This is part of an occasional series in which we explain Internet things. We like to call it memesplaining; you might call it meme-ruining. Regardless, if you just chanced upon an image macro, hashtag, app or GIF you don’t understand, we have the answers — insofar as answers can be had.
The Meme: Ken Bone, presidential debate hero.
What it means:
Ken Bone arrived at Sunday night’s presidential debate as an undecided voter with a question for both presidential candidates. But by the time the debate was over, he’d already become something else to the Americans watching at home: a little flame of goodness and hope, still burning despite the dark tone of the majority of the debate.
He wore a comfy, bright-red sweater, and he asked a good question about energy and jobs: “What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs, while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job loss for fossil power plant workers?”
Bone’s presence in that debate was “like the human version of a hug,” as one early Twitter fan wrote.
“I think it’s because I’m just kinda your typical Midwestern guy,” Bone told The Washington Post on Monday in an interview at the Washington University campus. “I try to be a friendly guy and shake hands and smile and all that. And to see me try to be that huggable, likeable guy in the middle of a really nasty and divisive debate, I think, stood out to a lot of people.”
“Between that and the very bright colors, I think that drew a lot of people’s eyes.”
And, if we’re being honest, catching the Internet’s attention is easier when your last name is “Bone.”
According to my unofficial Twitter flash poll, Americans love Ken Bone.
— Adam Conover (@adamconover) October 10, 2016
Kenneth Bone is real, and he's strong, and he's my friend.
— Mickey McCauley (@Mickey_McCauley) October 10, 2016
"Hey, weird, I have 4,000,000 text messages" – Kenneth Bone in 2 minutes when he looks at his phone #debate
— Jensen Karp (@JensenClan88) October 10, 2016
Where it started
Bone’s earliest admirers were on Debate Twitter, but by Monday morning, the meme had escaped, via widespread media coverage of the man, into Facebook’s trending bar and the hearts of many.
There are a couple of key moments that helped to launch Bone from “hey, that’s a very red sweater” man to full-blown meme.
First: the close-up of Bone asking the question:
— Grace Parra (@GraceParra360) October 10, 2016
KENNETH BONE I can tell that is a new sweater #debate
— Lisa Gartner (@lisagartner) October 10, 2016
Second, there’s Bone milling around on the stage after the debate, where Bill Clinton spots, points, and goes over to him for a handshake:
— Diane N. Sevenay (@Diane_7A) October 10, 2016
And lastly, this:
No biggie, just our man Ken Bone snapping some pics on his disposable camera, living his best life https://t.co/R1wtQepSvS
— Parker Molloy (@ParkerMolloy) October 10, 2016
Bone was completely clueless about the meme explosion on the Internet as the debate continued, he said. As the disposable camera he was using might indicate, the undecided voters like him who were participating in the debates were unable to access their phones the entire time.
“When I got back to my car at 10:30 and turned it on,” he said, “I had a few thousand messages on Facebook and Twitter, and text messages from my friends, voice mails from people who don’t like text messaging.”
As for the sweater that helped to solidify his fame? It was a last-minute decision.
“I had a really nice olive colored suit that I love a lot. My grandfather loved it, he helped me pick it out. He worked in the funeral industry and he was the sharpest dressed man you ever met,” Bone said. And that is the suit he intended to wear on television Sunday night.
But everything didn’t go as planned. “I must have gained about 30 lbs since he helped me with it,” Bone said. “When I sat in my car 7:30 on the morning of the debate, I split the seat of my pants completely open. My wife had to do an emergency wardrobe change for me. So the traditional Christmas sweater had to get broken out a little bit early this year.”
What does Ken Bone think about all this?
Bone has since enhanced his own meme status by embracing his encounter with fame, which, Bone described to us as “surreal.”
“I find it very strange that I was one of the takeaways from the debate. I think there’s plenty of issues to talk about. but I’m happy to be able to put a positive spin on the political process, and keep people engaged when it seems so dreary at times.”
Bone sat for our interview in his now-famous sweater, and quipped, “My mustache and my sweater are probably my claims to fame. If you want to be me for Halloween, you’d better get in soon because this bad boy is sold out on Amazon.”
Meanwhile, Bone is hoping to make the most of all the attention as he resumes his normal life. “It’s gonna be back to work tomorrow night on night shift,” he said. “But I’ll be taking the time to hopefully tweet out to all my new followers and try to reiterate to them their voice matters.”
