Photo courtesy of Jim Bourg
On his way to (and from) our hearts, he taught us all about what it really means to be famous online
by Tyler Hicks
Ken Bone, rockin’ thick-rimmed glasses and a red sweater, stood from his seat in the front row of the auditorium in front of two presidential candidates who both waited for him to ask an easy, pre-approved question. But he said something different; he had said nothing during the hour leading up to this moment, except now at this debate at Washington University in St. Louis he seemed self-assured, staring into the living rooms of millions of Americans who sat huddled around their televisions as he asked a question about energy policy. The two candidates knew, as did Bone’s family and friends, that it was a bad idea to force a half-baked answer in response when Bone was in this mood of sincere solemnity, a mood that had hardly been uncommon during this first week of October, a month before the presidential election.
In the winter of 1965, famed writer Gay Talese spent time in and around the same joints as crooner Frank Sinatra, whom he was crafting a profile of for Esquire magazine. The story, published in 1966, was the now-famous “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” a profile that launched the style of New Journalism.
Talese conducted many interviews and shrewdly researched his subject, but never spoke with Sinatra. This “write-around” method has since been the subject of much study, adulation and derision amongst writers and scholars alike. Some hail Talese’s craft as an important step forward for the art of journalism; others decried his flippant use of half-truths and exaggerations as a step backward. What no one doubts, though, is the quality of his story — a story about a living legend that Talese somehow made human and accessible without speaking to him once.
In the wake of Ken Bone’s question, social media crafted a Talese-esque write-around, and in one week, Mr. Bone went from nobody, to superstar, to a controversial figure loved by some, but now hated by many.
It all started with his question. Ken Bone’s energy policy inquiry was one of the more memorable moments of the debate, and not just because it was a great question. From his red sweater to his good guy demeanor and inherent affability, everything about Mr. Bone oozed likability. He was a sliver of sunshine on a dark day, and the web did what it does — latched on to him and refused to let go.
In 24 hours, Ken Bone memes, songs, and Halloween costumes all cropped up. He was a perfect storm of internet celebrity, a Rorschach test for all of us. We looked at Ken and saw what we wanted to see, and in no time he became a champion for the little guy in an election season (heck, in a world) where the little guy has no champion. Meme by meme, joke by joke, tweet by tweet, we wrote the legend of Ken Bone, and while he was no Sinatra, he was a star.
Then, things got weird. And just when we didn’t think they could get weirder, they did. Suddenly, this undecided voter was not the harmless, unassuming, hero for the common man that we built him up to me. Rather, he is something much less amazing but much more complex and interesting: He is human.
Therein lies the power of social media as both Kingmaker and King-destroyer. In one week, the internet molded a statue, then destroyed it in front of the world. Ken Bone, the man, myth, and legend, is as much a product of social media as the Success Kid, Good Guy Greg, and all iterations of Pepe the Frog. The key difference this time, of course, is that Ken Bone is a real person with a real life, a real career, and real loved ones. He’s us. Once more, there is a dark side to our write-around of Ken Bone: We don’t (and can’t) truly know him, yet we thrust upon him our preferred version of who we want him to be as if he were a world-famous crooner.
“Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” brought a larger-than-life figure down to Earth so we could see him in a different light; the saga of Ken Bone (while still ongoing) showed that social media could be both Gay Talese and TMZ. Unfortunately, the latter gets more attention, and the man who just wanted to ask a question has now inadvertently posed another one: Who will be the next Ken Bone?
After this, who would want to be?