ON THE EVENING of October 3, millions of people—most of the American political press included—turned on their televisions, sat down at their computers, logged on to Twitter, and began cracking jokes. Ninety minutes and ten million updates later, the first presidential debate would be the most-tweeted about political event in Twitter’s six-year history. For this, we can thank Big Bird.
“I love Big Bird,” Mitt Romney said while calling for the elimination of federal subsidies for public broadcasting. Immediately, journalists—and bloggers and pundits and regular citizens—began churning out wisecracks. “I wonder if Mitt and Ann Romney are going to celebrate tonight by eating, say, Big Bird,” The New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof quipped. The punch lines were followed almost immediately by parody Twitter accounts, like @BigBirdRomney, @FiredBigBird, and @FireMeElmo. One such account, @BigBird, had nearly 14,000 followers by the end of the night—putting it in the top 1 percent of Twitter users by popularity (and on par with The New York Times Magazine national correspondent Mark Leibovich). These anonymous jokesters had some good lines, but many more bad ones. “Romney will fire Big Bird and Cookie Monster and replace them with the replacement refs #bigbird,” tweeted @FiredBigBird.
By the time someone photo-shopped an image of Big Bird strapped to the roof of the Romney family station wagon, it was clear: We Are All Andy Borowitz Now. Journalists have always tried to sneak clever turns of phrase past persnickety copy editors, but Twitter allows even those obliged to adhere to the bone-dry standards of legacy media outlets to show the entire world how witty they are—and maybe even win a pat on the back from the management types who’ve decided that social media represents the newsroom’s future. The result: a cult of cleverness, where a good joke is rewarded with retweets and new followers, the two main metrics of social-media clout. I’m certainly among those spending far too much time attempting to rack up both. Still, it often seemed as though every reporter, blogger, and pundit in the country spent every waking hour of the campaign just making fun of everything.
In elections past, the sort of stuff reporters joke about—Joe Biden telling a Virginia rally it could win North Carolina; Mitt Romney admiring clouds—might have ended up in pool reports, seen and appreciated only by other journalists. The Internet gives the campaign press ways to publicize the weird details that otherwise might not make it into print. The behind-the-curtain material that makes The Boys on the Bus and Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 so readable is now more often than not shared with the world in real time.
But in those books, weird details generally served a better understanding of a candidate’s character; on Twitter, they reduce a candidate to his stupidest moments for a quick laugh. And at a certain point (let’s say that point was when Time released photos of Paul Ryan dressed like Poochie, the “cool dog” character from the “Simpsons”) the “Mystery Science Theater 3000” routine subsumed the other part of campaign coverage, where you explain the state of the race and the issues involved to normal people. At the second presidential debate on October 16, it all happened again, when Romney said “binders full of women”: @BigBirdRomney retweeted the freshly minted @Romney_Binder ten times that night. When the third presidential debate finally rolled around and Obama told Romney “we also have fewer horses and bayonets,” he was speaking in readymade hashtags.
When you watch the debates with Twitter open, you don’t really pay attention. You listen for odd turns of phrase or obvious verbal flubs, you glance up at the screen to note whether one candidate is making a funny face while listening to his opponent speak, and you try to see what funny jokes your friends and other journalists are making. Everyone was eventually just throwing gags into a maelstrom of one-liners, and it was impossible to read them all. (This was its own frustration: your A-level material, buried by everyone else’s dumb jokes!) And at the end of the night, none of it had anything to do with interpreting the debate for readers. If either “Binders” or “Big Bird” changed a single vote, I will shave David Axelrod’s mustache.
“Midway through the campaign, I grew so utterly convinced that the Twitter news cycle was irrelevant that I tried to bisect it from the rest of the news cycle,” explains Slate political reporter David Weigel (90,000-plus followers). “Much of the political news day was spent on Twitter-friendly crap that might not have gotten to anyone who didn’t have a smart phone. It was a problem, adding to ways in which bubbled-up reporters can’t relate to the people they’re supposed to be covering an election for.”
This is the “bubble” the Internet—the wonderful, democratizing, populist Internet!—was supposed to burst. In elections past, I was among the many who bemoaned trivial “theater criticism” of political events. It was deeply annoying when pundits reduced presidential debates to fuzzy impressions about which candidate looked more at ease or seemed less likely to make you hate him if you chatted in a bar. Jon Stewart was one of the first to mock this tendency, and we idolized him for it. Now we all try to imitate him, but Twitter’s 140-character limit turns would-be wits into smartasses. Were it not for Obama’s lame performance (magnified by Andrew Sullivan’s Lear-like reaction that began, of course, on Twitter), it’s likely the only thing we would remember about the entire first debate is a few jokes about a giant puppet.
Making this all even more painful was the way the Obama campaign unhesitatingly glommed onto memes, linking to “savebigbird.tumblr.com” in a campaign e-mail and purchasing a promoted tweet about “binders full of women” that appeared whenever someone searched Twitter for the phrase. The Romney campaign was more often the target of riffing than a participant in it, but it tried its best. Arguably the entire Republican National Convention, with its “We Built It” theme, was based on a dumb meme. It certainly ended with the single most riffable moment of the campaign, Clint Eastwood mumbling at a chair.
Maybe the real frustration is that material once passed between insiders—those pool reports, again—is now inescapable. In the past, stupid little jokes—“rumors on the Internets” and “need some wood?” to name two classics from 2004—were what my friends and I thought was funny, and what we thought was funny was largely ignored by the rest of the Serious Political Media. It’s much cooler to crack on people when you imagine yourself doing so from the back row. When everyone from your mom to John Kerry is joining you, it’s time to log off.
Alex Pareene is a staff writer at Salon. This article appeared in the December 6, 2012 issue of the magazine under the headline “Assume Joke Dead.”