Humans of New York (HONY) has employed many strategies in order to become successful on the web. This photo blog turned social media sensation has over 17 million likes on Facebook and almost 5 million followers on Instagram to date. There is no doubt that HONY is popular, but the purpose of this essay is to understand why. HONY’s basic premise is a simple photograph and a quotation from the subject photographed. But this phenomenon is far from “simple,” and is extremely successful on the web, soliciting sometimes hundreds of thousands of likes, shares, and comments within a day (on Facebook alone). After reading an article by Maria Konnikova about viral stories, I applied her question to HONY: “What was it about a piece of content… that took it from simply interesting to interesting and shareable? What pushes someone not only to read a story but to pass it on?” (Konnikova). Using Jonah Berger’s six tenets of virality from his book Contagious: Why Things Catch On, this essay will explore Berger’s principles in relation to HONY, in order to better understand how HONY’s content is consistently viral.
Essentially, social currency is the ability to “make people feel like insiders” (Berger 22). HONY pulls in readers with often very personal quotations by the subject of the photograph. The photographer/founder of HONY, Brandon Stanton, explains that what makes HONY so moving is the juxtaposition of “seeing a photo of somebody that you know nothing about except for this—one kind of very vulnerable or intimate piece of information—is a very powerful combination” (qtd. in Hendrikson “Humans”). This strangely intimate information makes readers feel like insiders, providing them with the necessary social currency. Readers get to know deep details of a stranger’s life, yet they do not need to match the emotional outlay, resulting in personal satisfaction. HONY and Stanton have been widely criticized for this emotional saturation, eliciting comments that his portraits with captions actually gravitate to the “quick and cavalier consumption of others” with “flattening humanism” (Cunningham). But others have stated that HONY can have a more positive benefit to readers, symbolically linking them to those with similar challenges or experiences. Dr. Ellen Hendrikson explains that “HONY offers many things—empathy, validation—but the biggest thing… people get out of it is normalization. If a random stranger shown on HONY does or thinks something you thought you were alone in doing or thinking, it breaks the grip of ‘I’m the only one’” (Hendrikson, “Psychology”). Humans of New York is instantly appealing as we are naturally “curious about humans and hungry for the elements that connect us” (Mirchandani).
Berger explains that for content to go viral, “lots of people have to pass along the same piece of content at around the same time” (Berger 97). To accomplish that, the content needs to be kept in the forefront of readers’ minds, as “the more often people think about [it]… the more it will be talked about” and the best chance for success is to have what you want people to talk about “frequently triggered by the environment” (Berger 23). HONY accomplishes this triggering by thriving within the online environment, producing content specifically for social media. This way, HONY’s content will appear within the social media streams and feeds that its audience is already consuming. Readers cannot easily forget about HONY because it keeps popping up, seamlessly integrating into their social channels. In its early days, Stanton quickly realized that his blog was gaining more and more traffic from social media, so he “removed [his] ‘free-standing’ website, and began hosting 100% of [HONY’s] content on social media” (Stanton). The HONY website still exists, but is merely a placeholder to drive traffic to their social media venues, as evidenced by the calls to action at the top of their webpage.
Berger says that “When we care, we share” and thus “[n]aturally contagious content usually evokes some sort of emotion” (Berger 23). HONY often features emotional content, and the stories predictably go viral because they “are impactful, emotional, short, visual, and engaging” (Corrado). Some, however, have criticized this approach, claiming that Stanton’s “humans are actually caricatures…reduced to whatever decontextualized sentence or three he chooses to use along with their photo” (D’Addario). D’Addario further claims that readers are “emotionally manipulated” by Stanton’s representation of a person’s life and are guilted into “press[ing] the thumbs-up sign” (D’Addario). Or is it that Stanton is simply a good interviewer, knowing what part of a person’s story reflects real raw emotion? Stanton explains that the original blog consisted only of photos, then of short quotations, and then “it turned into 30- or 45-minute interviews… with each subject” as he dug deeper into the narrativizing of the photos (qtd. in Hendrikson “Humans”). Stanton asserts that every single person has a powerful story, and HONY is based on the principle that “there is enough drama and comedy and emotion and love in the life of every person to formulate a story that will captivate millions of people” (qtd. in Hendrikson “Humans”). But not every post is emotional roller coaster; Stanton also features cute kids and puppies, which encourage feel-good sharing with emotional levity.
Since all HONY content lives online, all behaviours associated with HONY are performed in public. Berger explains that “[m]aking things observable makes them easier to imitate, which makes them more likely to become popular” (Berger 24). This means that when people like/favourite a HONY post/page on Facebook or Instagram, or share an individual post on either platform, each action is done in public and produces more visibility for HONY’s content, which in turn perpetuates its own popularity. In reference to Facebook, Berger notes that “[b]y simply clicking the Like button, people not only show their affinity with… [an] idea, or organization, they also help spread the word that something is good or worth paying attention to” (Berger 149). HONY also fits the characteristics of Alexander and Levine’s “Web 2.0 Storytelling” model. The first feature is “microcontent” meaning the using and reusing of “small chunks of content, with each chunk conveying a primary idea or concept” (Alexander and Levine 42). HONY creates a small story package with a photo, and can reuse that content throughout its various online incarnations, though it has been identified that Facebook is HONY’s “native and most comfortable medium” (Cunningham) as evidenced by Stanton’s screenshotting and posting of Facebook-first content on HONY’s Twitter.
