I’ve been rereading a lot of Marshall McLuhan lately and I’m as confounded as ever by his conception of hot vs. cool media. And so I decided to try to test my thinking by comparing the phenomena of Donald Trump and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at this millennial media wendepunkt, as text and television give way to the net and whatever it becomes. I’ll also try to address the question: Why is @aoc driving the GOP mad?
McLuhan said that text and radio were hot media in that they were high-definition; they monopolized a sense (text the eye, radio the ear); they filled in all the blanks for the reader/listener and required or brooked no real interaction; they created — as we see with newspapers and journalism — a separation of creator from consumer. Television, he said, was a cool medium for it was low-definition across multiple senses, requiring the viewer to interact by filling in the blanks, starting quite literally with the blanks between the raster lines on the cathode-ray screen. “Low-definition invites participation,” explains McLuhan’s recently departed son Eric. (Thanks to Eric’s son, Andrew McLuhan, for sending me to this delightful video:)
In the long ago, when I was the TV critic for TV Guide, I liked Roseanne. Above, see my credentials.
Now, not so much. I had to force myself to watch Roseanne’s reboot just to see what is being foisted on America by ABC — especially because this network’s parent company, Disney, will soon have as its largest individual shareholderthe man who, more than any other single person, ruined our democracy: Rupert Murdoch. You like conspiracy theories? Nevermind Roseanne’s crackpot paranoia about left-wing pedophile rings. Try looking at how Fox and now ABC will conspire as propaganda outlets for Trump.
What’s most disturbing about the new Roseanne is how the network takes a populist movement that at its roots and its head is racist and tries to cleanse it. In the most blatant incident of racial tokenism on TV in memory, an innocent, young, African-American actor is hired to do nothing so much as be black and in the room with Roseanne to demonstrate that the old lady’s not so bad; she doesn’t spit insults at the child — even if, in real life, Roseanne Barr is not above attacking the children of Parkland.
And then, of course, there is the child of fluid gender definition who is also tolerated by the Conner family, nevermind that their hero, Trump, keeps trying to kick transgender patriots out of the U.S. military. I await the goofball and lovable Mexican and Muslim neighbors, whom Roseanne and Dan will also not report to ICE or lynch just to prove that these Trumpists are actually OK. Roseanne says her fondness for Trump is explained solely by his talk about jobs. It has nothing to do with white nationalism and populism, at least not in the fantasy world of the Disney network sitcom.
On the other side, there is the pathetic portrayal of Roseanne’s liberal sister by Laurie Metcalf, an actress I used to respect. Now, in her pink pussy hat and nasty woman T-shirt, she is meant to be nothing but the butt of jokes. Odd how Roseanne is allowed to make a joke at Jackie’s expense about taking a knee during dinner-table grace, but ABC pulled an episode of Blackishabout African-American athletes taking a knee to draw attention to racism in this country.
Some critics have tried to compare Roseanne’s character to Archie Bunker but they have it exactly wrong. In this show, sister Jackie is Archie, the buffoon, and Roseanne is Meathead, the sensible one. And the show doesn’t have an ounce of the intelligence and moral value of All in the Family.
If I were still a TV critic, I’d complain about the obvious gags and the lack of higher social awareness the once-upon-a-time Roseanne had when she made a show about class and feminism. The new version is just a collection of stereotypes exploited one way or another to support the stereotyper-in-chief, Trump. The show isn’t worth the dissection. I won’t be watching anymore. I also don’t see much on ABC that interests me anymore.
But I’m proud to say that Roseanne won’t be sending me thank-you notes. I’m dead to her. She blocked me on Twitter.
I ended up voting for Barack Obama, but while he was in a race against Hillary Clinton his campaign slogan drove me to distraction. “Change we can believe in.” What change exactly?
This morning Joe Scarborough said the first debate of this campaign didn’t alter the situation in this election. He said this is still a race of the experienced candidate against the change candidate. Now Donald Trump=change.
Clinton is forever boxed into the position of running against “change.” Now it is not only Trump but also, ironically, Obama who corners her there because she wisely wants to run on and continue Obama’s legacy with his coalition; she can’t change too much. Still, she can address this problem by cataloging the changes she will make; there are many.
But “change” is the wrong word. “Change” is bullshit. “Change” is an empty word, a vague promise. Obama promised “change” and it was a vessel into which his supporters poured their dreams. The most progressive among them were disappointed in the early years of his administration because he did not quickly accomplish all they had wished for. I was not disappointed, for I had more realistic expectations of change.
