A sample of tweets from the #new911calls meme.
Yesterday, after a council debate in which Rob Ford invited Toronto residents to call 911 if they witness someone “causing graffiti,” Twitter users followed the mayor’s lead by posting more than a thousand similarly 911-appropriate concerns such as “Lonely” and “I can’t get a Google+ invite,” accompanied by a #new911calls hashtag.
There was enough momentum for the meme to bump #new911calls into a national trending topic on Twitter, something Todd Van Allen—who kicked off the meme by tweeting he’d call 911 because “I don’t like the song that’s playing on the radio!”—didn’t expect.
“I was shocked as anyone to see #new911calls take off the way it did,” he says. Van Allen, a comedian and host of a podcast called Comedy Above The Pub, recalls that the joke started when a friend posited a case where Rob Ford were to have a heart attack but couldn’t access 911 because of graffiti-related calls. What other calls, wondered Van Allen, could clog the system?
Social media services like Facebook, Twitter, and the new Google+ have become outlets for political commentary. During the mayoral race, author Shawn Micallef created a satirical Twitter account, Rebel Mayor, to critique the election campaigns. Van Allen also notes that social media played a role during the G20 protests last summer, aiding widespread real-time communication between people. “The sites were ablaze with messages saying ‘These arrests are happening; the police are corralling people into these areas,’” he says.
Comedian Todd Van Allen believes social media can be used for political engagement. Photo courtesy of Van Allen.
Van Allen, who says he has always had an interest in politics, believes social media’s success as a platform for political satire stems from a sense of immediacy and the brief, easily digestible nature of the messages. “You have instant connectivity to a large amount of people for a very short burst,” he says, “and, you can see what the groundswell is behind your opinion by retweets, or, with people who disagree with you, you’ll get into a Twitter fight. It gives you that sense of immediate release. And what helps is the brevity of the message that Twitter enforces—you only get 140 characters to make your point.”
However, as quickly as messages can be sent, so can they disappear. Van Allen is realistic about how brief internet memes like #new911calls can last: “The joke will be [around] as long as people continue to talk about how they disagree with what Rob Ford said,” he suggests. Still, he sees a rise in political engagement, in spite of the short shelf-life of conversations held in social media: “When it’s gone, we’ll just wait for the new thing.”