The Presidential debates this election year were—to put it mildly—theatrical. This was the first year I followed the debates on social media platforms (Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook), and much of what people seem to be searching for is something funny to latch onto to create the next great internet meme. Early in the third debate, it was clear that Barack Obama’s comments about “horses and bayonets” was going to be an early winner (see here, here, here and here). And in the first debate, Romney’s comments regarding equal pay for women included the poorly worded phrase, “I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks?’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.” While his story about the event he was mentioning has been challenged, others rightly asked what saying “binders full of women” might have done to Romney’s chances of winning the election. On social media, people were almost instantaneously outraged, and responses to Romney’s comment illustrate some of the new ways and spaces in which political protest takes place.
“Binders Full of Women” became an instant internet sensation, spawning its own Facebook community (now, with over 350,000 “likes”) in minutes. Research is only beginning to discuss what this might mean and whether things like this actually matter. For instance, a small but fast growing area of consumer research tracks Facebook fan counts against daily share stock prices. There’s an enormous correlation, even on a day-by-day basis (see here for the research, and here for some commentary). If Facebook can help us track changes in stock prices, what else can it tell us?
Political protest and civic engagement have always taken on new forms to respond to inequalities and injustice in new ways. A recent form of protest utilizes the “customer review” function at Amazon.com. If you look up the Avery Durable View Binder with 2 Inch EZ-Turn Ring on Amazon, you might notice something a bit odd. The binder has been reviewed by over 1,000 Amazon shoppers. This is a high number when you consider that the same binder with the 1.5-inch spine only has 17 reviews.
I first became interested in this political protest tactic during the tragedy at UC Davis during a peaceful protest associated with the campus’ Occupy movement that was broken up by a campus security official pepper spraying a group of students silently sitting in protest. The law enforcement official became a symbol around which people united and an internet meme went viral that depicted the officer pepper spraying everything from the U.S. constitution to the Statue of Liberty. But, another way that people protested his actions occurred on Amazon. Product reviews of the pepper spray the officer used challenged the event digitally. As a nation, many were (digitally) outraged that this happened, and it was one way that people choice to “voice” their support. The Amazon feature has also been used to protest sexist marketing and to simply make fun of ridiculous products as well.
Below is a sample of the comments on the Avery binder:
These comments capitalize on Romney’s comments to jokingly discuss larger issues to do with gender and class inequality in the U.S.
To be fair, some of the comments challenge Amazon product review protests as an appropriate place for political commentary.
While some might regard today’s younger generation as “avoiding” politics by engaging in Amazon product review protests rather than taking to the streets, Nina Eliasoph (here) addresses the ways that avoidance is itself a political strategy—one worth taking seriously. Eliasoph has long been interested in the ways in which people talk (and don’t talk) about politics. The younger generation is a generation of sound bites; political campaigns that fail to see this are doomed. They want something they can post on Facebook, “tweet” or text. And with the gender gap in presidential support growing in some of the key states, internet memes that capitalize on candidates views on key issues like women’s rights, reproductive health, and gender equality in the workplace might have more of an impact that we might initially believe.
The “tactical frivolity” involved in this new form of civic engagement and political protest is different from previous models, and its effectiveness is more difficult to assess. Some people may have thought that Romney’s “binders full of women” comment was “blown out of proportion,” while others might frame it as what Arlie Hochschild calls a “magnified moment”—one of those moments during ethnographic research when something happens that offers extraordinary insight into some social phenomenon, a moment that stands out as metaphorically rich.
Amazon product review protests are one way that individuals bring new tools to political protest, civically engaging in new and creative ways. The use of new media has broadened the space and scope of political protest and civic engagement in ways that challenge us to reconsider the boundaries of where “politics” begin and end. Whether this sea of product reviewers will show up the the polls is a question unanswered. But even if they don’t, what is the impact of their commentary? Does it matter?
To sum things up, if you’ve learned anything from this post, it ought to be that you probably should have taken out stock in Avery about a week ago…