ROFL Politics: The Viral Video Origin of the Tea Party

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In the wake of what everyone seems to agree is a momentous mid-term election that will be remembered largely for the Tea Party's influence, it's worth taking a moment to make an under-appreciated point about its origins. The Tea Party owes its existence, at least in part, to what must now be considered the most influential chunk of ROFLculture to date.

By ROFLculture, I mean silly, funny, ephemeral stuff that pings around the Internet -- Rickrolling, LOLcats, David after Dentist, Shit My Dad Says, and other little bits of micro-diversion that your bored friends send you and that you waste time consuming even though you supposedly have something important to do. CNBC reporter Rick Santelli's performance on the morning of February 19, 2009, was a classic example of one form of the genre: A normally staid talking head drops his professional persona and launches into a Network-style rant, pretty much out of nowhere. Speaking from his usual post on the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade, Santelli started shouting about the "government promoting bad behavior," and called for a "Chicago Tea Party," possibly involving dumping derivatives into Lake Michigan. CBOT traders egged him on, cheering the tirade, and booing suggested administration policies.

Once upon a time such moments disappeared into the ether, but in the Web era they invariably become immortal, despite the best efforts of traditional media companies or embarrassed subjects to suppress them. But as Brian Stetler shrewdly noted at the time, CNBC's handling of the Santelli clip was indicative of a turning point in how traditional media thinks about ROFLculture: The network immediately posted the clip on its own site. It was swiftly picked up by Drudge, catapulted into the Web's check-this-out-o-sphere, and promptly consumed by a much larger audience than watches CNBC in real time. Stetler concluded that the networks had finally figured out that this stuff is going to end up online anyway, so they may as well post it themselves: "They would rather replay an embarrassing segment with advertisements attached." This is actually one of the core principles of ROFLculture. Humiliation should not be suppressed. It should be monetized.

By ROFLculture standards the Santelli outburst was not a big deal, and when the chuckling died down, it hadn't come close to the legendary meme status of Star Wars Kid, or to tallying up Susan Boyle viewer numbers. But by that afternoon an actual Chicago Tea Party was being organized online, and the next day The Atlantic's Chris Good pointed out that the elements of a "campaign meme" were in place: "a catch phrase, an upcoming event, and an easily distributable video." As John Judis observed in recapping the Tea Party's origins in a New Republic article this past May about its likely lingering influence: "Santelli's appeal was answered by a small group of bloggers, policy wonks, and Wasington politicos who were primarily drawn from the libertarian wing of the conservative movement." And this crowd saw something here beyond a business journalist amusingly losing his shit on-air. By the end of February 2009, there were Tea Parties not just in Chicago, but in 30 cities.

And thus did an amusing televised outburst earn a special place in the history of ROFL -- and, perhaps, in the history of American politics.

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Rob Walker is a technology/culture columnist for Yahoo News and a contributor to Design Observer. He is a co-editor of the anthology Significant Objects: 100 Extraordinary Stories About Ordinary Things.

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