Meet the engineer behind the Bill Clinton Swag meme
Do you ever wonder how many versions of a meme are in circulation at any one time? Hundreds undoubtedly, thousands most likely. In the case of Bill Clinton Swag – a meme which depicts former American President Bill Clinton looking sad surrounded by records – the answer is at least 20 million. In fact, so many people created their own version it nearly took down the site hosting it, creator Thomas Millar tells us.
Millar, a software engineer by day, created the meme partly as a joke and partly to test his coding skills when building billclintonswag.com in 2012. Then, nearly eight years since he first came up with the idea, it took over timelines as lockdown boredom set in across the world. We caught him for a chat about what happens when a project you created as a way to procrastinate college assignments goes viral.
First off, who are you and what do you do?
I’m Thomas Millar, I’m a software engineer at Stitch Fix.
Tell us a bit about your day-job and how it links to BCS?
During the day I work on the algorithms and infrastructure at Stitch Fix to help people better find their style. It has nothing to do with Bill Clinton Swag. This was something that I had originally built in college.
With as simple language as possible, can you explain what the site does from a technical standpoint?
The website automates a Photoshop template allowing users to create photos of Bill Clinton listening to their favourite music.
It’s now gone super viral, can you share some stats about the amount of traffic you’re seeing?
Yeah, it was a wild week. The site got over 40 million page views with nearly 20 million unique photos generated. At one point, there was over 50,000 people on the site at a single point in time. Those are just the stats that I can track, when you factor in how many people saw the meme on Instagram, the total reach is likely much higher.
What comes along with that kind of activity? Are you having to do a lot of monitoring?
Yeah, it was a crazy week. The site is built on top of Last.FM’s music search engine and album artwork database. Bill Clinton Swag was getting so much attention that I had inadvertently increased Last.FM’s bandwidth costs by somewhere between 3-4 times. I had to hop on Twitter with one of their engineers to put in some optimisations in to help reduce the load. Similarly, my hosting company Vercel reached out with a similar request. I was generating more traffic than some of their biggest customers. A couple of hours on their private company Slack, and we got things pretty optimised. Huge thanks to both those teams, I would’ve had to take down the site if it weren’t for them.
Do you know anything about the background of that photo of Bill Clinton?
A journalist traced it back to an Onion article in 1999. But I didn’t know that when I built the site.
Where did the idea for the site come from?
I was in second year of college, making dinner with my roommate and he mentioned that his little brother created a famous Tumblr blog. 50,000 followers or something like that. This was 2012 so that was a pretty big following at the time. I was gobsmacked. We pulled up the blog and this Bill Clinton Swag image just happened to be the latest post. If I recall correctly, the image he posted had four Kanye West albums photoshopped onto it. I was bored of my statistics class, so I stayed home for two days, learned [web application framework] Ruby on Rails and put the site up on the internet later that week. I’ve rebuilt the site a few times since then.
What are some of the best responses you’ve had? Have any notable names used the site?
Honestly, I haven’t been following it too much. I was too worried about keeping the site up, fixing bugs and whatnot. Personally, I loved all the people who sat down on the ground and recreated the photograph themselves with their own record collection.
Another favourite is all the people that thought their friends suddenly became Photoshop experts. Someone even created a Photoshop tutorial of how to do it yourself! My sister told me that LL Cool J posted one. There have been a few local news shows in the states that have talked about it too. Surreal. It’s been a fun 15 minutes.
What’s next? Is there anything else you’d like to do with it beyond general maintenance?
I’ll probably leave Bill Clinton Swag as is. It’s had its moment. I have ideas for some other projects though. I just like building stuff and putting it up on the internet. If people like it, great. There will be more from me, but I can’t imagine anything is going to top Bill.
Lastly, and most importantly, which albums is Bill holding in your pick?
Ah, this is a tough one. I’ve made so many. I did print one and hang it in my office. It’s got all the Ratatat albums.