Humans of Everywhere: Unveiling the Social Experiment
Why have the 'Humans Of' series been a success?
‘Real Humans of …’ titled a project, I was recently interviewed for. While I had encountered many ‘Humans of ...’ pages, even ‘Official Humans of…’, the modifier ‘real’ seemed bizarre.
Aren’t all humans real? The administrators of the page clarify that they aim to bring out the real stories of people. They want to tell the world who they really are. Does that mean, if not for the additional word, the stories wouldn’t have been authentic? Would the stories be fabricated?
An attempt to uncover the purpose of such an initiative brought me to the wider universe of all ‘Humans Of’ pages on the internet. A massive engagement, millions of followers, and an unaccounted number of copycats, this format seemed to have cracked the formula for social media success. How did it achieve the holier-than-thou status in the digital world?
Do you mind if I take your photograph?
This was the question Brandon Stanton posed to his subjects when he began working on his photography project, Humans of New York (HONY) in 2010. As a bond-trader previously, Brandon was fascinated by financial markets, because essentially, “They were just a bunch of people arguing over what something is worth”, he admits in this podcast. After over two years of number crunching, his job became a casualty of the Global Financial Crisis in 2008. It was rather a time to hit the reset button!
With the money that he got as unemployment compensation from the US government, he decided to come to New York, a decision that would pivot his life forever. A history student and a biography buff, Brandon now yearned to get himself occupied and made up his mind to pursue what he immensely loved, photography. He was an amateur, hadn’t taken many photos in his life, was unaware of The Rule of Thirds, and all the jazz of the profession. But knew that he was hooked to it, was obsessed with it, and wanted to take pictures all day long.
He photographed everything- nature, the city architecture, people, with multiple iterations that had different frames, angles, and backgrounds. However, photos of people seemed the most unique to him, they least resembled everything else that he saw on social media. Thus, Brandon decided to focus on taking pictures of people and eventually, began stopping them on the streets to take a shot.
Because of the extra effort that Brandon took to approach random people to take their portrait, he realized that those were quite different from the candid pictures he generally took. With each photograph, he became more convinced that this style of photographing was distinctive and decided to solely focus on them.
He incorporated the fresh style to build a collection and traveled to several cities such as Philadelphia, New Orleans to take pictures of strangers the same way he did in New York. Finally, he felt New York City (NYC) was the best place for his craft for practical reasons. The ease of commuting owing to the connectivity of the city and the barrage of people who filled the streets the whole day was a huge plus.
He now set on a journey to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers on the streets to create an exhaustive list of the city’s inhabitants, using the same approach. Gradually, a five to ten-minute quickie with a stranger became a 20-30-minute-long conversation, as he began interviewing his subjects along with photographing them. He noted down short stories and quotes which resonated with him the most.
Although he would continue posting these pictures on his blog and the HONY Facebook account, it was not until a post with a caption, that the page became viral. Brandon considered the photograph to be a ‘throwaway’ but then remembered what the ‘green lady’ told him and included the quote along with the picture. And what followed is rather known to everyone!
A window into the soul of a stranger
One of the main success factors for HONY has been its medium of communication, Facebook. Over the years, the initiative has moved on to Instagram, but one thing that remains constant is the format of each post. A photo, a caption, and comments. These three elements of each entry on the page have synergized to set the flow of the narrative. How? Let’s decode.
- The Photographer: The first element of interaction with the audience is the photograph. A picture of a knowable human in the timeline is focused and softly lit with the background of NYC streets blurred. But what Brandon brilliantly captures are the subjects’ expressions, which leave the viewer asking for more. While one is trying to unravel the mystery behind that smile (or is it a grin?), those fearful eyes (or subdued anger?), he/she is left sitting on the edge.
- The Storyteller: The anticipation gives way to the caption of the post that tells the story of the subject. It is a peek into the ironical ‘ordinary lives’ and provides glimpses of peoples’ hardships, fears, happiness, dejections. While this intrigue gives satisfaction to the reader with the ambiguity chased out, it brings no definite closure. The truest thing of the post- the story, is as much withheld as it is offered. It is open-ended and subtly forces a reader to run its imagination to a variety of possible outcomes. And sooner before one realizes, the reader itself becomes the subject! (in its head)
- The Top Commenter: The emotional connection formed with the audience urges them to contribute to the community by commenting on the post. Most of the comments drive the narration by drawing on their personal experiences or by trying to figure out how the story ended. But a huge part of this narrative arc is formed by the top commenter (who gets the highest number of likes) as the viewers are exposed to the top comments. This selective exposure (thanks to the platform algorithm) is a major force in deciding the course of discussions. Then clearly, fans fill the gap between the storyteller and the audience to form a narrative through their engagement.
