Big Bird and Digital Civic Engagements

Jane Wang's "Issues" pinboard contains many pins covering a range of topics that interest her, such as the repin of "The Life of Julia." Also featured on Wang's "Issues" pinboard is another pin related to the 2012 Presidential election, posted following the first presidential debate in early October. Like the "Life of Julia" pin, this pin received a great deal of attention from Wang's followers, garnering 214 comments by 2014.

"Will Work for Food:" Big Bird as Meme and Political Talking Point

In the first debate of the 2012 presidential campaign, Mitt Romney unexpectedly addressed the issue of government spending and funding of subsidies by evoking a very familiar name: Big Bird. As Romney "noted what entities he would stop funding" during the debate, he made reference to the Affordable Health Care Act and also mentioned that he would "stop a subsidy to PBS" (Sullivan, 2012, para. 3). Romney stated: "I'm sorry, Jim [Lehrer]. I'm going to stop the subsidy to PBS. I am going to stop other things. I like PBS. I love Big Bird. I actually like you, too. But I'm not going to keep on spending money on things to borrow money from China to pay for it" (para. 3).

As Romney declared his intentions towards Big Bird, Jim Lehrer, and other PBS entities, Internet commenters immediately leapt into the fray: "Big Bird was a major Twitter trend throughout the night, while Oscar the Grouch and Bert and Ernie also featured. Twitter said that shortly after Romney's remarks, users were posting 17,000 tweets per minute mentioning Big Bird" (Sullivan, 2012, para. 4). From there, Romney and Big Bird's contentious relationship quickly became a meme. From parody accounts on Twitter, like @firedbigbird (which was quickly suspended) to image macro memes, including plays on the Shepard Fairey "Hope" poster, "the Internet struck back against Mitt Romney with biting hilarity" (Kurtzman, 2012, para. 1).

Of the many image macro memes dedicated to mocking Romney's attack on Big Bird, some included a simple screen shot from an episode of Sesame Street, featuring Big Bird sitting on a stoop and holding a sign reading "Will work for food" (Wang, 2012, Pulling the image from a blog post on "The Impolitic," Jane Wang shared this image of Big Bird, pinning it to her "Issues" board (the same board that featured the "Life of Julia" repin). Wang posted the pin with a simple caption, "Stand up for Big Bird!" (Wang, 2012, …/pin/2814818488410848/). Similar to the "Life of Julia" pin, this pin drew much attention from Wang's followers. Although the Julia pin received only 395 repins and 332 likes (by late 2014), the Big Bird pin boasts 781 repins and 755 likes. The Big Bird pin drew even more comments than the Julia pin, with 214 comments left.

Again, as with the Julia pin, responses came overwhelmingly from female (and/or female-identifying users), and just as the Julia pin stood out for its political content, so too did the Big Bird pin immediately spark conversation, with commenters sharing their perspectives. As Wang enacted a form of digital civic engagement by sharing this image of Big Bird and invoking the presidential debate and Romney's policies, so too did Pinterest users engage rhetorically within the comment thread, arguing political issues and demonstrating again how the space can move beyond "silly feminine daydreams" (Tekobbe, 2013, p. 382).

"We need to keep Big Bird but we don't need China to pay for him:" Government Spending and Pinterest Politics

Unlike the discussion following the life of Julia pin, fewer commenters in the thread responding to the Big Bird pin took issue with politics entering into Pinterest. Only a few remarked on the seemingly out-of-place nature of the pin. One user stated, "This is not a politic site please," as another facetiously remarked, "Now let's talk about sports and religion" (Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818488410848/). And similar to some commenters on the Julia thread, some suggested that others just take the pin in stride and move on. As one wrote, "I wish people would just look at the picture and laugh and not take it so seriously" (Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818488410848/). Another took a similar stance to the commenters on the "Life of Julia" thread and argued that discussing politics online "is like purposefully slamming your own finger in the door. Everyone has made up their own mind. … There are plenty of things to do on Pinterest so let's craft and cook instead of arguing" (to which another commenter responded, "amen to that"; Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818488410848/). As with the commenters who lamented the displacement of beautiful things and recipes by political discussions on the "Life of Julia" comment thread, these users also voice their vision for the space and use this comment thread to take part in shaping the site's purpose. Many other commenters seemed ready to talk politics on Pinterest; this thread contains far fewer complaints about the inclusion of politics on the social media site, and the majority of commenters engage with the issues and topics the pin suggests—namely, presidential politics and federal spending to subsidize various programs, including public broadcasting.

