In 2010, Brandon Stanton, a bonds trader in New York City with a University of Georgia degree, was laid off in the midst of the 2008 recession. Stanton decided to learn professional photography from scratch and began capturing candid pictures of his conversations with people from all walks of life in the Big Apple. He soon created a Facebook page called Humans of New York (HONY), where he accompanied the photos with quotations or short stories.
Four years later, Stanton has 12 million “likes” on the page, wrote two bestselling books based on his blog and was able to visit and take photos in 12 countries on a 50-day World Tour with the United Nations.
Recently, HONY made headlines after Stanton met a boy named Vidal from Brooklyn. Vidal told him about how he was inspired by his Mott Hall Bridges Academy principal to keep studying despite his circumstances. Vidal explained, “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.” HONY’s post about Vidal gained over 1,000,000 “likes” on Facebook. Stanton met the principal, Ms. Lopez, and learned about how the school was doing its best to help its underserved students.
Moved by Vidal’s explanation, Stanton began an Indiegogo campaign to raise $100,000 for the school to send a class to visit Harvard University for the next three years. In a mere 45 minutes, the goal was met. Over $1,400,000 was raised in less than three weeks during this winter. Now, the entire school will visit Harvard in the spring, and there is even money left over and businesses would have been his best methods for spreading the word about his campaign. Because each of these methods has high temporal or monetary costs, Stanton would have been lucky to meet his goal at all.
Stanton’s success in raising such a large amount of money at almost no cost is a testament to the revolutionary power of the Internet. The Internet is free in many public places, drastically lowering advertising costs.With the high number of users online at any time, Internet posts can become viral in minutes and Stanton can make his case to millions without stepping outside. The Internet has also made fundraising more equitable, with websites like Kickstarter and Causes leading the way in evening the playing field so that the poor person with a marketable vision is equally likely to succeed in fundraising as her richer counterparts.
Looking beyond an economic lens, Stanton’s successful fundraiser for Mott Hall Bridges Academy also shows the potent power the Internet can have as a mobilizing tool that can make differences in people’s lives. It is incredible that Stanton was able to put an obscure, underfunded middle school on the map and help make a tangible different in those students’ lives with the click of a mouse.
Stanton’s successful use of social media as a platform for constructive social change echoes sweeping campaigns like the Arab Spring and the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, the latter of which led to over 2,400,000 videos of people dousing themselves with frigid water and pledging to donate to the cause. Stanton’s heavy reliance on photos as a medium to connect with others shows how large of a role visual media plays on the Internet.
People like Alex from Target, a photogenic man featured in a 2012 Kodak advertisement and many others have also become famous on the Internet through photos and memes, often in a viral way.
Like most things in life, the Internet is an inherently neutral force that can be used for good and harm. In the case of HONY, millions of people were united from all over the world by a single web- page. While the Internet is often a breeding ground for communication, brainstorming and alerting people about good causes like in Stanton’s case, it can also be a platform for groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda.
Much controversy has arisen over who can use the Internet and how people, especially of a younger demographic, are influenced by it in the short and long term. As with all things, we need to start by understanding the capabilities of the Internet for both good and evil ends before deciding how to use it and be influenced by it ourselves.
Photo Courtesy of Humans of New York
Editor’s Note: The article previously stated that Stanton attended the University of Chicago although he actually attended the University of Georgia. The article has been updated to reflect this error.
Danni Ondraskova ’18 is the Opinions Assistant Editor who plans to major in Russian Area Studies and International Relations with a concentration in politics or economics. She loves rereading Anna Karenina and listening to Romanian House music. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.