One year ago today, one minute after two bombs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, a journalism student named Dan Lampariello uploaded to his Twitter account a photo of the blast, taken from his vantage point a few blocks down Boylston Street.
Lampariello's was the first photograph of the explosions, which killed three people and injured more than 200, to appear on Twitter. It was widely distributed; as of today it has been retweeted 2,057 times.
A little less than three hours later, the frequently suspended, Anonymous-affiliated, hacker-activist Twitter account @YourAnonNews tweeted its own version of Lampariello's photograph, singling out and isolating a silhouetted figure on a nearby roof. "#BostonMararthon [sic] GET THIS PICTURE EVERYWHERE," the accompanying tweet read. Twenty minutes later, a popular "parody" account for the R&B singer Frank Ocean tweeted Lampariello's photo with the caption "Who's that guy on the roof??"
The Frank Ocean "parody" has now garnered 2,187 retweets. YourAnonNews' ominous edit of Lampariello's photograph has been retweeted 22,059 times.
"Man on roof" or "mystery man on roof" was the first installment in what quickly became a cycle of rumor, speculation, and alarm surrounding the Boston Marathon bombings. No one knew exactly what had happened and everyone had access to images. The online conspiracy economy is vast, and its participants love to Google.
The result was an agitated massive-multiplayer reenactment of Blow-Up, drawing in the amateur hive mind and the professional press alike. By the next morning, a reporter at an FBI press conference asked about the photograph: "There was one photo yesterday—it went viral—of man standing on a roof." It went viral, ergo it was news.
Dozens of articles were written, with the appropriate keywords high up. ABC News weighed in ("Mystery 'Man on the Roof' Sparks Internet Chatter"). So did The Christian Science Monitor, as did Slate, Yahoo News, The Huffington Post. British tabloids had a field day.
It was a fickle enthusiasm. There were photos of suspected paramilitaries to consider, too. And two young men with gym bags, to whom the New York Post dedicated a cover. On Thursday, April 18, three days after the bombing, the FBI released photos of its actual suspects: two young men in ballcaps, who would later be identified as the brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. During the press conference where the video and photo of the Tsarnaevs was first shown, a reporter for the conspiracy-mongering outfit InfoWars starting yelling: "We've got photographs on InfoWars.com, folks."
By now, roof guy had been abandoned in favor of the new leads and conspiracies. Crowdsourced detective work, out ahead of the slow pace of professional detective work, concluded that one of the suspects was a missing Brown student named Sunil Tripathi. That too went viral, and outlets including Gawker picked it up as news, then debunked it. The Tsarnaevs were finally identified, one killed and one apprehended after a chaotic chase and manhunt lasting from night through day.
Here, at last, was a real narrative. The younger Tsarnaev developed a small online fanbase. A Rolling Stone cover used an Instagram-filtered selfie Dzhokhar had taken, and a Massachusetts state trooper, outraged at the magazine, released his own photographs of Tsarnaev's capture in dramatic chiaroscuro. The state trooper was suspended. A small group of #FreeJahar supporters showed up to Tsarnaev's arraignment. The parody Frank Ocean account changed its name from @Fraank_Ocean to @StayChiil.
And roof guy? He remained where he'd been dropped, up on that roofline, frozen there by the SEO demands of a no-longer-relevant moment. Search "roof man" and you'll still get him.
But a few hours before the FBI released its suspect photos and media attention cycled away from the silhouetted figure near the blast, Gawker received an email from a woman named Maria:
My name is Maria and I was present at the Boston Marathon on Monday. I was standing at the 26 mile marker, on the right side of the race, approximately two blocks from the finish line, and less than a block from the second explosion. (Just as another point of reference, if you know the famed second explosion picture, the one with the "man on roof" - I was about a few yards down the race from whoever took that picture.)
My mother was racing in the marathon at the time, and less than a minute before the explosions, she hit the 26 mile marker so I have a series of pictures I took of her as she was running past me, then in front, then I followed her as she ran away from me towards the finish line and then two pictures later, the first explosion, and then two pictures after that, the second explosion. (I hope it makes sense the way I'm explaining it) My mother was directly across the street from the 2nd explosion, thankfully she runs on the right side of the road and was not hurt. The rest of the day was very strange.
Anyway, the reason I'm writing is because it's been a strange couple of days and I have just realized I have not shared my photos with anyone, and it just finally occurred to me last night to check for the "man on the roof" .
I was standing there all day, since about 10 in the morning and I have many many pictures, including some of the "man on the roof" enjoying his friends and loved ones at a very normal Patriot's Day rooftop BBQ. The final series of photos I have is of the mysterious man sitting in a lounge chair with a friend and then him jumping up and running over to the side to see what is happening. I think his friend ran over to the other side of the roof, or just happened to, at that moment, go back downstairs or something. Regardless, it's really pretty obvious in the photos what is going on. You can very clearly see his black shirt and jeans and grey hair. My final picture of the second explosion is a split second difference from the one all over the internet.
Anyway, the "man on the roof" story is just about the dumbest thing I've ever heard. I can't really gauge how many people are actually concerned about it, so I'm writing to let you know that, should there still be people who are worried about it, I have these photos. I didn't want to bombard your inbox with a bunch of full res files and if I send in the cropped photos, you don't have the full picture of where the explosions are. Hopefully, I think, most people know the whole "man on the roof" thing is dumb.
I think it would be hilarious to go through all of his nefarious activities - Here he is at a bbq -oh no!/ Here he is lounging shamefully - whatever shall we do??!Anyway, if you'd like the photos let me know. People keep telling me to send my photos in to all sorts of places, but I'm not really sure where or what to do or if I'd actually be helping.
Here are Maria's photographs. What was the mysterious man on the roof doing? He was rushing to see what had happened, like everyone else.