The second part of Alexander and Levine’s model is “storytelling” which is described in the digital realm as “a narrated personal story of overcoming obstacles, achieving a dream, honoring a deceased family member, or describing an event” (Alexander and Levine 44). This wide definition surprisingly fits the overall model of many of the stories posted by HONY. Another public action that readers can engage in is commenting on a post, and indeed, Alexander and Levine note that “[u]ser-generated content is a key element of Web 2.0” (47). What is particularly pertinent for HONY is that these comments actually become integral to the HONY experience: these interactions “fold into the experience of the overall story from the perspective of subsequent readers” (Alexander and Levine 47). Various reactions such as sympathy or empathy may be offered through these comments, but overall the effect is engagement, facilitated by the open web, which “inches toward full-blown community” (Hendrikson, “Psychology”).
Berger asserts that humans naturally “care about others and… want to make their lives better” (Berger 177). HONY has proven that it can actually accomplish a lot in terms of helping others through its social media. Heralded as a stunning example of community engagement, HONY is also being recognized as “a model for crowdfunding” (Mirchandani). HONY has started many fundraising campaigns, and has raised millions of dollars for various causes and people not just within New York, but also internationally. One particularly successful example is from within the United States, and it all started off with a photo of “Middle school student Vidal Chastanet… stating his truth about the school principal who inspires him in his rough Brooklyn neighbourhood” (Grinberg et al.). The post went viral, soliciting over 1.2 million likes on one photo alone on Facebook.
An online campaign began a few weeks later to benefit Vidal’s school: the goal was a class trip to Harvard, in order to “broaden students’ horizons and expand their idea of their potential” (Grinberg et al.). Owing to the campaign’s wild success on Indiegogo, raising over $1.4 million (1,418% of their original goal of $100,000!) Stanton announced that the school was “starting a scholarship fund available to the graduates of Mott Hall Bridges Academy” naming it the Vidal Scholarship, as Vidal was the inspiration and would be the first recipient of the fund (Grinberg et al.). This fundraising success could only be done this quickly and coordinated with expert efficiency because of HONY’s popularity on social media, which leveraged its connections and converted many readers into donors.
Humans of New York’s tagline, New York City, one story at a time, emphasizes the most important part of HONY—the stories. Berger notes that in order for content to go viral, it needs to be packaged as a story, as “[p]eople don’t just share information, they tell stories” (Berger 24). When asked “why New York City?” about the choice of location for the project, Stanton replied, “If you’re going to exhibit the diversity of the lives and stories on Planet Earth… I don’t think there’s any single location that would be easier to do that than New York” (qtd. in Miller). Stanton’s original stated goal for the blog at its inception in 2010 was “to create an exhaustive catalogue of New York City’s inhabitants, so [he] set out to photograph 10,000 New Yorkers and plot their photos on a map” (“About” 2016). After many months of creating content with this goal in mind, the blog began to take on a different character, and Stanton “noticed that the stories and quotes were becoming as important, or more important, than the photos” and that the inclusion of stories was the “tipping point” for HONY’s popularity (Stanton). When asked about how we can become more empathetic towards strangers, Stanton foregrounds the importance of learning others’ stories: “it’s the most simple thing in the world: just learn about [others]” (qtd. in Hendrikson “Humans”). He also emphasizes the role of HONY’s online environment, stating that the Internet is creating “sub-communities that reach across boundaries… that allow people to connect” through stories, which has an “inherently… pacifying effect in the world” (qtd. in Hendrikson “Humans”). HONY has also branched beyond the web, with Stanton’s authoring of three successful books: Humans of New York, Little Humans, and Humans of New York: Stories. The first book alone had 30,000 pre-orders, and spent its first 29 weeks on the New York Times best seller list, thanks to Stanton’s careful cultivation and promotion though his many social channels (Corrado).
Stories are the main reason Humans of New York has become so increasingly popular. Berger explains the almost magnetic attraction to reading HONY posts, as “[n]arratives are inherently more engrossing than basic facts. . . . If people get sucked in early, they’ll stay for the conclusion. . . . You want to find out whether they missed the plane or what they did with a house full of screaming nine year olds. You started down a path and you want to know how it ends. Until it does, they’ve captured your attention” (Berger 181). The rapid growth of HONY’s social media channels is precisely because of Stanton’s ability to ask the right questions during interviews and to shape the responses into unified kernel stories with immense impact. Stanton’s savvy as a web strategist also contributes to his success, he explains the journey of HONY as “a constant process of ditching what’s not working, and doubling down on what’s working” (Stanton). Stanton moulded HONY content from a close-ended project about New York to an “open-ended blog about individuals,” moving from photo- and blog-exclusive website content, to reusable social media content with a prime focus on stories (Stanton). Stanton has been able to profit directly and indirectly from HONY: directly through book deals and royalties, and indirectly through his own profile from HONY, which translated to “collaborations, … magazine pieces, occasional speeches” and freelance photography jobs (Stanton). At the same time, Stanton has been able to facilitate the help of others by crowdfunding using the HONY web community and storytelling through social media.
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