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Put a little birdhouse in your soul

Birdhouses by See-Ming Lee

“It’s crazy. I would consider it one of the worst photos I’ve ever taken, but it has become the most popular photo on my stream.”

As someone who ends up reading a lot about journalism, online communities, Twitter and social media in general, this pic has cropped up regularly in the sites I tend to scan. It’s a pretty easy image to link to the bird-icon behemoth of Twitter, itself a huge flitting community of twittering folk. The more I saw it, the more I wondered about it, and where it came from. Part of the joy of social media is the shrunken proximity – you can generally find someone and reach out directly to them incredibly easily. And so I got in touch with See-Ming Lee.

See-Ming is a particularly forthcoming and chatty bloke, with numerous presences on Twitter and elsewhere online to support his design business, which he operates from Hong Kong.

He posts a lot of pics on his Flickr stream, allowing most of them be used widely via Creative Commons. I’ve posted about that aspect of things over on Storyful. He’s earned cash and profile from the use of some of his pics – this one being an unexpected success. He was planning to erase it, having taken the shot to test a new Canon 70-200mm f4 lens he had on his camera. He snapped a pic of the community garden near where he was living in New York (mapped below) to see how the lens performed, back in December 2007. The birdhouses can’t be seen from the Google Earth view (he shot with the lens zoomed at 126mm, according to the EXIF data – perhaps from outside the fence) but you can see where the blue paint stops at the north-east corner of the garden. A dust spot nearly persuaded him to deleted, but instead he stuck it on Flickr and intended to forget about it. Until it got picked up and went gangbusters.


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If you recognise it, you might be surprised as I was to hear that no-one has ever asked See-Ming about the genesis of this photo, despite its ubiquity. It’s been used widely in the 4 1/2 years it’s been on the web, its birdhouses and bright colours making it an easy target for people looking for something to loosely tie to Twitter, or community, or whatever. Most people have credited See-Ming Lee for its use, as asked. But no-one ever wondered who he was, or how his photo ended up on Flickr.

So now you know.

It’s just one example of how there’s a story behind every piece of content unleashed on the web. Sometimes the story is inordinately dull. Sometimes the content is posted with a purpose, and sometimes it’s an act of serendipity that finds it ending up online. It’s often worth probing, though.

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