This nondescript image of a lilac-flowered flower on Wikipedia has seemingly become a smash hit in India, but no one's quite sure why. Earlier this week, it was noticed that this single image was attracting a tidal wave of traffic — 90 million hits per day — to one of Wikipedia’s data centers.
Chris Albon, director of machine learning at Wikimedia, pointed out the curious case of the apparently desirable flower in a tweet on Monday, saying: “Check out this actual, live ticket about an ongoing mystery. 20% of all requests to one of our data centers for media are for this image of a flower.”
“Nobody knows why,” Albon added.
For those curious about this flowering plant’s botanical identity, it’s a species known as the New York aster (Symphyotrichum novi-belgii). While it’s certainly a pretty specimen, it’s an otherwise unremarkable flower that can be found in meadows in parts of North America. The Wikipedia page detailing the flower is equally insipid and unexceptional. So, what’s the hype about?
A post on Phabricator highlighted that the image was getting around 90 million hits per day from various Internet service providers in India. It became clear that the traffic was coming from a mobile app that was extremely popular in India. Many of the images featured on Wikipedia come from Wikimedia Commons, a media repository from which images can be freely reused, reproduced, and re-hashed without charge, so it's likely that a popular app contains a hotlink to this free image.
“These are very strange, as they come from wildly different IPs, follow a daily traffic pattern, so we are hypothesising there is some mobile app predominantly used in India that hotlinks the above image for e.g. a splash screen,” the post said.
Some digging around revealed that the huge quantity of traffic was being driven to a server in Singapore, starting around July 2020. Before this time, the image was receiving a couple of hundreds of hits a day, but it suddenly saw a sharp rise in interest, jumping from hundreds to millions of hits per day. By August, it was consistently receiving around 75 million requests per day.
Wikimedia hasn't revealed the name of the app yet, but people have been sniffing out some clues that could lead to its identity.
It’s noteworthy that the dramatic surge of popularity for the flower image occurred in June 2020, around the time India took the decision to totally ban TikTok in the name of national security. This has led some to speculate that the flower image may have been used by India’s new short video platform, HiPi, or a mirror of the original TikTok app for people wanting to access the platform's content despite the ban. Some theorized the flower image may have had some connection to India’s COVID-19 track-and-trace app since the number of requests was so high.
The identity of the app remains unknown for now, but the Wikimedia server in Singapore is still receiving millions of requests for this humble image.