Bone confirmed that he is on Twitter, and has taken the time to tweet at a few of his new fans.
And yes, there are about a million Ken Bone parody accounts out there — this is the real one. “There are probably other, better Twitter accounts using my name, but that’s the real me,” he said.
Please tell me more about Ken Bone
Bone, 34, is from a steel town just outside of St. Louis, and lives in southern Illinois. He works at a coal-fired power plant, which is why he asked a question about energy to both candidates.
“We’re one of the most environmentally-friendly coal power plants in the world. We’re very recently built,” he said. But he’s concerned about the environmental and economic impact of some of the older plants, which can’t afford to equip themselves with similar technologies. For the record, Bone felt that Trump did a good job answering the part of his question about jobs, and Clinton did a good job talking about the environmental issues. He wished both candidates had addressed both parts of his question, though.
Bone has a 12-year-old son, who is temporarily impressed with his dad, declaring that “dad is now Internet famous, which is the best kind of famous.”
“For them to look at you even for a minute and think that you’re cool is just beyond description,” Bone said of his nearly teenaged son. “I’m sure it’ll be back to normal soon, but I’ll take it for now.”
What about the debate itself? Bone found the first half of the debate “uncomfortable,” and “kind of like hearing mom and dad fight when you’re a little kid, covering your ears in your bedroom.” He was happy the second part of the debate features more questions from people about issues he cared about.
And as for whether Bone is still undecided, he said he’s going to wait until all three debates are finished to make a final decision. He entered into the second debate leaning Trump, but now isn’t so sure. And he gave an interesting description as to why.
“Mr. Trump represents my personal interests very well,” he said.
“I like his economic policy better than Senator Clinton’s.” Bone believes Trump “Would probably do more to protect my job in the fossil power industry” too, which is important to him.
“But Secretary Clinton is a better representative for all of America,” he said. “It puts me in a difficult position.”
“I don’t want to see anyone’s rights stripped away. We fought very hard to get equal rights for groups that have never had them before. I’m so glad that they have them now. I don’t want them to lose those rights. So this election cycle, personally to me, is about my interest vs. the common good. It’s a tough one. I really haven’t made a final decision yet.”
How to use it like you know what you’re doing
There are two types of Ken Bone memes, and we’re going to choose sides here. Stay away from using the meme as a way to make bullying jokes about what Ken Bone looks like.
I love you, #KennethBone. You asked a question that mattered and you're too cool to care. Any wannabes poking fun can die un-hip, forever.
— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) October 10, 2016
Instead, the best Bone memes and jokes elevate the man as a mild-mannered debate “hero,” the suggestion being that Bone may or may not be the person who deserves our attention the most after what happened last night.
I can't believe I missed my chance to meet Ken Bone.
— Katy Tur (@KatyTurNBC) October 10, 2016
Fair warning for those of you who are thinking that Ken Bone is the October Surprise of Halloween costume ideas, though. A lot of people are thinking the same thing: it’s topical, it’s pretty cheap to put together, and dang does it look like a cozy outfit.
The thing is, particularly if you live in, say, D.C., I can pretty much guarantee that you will not be the only Ken Bone at the party.
Your Ken Bone Halloween costume kit pic.twitter.com/pRLy43C5Zh
— Brian Ries (@moneyries) October 10, 2016
Also, someone has already written a ballad for Ken Bone (warning: there are some swears in the song, play the video at your own risk)
Well. That was that.
Here's a little folk ditty for Ken Bone.
Because why not. pic.twitter.com/iNZ0UCLkeV
— (((Jonathan Mann))) (@songadaymann) October 10, 2016
A smart observation to make at your next nerdy dinner party
Sometimes, memes based on real people instantly escape the grasp of that person, becoming something else entirely. Although the Bone meme is still pretty young — and chances are, it won’t be particularly long-lived — the person who remains the best at doing the Ken Bone meme is Ken Bone himself.
“Almost everyone that I’ve touched base with on the Internet has been positive,” Bone told us. “They’ve been very kind. I welcome the jokes about the ridiculousness of my Christmas sweater and my mustache. I wanna keep it light for everybody.”
[This post has been updated to include an interview with Ken Bone]