By 9 pm ET last night, Nick Sawhney knew he was in trouble.
Just a half hour earlier, still steeped in the afterglow of Joe Biden’s inauguration, Sawhney had pushed live a website that lets you put a viral image of Bernie Sanders—seated, mittened, alone—atop any Google Street View image. The meme had already reached a fever pitch, with the Photoshop faithful placing the Vermont senator in everything from Mortal Kombat to Nighthawks at the Diner. But Sawhney’s creation, born out of a group chat with friends, added layers of personalization, ease of use, and absurdity; because it fixes Sanders in the same coordinates regardless of his location, he occasionally looks as though he’s floating, or sitting on a car, or in an otherwise unlikely orientation.
The site gained traction on Twitter slowly at first; friends retweeting, then friends of friends. A few verified accounts joined in. And then, as wonderful and perfectly timed internet creations do, it snowballed.
“I was freaking out because I was like, oh my god I’m going viral,” says Sawhney, who by day is a New York University grad student focused on artificial intelligence and machine learning. “And then I was freaking out because I had to stop the site from crashing.”
By 9 pm ET, he had already blown through the free tier offered by Heroku, the cloud platform that Sawhney is using to host the site. At 9:27 pm, as the requests piled up, he tweeted, “oh god oh fuck google dot com how to scale heroku app quickly.” A Heroku employee happened to see it; within an hour Sawhney was on a video call with one of the company’s engineers, figuring out how to keep his hastily constructed ship afloat.
“If I had known this was going to be the traffic, I would have made every single decision completely differently,” says Sawhney. “When it blew up I realized that a website is more than just writing the code and putting it on there.”