By now, we’ve all seen the image. And the memes! Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, clad in a puffy winter coat and huge knit mittens, arms and legs crossed, sitting outside in a folding chair watching the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. Since that shot appeared, Sanders and his folding chair have been propped up next to Forrest Gump on that iconic Alabama bus stop bench, placed on the Star Trek USS Enterprise, seen on a New York City subway car, have landed on the moon, and even been perched upon the Iron Throne made famous by the bloodthirsty royalty of HBO’s Game of Thrones series.
So, why was the internet so delighted (and creatively inspired) by the sight of the slouchy senator sitting in the cold? The Brink reached out to Gianluca Stringhini, a meme expert, cybercrime researcher, and Boston University College of Engineering assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, to explain what research can tell us about the making of a mega-meme.
Stringhini and other collaborators recently published the findings of a study that used artificial intelligence to dissect what makes some memes go viral and reach millions, while others are total flops, never to be seen by more than a few viewers. (The research team will present their findings more broadly later this year at the ACM Conference on Computer-Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing.)
Here’s what Stringhini’s new research can tell us about the success of the Bernie Sanders inauguration meme.