With 38 words and an image pulled from a search engine, Terry Coffey became a viral phenomenon this week.
The Oregon man, responding to posts about Caitlyn Jenner's transition to becoming a woman, wrote a sentence about what "real American courage, heroism, and bravery looks like" and paired it with a photo of soldiers on his Facebook page. It struck a nerve with his friends, his friend's friends, and the 1.4 million-strong "Boycott A&E Until Phil Robertson Is Put Back On Duck Dynasty" Facebook page (which still exists long after Robertson was restored), and it's now been shared nearly 900,000 times. That's not brand-engineered faux virality; it's lightning in-a-bottle -- a hit with veritable BuzzFeed leaderboard numbers.
Virality might not be a science, but it is an art, and if Coffey wasn't the one to strike Internet gold, someone else would have. In the #content biz, knowing what's worked before is a reliable indicator of what will work again. And in the case of conservative Facebook, juxtaposing celebrities with the armed forces is a guaranteed winner.
Heroism isn't a zero-sum game, as liberal critics of this and other memes love to point out. But that isn't what the memes are really about. At their heart, they're expressions of culture-war flashpoints, a way for people who feel voiceless in a pop culture they don't identify with to say what matters to them. It's a comparison -- and a defense -- of middle America's values. Coastal elites put singers and reality stars on a pedestal just because they're famous or because of their sexual identity, they're saying, but those who put their lives on the line are the real heroes.
It happened in 2012 following the death of Whitney Houston. The outrage was no doubt exacerbated by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's (R) decision to fly flags at half mast for the New Jersey native Houston. Eventually, as these things often do, it evolved into a false rumor that President Obama declared flags to be flown at half-mast, too.
In 2013, when NBA player Jason Collins came out as the first openly gay athlete in professional sports, there was a similar reaction.
Coffey was surprised by the response he got, but he shouldn't be too shocked. He repeated and mimicked an increasingly popular meme recipe that hundreds of thousands of people identify with. And it didn't hurt that, as with the Houston example, a false online rumor spread that Jenner was to be awarded the ESPN Arthur Ashe Courage Award after beating out supposed (but not really) runner-up Noah Galloway, a distance runner and "Dancing with the Stars" competitor who lost limbs in Iraq (more on that here).
Coffey later found out the photo he chose for his post wasn't of actual soldiers, but toy figurines -- photographed, ironically enough, by a man who was beaten for wearing women's clothes ("What happened to this man was cruel, wrong, and unforgivable," Coffey wrote on Facebook after learning the origins of the photo. "Hate helps nothing ... and irony makes you think.").
And many of the people who shared the post might be surprised to find out they have more in common politically with Caitlyn Jenner, a proud Republican who isn't a fan of President Obama, than they think.