Friday, 11 January 2008

SOUNDBITES, MEMES, AND POLITICIANS


It was Dennis Potter, the dramatist, who said "The trouble with words is that you never know whose mouths they have been in”. Nowhere is this more transparently demonstrated than in how the mainstream media has explained Hilary Clinton's 'surprise' victory in New Hampshire. They all say exactly the same thing: she cried; she showed her softer side; she made herself vulnerable. And they all led with the photo I've posted above.

Of course, it's possible they all came to the same realisation, at the same time, but for me this is another example of a contagious idea, a meme at play. There must have been an originator of these explanations, and this explanation has diffused through their social graph to our screens and newspaper. That originator could be someone in Hillary's camp or a skillful journalist that has shared an idea with colleagues, which has then gone viral. The newsmedia appears to aim for consensus in their dissections of national discourse, because no one wants to run the wrong story. And the politicians dance carefully with them, occasionally dropping carefully calibrated soundbites, that are first leaked and then explained off-screen and off-the-record.


These soundbites that become the basis of national discourse in the mainstream media, then reappear fully formed from our mouths. They are used as conversational capital at water coolers, bars, and dinner parties around the world. As recipient and then distributors of these memes we somehow like the fact they simplify, and unify, so we have a shared understanding, and a cultural consensus from which we can anchor our own opinions. The whole media-political machine is designed for the seeding and spreading of memes and politicians are the masters at spreading them through the social graph. But be careful, you never know whose mouths these memes have been in.