Hipster Time Travelers, Virality, Museums, and Digital Rights

Daniel Fandino Blog Post

In the first half of 2010 a photograph with an unusual claim about one of the people depicted in it began to circulate on the internet. The photo, as reproduced here, created a minor stir due to the fantastic notion that it showed a time traveler standing in a crowd in the year 1941. The man (visible in the right-center of the photo) was said be to a time traveler due to his apparently anachronistic sunglasses, hoodie, printed t-shirt and modern looking camera. The resulting explosion of posts, claims and counterclaims fueled an online debate and spawned numerous imitators, proponents and debunkers throughout the rest of 2010 (and a Wikipedia entry as well!)


The Time Traveling Hipster photograph, from the "Their Past Lives Here" online exhibition created by the Bralorne Museum.

While the story of the hipster time traveler photo is fascinating on its own merits, as it speaks to the speed and nature of virality on the internet as well as the way the denizens of the internet construct (and deconstruct) a modern day myth, a paper delivered at the 2011 Museums and the Web conference uses the incident to illustrate how museums and other institutions can attempt to maintain control of their holdings in the nearly lawless realm of cyberspace.

Aside from being a fascinating detective story tracing the evolution of the time traveler photo on the internet, the paper entitled “The Mystery of the “1940s Time Traveller”: The Changing Face of Online Brand Monitoring” deftly introduces some compelling theories and arguments about online behavior, the management of digital rights and control of proprietary images as well as making the case for a more open and conversational stance by government institutions. In addition, some sharp pop culture quotes pepper the paper, adding a fun and light tone to the arguments–exactly the tone the authors argue that museums should take when dealing with the public. The majority of the paper is devoted to discussing how museums and other institutions can keep control of their brand, that is to say, retain rights and benefit from the exposure an event such as the hipster time traveler can being. Notably, the authors state how the further in time and deeper into the web the photo traveled, the less proper attributions were connected to it. The paper brings up some intriguing concepts by other authors, notably the idea of “conversational capital” by Cesvet and serves as a primer on how to approach brand monitoring–ideas that are applicable to a wide range of online endeavors, not just museums.

A recommended read, not just for those interested in digital rights management or preserving the integrity of online and offline collections but also for those curious about virality and the new theories developing around the transmission of information on the internet. Thanks and credit to David Harkness, Sheila Carey and Julie Marion for their paper as well as the Bralorne Museum, holder of the original photograph.


Harkness, D., et al., The Mystery of the “1940s Time Traveller”: The Changing Face of Online Brand Monitoring. In J. Trant and D. Bearman (eds). Museums and the Web 2011: Proceedings. Toronto: Archives & Museum Informatics. Published March 31, 2011. Consulted April 24, 2015. http://www.museumsandtheweb.com/mw2011/papers/the_mystery_of_the_1940s_time_traveller_the_ch.html

The online “Their Past Lives Here” exhibit by the Bralorne Museum.


Finally, for a breakdown and examination of the photo from a skeptic’s viewpoint: