By Audrey Foppes
Today you have probably checked your texts, read your multiple e-mail accounts,
checked Facebook, skimmed Reddit, scrolled through Tumblr, and made a tweet.
Perhaps you rolled out of bed to slouch over your laptop to meet your morning social
networking quota, but more likely, you probably did it from the comfort of your still-
warm comforters as you gazed at the glowing screen of your phone. And all before
breakfast, a shower, or brushing your teeth. By the time you are actually en route to
class or work, you have probably rinsed and repeated this ritual several times over,
eventually limiting your scanning to your favorite two or three pages.
A favorite page for over 1 million people on Facebook is the Humans of New York page,
or HONY, for short. This page chronicles the interaction between one Brandon Stanton
and the rest of the humans living in New York City by posting photographs (taken by
Brandon), coupled with quotes from the people in the photographs. What began as a
personal hobby for Brandon became an instant sensation and is currently “liked” by 1.7
million people. The stories that are shared on the HONY page are short, long, personal,
vague, optimistic, pessimistic, and every shade in between. For many people, this page
encompasses the full range of human emotions in this divine experience we call life and
is, therefore, an inspiring and intimate facet of the world wide web.
For others, however, this page is merely further evidence of the decline of our society.
We are collectively developing increasingly digital interactions with one another. We
make dinner dates via text, we send birthday wishes through Facebook, and we send
gifts through Amazon. Our lives have become so engulfed in our multi-media that real,
human interactions are preceded by our virtual actions. Conversations are cut short
because they “already saw that on Facebook” and phones are out and texting even in
the midst of living, breathing company.
The HONY page, then, is paradoxical: a distant, virtual page on the internet that
documents and promotes the intimate connections of strangers. Even as it encourages
human-to-human interaction, the HONY page, by the very act of being a page on
Facebook, is viewed most often by individuals, scanning the page like any other social
networking site, on their phone, on their laptop, at work, at school, everywhere.
What makes HONY unique, however, is it’s ability to eloquently share stories of love,
strife, failure, and triumph, which are not only beautiful in their own right, but are made
all the more real by putting a face to the stories (or sometimes, a pair of shoes or a
diary). Thus, viewers are left with much the same feeling as that of an audience after a
movie: the feeling of emotional stirring, a momentary philosophical shift, a very slight
(and perhaps fleeting) expansion of one’s world view.
But in reality, you are still sitting alone, plugged into your phone as the UB Stampede
careens towards South Campus, or perhaps you are plugged into your laptop, curled up
and procrastinating in a fifth-floor carrel. Yet you still feel as though you have expanded
your capacity to connect with others.
This sensation of growth is not completely unfounded. Our ability to empathize makes it
possible for human beings to relate to situations we have never personally experienced.
We are able to read news stories about loss that make us appreciate our own dry homes
and living families or watch movies that shape our opinions about the morality of war
and genocide without ever experiencing a tsunami or fighting overseas.
In the same way, our empathy allows us to care, if only momentarily, for the people
featured in HONY’s photography. For a moment, we care about them as we try to
understand their stories. This illusion is broken, however, the minute we click away
to scroll through Reddit or laugh at the latest Buzzfeed link. Try to remember in five
minutes, an hour, or at the end of the day what you found so moving, and you have to
strain to remember all the details, or may not remember at all.
This phenomenon, this ephemeral, yet intense connection we feel during our
interactions over the internet speaks to the parallel between the virtual and the real
world. Making an actual connection, not just experiencing the sensation of being
connected, via the internet requires effort, just as it does in real life. As its name would
suggest, the world wide web connects the international community, the majority
of its inhabitants, and therefore, networking to make connections is quite possible
and made astoundingly easy. It does, however, require an active participation in the
social platforms available on the internet, rather than the passivity that most social
networking sites promote.
This passivity is founded in the fact that surfing the web is almost never a group activity,
especially with the advent of smartphones, iPods and Pads, laptops, tablets, and so on.
