From An iPhone to CNN: The Life Of A Viral Hurricane Sandy Photo


I write about movies, so I generally don't have much to say about natural disasters such as the hurricane that slammed the East Coast on Monday. And I'm pretty sure that, though you might one day enjoy reading my thoughts on "Cloud Atlas" or even how movie storms compare to real-life ones, now's just not the time.

Fortunately, something of actual interest happened to me during Hurricane Sandy: I took a weather photo that went viral. This occurred despite the fact that, as noted, I'm a movie writer, not a weather photographer. I've always wondered how something like that happens, and now I know -- and will share.

Early Monday morning I read that the FDR Drive -- a highway that extends up the east side of Manhattan -- had been shut down. Curious why, I, along with hundreds of other people, perhaps foolishly ignored the police tape that signaled "Don't Go in Here" and made my way to a small bridge that extends over the FDR near East 81st Street. From there, I took this picture of the FDR underwater and asked a friend that I was with, "Should I tweet this?"

Mind you, there were plenty of people taking photos of this same area, but the Upper East Side of Manhattan -- especially the quiet confines off East End Avenue -- probably isn't a hotbed for social media. I have a modest Twitter following, and on a good day can expect to see a particularly "clever" post get retweeted nine times. This picture, at first, wasn't much different. But then our senior political reporter, Amanda Terkel, retweeted the photo, followed by Joe Weisenthal of Business Insider. After that, I had to shut off the Twitter notifications on my iPhone because the barrage of RT messages were crashing my phone.

It's a little embarrassing to admit this, but it wasn't long before I was feeling quite protective of this below-average iPhone photo that I almost didn't take and almost didn't tweet. In no time, I had developed a real sense of ownership over it. When the New York Post tweeted the photo without out crediting me, I actually got angry. (And yes, I realize this is a really odd thing to care about when an impending hurricane is about to strike an area you happen to live in.) From Twitter, the photo started appearing on sites like Gothamist, Buzzfeed and Accuweather -- credited to me in some places but not in others.

Around 7:30 p.m., by which time more than 60,000 people had viewed the image on my TwitPic account, I received a notice from CNN that they wanted to use it on the air. Considering how many outlets had already swiped the photo without asking, I was genuinely touched by the consideration. Within an hour, my dad called me to tell me that he had just seen my name on Anderson Cooper 360. My photo, in nine hours, had made it from my phone to CNN.


Obviously, the photo that I happened to take is one of the least remarkable to make the rounds. By the time it aired on CNN, my notifications were quiet. Much more interesting and/or devastating photos of the lower half of Manhattan in darkness, part of Long Island City underwater, flooding in Alphabet City, or the flooding of a Hoboken PATH station have taken precedent.

What does this all mean? I don't know. Obviously, it was a right-time-right-place kind of photo -- taken at a time when people were worried about the possibility of devastating floods arriving later that night -- but I'm not sure I have a better grasp on what creates a viral photo than I did before this happened. For example, I went back to the same location today, post-hurricane, and took another picture. Six hours later, it has been retweeted twice -- or 2,760 fewer times than its predecessor. So, yes, the viral surge is over. And, honestly, I'm fine with that. Because the sooner I can get back to writing about Cloud Atlas, the better.

Mike Ryan is senior writer for Huffington Post Entertainment. You can contact him directly on Twitter.