All the above elements together set the tone and the framework of the story and have immensely contributed to the success of the HONY page. These also are a testament to the three modes of persuasion- logos (logical argument – caption), ethos (credibility of the speaker), and pathos (emotional appeal- photograph).
I wish to drive home this point through the HONY engagement workflow below
Democratising the craft of Storytelling
I believe one of the contributions of the HONY format has been the democratization of storytelling which thrives on organic reach. This can be witnessed in the in-numerable mimics of ‘Humans Of’ (HO) pages that traverse a length and breadth of topics and institutions.
- Cities. Check. HO Amsterdam, HO Seoul, HO Bombay, HO Tehran
- Academic institutions. Check. HO Harvard, HO IIM-A, HO Stephen’s
- Political parties. Check. HO Shiv Sena
- Corporates and industries. Check. HO Deloitte, HO Analytics
- Tourism. Check. HO Regional Parks
- Non-humans/ objects. Check. Goats of Bangladesh, Non-Humans of Bombay
- Parody pages. Check. HO Hindutva, Millennials of New York, Lizard People of New York
Some of the above would surely surprise you, but honestly, there is no dearth of HO pages. Even the wackiest of them attract millions of followers. Hence, I decided to underline the potential reasons behind this uproar of adoption across the world.
1. Relatability: Stories on HO pages have brought forth the grit of human survival. With subjects sharing many grueling instances or sometimes just their heart-wrenching moments, the readers never ‘feel alone’. Inspirational stories of people seem uplifting and emotionally charged, and certainly have aided the readers to get through phases in their own lives (as can be read in the comments). There is a comfort in seeing someone else grappling with a similar situation, which ultimately connects a chord with the person on the other side of the screen. Various parody pages try to get their point across by using Humor. There is an underplay of the psychology of Normalisation, through universal seeming subjects.
2. Authenticity: In HONY, Brandon made sure that he leaves narration of the story in the hands of the storyteller or the subject. This not just brought authenticity to the forefront but also gave agency to the ‘hero of the post’. Because one needn’t be a celebrity to have an interesting back story, each entry seems to be snatched from ‘right across the street’. There are no criteria, rules, specifications for a person to be featured on the page. No barriers on which part of its life, does the subject want the reader to dive into.
3. Empowerment: Just like anybody can feature on the page, anybody can start a page! Brandon himself was not a recognizable photographer and through this initiative, he empowered many amateur photographers, interviewers to explore the hidden treasure of their cities. Because each page has its objective (HO Amsterdam focuses on diversity while HO Seoul focuses on humanity), administrators use different approaches to achieve the purpose. Recently, the crowd-sourcing model (a team of photographers across geographies) has also been adopted by many pages as this ensures stories from inaccessible places are brought ahead.
4. Call to Action: HO pages have pioneered the concept of ‘affective ties with an impact’. They aim to act as support to communities by working on charitable projects, fundraisers, collection drives, and collaborations. Brandon himself covered the European migrant crisis in partnership with the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to capture and share the emotional experiences of refugees in Europe. One can see a tangible outcome of the project, which was started to ‘help people’.
Inching to being a PR Machinery?
Be it Brandon accepting submissions from anyone in the world during COVID to inspire people or the translated HONY pages on Weibo (a microblogging site or the Twitter of China), HONY and the format is getting gigantic by the day. Amidst this, the biggest challenge according to the founder himself has been to ‘maintain the culture of positivity’ as more communities look for publicity and networking opportunities.
Critics of the initiative now lash the spin-off pages for sugar-coating narratives, glorifying the real human suffering, and for demonstrating hollow sentimentality. Some even say that HONY worked only because New York brought aspirational value to the initiative. With companies looking at the format as just another marketing avenue (collaborations with HO pages) and colleges/ academic institutions using the digital space as a brand-building strategy, many sense a loophole in the actual purpose behind these. Although there are both, supporting & opposing, communities that opine over the relatability of posts now, the manipulative nature for promotions, and the ‘calculated formula’, there is indeed a pertinent question that runs common through them all.
Have we commodified the platform that ran for a decade with the motto, ‘Don’t commodify stories’?
- Brandon Stanton- The Story of Humans of New York and 25M+ fans, Episode 321, The Tim Ferriss Show podcast
- “Boredom is Always Counter-revolutionary”: Affective Political Activism in Participatory Online Communities, Paromita Sengupta, University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee, May 2015