Ken Bone and the 4 Stages of Viral Fame

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Photo: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

On Sunday, Ken Bone left his house, split his pants, donned a red sweater, asked a question about energy, and returned home a national celebrity. By early Monday morning, Bone emerged the clear winner of the second presidential debate. Within 24 hours, Bone could be seen on talk shows, heard on radio interviews, and followed on his Twitter account; within 72, he was promoting Uber. And on Thursday night, during a Reddit AMA, reporters searching through old answers discovered that — among other things — Bone frequently commented on erotic photos, and had once written he believed that Trayvon Martin’s killing was justified. And just like that, America exited the Bone zone.

The truth is, we should have expected this. Bone’s memeification has followed a pretty standard trajectory as far as internet celebrity goes — a Joseph Campbell–style mono-myth viral cycle consisting of four stages: Memeing, Interviewing, Cashing In, and Falling From Grace. Most human memes and viral celebrities follow this narrative arc gradually, and many never complete it. But Bone managed to traverse it so thoroughly and efficiently — in all of four days — he serves as a teachable model.

Stage One: The Birth of a Meme

And so it begins.

In this phase, we watch as a person emerges from obscurity and is rocketed to memedom on a massive scale. You can’t plan to become a meme (and if you do, ahem, Alex from Target, expect to skip to step four almost immediately); it’s just something that happens — a perfect alignment of media attention, national scale, and personal eccentricity not so weird as to be labeled, well, actually weird. Think of Left Shark, one of Katy Perry’s two shark-costume-wearing backup dancers from her 2015 Super Bowl halftime show. While Right Shark danced along according to the choreographed plan, Left Shark’s moves were off-kilter just enough that everyone watching from home took note. “Left Shark understands us,” we collectively cheered over the coming days of Left Shark–inspired listicles, tweets, think pieces, and New Yorker satire. “We are all Left Shark!”

How it went for Ken: Bone’s glasses, mustache, surname, and sartorial choices primed him for meme status before he even took the stage to quiz Trump and Clinton about energy independence. Something about his earnest demeanor (and also, uh, the need to find viral content in order to keep the great wheels of digital publishing turning) made everyone at home take note and begin tweeting furiously. By the end of the debate, when Bone whipped out a disposable camera to take pictures (phones were banned from the premises, so everyone was provided with a disposable by event organizers), we all just assumed he had brought the retro device himself, that Ken Bone was the kind of guy who wandered around the Midwest carrying a piece of technology that went out of vogue in 2005. “A disposable camera? What a classic Bone move,” we laughed at our screens. Within an hour of Bone’s appearance, a new viral star had been born.

Stage Two: The Media Blitz

Jimmy Kimmel interviews Ken Bone.

Once the vanguard of professional bloggers, Tumblr teens, Twitter comedians, and other content creators have exhausted their abilities to praise and Photoshop the viral star, a wave of morning radio and late-night TV appearances commences, often culminating in an appearance on Ellen. Sirius XM radio hosts and magazine journalists are calling to interview in the hopes they can get to you before Stage Four inevitably arrives (more on that in a moment). If you have older parents, this is the stage during which they become aware of this person’s existence. It hasn’t always been quite this fast, either: Think back to the halcyon days of 2009, when it took an entire month after the posting of the “JK Wedding Dance” video (where the wedding party dances down the aisle to Chris Brown’s “Forever”) for the bride and groom to appear on The Today Show.

How it went for Ken: Bone, on the other hand, became an immediate sensation. From interviews with news outlets like CNN directly following the debate, to Comedy Central’s @midnight, a cameo on Ellen, to, finally, his appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live — which announced he’d be a live debate commentator before his Reddit history came out — Bone’s face was everywhere you looked this week.

Stage Three: Get the Money

Greetings, earthlings. Ken Bone’s new line of shirts sell for $20 each.

Once peak press saturation has been reached for a meme (person), the only logical step is to capitalize on that fame. This could mean corporate deals, sponsorships, paid guest appearances at events, or branded merch. “Damn” Daniel Lara was given a lifetime supply of white Vans (which, to his credit, he donated to a local children’s hospital). For Ted “Golden Voice” Williams — the homeless man turned meme following a local news report of Williams on the streets asking for money and demonstrating his talent for voice work — that translated to booking commercials with brands like Kraft and Pepsi, as well as a book deal.

How it went for Ken: Bone entered Stage Three of the meme narrative arc the moment he tweeted about his new line of limited run #BoneZone shirts, on October 12. (A whole three days after the debates.) For $20, you can own a shirt covered in Ken’s face. “I don’t believe in political parties, I just believe in parties,” Bone, who says part of the proceeds will go to charity, explains in the tee’s description. “This is my OFFICIAL and ONLY limited edition shirt.” The next day, Bone tweeted about his partnership with UberSelect. However, that tweet has since been deleted and may have violated FTC rules, since the Bonehead did not specify whether it was a paid ad or just an organic declaration of love for Uber.

Stage Four: The Fall

Ken Bone’s Reddit AMA was certainly informative.

This may come as a shock, but the people we collectively pluck from obscurity and thrust into viral stardom as “spirit animals” and cuddly objects of obsession don’t go through a particularly rigorous vetting process. So, what happens when the people we’ve praised and interviewed and renamed our Twitter handles after turn out to be, well, not so praiseworthy? As a dramatic example, remember Charles Ramsey, the man who saved three missing Cleveland women from captivity. Despite the dark circumstances of his rise to fame, initial profanity-laden interviews with Ramsey were widely distributed online — until news later surfaced of Ramsey’s history of domestic-violence arrests.

How it went for Ken: The answers Bone actually gave for his AMA were perfunctory at best. (Question: “What will you be going as for Halloween? I hear the sexy Ken Bone will be popular.” Answer: “I’m already the sexy Ken Bone so I’m thinking bust out the old Jedi robe / lightsaber combo and be Obi Wan Kenboni.”) But the real mistake was Bone hosting the AMA from his personal Reddit account, StanGibson18, without thinking that people would immediately look through his post history — which included comments about committing insurance fraud, referring to pregnant women as “beautiful human submarines,” his vasectomy, porn, and that “the shooting of Trayvon Martin was justified.” Yikes.

Farewell, Ken Bone. We hardly knew ye … and that was the problem.