The majority of the thread was devoted to debating the issue that the pin referenced—government spending on entities like PBS. As with the issues raised by the "Life of Julia" infographic, the image of Big Bird and the issue it represented seemed divisive among the commenters. Many offered their critiques of government funding being used to fund public broadcasting, especially if the funding was coming from "money borrowed from China" (Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818488410848/). As one commenter wrote, "I love Big Bird, just not an important thing to borrow money from China for;" another user similarly argued, "Yes. Lets borrow money from China to support a Television Station. Isn't this the ONLY tv station that is federally funded? There are more important things to worry about in our country than big bird" (Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818488410848/).

Others criticized the idea of government money going to television at all. Many commenters suggested that Big Bird and PBS were generating enough revenue without the assistance of the government. "Big bird makes plenty of money. He doesn't need government welfare" wrote one commenter (Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818488410848/). And another encouraged her fellow commenters, and ostensibly Jane Wang the pinner, to not be distressed about Big Bird's future: "Don't be sad about Big Bird. He'll be fine. Don't forget about the hundreds of millions the Sesame Street gang make from merchandising. Be happy!" (Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818488410848/). Still others drew comparisons between PBS and other television stations. One commenter suggested PBS "sell advertising like every other channel," and stated, "There's really no logical reason why tax payers should be funding their station" (Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818488410848/). Another user suggested that Sesame Street move to another network: "I adore Sesame Street, but Big Bird can survive as well as Dora the Explorer does on Nickelodeon. It's not rocket science to move Sesame Street to another network like CBS etc." (Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818488410848/). Dora the Explorer became a useful point of comparison for other commenters, as well: "I wonder how Dora's done it all this time without gov. funding. So bizarre … she must just be special. *rolling my eyes* lame" (Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818488410848/).

Many commenters did express support for the pin and its ideas, defending government subsidies for public broadcasting as well as other federally funded programs. Some offered simple statements of support, such as, "Big Bird … as American as Apple Pie! Can't fire Big Bird," and "One of the few things in the budget I feel I get any benefit from!" (Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818488410848/). Others situated funding for PBS and NPR within a spectrum of government subsidies. One person commented, "I wonder if people think public schools getting money is welfare. Or having clean water is welfare. Or being able to call 911 and have firefighters show up. Or countless other things we take for granted" (Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818488410848/). Another user pointed out that PBS was not the only federal subsidy that might be cut: "The Corporation for Public Broadcasting budget is the equivalent of a penny in the US budget. Why don't we look at something that would make a difference, like cutting subsidies to Big Oil?" (Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818488410848/). And still others explained how small a portion of the federal budget was devoted to public broadcasting and why supporting PBS is culturally beneficial,

The amount our country spends on PBS is one one-hundredth of one percent of the federal budget. I, for one, absolutely believe PBS is a necessity. The company does truly 'educate, inform, and inspire.' Shows like NOVA, American Masters, and PBS NewsHour bolster education. If PBS is cut, another portal to … education is taken away from people. (Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818488410848/)

Perhaps predictably, commenters had clear rebuttals to these arguments, including that those who care about PBS should make donations to offer their support ("For those who believe PBS is an absolute necessity, I suggest you make a donation substantial enough for those who do not feel their taxes should go to PBS") or that public broadcasting was characteristically different from "necessary" public programs (regarding comments that question whether public schooling could be characterized as "welfare," a user responded, "you are comparing essential services to optional ones. … There is NO need for our tax dollars to support it"; Wang, 2012, /pin/2814818488410848/). Not unlike the "Life of Julia" thread, this comment thread was filled with various perspectives and arguments, and while some users were firmly in agreement with one another and offered each other support, many commenters remained in disagreement, arguing various aspects and facets of their positions on the issue.

However characteristic of our contemporary democracy and political culture, especially in discussions during the Presidential election, both conversation threads did not provide much evidence that the rhetorical efforts of the commenters changed others' minds or shifted their opinions. But rather than call this a failed rhetorical exchange, I think these communications illustrate some productive tensions that can provide insights into how rhetorical civic engagement happens in social media spaces.