Watching the Debates in the Twitter Democracy

Hate to spoil the party, but the whole "binders full of women" thing from last night's debate? It's already over. It was funny for about, let's say, fifteen minutes, but by the time the inevitable @Romneys_Binder Twitter account popped up (not to mention the single-service Tumblr and, ugh, the other binder Twitter), the joke had already flourished, matured, and died.

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Hate to spoil the party, but the whole "binders full of women" thing from last night's debate? It's already over. It was funny for about, let's say, fifteen minutes, but by the time the inevitable @Romneys_Binder Twitter account popped up (not to mention the single-service Tumblr and, ugh, the other binder Twitter), the joke had already flourished, matured, and died. Things move fast on the Internet, and it's time we accepted that most in-the-moment meme jokes like these have basically the lifespan of a mayfly. Even good ol' Jeremy, the first question-asker, had gotten a little long in the tooth by debate's end. That's O.K., though. To everything there is a season, etc. etc. And anyway, that ephemerality doesn't mean that watching the debates was any less fun.

Yes, fun. If you're someone who uses Twitter, or maybe even Facebook, or has logged into some live blog kind of a thing, watching the debates can actually be a grand old time. What is at root a grating and unproductive circus of belabored talking points and awkward dodges becomes a rich source of dumb (but funny) jokes, biting short-form analysis, and silly we're-all-in-this-nonsense-together camaraderie. It's a great way to experience what can be a pretty dispiriting showcase showdown of hollow political maneuvering, especially now that the campaign feels like it's been going on for years and years. (Likely because it has.) For the true wonks out there, I'm sure there are still substantive details and nuanced shifts in tone and policy that are worth considering, but for us lay people, what more is there to concretely say or feel at this point? We're all pretty clear on our choice; those "undecided voters" are mostly a myth, right? So why not have a laugh at the whole unending process's expense while we wait for it to grind down. It doesn't mean we take the stakes any less seriously, it's just that every issue has already been pretty thoroughly picked over at this point, to near-maddening degree, and we'd like to hold on to at least some measure of our sanity while they pick over it some more.

The whole to-do is, yes, a bit of a show, but it's still worthwhile to watch at least a debate or two, if for no other reason than the fact that participating in the national conversation, or at least being aware of it, is important. If your preferred method of participation is to take this all deeply seriously and to read lots of think-tank types analyzing the minutiae of every debate, that's fine. But some of us prefer a bit more levity, and because of the wonders of social media, especially Twitter, we're now able get that and share it in real-time. Things like the overdone binder jokes and the Big Bird meme from two weeks ago might get a little, or a lot, overblown, making the live-tweet feeding frenzy seem a bit repetitive or lame, but at this point I suspect many of us are so addicted to the experience—the thrill of the "favorite" or "retweet," the galvanizing agony of not getting a joke out fast enough—that we're willing to overlook the fact that things get a bit too overstuffed at points.

And hey, it's better than the alternative, which is to wait for analysis from the cable news prattlers. There is nothing more jarring than watching the debates (or conventions) on something as staid and quiet as PBS or C-SPAN and then turning over to one of the caustic, overly lit nightmare factories that are CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC. With their raggedy rogues galleries of commentators saying nothing, the little soft-shoe two-step routines done to position a preferred candidate as the winner, it's all more depressing than the actual depressing issues. Nothing will make you despair more for the political process than watching these chuckleheads make one rash declaration or prediction after another, ones they've seemingly grabbed out of nowhere for the sheer cynical purpose of Having An Opinion and Being On TV. It's all such garrulous, pompous noise. Woe be to the political media analyst who has to watch that stuff all the time.

It's not news to criticize cable news; this has been going on since, gasp, even before Jon Stewart and his Daily Show brigade. But what might be new is how we increasingly don't really need all that florid gasbaggery. Not if we continue to, well, democratize the coverage. Sure we'll always need credible experts and the smarter guys in the room to frame all this stuff in insightful and comprehensive ways, but that's not really what is happening on those spectacles of light and useless sound. Actually, the more substantive critics and analysts are right there on Twitter, not goofing the floof with Sean Hannity and Anderson Cooper. We've long known that cable news, especially in post-event wrap-up mode, is mostly hokum, but it's still always functioned as something of a necessary evil. It has been a good barometer of, if not actual national sentiment, at least the narratives that will dominate the news cycle until some other dumb things come and take their place. But now maybe the evil is less necessary? I found the commentary on Twitter last night more insightful and a hell of a lot more entertaining than any of the gunk they kept throwing at me on Fox and CNN. (I avoided MSNBC as it's slightly harder to be angry at, which is the whole point.) Obviously most Americans aren't on Twitter, but I suspect a lot of people who care, at least enough to watch post-debate coverage on some 24-hour network, have signed up. And that has to be a good thing, right?

It's ultimately a chilling world in which everyone is on Twitter and it's become our sole means of talking to one other. But in the short-term, maybe cable news will recognize the attention shift and either become a more intelligent place in response or, at the very least, funnier and more engaging. Right now it exists in this strange middleground, one that breeds mind-numbing self-seriousness and heaps of pablum used only to fill up air time. If we ignore the TV pundits in favor of each other, maybe they'll realize they have to change their ways? It's probably wishful thinking, but if you can't dream in America, where can you?

Whatever happens, I do at least know two things: 1) Binder jokes are old, guys, so let's put them to bed. And, 2) I'll see you on Twitter next week.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.