Technology is becoming more individualized, even as our global connectivity increases,
and one’s actions on them are subsequently made more solitary. Therefore, the very act
of surfing the internet is made into an individual, passive activity.
Furthermore, there are more and more social networking sites and apps available to the
tech-savvy consumer. Therefore, less time is spent on each platform and we become
observers, quickly skimming our bookmarked pages to stay “up to date” on the latest
fads, vines, and viral videos, never truly investing ourselves in the purpose of a single
site. Indeed, many sites are not meant to be invested in and have instead marketed
themselves exclusively for the mindless page-scanner. Sites like Buzzfeed, Funny or
Die, and Cheezburger capitalize on the idea of instant gratification: simple wording and
image-heavy features make these sites popular for those of us who are looking for a
Moreover, these and similar sites manipulate the sensation of connectivity by featuring
stories about other people, shared experiences, or relatable stories. By sharing stories
to which most of us can relate, especially when they are featured in order to make fun
of whatever outburst or mishap is documented and we as the audience are invited to
make comments, the sense of a community is created because the majority of viewers
will have a similar reaction. Similarly, those whose reactions differ from the majority
of the comments are then deemed virtually as outcasts. In this way, very real feelings
of comradery, disconnect, and rejection can be generated by participating (even by
reflexively leaving comments) in a social networking platform. In reality, however, you
are merely interacting with the disconnected thoughts of other faceless identities on
the internet, and therefore, any sense of community you feel is only the sensation of
connection, not a real connection.
That is why HONY is so exceptional among the many virtual communities. By focusing
exclusively on the intimate connection that can be made between strangers and
documenting that interaction, HONY becomes inspiring. In a world wherein most of us
make largely digital connections with people, Brandon Stanton is stepping out to
really ask, to really know people.
What’s more surprising is how willing Brandon’s interviewees seem to be to open
up about very personal stories (including abortion, divorce, lost love, regret, death,
and personal fears). Furthermore, the people featured on HONY’s page encompass
a range of culture, race, class, gender, and age, yet all of them are willing to share,
perhaps not all to the same length, but they all share, thereby creating a diverse
page of stories.
HONY’s message is exceptional to us because it illustrates what has become a
lost art to many of us. The majority of people no longer feel comfortable striking up
friendly and sincere conversation with complete strangers, yet HONY shows us that
those can be some of the most intimate moments we experience. In publishing these
interactions, Brandon is proving that people are not less willing to share, but that we
are less willing to ask.
Our passivity in life could be argued to be a result of our daily saturation in passive
“social networking” sites. We have honed our capability to leave a snappy comment
or make a wry joke (generally, at the expense of someone else), but we have lost
our capability to function comfortably in the company of other living, breathing
human beings. We have become dependent on that distance that the internet
offers. We have become emboldened by the anonymity that our virtual communities
Yet Brandon’s page provides an exemplary glimpse of the possibilities of social
networking. Dozens of individuals and organizations have been aided by Kickstarter
campaigns that Brandon has organized after posting a picture and sharing a story.
It is truly amazing and touching how quickly and in what numbers people can and
will rally around a cause they feel is worthy. Yet, those people who donated had
to consciously process those stories, take them to heart, and actively pursue the
Kickstarter page in order to make a contribution. They did not accept merely “liking”
a page as sufficient participation. And while it could be argued that electronically
submitting funds to a cause still reeks of passivity, it’s impossible to dismiss the pride
one feels when Brandon posts, days later, the smiling result of HONY’s latest act of
As our computers shrink to our pockets, as our messages are simplified to text
abbreviations and emoticons, as the world we live in is reduced to stereotypes
for the sake of generalized humor, we must remember there are people on the
other side of the web page. Our technological advances have yielded tools that
can be used for extraordinary good and empowerment, yet they can also lead to
the continued division and individualization of our society. But by putting a face to
stories which reconnect us with our human experiences, HONY and similar sites are
reminding us that even a virtual community can have real and wonderful impacts.