Archive for November, 2012

Rethinking the “Meme Election”

I have been turning over some ideas about the move to christen 2012 as the “Meme Election.” To some extent, this desire to revisit the 2012 campaign was driven by an Atlantic article by Megan Garber, which places emphasis on the Obama campaign’s deft ability to navigate various social media, an interpretation grounded in Obama’s own willingness to participate in various election-year memes, as well as the lively Obama Tumblr, which allowed the campaign to use a more playful tone. This playfulness is typified by Obama posing with McKayla Maroney, the “Not Impressed” gymnast from the U.S. Olympic team, whose scowl launched one of the more popular memes of the 2012 election.

Garber’s article seems to take for granted that Obama’s campaign was far more successful at using memes than Mitt Romney’s election team, and there is probably some truth to that, although to some extent at least, Obama’s team built upon an existing community of creative class workers who were more likely to support him than Obama. Many of the more popular memes (as Garber defines them), such as Eastwooding and Binders Full of Women (here’s my response), came from outside the campaign itself, as everyday people sought to participate by demonstrating their cleverness or by sharing the creativity of others, often to make a political point. As my somewhat infrequent blog posts show, I’ve been consistently amused by many of these memes and find them to be a fascinating expression of political culture, one that fits neatly with my enjoyment of (almost) all things snarky and satirical. Popular culture (as Henry Jenkins  reminded us in his discussions of “fan activism“) can be a powerful tool for conveying a political idea.

But I think this focus on image macros and other forms of visual cleverness may contribute to an incomplete depiction of how the 2012 election functioned. First, in the final days before the election–and even in the immediate aftermath–much of the debate was focused on the practice of interpreting polls. During the days leading up to the election, there were (for example) countless attempts to discredit polling expert Nate Silver, whose predictions turned out to be more or less spot on.  There was the “unskewed polls” guy, whose predictions were briefly shared, and certainly conservative fears about Obamacare, gun rights, and Benghazi, among other issues are shared in a viral (or meme-like) fashion. If we take the idea of the meme more broadly to include any “concept” that spreads via the internet, we have to take account for these attempts to circulate ideas, even if many of them are later proven false by fact-checkers (and of course, the critique of fact-checkers itself arguably became a meme). By talking about these issues as “memes,” I’m not ignoring other effects of calculating polling results or other aspects of the campaign, including the use of email and social media to fundraise and target voters (and I would argue that one of the under-reported stories of this year’s election is the intensification of campaigns using “Big Data” to identify and reach out to likely voters). Instead, I think we might benefit from a more nuanced perception of how memes function in the spaces of political and popular culture.

Garber is absolutely right about a number of points. Much of this communication is, as she puts it, “niche [and] networked.” To be sure, I disagree politically with many of my Facebook friends and often encountered image macros that didn’t reflect my political views, but the Obama Tumblr and other social media tools tended to attract participants who shared political views. She also points out the idea that we have reached the era of the “permanent campaign” (if we weren’t there already), one that involves an active, ongoing participatory political culture, one that isn’t necessarily tied to a specific political candidate, even if Obama benefited tremendously from social media. Much of that material will be frustrating, and memes can spread false information almost as quickly as it can spread truthful information. It can be profoundly clever and can dramatically change our perception of public figures (or at least reinforce emergent views of those figures). Perhaps rather than thinking about memes in terms of campaigns, we should understand them as part of an ongoing–often fraught–political conversation.

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On-Demand Update

The Amazon page for my second book, On-Demand Culture: Digital Delivery and the Future of Movies, is now live. The cover image and other details aren’t available, but you can check out the description and order it if you’re so inclined.

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The End of the Galaxy

It’s official, Cary’s gem of an art-house multiplex, the Galaxy Cinema, has announced that they will be closing the doors this weekend. The last movies will unspool on Sunday evening, and then the Research Triangle will have lost one of its most significant–and eclectic–movie theaters. The theater has been fending off an eviction notice for the last few months, along with development plans that would turn the location into the site of a grocery store. Even so, it’s impossible not to see the Galaxy’s struggles in the context of the turbulent futures of so many art house theaters as we convert from film to digital projection. David Bordwell has written eloquently about this topic, and independent art-house theaters across the country have been facing difficult decisions about whether to convert or not, given that most new digital projectors cost around $100,000. It’s a situation that affects another theater dear to my heart, the Cameo Art House in Fayetteville, where I saw dozens of movies every year before moving up to Raleigh. Both theaters are owned by local citizens who love movies and who have attempted to create not just a place for watching good, engaging, independent films but also places that give back to the community in a variety of ways through fundraisers, debate screenings, and other events.

The Galaxy has always been a hybrid space–one that offered Bollywood hits alongside of art house and independent movies and that catered to the diverse communities of professors, tech industry professionals, and others who called the Raleigh suburb home. The theater employees were knowledgeable about film and consistently friendly. It was clear that the workers were passionate about movies and about creating an atmosphere where film lovers would feel at home. It’s also the place where I had part of my first date with my wife, Andrea, so of course, there is some profound personal nostalgia that I will always have for the theater. There are a couple of other art house theaters in the Triangle–the Rialto in downtown Raleigh, the Colony in north Raleigh, and the Carolina in Durham, but it’s hard not to feel like a distinctive, local space has been lost, and I’d imagine that even with these other movie theaters, that I’ll be seeing far fewer movies in theaters (and maybe even far fewer movies) in the months to come.

I do hope that some of my local readers will consider the option of donating to support the survival of the Cameo Art House in Fayetteville. They have a page on their website calling for donations and explaining the costs (about $100,000 per screen) and the necessity of conversion, as well as the difficulty of financing this type of cost for theaters operating on the margins. It’s easy to say that movie lovers still have unprecedented choices when it comes to art house and independent films–the VOD menus on most cable sites offer a massive “multiplex” on-demand for costs that aren’t that much higher than a movie ticket, but the cultural pleasures of getting out of the house, of watching with others, are in danger of fading away. I realize that I’m verging on some of the nostalgic language about a dying movie culture that I generally try to criticize, but it’s hard to keep a sense of critical distance when those industrial changes hit so close to home.

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