How a picture goes viral: @stefanielaine’s #sfocrash photo

When an Asiana Airlines jet crash-landed at San Francisco International Airport on Saturday, there was a predictable scramble for visual artifacts — photo and video. Stefanie Turner, from Tempe, Ariz., was walking back to her hotel from breakfast across the bay from the airport. She saw the plane crash, took a picture and, after she realized what she had on her phone, Tweeted the photo.

Watch the chronology — and then watch what happens:

11:26 a.m. (Pacific): Asiana Airlines Flight 214 crashes on Runway 28L at San Francisco International Airport.

11:33 2.m. (Turner)  guys I just watched a plane crash at SFO (85 RTs/15 Faves)

11:33 a.m. : holy fuck (10 RTs/3 Fs)

11:35 a.m.:  we were walking back from breakfast, stopped to take a picture of the runway, and a landing plane came in at a bad angle, flipped, exploded (221 RTs/16 Fs)

1a:37 a.m.: we saw the rescue slides come out, not sure whether that means there were survivors. the plane completely broke apart, smoke pouring out (114 RTs/4 Fs)

Between 11:37 a.m. and 11:39 a.m., Turner answers a couple @ queries about the crash from people she knows.

11:39 a.m. : I absolutely can’t believe what I just saw.

At 12 p.m., @abc7newBayArea — the local ABC affiliate — Tweets and asks if anyone had pictures or video of the crash. Turner, who still hasn’t looked at the pictures on her phone, replies at 12:04 p.m.: FYI it was definitely a crash, not just a fire. I watched it happen.

12:07 p.m.: just realized I have a picture of the actual crash. holy fucking shit. Turner posts the photo to TwitPic and shortlinks it. (1,161 RTs/277 Fs)

At 12:08 p.m.,  Timothy Burke, a friend of Turner’s and an editor at Deadspin, RTs Turner’s photo with the phrase ‘Picture of the actual crash,’ and attributes it to Turner.  It gets 57 RTs. But this is a turning point. Turner has less than 500 followers at this time. Burke has almost 23,000. 

At 12:09 p.m., the editor of sbnation.com and a reporter at WCNC-TV in Charlotte both MT Turner’s photo (likely picking it up off of Burke’s timeline; they both follow him). It’s been 2 minutes since the photo was posted.

12:10 p.m.; Ravi Somaiya, a New York Times reporter based on San Francisco, asks Turner to chat.

12:10 p.m. NewsBreaker, an online news platform, RTs Turner’s photo.

12:16 p.m: KGO-TV asks for permission to use the photo with attribution. Turner grants it.

12:16 p.m. An editor at storyful.com asks if the media can use the photo with attribution. Turner says yes.

12:17 p.m.: A producer at Good Morning America DMs Turner to ask for permission to use the photo and do an interview.

12:18 p.m.: A producer at BBC requests an interview.

12:21 p.m.: Turner tweets to KGO: please feel free to use any of my tweets too, you may need to censor language

12:22 p.m.: The ABC affiliate in Tampa asks permission to use the photo. Granted.

12:23 p.m.: MSNBC requests an interview.

12:24 p.m.: David Daniel, an L.A.-based CNN reporter tweets: Unverified, but… #SFO MT @stefanielaine just realized I have a picture of the actual crash. pic.twitter.com/5jxutcxa3X Turner replies with details at 2:31 pm.

12:25 p.m.: The CBS affiliate in Denver asks permission to use the photo. Granted.

12:26 p.m.: NBC News asks for an interview.

12:26 p.m.: The Associated Press asks for permission to use the photo. Granted.

12:26 p.m.: European Press Photo Agency requests permission to use the photo. Granted.

12:34 p.m.: AP’s Russ Contreras becomes the first media person to ask Turner’s real name, rather than her Twitter handle.

At 12:50 p.m., media requests continue coming in, but now we see the regular Twitter-using public asking for information: How did you get it? Can you post other pictures?

1:35 p.m. SFBay.ca, a local newssite, asks for permission to use Turner’s photo. Granted.

1:40 p.m.: Jalopnik/Gawker request permission for the photo. Granted.

1:50 p.m. KGO radio tweets and ask for an interview.

1:51 p.m. Turner tweets back that she’s done with interviews for the day.

1:51 p.m. NBC tweets asking for permission to use the photo across all platforms. Granted.

1:32 p.m. NPR tweets and asks to do an interview. Granted.

What are the takeaways here?

1. National platforms want both visuals and interviews. Local platforms — outside the area — just want visuals. Seeing producers from out-of-market local stations reach out — before even knowing if there were locals involved — is a newish development. In the past, stations would depend on the AP. Now there’s a new outlet.

2. Having something RT’d or MT’d by a high-follower-count personality instantly raises the credibility and visibility of the content. It is very likely that had Burke not RT’d the photo at 2:08 p.m., it wouldn’t have gained the traction it did, given Turner’s follower count.  The combined followers of the SB Nation editor and Charlotte news anchor only account for about 11,000 people. But in the first two minutes of the photo’s post, it’s been RT’d and MT’d to more than 35,000 people who wouldn’t have seen it.

3. Immediacy owns the day.  We see it both in the narrative and the statistical patterns of Turner’s experience. There are 14 use or interview requests in 14 minutes and then very few afterwards. The chart below shows data from credited RTs. That first bump on July 6 GMT (between 11 a.m. and 12 p.m.,Pacific)  is Turner’s on how she got the picture (146 RTs). That huge bump is her Tweet with the photo (1.654 RTs between 12 p.m. and 1 p.m., Pacific). That next data point is the exact same Tweet just an hour later, with only 453 RTs. Another hour later, it’s 315 RTs, then 128, then 57.

Spike in RTs (data from Topsy.com)

Spike in RTs (data from Topsy.com)