Yuri Chang | I hate you, but I love you
Obam-memes and Rom-memes
Published: Tuesday, October 16, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, October 16, 2012 08:10
Last Thursday, many good Americans tuned in to watch the vice presidential debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan. I, on the other hand, spent that night stimulating our economy by capitalizing on Thursday’s Buffalo Wing Night and seasonal pumpkin ale.
The next morning I did my daily ritual of logging into my Twitter, Tumblr and Facebook accounts, and was barraged by memes covering the previous night’s debate. One meme was an oscillating image macro of Biden’s facial expressions during the debate, quickly shifting back and forth from stern-Joe to laughing-Joe. The juxtaposition of Ryan speaking and Biden giggling was a recurring theme; some of them portrayed Biden as blatantly rude and disrespectful, while others painted a jovial Biden laughing at a lie-spewing Ryan.
Other factoids I learned from the vice presidential debate memes: Biden might have elevated the word “malarkey” from being outdated slang to a somewhat cutting insult. And because everyone loves celebrity doppelgangers, Joe Biden apparently has an uncanny resemblance to Jack Nicholson’s rendition of the Joker, while Paul Ryan looks like Batman’s hooded junior counterpart, Robin.
Now before you get all judgmental on me, I did eventually watch the vice presidential debate, and was surprised to find that the memes were fairly accurate observations. I found truth to both representations of Biden in that he was making up for Obama’s previous loss by being assertive and animated, but also aggressive and condescending toward Ryan. The “coverage” that the memes provided had well prepared me for what to expect from the debate, leading me to wonder whether memes are on their way to becoming a more permanent fixture in media.
Memes are an effective and easy way for the public to create and share its own commentary. Jonathan Zittrain, director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society, appropriately describes them “as a response to the unfunny cynicism of mainstream institutions.” Memes have the advantage of being extra tongue-in-cheek and getting away with it, a privilege that mainstream news outlets don’t necessarily have. Sure, there are probably more cat-related memes than there are ones with political commentary, but the growing popularity of memes represents the democratization of who gets to decide what’s newsworthy.
Both the Obama and Romney campaigns have recognized the power of memes and used them to reach out to younger voters. Romney’s memorable comment in the first presidential debate about getting rid of Big Bird sparked an unconventional response by the Obama campaign: a photo of a distressed Big Bird with a caption reading “Mitt Romney’s plan to cut the deficit: Fire this guy.” On the other end, the Romney campaign posted a meme following the model of a popular joke that says: “‘After college I want to be forced to move back with my parents,’ — said no one ever.”
Memes have become a new territory that campaign strategists have to learn how to maneuver and use to their advantage. This year’s election has introduced memes that even require damage control. The use of the Big Bird meme raised criticisms that the Democrats were focusing attention on trivial and shallow issues. On the Republican end, meme-creators took TIME’s goofy photos of Paul Ryan lifting weights and slapped on captions like “Cut Carbs ... And yo mama’s Medicare.”
I challenge those who argue that memes are too short-lived and too easily created to have cultural relevance. However, I fear that Internet users are increasingly relying on memes as their source for current events. Why sit through a long debate of two men talking when you can look at a slew of comical memes instead? As memes become more visible, we as media consumers have to be able to distinguish what is news and what is simply a JPEG.
Yuri Chang is a senior majoring in International Relations. She can be reached at Yuri.Chang@tufts.edu