If I posted a single image per day on Facebook or Twitter, how long would it take for someone to recognize their mother and father?
But how would this even be possible, armed with only two first names of questionable accuracy?
How long would it take until a relative recognized the couple? Would it take a year? Would it take five years? Or would they never be found?
I created a page on Facebook called Is This Your Mother? and kicked off the network effect by asking three of my friends to Like the page. I didn’t expect much activity for the first few months. To my surprise, the number of page followers grew quickly, and in less than two weeks, the photographs had earned hundreds of Likes. By then, I had publicly christened the couple as Harry and Edna although I had not yet found any real proof of their names.
It was great fun at first. Visitors to the page posted fictional accounts of the couple’s exploits, remarked about the subjects’ clothing during the period, and shared memories of their own childhood vacation travel to the destinations seen in the photographs. My favorite comments were posted by people who noticed small details in an image or who were able to view an image out of context and produce an funny caption.
One of the best examples is a photograph of two cigar-smoking men comfortably seated on opposite ends of a red velour couch. In between the men is another man, who is dressed quite differently and looks less relaxed. Some might say that he does not seem to belong there.
A comment left on Facebook read, “That fella in the middle has a secret.” It is a example of how we often look at pictures of a friend or loved one and claim that it “really captures your personality,” but to a stranger, the same portrait may produce a different assessment altogether, likely driven by their own lifelong experiences with people of varying demographics.
During the search phase, I always knew that there was a huge potential for misbehavior within any social community, but everybody participating in Is This Your Mother? kept it PG-13. Perhaps, like me, they were wondering if there might be a day when Harry and Edna (or more likely, their children) would read the comments that we posted about them. There were a few serious moments, too, when people projected their own feelings and insecurities on to Harry and Edna, sharing with the group that they too were never able to bear children, or wondering “what it would be like to have that kind of money.”
Occasionally, visitors to the page were convinced that they had already discovered the identities of the couple and presented their evidence. Some claimed that they were certain that Harry or Edna were distant relatives. Others insisted that the house in the photographs was nearby. Another felt that the trees that served as a backdrop for the Edna ball-gown series were located on their family farm. At that moment, every theory was plausible.
At some point, the objective seemed to shift: a more serious tone developed in the conversations. People seemed to want to help with the mission, and were sending me messages
privately with links to research databases, and suggestions for genealogy and history websites to visit. In my project notes, I began referring to them as The Search Party. Why were people really this interested in helping, spending precious time working with someone that they had never met?
I continued to post new images each day; I had enough to last for three more years. After about two weeks, however, a cloud of doubt appeared overhead and I became worried that it was statistically improbable that our mystery couple would ever be identified. Too much time had passed, and there were simply too many people in the world.
Or so I thought.