Humans of New York: People and the Power of Social Media

ALICE KING discusses the positive effects of online power.

The Facebook phenomena Humans of New York has recently been taking social media, and much of the world, by storm. For those of you that are unaware of this page, it is a collection of photographs taken by a man named Brandon Stanton, documenting life in New York City one human at a time. Accompanying each photograph is typically a paragraph or sentence, some of them emotional, harrowing even; others more light hearted and humorous.

However, on the 19th of January, Brandon posted a photograph of a young man named Vidal with this written below:

“Who’s influenced you the most in your life?”
“My principal, Ms. Lopez.”
“How has she influenced you?”
“When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.”

Brandon’s original photograph of Vidal Image Source: www.facebook.com/humansofnewyork

A few days later, Brandon tracked down Ms Lopez. She is the Headmistress of a school with limited funds in a deprived area, but encourages each one of her ‘scholars’ to believe that they are able to achieve just as much as any other child. However, she told how this has proven difficult when the school’s limited funds didn’t allow for the same opportunities as those in more privileged areas. This resulted in the starting of a campaign to fund trips to Harvard University for the students of Mott Hall Bridges Academy. At its end, the online fundraiser had received over 50,000 donations, reaching a total of over 1.4 million dollars. According to the fundraiser page, ‘all funds raised over $700,000’ have been reserved for the ‘Vidal Scholarship fund’, which will assist MHBA students with going to college. The first recipient will be Vidal himself.

Brandon went on to photograph and interview other figures at the Academy: teachers, fellow pupils, those who live in the local area of Brownsville. Each photograph has had hundreds of thousands of views (and likes) from a global audience. HONY has made waves in the mainstream media, breaking out of its internet bubble, with Vidal himself being interviewed by the talk show queen Ellen DeGeneres. More recently, Vidal, Ms Lopez and Brandon Stanton met with President Obama; even the president became the subject of Stanton’s lens.

Vidal and Ms. Lopez meet President Obama Image source: www.facebook.com/humansofnewyork
Vidal and Ms. Lopez meet President Obama
Image source: www.facebook.com/humansofnewyork

An amazing feat, from just a few words from one boy, about one woman.

Vidal and the story of HONY are unique in that this is one of the most captivating stories surrounding social media since its inception. In stark contrast to those that came before, it reflects positively on social media itself. It proves that the phenomenon can, in the right hands, do some very good things in this world.

The success of HONY can be put down to several things, like the fact that it both creates and promotes solidarity between people, no matter where they are from. Or that it reminds us that each human being on this planet has a story. Or, perhaps even more importantly, it presents the human side of each of Brandon’s subjects –  even international figures like Obama. In this increasingly individualistic world, this is not only comforting but necessary.

HONY shows us that globalisation can be a good thing – anyone with an internet connection can view, be touched by and find motivation in Vidal’s story and the countless others that have appeared on the HONY blog since 2011. It shows us that one person, in contrast to popular opinion, can make a difference. And in these uncertain times, perhaps it is this that resonates with people the most: the fact that HONY reminds us, every day, that despite what we see in the mainstream media, there are good people in the world.

The role and influence of HONY’S main platform, Facebook, is also given a new lease of life with this story. In contrast to IS and their terrifying use of social media, HONY is leading the way as a force for good. It is connecting thousands, one step at a time with stories of humanity. And this is important. In a time when it feels like Facebook and Twitter are windows to the darkest parts of mankind – the fact that videos of barbaric executions are so easily posted, seen and shared – it is hugely important that we see that social media can not only show us the good, but bring out the good in people as well.

Lastly, HONY’s story of Vidal and Ms Lopez demonstrates more than anything the sheer power of words, which is so easily forgotten in the midst of the violence that currently pervades social media. The influence and significance of Vidal’s few sentences could not have been predicted, but they definitely can be matched. If anything, HONY teaches us that we can speak our minds and be heard the world over. And that if we do, anything is possible.