The third and final presidential debate will take place Monday at 9 p.m. in Boca Raton, Fla. There is, of course, one big question on everyone’s mind: Which Romney-inspired meme will the Internet churn out next?

First there was Big Bird.

During the first presidential debate, former PBS news anchor Jim Lehrer, asked the candidates how they would address the federal budget deficit. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney said he would lower government spending and, even though he loves Big Bird, end government subsidies for networks like PBS.

The upshot of Romney’s remarks? Instant online fame for his yellow, feathery friend. On Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, Tumblr and elsewhere, memes popped up by the thousands. Superimposed over pictures of Big Bird were phrases like “Fired by Romney,” “This bird is too big to fail,” “Mitt Romney is trying to kill me” and “Save Big Bird.” Another read, “Obama got bin Laden — I’ll get Big Bird!” under a picture of a cackling Romney. The Internet had spoken, but it wasn’t finished with Romney quite yet.

Round two: Binders Full of Women.

In the second presidential debate, the candidates were asked what they would do to address the gender income gap. President Barack Obama drew attention to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, the first bill passed during his presidency, and his efforts to ensure equal access to higher education by expanding Pell Grants.

Romney tried to anecdotally demonstrate his credentials. While putting together his cabinet as governor of Massachusetts, he noticed that the pool of applicants was overwhelmingly male. In search of equally-qualified women — because he’s apparently an affirmative action kind of guy — Romney approached “a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks?’ and they brought us whole binders full of women.”

Look, I’m savvy to the ubiquitous powers of the Internet, but even I was surprised at how rapidly “binders full of women” took off. Before the debate was over, a “Binders Full of Women” Tumblr blog had already gone viral. Submissions riffed on the image of binders literally full of women and the implicit sexism of Romney’s statement. Trapper Keeper? More like, “Trap Her, Keep Her.”

On Facebook, a “Binders Full of Women” page garnered more than 30,000 “likes” by the end of the broadcast. (At present, that number has grown to 354,000.) Over on Twitter, a “Romney’s Binder” account gave us the binder’s perspective on its newfound fame: “No comment on the rumors that Bill Clinton has already asked to borrow me.”

The Obama and Romney campaigns themselves have been drawn into the meme-driven dialogue. Campaigning in Iowa Oct. 17, Obama told his audience, “I’ve got to tell you, we don’t have to collect a bunch of binders to find qualified, talented, driven young women to learn and teach” in science, technology, engineering and math. That same day, the Obama camp came out with an ad titled “Mitt Romney’s Condescending Views Toward Women,” which, against the backdrop of a three-ring binder graphic, affirms that Romney’s cookie-cutter perception of gender norms is outdated.

Also on Oct. 17, in a pathetic attempt to spin the binder controversy in Romney’s favor, the Republican National Committee released a picture of a binder filled with blank white pages under the words “Obama’s Second-Term Agenda.” Explaining the image, Reince Priebus, the National Committee chairman, said Obama “didn’t lay out a plan for a second term agenda. He’s offered plenty of excuses but he hasn’t offered a plan. And that’s what we’re calling the empty binder.” (Clever, Reince.)

In any case, out of all that was said during the second presidential debate, it remains true that the binders full of women meme has generated the most buzz. Is that a bad thing? Should we be concerned that voters — particularly young people, the primary generators of memes — pay more attention to binders and Big Bird than the “real” issues?

These questions are legitimate, but wrongheaded. Those who attack these memes make two false presumptions.

First, they assume the candidates and media are discussing the real issues to begin with — which, more often than not, they aren’t. In part, that’s a reflection of the artificial structure of these so-called debates. But it’s also attributable to Romney’s pandering and Obama’s reluctance to call attention to his opponent’s blatant insincerity.

Second, they falsely assume young people are incapable of grappling with the most pressing issues of the day. That’s far from the truth. Those who are the best informed create the funniest memes, and only those who are equally informed can understand them. My Facebook friends who shared links to the “Binders Full of Women” Tumblr are far from lazy or ignorant. In fact, they turn to memes precisely because, in their scathing irony, memes are more informative than any campaign ad or stump speech. Memes are an outlet for our frustration with the circus that is politics.

Can memes be misleading? Yes. Can they oversimplify issues? Yes. (On both counts, see the “You Didn’t Build That” series.) But until Romney gets honest, or until these debates get real, or both, these things called memes are here to stay. Let’s see which one goes viral tonight.

Daniel Chardell can be reached at chardell@umich.edu. Follow him on Twitter @DanielChardell.

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