Four months ago, Jones, 22, was just another young man thinking about starting a business someday, in marketing, or maybe advertising.
Now, he’s a few days away from boarding a flight to California, where people with money and influence can’t wait to talk to him about something else entirely; an idea born spontaneously on May 24 of this year, as Jones and his family looked through old photos at the kitchen table.
Jones found a picture of his brother, taken in the same kitchen years earlier, sitting in the same spot he was now. Jones, meanwhile, was seated in the same position as his mother had been when she took the picture. He held up the old print, aligned it visually with its real-life background, and shot a new image of it.
When Jones posted the picture online, it quickly became Dear Photograph, a website where people can share a new photo of an old photo, with a brief message addressed to the original image, or more accurately, to the past itself.
Since that night around the kitchen table, Dear Photograph has been named the #1 website of 2011 by CBS News, #7 by Time Magazine and been written up in the New Yorker, the Guardian and countless other publications around the world. Arianna Huffington tweeted it as her Site of the Day on Aug. 11, and a month later, on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, his site made the top tweets list.
“Who would have thought?” Jones said at the Communitech Hub on Sept. 15, as he waited to make an appearance at the 140 Characters conference. “I’m just a regular 22-year-old kid from Kitchener, and I’ve signed a book deal, and I’m in talks with some people for TV and film based on the blog. It’s just really surreal.”
Those talks will no doubt continue when Jones lands in Los Angeles. For now, he’s just enjoying the ride, even if he’s not quite sure where it’s headed.
Social media has been the primary accelerant for the wildfire that is Dear Photograph. Jones’s sharing of his photos on Twitter and Facebook gave it the initial push, and photo contributions from visitors to his site have been widely distributed for their poignancy.
“It just goes to show how relevant content just resonates with everybody,” he said, citing Sept. 11 as an example.
“The first one I posted, a picture of a picture of the towers when both towers were on fire, that got 40,000 re-blogs on the first day it was posted,” he said, adding that his web page got 250,000 hits after making Twitter’s top tweets list.
“All day, all my devices were just going crazy from mentions on Twitter and people commenting on Facebook. If I didn’t have (social media), I wouldn’t have a business.”
Jones has built a team of advisers and mentors to help guide him through the coming whirlwind of L.A., but said he is not about to turn his back on Waterloo Region, which he called a hotbed of innovation.
“Look at us here, where we’re sitting right now,” he said amid the background chatter in the Communitech Hub’s networking area, housed in the once-dormant but now revitalized Lang Tannery. “It’s a great place to be, with awesome people who are connected to so many other people. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the support of the community.”
Whether Jones ends up in California long-term or returning to Kitchener is unclear; for now, he seems happily bemused by the detour his life has taken.
“It’s been crazy,” Jones said. “It’s hard to put words around what’s actually happened.”
Maybe he should just take a picture instead.