In September 2016, Joseph Galbo put a baby in a forcefield. It was the second day of Baby Safety Month, and Galbo, the social media specialist for the Consumer Product Safety Commission, had gotten the OK from his director to try out a new way of communicating to the American public the best ways to protect a newborn. The photo he posted had the goofy aesthetic of a slapdash Photoshop job — a smiling baby with a glowing aura nestled in the center of a blue orb — while the CPSC’s logo at the bottom lent the image the added feel of a low-budget PSA. The text on the photo read: “Imagine a 3FT force field around your baby. That’s how far away cords should be at all times.”
While that tweet only garnered a handful of likes and retweets, Galbo was allowed to keep pushing the CPSC’s social media accounts deeper into the meme zone. Three years later, the agency’s Twitter boasts over 64,000 followers and it regularly goes viral with its endearingly offbeat posts about protecting newborns, changing the batteries in your smoke alarm and safely riding ATVs. And now, these posts, and future ones, will be officially archived in the digital collection of the Library of Congress.
— US Consumer Product Safety Commission (@USCPSC) September 2, 2016
“I come from the museum world and I feel like there’s something about going to visit an artifact in a museum that just puts people in a different headspace, where they want to learn, or take a deeper interest in something,” Galbo tells Rolling Stone. The CPSC’s memes are believed to be the first by a government agency to enter the Library of Congress’ Digital Collection. “This agency is trying something different in order to reach people in a way that’s more common for the time,” says Malea Walker, a reference specialist at the Library of Congress who’s spearheading the acquisition. “In the past, we didn’t collect things like pamphlets or things like that, necessarily, but I did want to capture this as an example of how agencies are shifting in how they’re communicating.”
Galbo joined the CPSC in July 2016 after a stint at the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, New Jersey. His time there not only endeared him to the unique nature of museum collections, but also helped him hone a sense of how to present potentially dull subjects in enthralling ways. Doing so at the CPSC, however, required getting over a few hurdles. The staff was stretched, and with no graphic designer on-hand, Galbo had to teach himself Photoshop. He also had to convince his bosses to let him do an A/B test on the CPSC Twitter, where he would run a goofier campaign alongside a more serious one.
— US Consumer Product Safety Commission (@USCPSC) April 27, 2019
But the biggest challenge facing Galbo was section 6(b) of the Consumer Product Safety Act — a uniquely strict communications rule that prohibits the CPSC from identifying a brand or using branded imagery unless it gets permission from the company (this is a particular bugbear for consumer advocacy groups, who claim it can delay recalls). It also effectively meant Galbo couldn’t take full advantage of the meme economy the way others might (no SpongeBob screen grabs, for instance). But this limitation led him to embrace the surreal aesthetic that makes the most out of generic stock photos.
“I think it was the first time we tried to do something on social media that managed to get around that restriction, and not only get around it, but avoid it in all sorts of creative ways,” Galbo says of the first Baby Safety Month meme. “It’s funny to think about it now because, in a lot of ways, these strict rules helped push us in this direction, which I’m sure is not something any of the lawyers imagined would have happened.”
Over the next few years, Galbo grew CPSC’s social media followers with an assortment of oddball memes that encouraged people to change their smoke alarm batteries and check for hot playground equipment. Galbo also began to develop an array of characters: Copernicus Jackson, a cat who accompanied safety tips for hurricane season and Halloween, and Ted, an ATV enthusiast who often ended up in strange locales but always wore his helmet. The same baby from the force field even returned as the “Great Baby,” a mythical figure sent from some great beyond to inform parents about keeping cords away from toddlers and removing all objects from cribs before bedtime.
— US Consumer Product Safety Commission (@USCPSC) September 21, 2019
During his tenure, Galbo has had little pushback from the higher-ups at the CPSC, and says any trouble he’s caused has been “good trouble.” He works closely with the CPSC research team to ensure he correctly presents the mounds of crucial data they collect, while still creating an image of a giant hamburger monster terrorizing a city. Galbo also notes that the agency’s former chairwoman, Anne Marie Buerkle (who stepped down at the end of September after a six-year tenure), was regularly on board with the memes, so long as the social media team knew when to strike a more serious tone. Only once, Galbo says, did he get an unexpected message from way up the ladder — he declined to way where — that prompted him to pull back a little.
“One time I heard that we were doing too many cats and, allegedly, that had come from somewhere that we didn’t want to be getting attention from,” Galbo says. “So we laid low on cats for a while. And it sounds funny, but it goes to show you that the stakes in government communication are very high. That’s partially why other agencies are so interested in this. They’ll come to me and say, ‘We would never get this approved,’ and it’s really tough to hear because, what I’m finding is, it’s a really great way to get people engaged with government. And I think it’s never been more important to do that.”
Broadly speaking, the reigns on this type of creativity are loosening. The success of the CPSC Twitter account has prompted other government agencies and entities to try similar strategies. Galbo name-checks a few whose social media work he admires, including the National Museum of African American History and Culture, the Department of Energy, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and even the Internal Revenue Service, which, Galbo says, “has a really fun Instagram account.”
— US Consumer Product Safety Commission (@USCPSC) September 12, 2019
It’s this shift in communication that attracted the Library of Congress to the CPSC memes when Galbo pitched them the idea. Digital archiving is nothing new to the LoC, which has been collecting web content from both in and outside the government since 2000. Memes themselves became part of the collection in 2017, when the American Folklife Center at the LoC launched its “Web Cultures Web Archive.” Walker, the reference specialist, also acknowledges that, because the Library of Congress has been archiving government agency websites and social media pages for years, it’s possible that assorted one-off memes have been swept up in the process. But the CPSC memes differ, she notes, because they’re an actual collection that reflect a specific and targeted approach.
The CPSC memes will reside within the “Government Publications — United States” collection, which boasts items distributed by the government (mostly federal, but also some state and local) as far back as the country’s founding. In this way, while the CPSC memes capture a new shift in government communication, there is a vast historical precedent for them. The Great Baby, for instance, exists on the same continuum as Smokey the Bear, while Walker cites the LoC’s collection of comic books that government agencies once issued as a way to reach younger readers.
On top of all his other work, Galbo has taken on the task of compiling the CPSC’s meme collection and sending them over to the Library of Congress in batches. He just completed his first set of about 30, a process that took a few months because he wanted to ensure that the metadata for each item was as detailed as possible — not just when the post was created, but how the idea came about. In fact, these memes are now officially listed in the LoC’s online catalog (just search “CPSC memes”), though at the moment, only titles and descriptions are available. Full images are expected to appear by November, and it’s possible the LoC will create a specific collection record once there are enough.
— US Consumer Product Safety Commission (@USCPSC) August 22, 2018
While Galbo has been meticulous with his metadata entries, the one thing crucial to his work that he hasn’t been able to include — thanks, again, to those 6(b) restrictions — is the music he was listening to at the time. He says his playlists boast a lot of pop and rap — Lizzo, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, Kesha, Carly Rae Jepsen and Robyn — which, Galbo says, reflects the positive tone he wants to strike on the CPSC’s Twitter page. But the music also serves a more practical, day-to-day function.
“Working at CPSC is a privilege, I’m grateful everyday for the opportunity to come to work and make peoples’ lives a bit better,” he says. “But it’s also tough. We’re a small agency; we’re strapped for resources. I’m basically doing the job of two people at any other agency. So the days get really tough and if you’re not careful, you can find yourself sitting there feeling overworked and tired and exhausted, and that’s just not the right mindset to bring when you’re trying to create a graphic that’s meant to lift people up and put a little positivity into the world while you’re educating them. So sometimes, ‘Call Me Maybe’ is a lifeline. Sometimes Robyn is a lifeline.”