Donald Trump does not promise change. He promises regression, returning to some squandered glory of the hegemony his supporters have lost because of change they could not control, change they resent, change that shares what they think of as their jobs, power, and birthright with others, with outsiders. Trump is not promising to change. He is promising to stop change.
Of course, change is occurring without the intervention of any candidate. Change is the constant. Change brings us choices: opportunities and perils. That is what a leader must concern herself with.
Clinton is a realist. She is experienced. She has policies and plans. All those proper qualifications for the highest office in the land become handicaps in a media environment that values instead slogans, performance, conflict, entertainment, and personality over substance. “Make American great again.”
After Scarborough spoke this morning, Chuck Todd complained that after last night’s debate voters don’t know much more about the candidates’ policies. First, that’s wrong. Clinton tried to cram specific policy proposals into her few uninterrupted minutes and for the rest she gave her web address; plenty there. Trump refused to and could not be pushed to be specific about the plans he does not have. If voters do not know what each candidate will do and is capable of doing the fault lies at the feet of the media. It is our job to inform the public. The public is ill-informed. Donald Trump’s presence on that stage last night is the evidence. He promises nothing but change. And we let him get away with it.
I want you in the news business — and politics and brands — to learn from two media and political geniuses for the social age you’ve probably never heard of. They are Rafael and Omar Rivero, 29-year-old twin brothers and the founders of Occupy Democrats, a Facebook page that specializes in the creation of memes like those above and below: a gif with text and photos or a video (the “veme”), containing information, opinion, and a call to action. Thus they feed conversations all over the net. Their Facebook page has 3.5 million likes, adding 100,000 a week. The average meme reaches 1 million people. In total, Rafael Rivero says, they reach between 100 and 300 million impressions a week.
Oh, they also have a web site with posts and articles, like a media company, but that’s frankly “an afterthought” — even though it’s the web site that has the advertising that brings in high five-figures of income a month, which enabled the brothers to quit their work and hire help: “five of us in a living room.” The point of their enterprise is not making content or building a destination, in media terms. It is “affecting the national conversation.”
“We want to give people the ammunition to engage in meme warfare,” Rafael told me, “giving people the fodder to win the battles and ultimately the war. The battles are fought and won or lost on social media.” The battles are also informed or uninformed there and that is why news media should pay attention.
The reason I called Rafael is because I believe Occupy Democrats demonstrates a vital skill we must learn in media: feeding others’ conversations with information and arguments, adding journalistic value to the flow of information the internet enables. When I attended Vidcon, I saw that for YouTube fans, content is not a destination but a social token — something that speaks for them or informs and provides fodder for their conversations. We in media need to learn how to do that: how to take what we make to the people we serve, how to do that in a manner that is native to the platform and use case where these people are, and how to add value to their conversations and thus be valued for our contribution. Occupy Democrats does that. Sure, it’s partisan at its core. It’s not journalistic. But it has lessons to teach journalist.
The brothers launched Occupy Democrats a month before the 2012 election in response to the success of the Tea Party and to make up for what they saw as the weaknesses of the Occupy Wall Street movement — “outside the system, aggressively leaderless.” They started “just as a hobby, to be honest.” But it took off and started bringing in enough money that Omar, a Cornell graduate, could quit his job in finance and Rafael, a Swarthmore graduate, could give up his work running a vacation rental company and a furniture assembly business. “I always had an inclination to use the internet to fund my life,” Rafael said. “Ever since I was little, launching online businesses and online websites.” That’s the other thing media has to learn from them: entrepreneurship.
Rafael says the hardest part of their job is selecting what to make into a meme. “When I look back at the first memes I made on Facebook, damn, I sucked. Media companies: they suck, too.”
“The meme must tell the full story. You can’t assume people know anything. You have to be able to tell the entire story in as few words as possible. You have to plug into the zeitgeist. The text has to pop and be 100 percent readable from 30 feet away. The image has to be compelling. The arrangement — it’s very hard to describe. It’s very intuitive. The statue is already in the block of marble and the sculptor just uncovers it. The meme is already there. You just have to find it….”
You might make fun of making GIFs as a media artform, just as I made fun of one of my CUNY colleagues some years ago when he said he wanted to teach the making of animated GIFs. I was wrong, dead wrong. These little media nuggets are portable and carry value. Rafael thinks hard about what people will do with them. “There’s something very personal about sharing a graphic on Facebook,” he said. “You’re not sharing with one person, with five people. You’re sharing with pretty much everyone you’ve met through your entire life. It says, ‘This speaks for me. This is how I feel on this issue,’ often a very controversial issue. People in the past were hesitant to discuss politics in person…. People have become much more willing to engage in political discussion because of Facebook. We give them the tools to do that.”
