Seizing the Memes of Production: the hidden cost & control of making the Bernie Sanders meme

This post was originally written for and published on the Meme Studies Research Network website, Jan 22, 2021.

Once again, Bernie Sanders is asking you to make him into a meme. In the mid of one of the most famous transitions of power, surrounded by pomp and circumstance, famous guests, glamour, and vogue sat Bernie Sanders. While everyone else in attendance dressed to be seen by the whole world, there was former Presidential candidate Bernie – winter jacket, patterned mittens, cross legged, and honestly, dressed and looking like he would rather be somewhere else.

In reality, his fashion choice is more heart-warming. The famous mittens were made by one of his constituents, an elementary school teacher who makes them out of recycled wool, which is rather sweet. Nevertheless, as we know with memes, you can be the happiest go lucky person on the planet, but one (or even a couple) images of you looking slightly uncomfortable can go on to define your existence.

It was an instant meme. Cut out, Bernie was extracted from the inauguration and photoshopped into a myriad of spaces and contexts. The image at first symbolised that of the unwelcome audience member, from being serenaded by Justin Bieber, to being a member of the Yalta Conference, or the cold and harsh realities of Game of Thrones universe, with Bernie replacing Bran Stark in his wheelchair.

The meme soon evolved. Shifting to finding humour in putting Bernie in random and unlikely spaces. From the wild west to scenes from the film Ghost.

https://twitter.com/growngambino/status/1352051820680671232
https://twitter.com/FirenzeMike/status/1352257049032273921

Enter NYU student Nick Sawhney. Nick made the website Bernie Sits (https://bernie-sits.herokuapp.com/) which went viral and expanded the reach of the meme significantly.  The website allows you to enter any address or location and the site returns an image from Google Street View, but with Bernie sat in the bottom right. Rather than load up something like Photoshop, people were making and posting the meme within seconds.

Not long after the website went viral is where the issues for Nick, and his website, began. He built the website on two key technologies, Heroku, a cloud platform which both hosts and processes applications; and Google Maps API, which searches for locations, and returns the image from Street View. Both have free tiers, but with limits. The website quickly blasted through the free Heroku credits, but luckily an employee of the platform reached out and seemingly provided assistance to keep it afloat.

However, the bigger expense of the two was the Google Maps API. Each time someone enters a location search into the website, it was costing Nick money. The cost, according to Google, is $7 for every 1,000 searches. At first might not seem like much, but assuming everyone who liked the original tweet does three searches each, that is more than $4,900 in credits alone … ouch. It can be assumed actual use, and therefore costs, will be higher. 

Other viral websites based on Google Maps API have had similar financial issues. The website GeoGuesser which popular back in 2013 being one example. The game puts users in a random place on Google Street View and asks them to guess the location. Due to the costs of using the Map API, the website owner was forced to turn the website into a paid service, limiting access to many, and causing a bit of an outrage by fans.

In the meantime, the Bernie Sits website is kept open thanks to a Buy Me a Coffee link which allows people to donate to Nick, which he puts towards funding the website. So far, he has received over 2,150 donations. However, the websites’ lifespan is defined entirely by how much a MS student can fund it and users’ willingness to continue donations.

So, what are the greater implications here? Questions should be raised by researchers into the continued accessibility to create the platforms which allow for these memes to propagate. To most social media users, memes are seemingly free. Either they copy (often without credit) and share pre-made images, or use easy to access online platforms such as Meme Generator, Kapwing, or apps like Elsewhere. For more recent trends towards audio-visual meme types, users turn to the in-built functionalities of social media platforms themselves – such TikTok and Instagram Reels – which are not available elsewhere. Locking these memes and their forms to these platforms.

In the grand scheme of things most social media users do not make their own static memes on a desktop with software such as Photoshop, GIMP or Paint.NET, or have access to video editing software (or the skills necessary to use them). Those that make them are certainly in the minority.

There are many certainly many examples of where a particular meme could only ever be created and hosted on specific platforms. Take the famous meme by Nathan Apodaca – who was launched to fame by a video of him casually sipping cranberry juice and listening to Fleetwood Mac while riding a skateboard. What made this meme so popular was the music. Yet, music-based memes can only be hosted on platforms that have struck deals with the relevant rights holders and have agreements to pay royalties. Try to create the same meme on YouTube without such a deal, and you will have the meme copyright claimed. Try to host it on your own website, and you should be expecting a takedown request soon after.

This goes back to the old theoretical question within media studies: Who owns and controls the media? The trends within current meme creation suggest that the pool of potential people who can host or provide the functionalities behind new and virial memes is decreasing. The technological and hosting involvement behind meme creation alone makes it harder for “everyday” users to control content without some outside involvement. This is especially the case for memes which contain audio-visual elements, or those that rely on backend technologies. Likewise, as memes tune into popular culture and music, rights-holders are become more skilful at protecting their content – limiting memes to users of particular platforms or apps.

The Bernie meme, and specifically the Bernie Sits website, is a demonstration that more and more users are being pushed away from the means to produce memes. As researchers of this important medium, we should be keeping a close eye to the risks to artistic freedoms, what this means for the format, and the variety of content produced.  


Edit: Nick, the creator of the The Bernie Sits website got in touch with us – He’s actually really nice! He pointed out that he’s an MS student not an MA (fixed in the text). Nick also told us that the website has now been taken down citing costs and told us that 9,849,938 Bernie memes were created using the site! At the standard rate, we worked out that the website would have cost $68,949 in Google API fees alone.

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