The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ken Bone was a ‘hero.’ Now Ken Bone is ‘bad.’ It was his destiny as a human meme.

Kenneth Bone sits in the audience before the start of the second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Kenneth Bone is the same person on Friday as he was on Sunday: a 34-year-old, politically ambiguous, white Midwesterner who is suddenly a figure of widespread interest thanks to his mild, be-sweatered appearance during a unpalatable political event. But as a meme, Kenneth Bone has changed quite a bit.

Sunday is when Kenneth Bone the person gave way to Kenneth Bone the meme. At first he was an American Hero, and even described himself as a “huggable, likable guy in the middle of a really nasty and divisive debate.” But then overnight on Thursday, things changed.

Bone agreed to do a Reddit Ask me Anything — as a newly famous human meme does — using his real Reddit handle. This allowed anybody to simply click through and read his entire history as an anonymous Reddit user. And now that we’ve learned more about the man, Kenneth Bone (the meme) is no longer a Hero. Now, Kenneth Bone is Bad, according to several articles about his Reddit comments.

Earlier: America needed a hero. Kenneth Bone answered the call.

The fact that the Ken Bone meme isn’t as pure and fun as it once was shouldn’t surprise anyone with an Internet connection. Every meme has a cycle that ends with the meme being “ruined” in some way. That can happen through overexposure, brands swooping in to take advantage, or the simple march of time. (These days “being co-opted by Nazi trolls” is also an actual meme endgame.) But when the Internet turns a real human being into a meme, the end of that cycle can be particularly vicious and swift.

In Ken Bone’s case, the end came because his Reddit history revealed he . . . is a politically ambiguous, white Midwesterner who has sometimes privately been wrong or gross on the Internet, in ways that the Ken Bone meme, as it evolved, apparently does not allow.

Here are some of the “bad” things he wrote before becoming a meme. Bone occasionally commented in NSFW subreddits — including one called “preggoporn,” talked about his sex life after a vasectomy, described forging car insurance documents in the past “so I wouldn’t get fired from my pizza delivery job” while earning the money he needed to pay for his real insurance, commented on the stolen nude images released during Celebgate, and argued that the killing of Trayvon Martin was “justified” — but that George Zimmerman also seemed to be a “bad guy.”

“I’m human and I make mistakes,” Bone told The Intersect by phone on Friday afternoon. “I said some things that I shouldn’t have said, and I own that.” Although he hasn’t been able to read much of the coverage of his Reddit history, Bone said, he’s spent the day “out around town,” and that most people he’s run into are still pretty excited to see him.

Audience member Kenneth Bone asked a question related to energy and became an Internet meme after the second presidential debate. (Video: Erin Patrick O'Connor, Alice Li/The Washington Post)

Keeping in mind that he was a private citizen commenting under an anonymous account when he wrote them, Bone said he particularly regretted joking about viewing the stolen nude images of Jennifer Lawrence. “[My comment] implies that it’s OK to do that, and I don’t believe that it is,” he said. Bone clarified that he never actually viewed the photos, and feels that he owes the actress a personal apology for his joke at her expense.

As for his remarks on the Trayvon Martin shooting, Bone said that he believes the first outlet to pick up on his Reddit history mischaracterized his comments. “Gizmodo picked up on the word ‘justified’ as if I approved of his shooting. I do not,” Bone said, explaining that he believes the shooting was justified legally, but “not in the moral sense.”

“A bad guy shot and killed a kid,” he said. “How is that good for anyone?”

Bone decided against deleting his past comments, despite the controversy, because he felt that doing so would be “disingenuous.”

It’s also worth noting that “StanGibson18’s” Reddit history from before we all knew who he was also contains posts that read like the Ken Bone the Internet imagined: He provides support to a TwoXChromosomes user who was called “disgusting” by her rapist. He talks about the death of his grandfather, and his favorite hockey team. He advises a trans man looking for fall wardrobe ideas that will make him “look like a male and not a butch lesbian?” (Bone’s advice, fittingly, is to try “a knit sweater over a solid color buttoned shirt paired with khakis.”). 

For about a week, the Internet praised and admired Bone’s remarkable openness and honesty about himself in the wake of the fame he never asked for. And that openness and honesty seems to also be behind his volunteering of his own Reddit history to the world. It was also on display during his Friday afternoon phone call to us, where Bone hoped that his positive message encouraging others to vote would eventually outshine this particularly negative cycle.

It didn’t even occur to Bone that reporters would start combing through his Reddit history, he told us. “I’ve only been a person of note for four days,” he said, adding that looking back on how it played out, using his Reddit account “was probably a bad choice.”

The dark side of going viral that no one talks about

The use of Bone’s Reddit account for an AMA was certainly an avoidable mistake. Reddit, who helped promote the AMA, was aware that he had a Reddit history of some sort, but Bone said to us that he received no advice from Reddit on managing his comment history.

That’s despite the fact that a Reddit spokesman pitched the AMA to The Intersect late Thursday afternoon by linking to and highlighting multiple, positive posts from Bone’s Redditor past.

Here’s the relevant portion of the emailed pitch we received:

Interest in Ken has skyrocketed across the internet, and his Reddit persona provides a picture of the man behind the red sweater: Ken has been actively posting on Reddit for more than a year, weighing in on topics ranging from his personal views on renewable energy and the homelessness problem in St. Louis, to his late Grandpa’s favorite hockey team. Ken Bone’s participation on Reddit’s popular AMA feature is an indication of his place in the cultural zeitgeist.

We asked Reddit about the decision to use Bone’s real Reddit account and use his history on the site as a promotional tool for the AMA. In a statement, a Reddit spokesman said that Bone “chose to disclose his Reddit identity to the public,” and that because of that, “his Reddit history can now be found and associated with him.”

The Internet may have thought of Bone as a friendly man frozen forever with a microphone and red sweater. But what we did to him wasn’t so much cryogenics, it was more like a game of freeze tag. Bone gamely stayed still for us for a week, barely removing that red sweater in between media appearances, taking joke after joke — as we laughed both with and at him — in stride.

It remains to be seen how bad the fallout for Bone will be from all this. Like any sudden meme, Bone was already cashing in on his viral fame while the going was good. He has a limited-run T-shirt deal, and became a spokesman for UberSelect just on Thursday. Now that Bone’s meme is tainted, who knows how long those deals will last (not to mention: the status of any other moneymaking offers he might have been considering). On Friday afternoon, Bone said that he hadn’t heard from the T-shirt company about all this, but that he’d probably check in with them later.

Meanwhile, Bone understands that there are “reasonable people” out there “who have legitimate questions who have questions about why a nice guy would write something like that.”

“I’m not going to pretend that I did not say them,” Bone said, later adding, “All I can do is apologize and move on.”

This post has been updated substantially to include an interview with Ken Bone. 

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