The ‘binder full of women’ line seemed destined to be a meme almost before it finished coming out of Romney’s mouth; no surprise that a Tumblr dedicated to it was created before the debate was even over, that Twitter promptly exploded with binder jokes during and after, that they lingered on for days, that people speculated whether ‘binders full of women’ would have the staying power of ‘internets.’ Media attempting to be hip tried to work it into their headlines; NPR even snuck in a binder comment or two. This was the moment from the debate that we’d remember, binders full of women in response to a question about inequality and discrimination in the workplace.
I laughed at some of the jokes. Let’s face it, they were funny. I follow a lot of incisive, sharp, snappy, funny, smart people, and they were in rare form, and they amplified the best of the best from other people they followed. For a while, my feed was all binders, all the time, right down to meta jokes playing with the dual meaning of binder. In the flood of jokes, though, something was missing.
Fact-checking tweets were few and far between, quickly buried in a sea of jokes. When candidates made claims that needed challenging or verifying, those focusing on the substance of the debate had trouble being heard over all the noise. When President Obama made a number of troubling comments about mental illness, only a few people remarked on them. Fewer still made the connection, as I had in the first debate, between the anti-China comments and the ‘yellow peril’ rhetoric of the last century. When Romney started discussing ‘self-deportation,’ few people discussed immigration policy or talked about the devastating impacts of the Obama administration on immigrant communities in the US.
It made me wonder what the function of social media is supposed to be; is it an insider’s club where everyone trades jokes with like-minded people and has fun mocking events in the media, or a place for education, outreach, and activism? Tweeting from the @xojanedotcom Twitter for the night, I noticed that the most popular Tweets tended to be those commenting on the deficiencies of the debate; the gaps in the discussion, the troubling comments made by both candidates. Sure, people laughed at the jokes and sometimes commented in response to them, but what they really seemed to want to read was challenges to the candidates, and they wanted to talk about those.
I view social media as a powerful and useful instrument for change and communication, rooted in the fact that you have the capacity to reach so many people. It’s also a place to develop and express a personality; I am sarcastic, snarky, sometimes even snide, but I’m also compassionate, informative, focused. I want people who follow me to take something away. Something more concrete than jokes or in-group solidarity. I want people to learn something, to discover a news item they would never have thought to look for. To learn about how they can make a difference in the world. To get inspired to do something new and different, to push beyond their comfort zones.
Watching the debates, which seem to have little actual impact on electoral outcomes, I was struck by the bread and circuses aspect; we are here to watch a performance and our response to it plays out along political lines. Liberals mock Romney and get enraged about his rudeness when he talks over the moderator, patronises her, treats her like a piece of furniture. Conservatives claim Obama is lying and criticise him for running over time. Neither side actually engages with what the candidate they don’t like is saying. With the policy underlying the words coming out of those mouths.
Apparently it’s easier to mock Romney for making comments about binders full of women than it is to engage with his history and stated policies (what we can see of them). We could talk, for example, about his tendency to be a political chameleon, giving the answer he thinks will best fit with the audience even if it contradicts things he’s said in the past or his own platform; we could talk about what that means in a man who is campaigning for the Presidency, and whether he has the self-integrity to lead and make difficult decisions. We could talk in a concrete way about his opposition to women’s rights, his slashes to disability services, his disdain for the environment, his love of big business and what that means for actual small business owners.
If social media is an echo chamber where people cozy up with people like them and talk at or over people who are not, what function does it serve? How does it expand the scope and nature of conversation? Doesn’t it become mere formulaic posturing when people aren’t actually engaging with each other? I am struck by the contrast between the people assorted around the dinner table of my childhood, having lively and complex discussions, reaching each other, breaking barriers, changing minds, and the jokes about binders in my Twitter feed.
Sure, they’re funny, but where’s the substance? Liberals sneer at me for criticising troubling comments made by the President, saying I’m helping Romney slip ahead, but where is the self-examination there? If they’re genuinely worried about who is going to take this Presidency, why focus on binaristic ‘if you’re not unilaterally for him, you’re against him’ comments to people are probably going to vote for their candidate anyway? Why not try to reach the people sitting on the fence, the people not sure about what they want to do, the people who turn to us for information and come away with nothing more than the spun cotton candy of in-groupness with a subtle side of ‘you’re one of us or we don’t want to talk to you’? Why not admit that your candidate isn’t perfect, but contrast your candidate with the other and highlight the radical differences, the things that lead you to believe your candidate is better?
Do you want to change hearts and minds, provide information, build community, or do you want to play in your big sandbox all by yourself with your Tonka trucks?
And if you like the way I do and think about social media, do you want to vote for me as the next recipient of the Women’s Media Center’s Social Media Award?