What Happens When You Take an Obviously Viral Photo

The vultures of media descend on you. In a nice way.
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About 5 hours ago, a woman named Amanda Traver was flying into LaGuardia airport, like so many other travelers. 

As her plane descended, New York (and much of the eastern seaboard) was fogged in, as you can see in the Weather Channel map below: 

So, Traver pulled out her phone and snapped a picture of the city's skyscrapers poking out from the fog. And she posted it to her Instagram page with the caption,"Flying into NYC this morning... The clouds were so low there was a city in the sky #nofilter."

This is, of course, a great photograph. And everyone who saw it immediately recognized it as such. So, even though Traver is a very light Instagram user who has only posted 50 times in the last couple of years, the photograph spread quickly.

Within a couple of hours, representatives of Huffington Post, ABC, BreakingNews.com, Newsweek, HuffPost UK, Mail Online, the New York Post, New York Daily News, and Storyful all made contact with Traver.

Of all the pieces of machinery dedicated to profiting from "viral stuff," the most interesting (to me) are all the humans out there who have optimized some part of their brains to recognize the patterns of a viral object in the context of the day's mood. This was, they knew, the photo people wanted to see of New York City in the fog.

While this filtering process is a job for many media people, it's also part of how regular folks think now, too, like the guy who told Traver, "I stole your pic for FB...this was too amazing not to take...#GreatPicture...U did great!!!!"

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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