Yeah, I know, sometimes you wish people didn’t discuss politics online. But they do. We in journalism have an opportunity and an obligation to inform that discussion. And we in media have clearly done a bad job of that. So when you hear uninformed discussion, think about blaming us first.
Facebook et al give us new tools to do our job. Sadly, we keep thinking they exist to distribute our content, to drive traffic back to our sites, to generate page views and reach. When Facebook tweaked its God Algorithm a few weeks ago and announced the principles behind it, it was really trying to teach us in media that — though Instant Articles are nice — the real way to succeed on the platform is to give people things *they* will use in *their* way.
Occupy Democrats teaches us to do that. It also teaches us new ways to reach more people. Their claimed 100–300 million weekly impressions “puts some of the old media horses to shame, leaves them in the dust. It’s just insane,” Rafael said.
But reach isn’t everything. Damnit. Relationships matter. Impact matters.
I asked Rafael what he knows about the impact they’re having. So far, he sees it in terms of who’s copying him. “I created so much viral Bernie Sanders material when no one had any idea who Bernie Sanders was,” he said. “Someone in the Bernie Sanders campaign woke up and thought, ‘we can make our own memes.’ It can’t be coincidence that they copied our style. Sometimes when I get drunk I tell people I created Bernie Sanders as a political force.” He’s joking. In any case, Rafael is right when he says: “Bernie Sanders was basically the meme candidate.”
(By the way, the brothers were split politically: Rafael for Clinton, Omar for Sanders; now they’re both #withher. And by the way, the brothers are dual citizens of the U.S. and Mexico and so fighting Trump is extra delicious: “He fucked with the wrong pair of Mexican twins.” )
I was curious whether the campaigns have come to Occupy Democrats for help. Someone high in Sanders campaign wanted them to share Bernie’s memes. Rafael is not complimentary of the memeing in the Clinton campaign but he says they are talking with someone there. The campaign runs weekly calls for folks like these, sharing their messaging — that is, giving guidance rather than asking for it. The DNC? Nope. If they were right-wing, Rafael believes, the RNC would fund them.
What interests me more is whether media companies have come to the brothers to learn at their feet. One innovative company — Fusion — did because of the data they saw on social-media tracking service CrowdTangle: “Who the fuck is Occupy Democrats and they’re eating everyone’s lunch.” There was talk of a TV show but remember that the brothers are less impressed with big media than they are with Facebook. “We already are pretty busy. We didn’t see that it would add that much value to us…. The old-media landscape was what was said on Meet the Press. Now you’ve got to control the media narrative on Facebook.” In any case, points to Fusion and Univision.
So how should news organizations incorporate these skills? Should The Washington Post have a meme desk? Sure, it should. The Post is hiring two full-time producers for Facebook Live alone. Others are hiring devoted Snapchat producers. Lots of media properties have email newsletter authors. More and more, I see calls for platform-native content creation (and that is making us ask questions about how we teach skills in a journalism school).
The problem with much of that so-called social-media work is that the goal is still to drive traffic back to the media site and that will be the case so long as we try to prolong the life of the volume-based mass-media business model and depend on volume. If we instead judge our value on how well we inform people and how much we help them solve their problems and meet their goals, then we will go to wherever they are and use the tools at hand to deliver value the best way we can.
Thus the meme desk would not create promotions for articles on web sites. It would not be an arm of the audience development department. It would not identify trending stories and jump on them by copying those stories. No, the meme desk would start by seeing what people need to know: what are they curious about or wrong about, what information do they need to know, what are they already talking about and how can we improve the quality of those conversations journalistically, with information, fact-checking, explanation, evidence, news? Then the meme desk would teach every journalist to do this and put itself out of business.
I was talking about all this today with tech journalist Charles Arthur, whom I’ve worked with at The Guardian. When I said that the newspaper front page and home page are dying because hardly anyone is going to them — demonstrating a lack of demand for our vaunted “news judgment” (for they exist to promote more than to summarize and inform), I also said the only exciting page 1’s I see these days are from New York Daily News editor-in-chief Jim Rich, who has reinvigoratec the form. Right, Charles said. That’s because they’re memes. Right.