Even though I’m not American and cannot vote, I enjoy watching the US Presidential debates. Why? Because like any live event, it creates an opportunity for some fun collective dialogue in social spaces. Last night’s debate didn’t disappoint.
As I follow many people with different political leanings on Twitter, it was interesting to watch the various perspectives and interpretations of what was going on. First and foremost, what I noticed in this debate versus the first Presidential debate was that those who align Democratic were publicly disappointed with Obama’s performance in the first debate and were quick to criticize, but in the second debate when (I thought) it was clear that Romney was struggling, the people I follow who align Republican were incredibly supportive of Romney. I don’t want to jump to any general conclusions, but in my small sampling, it seems that Democrats hold their candidates to a higher standard and are quick to criticize when their candidates don’t meet expectations, whereas Republicans are more emphatically loyal to their candidates and will forgive much easier. But that’s just my small sampling. (I should note that I spent most of the night watching the #debates page on Twitter, which means I was watching many strangers discuss their reactions in real-time as well as my own feed, so that sampling is a little wider than my own circle of 2,694.)
But that wasn’t the best part of watching the debates and Twitter/Facebook at the same time. The best part was the dominant meme that emerged during the debate. During one of the questions on how each candidate would help further women’s equality in the workplace, Governor Romney told the story of his time in office in Massachusetts where his concern for the lack of women applicants led him to go out and gather “binders full of women” from women’s groups in the state. What he probably meant was that he gathered binders of resumés from women, but even though the phrase was an ostensibly innocent slip, it sounded awkward to the thousands of viewers who jumped on it instantly. Within MINUTES, there was a Tumblr dedicated to collecting gifs making fun of the phrase and a few Twitter accounts. By the end of the debate, several Facebook Pages had been set up (this one is the popular one with over 250,000 likes) and a Facebook Group. The hashtag #bindersfullofwomen was trending worldwide.
Within an hour, an innocent slip of the tongue became a joke we could all be part of. It’s a pity that this joke was at the expense of another human being (though I didn’t feel so bad when it was reported this morning that his story was a lie and he didn’t go out to collect those binders, women’s groups actually lobbied him), but it’s the nature of web culture for people to attack more readily when we are hiding behind screens. It’s also the nature of politics and celebrity. When you are in the public eye, you have to be careful about what you say, even small phrases that mean well, but could be misconstrued. It’s happened to both sides (i.e. You Didn’t Build That).
At the end of the day, I love the social web for our ability to find collective entertainment in political gaffs, unruly celebrities (remember TigerBlood?) and general ridiculousness (Honey Boo Boo anyone?). These memes are grass-roots cultural commentaries that allow us to take a collective laughter break in a world that is still largely alienating and isolating. It’s what makes the internet the most powerfully democratic medium to date. And if there is any ‘trickling’ to be done, I really hope the small pieces loosely joined beauty of the web trickles outwards to influence the way the world works.