Every day the internet presents us with countless unsolvable mysteries, words and pictures severed from their original context and freed into the unfolding matrix of online. Where does that image come from? Who said this quote? These mysteries are usually fleeting and easily solved or discarded, thanks to Google and the endlessly renewable web. But due to its very structure, the internet obfuscates and disguises things. It offers up unanswerable questions.
For me, one of the most enduring internet mysteries concerns a file known as “IMG_4346.jpeg.” It is, based on file type, an image. But it is not an image I — or any of the hundreds of thousands of people who might have come across the file name — have ever seen. It is an image known only by its nondescript name, thanks to ESPN commentator Stephen A. Smith.
At 10:15 p.m. on May 26, 2015, Smith tweeted:
Smith, who might be ESPN’s most famous onscreen personality, has built up a devoted following on Twitter. Smith’s fame among sports fans generally is ultimately less a tribute to his insight than a testament to his ability to get under everyone’s skin as an improbably stubborn and belligerent devil’s advocate. On Twitter in particular, he is widely followed in part because he has the charmingly befuddled demeanor and topic selection of a grandfather:
It helps that he has an immediately recognizable pattern of speech, easily reproduced to viral effect on Twitter:
But no parody of Smith — and no other tweet by the man himself — has haunted Twitter quite like “TAke a look, y’all,” a display of confident incompetence made more bold every day that it stays up without explanation or deletion. It has now lasted for two years without any context or follow-up. It is a memorial to stubbornness, an embodiment of Benjamin Jowett’s dictum to “never apologize, never explain.” It is also very stupid and funny.
How did it happen? The most likely explanation is that Smith copied the photo to his clipboard, expecting to be able to paste it into the text box as an attachment. Instead, the pasting was converted to the name of the file. This is not an uncommon problem in software, where dragging a multimedia file into a text-entry field will insert the item’s file path, rather than the original media. It is difficult to replicate numerous aspects of Smith’s setup (the correct iterations of iPhone hardware, operating system, and Twitter app), so I can only work from this, which I believe to be the most plausible theory.
As we’ve seen, Smith is not exactly the most savvy Twitter user, though he did join the service in its nascent period, in September 2008. The homepage linked to from his Twitter account is stephena.com, which redirected to one of those dubious scam pages telling me that I needed to upgrade my Flash installation. More curiously, the location field on his profile contains the geographic coordinates for an area containing a Social Security Administration office, a Walmart, and an Arby’s east of Cherry Hill, New Jersey. The location field appears to have been auto-filled by the Twitter client UberTweet (now known as UberSocial). Smith’s relationship to UberTweet, and the Arby’s, is a mystery for another day.
Reviewing Smith’s tweets directly surrounding this one reveals nothing. He did not correct the record. Five hours prior he tweeted about the Seahawks facing the Colts. The next morning he posted about a Kyrie Irving injury.
But, on a lark, I emailed ESPN’s PR department to see if they could help me out. I explained that I was looking for IMG_4346.jpeg — a photo that is nearly two years old at this point — in the hopes of putting this mystery to bed. ESPN, god bless them, did actually look into this for me. Earlier this week, communications manager Tara Chozet sent word: “I talked to Stephen A. about this, and unfortunately, he doesn’t remember the gaffe, which means he also doesn’t remember which photo he was supposed to tweet. I love the premise and think we could have had a lot of fun with it, but it would be disingenuous for him to do this story.”
If I were busy radio-and-television personality Stephen A. Smith, I’d have probably sent a similar response. I wrote out step-by-step instructions for Mr. Smith, with screenshots, explaining how to search for the photo on macOS, hopeful that the image had been transferred from his phone to his computer automatically via iCloud’s Photo Stream function. I do not expect to hear back.
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