One State, Two State, Red State, Blue State (Or How I Learned to Love Russert and Start Coloring)

I don’t often find myself using social media platforms—especially Twitter—to educate myself on the important news of the day; I follow perhaps two dedicated news personalities’ handles, I ignore or don’t understand most trending tweets, and I live-tweet televised events for the sole purpose of staying in touch with the visceral and often humorous reactions of the 250-odd people I follow who may happen to be sharing the same viewing experience across the country.

So it was a departure from my regular usage of Twitter to say the least when I used the search function to find a picture of Tim Russert to retweet after election night. Russert, the moderator of Meet the Press and a seminal political commentator on NBC until his tragic death in 2008, was a favorite fixture in my household growing up and was particularly famous for writing the names of states as they were called for a particular candidate during election night on his little whiteboard.

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Look how excited he was! He wrote it three times! EMPHASIS!

In my effort to pay tribute to Russert, I found no passable pictures, instead finding something considerably more interesting. Searching Russert’s name yielded a tweet from information and trivia site Mental Floss (@mental_floss) linking to an article explaining the origin of “red” and “blue” as codifiers for different states’ usual political leanings. I followed the link out of recognition; food personality Alton Brown frequently retweets Mental Floss articles.

Much to my surprise, the article clued me into the fact that Tim Russert himself actually coined the widespread usage of “red” (meaning Republican) and “blue” (Democrat) states on election coverage maps, when he was quoted saying  “how does [Bush] get those remaining 61 electoral red states, so to speak?” while referring to a particular MSNBC map during coverage of the 2000 election. While network state colors had previously been arbitrarily assigned by outlet—the author notes that these combinations ranged from blue-and-yellow to reversed-blue-and-red—but that immediately after Russert’s comments, The New York Times, USA Today, and David Letterman alike began aligning with this distinction in their discourse and demonstrated language, and the colors have stuck in these roles ever since.

Many aspects of this article, both in its content and the way I found and subsequently shared it, illustrate different facets of what danah boyd identifies as replicability. In the strict sense of social media (what boyd was specifically discussing), I was exemplifying the property of replicability by my recognition of Mental Floss as a source frequently retweeted by a celebrity chef and in my use of the affordance of the “share on Twitter” button on the article’s page to share my discovery with my own followers. In a more abstract sense, the way the article documents Russert’s terminology as the universally accepted norm also represents a form of replicability, as Russert’s original words were picked up on by the greater political community and then reinforced by the increasing number of news outlets using his definitions that same year. (I find it especially interesting to be able to see proof of viral replicability so reminiscent of Twitter in a case completely without any use of Twitter itself.)

The Mental Floss article serves as both a fascinating slice of history and as a reminder of the familiar nature by which information can be replicated without the use of social media sites. In a world where technological innovation comes so fast, it is refreshing to see examples of even relatively short-term consistency (in the usage of red and blue) and just how natural the origins of replication and desire to replicate on SNS actually are.

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