The 2012 presidential campaign was focused on serious stuff -- a sluggish world economy, the need for jobs and health care.

But that doesn't mean there wasn't room for having fun. That's where social networks came in, and their users quickly seized on verbal slip-ups, comical photos and missteps by the candidates. Who would have thought a major player in the 2012 presidential election would be Big Bird? Or that an empty chair would give rise to photos, hashtags and videos?

It was all part of the presidential campaign, which has been influenced and changed, by an increasingly popular social media.

The Big Bird meme ricocheted around the Web right after the first presidential debate last month.

"I think what we saw was people using social media, primarily Twitter, to pick out particular catchy phrases or concepts and run with them," said Dan Olds, an analyst with The Gabriel Consulting Group. "This would then get magnified by retweets and break out into the more mass media arena, like blogs and then actual news stories. The result was an echo chamber that pushed these messages far and wide."

Social networks, like Twitter, Facebook and Google+, played a new, much more critical, role in this latest election. People were quick to tweet comments of praise about the candidates they supported and to deride the ones they were against.

When the candidates did or said something that could be turned into a quick laugh ... well that became a tweet, or a Facebook comment, or in some cases a meme.

One of the most popular memes of the presidential election was the towering bright yellow bird from Sesame Street.

During the first presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney, one of the most-tweeted moments of the night came when Romney said he loves Big Bird but would still cut funding to PBS.

Shortly after, Twitter reported that there were 17,000 tweets per minute for "Big Bird" and 10,000 tweets per minute for "PBS."

Facebook wasn't left out, either. Images of Sesame Street's Big Bird holding a sign that reads, "Will work for food" quickly began showing up on the social network. Big Bird was a big meme for weeks to follow, inspiring hashtags, a myriad of Big Bird-related photos and even a Save Big Bird page on Facebook.

However, if Big Bird was an odd meme for an election, an empty chair got its own share of viral attention.

During the Republican National Convention, actor- director and Romney supporter Clint Eastwood gave a speech in which he "debated" with an empty chair meant to symbolize Obama. The speech raised eyebrows and a whole new meme involving the @emptychair hashtag and a flurry of photos and videos.

The Clint Eastwood and a chair meme went viral after the actor appeared at the Republican National Convention. (Image: Tumblr)

Another big meme came after a debate when Romney, while governor of Massachusetts, said he had been given "binders full of women" when he was looking to fill Cabinet seats.

Twitter and Facebook immediately lit up with jokes and animated images of women stuffed into binders, women wearing binders and binders with names of famous women. And @bindersfullofwomen quickly became a trending hashtag on Twitter.

While other memes include "horses and bayonets" and "47%," Republicans also got their hits in, taking on the president when he said during a political rally that entrepreneurs had help building their businesses. Quickly, "you didn't build this" and "we built this" began trending on Twitter and popping up on Facebook.

"Social media really came into its own during this election cycle," said Olds. "It was heavily used by pretty much everyone who had a dog in the fight. At the end of the day, I think it was probably more valuable as a mechanism to throw red meat to supporters than as a tool to help persuade undecided or mildly committed voters."

Did memes sway how people voted? Maybe not, but they did serve to fire up the candidates' supporters.

"I think the memes mostly gave the masses a rallying cry they could shout to their pals," Olds said. "They might have had a marginal impact on turnout, pulling some of the more casual voters into actually voting. The successful social media message is one that is seen and gets spread around."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her e-mail address is [email protected].

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