Traditional media offers our world skewed stories, left and right, and hidden realities. Sometimes, people crave to hear the story of a real person. The connection felt when reading authentic, raw words about someone else’s lived experience brings us down to a level where we remember we all have one thing in common: we are all human. Humans of New York (HONY) is a Facebook page that provides the world with these stories. Brandon Stanton is the person behind the photoblog style idea. He originally aimed at sharing 10,000 stories from people in New York, but has now expanded far past that, giving us stories of people across more than 40 countries (Humans of New York, 2018; Stanton, n.d.). HONY gives us authentic stories of people’s lived experience all over the world and is currently sharing stories from the inhabitants of Rwanda who experienced the genocide in 1994 (Humans of New York, 2018). Although they are active on social media other than Facebook, I will be focusing on their Facebook page for the sake of this paper.
Throughout this essay, I aim to show how HONY is an example of how social media can be used as a global liberation technology to create a democratic space in the midst of a politically chaotic world. I will be sharing how HONY creates a democratic space by empowering people through shared stories that stretch across borders. Considering that 42% of Canadians and 39% of Americans receive their news through social media, it is important to realize the weight that these stories hold in informing the public about what is going on with citizens in America and beyond (Mitchell, Simmons, Matsa, & Silver, 2018).
Humans of New York not only provides a voice for those that Stanton interviews, but also a greater voice for everyone who can relate to or connect with the story being shared. Stanton aims to channel authenticity through Facebook posts, to show humans as they truly are. In the case of Humans of New York, Facebook can be seen as a liberation technology. Liberation technologies are ones that “demonstrate potential to empower citizens to confront, contain, and hold accountable authoritarian regimes,” as recalled by Larry Diamond (2012, p. xi). Although Humans of New York does not always share stories that tackle issues among authoritarian regimes, these stories work to empower voices that are typically not heard in society. The voice of an abused single mother, or the teenager who gets bullied; HONY works to liberate these voices and give them a megaphone to speak into the world.
A reason why HONY does an incredible job at sharing stories is because they have large network. The stories shared are from the marginalized, the pushed aside, the forgotten, the unheard, and so many more. These stories reflect the human experience, and readers are attracted to this type of content. People all throughout the world can see stories that relate to them, that put a voice to their own story, or that expose voices they have never heard before. Halpern and Gibbs explain that larger networks typically provoke a greater sense of participation (2013, p. 1161). To expand, networks that have a far reach tend to engage people who are willing to step into a greater conversation (Halpern & Gibbs, 2013, p. 1161). Not only this, but larger networks also provide people with alternative opinions that are outside of what people are comfortable with (Halpern & Gibbs, 2013, p. 1161). Because HONY has expanded their network outside of New York, it has created a democratic space where people can feel free to engage, connect, or disagree, with the stories presented on the Facebook page. Some of HONY’s stories have the power to push up on people’s preconceived notions and make them uncomfortable, and because they are shared from such an authentic point of view, these stories are hard to brush off or ignore.
The expansion of HONY’s network has added a global element to the democratic space. Stanton, being an American male, brings an important perspective of the struggles and sufferings going on in other countries. Chen, Ping, and Chen write about cross-national political mobilization. They define the term as “a part of global political participation in which citizens abroad air their concerns, voice opinions, take actions, and make changes,” (2015, p. 444). Three factors that are crucial for social movement in cross-national mobilization are attitude, emotion, and frequent use of social media (Chen, Ping, & Chen, 2015, p. 444). HONY is a tool that can be used for cross-national political mobilization because it is a democratic space that is not limited to the voice behind the stories told, but also allows for engagement from the public. It is not limited to New York, but it is global. Additionally, HONY aligns with the factors that contribute to social movement. Chen, Ping, and Chen outline personal attitudes and civic attitudes, writing that personal attitudes are related to one’s compassion towards an issue, and civic attitudes motivate people to take action towards an issue (Chen, Ping, & Chen, 2015, p. 445). We can see how Stanton demonstrates a personal attitude through HONY, by taking the time to hear and share people’s stories. HONY also demonstrates a civic attitude through its Facebook page, acting as a place that brings attention to stories that need to be heard. HONY’s civic attitude has raised a total of $12,000,000 for charitable causes (Stanton, 2018). This combined with emotion given through the stories told, and daily posting, makes HONY a social movement in cross-national mobilization.
HONY is a space where people can be informed of events in the world, as it aims to provide authentic stories from places of chaos. Kent (2013) argues that the Internet has done anything but created a democratic space. He says that the average person is not able to decipher what sources are credible through the multitude of information given to them (2013, p. 338). Kent points out that “people spend more time with technology and access to information than ever before, but probably engage democracy less than at any point of history, since technology has made filtering out the negative voices and opinions of others so easy,” (Kent, 2013, p. 338). However, HONY pushes up against this notion, because it shares “negative voices and opinions” of people around the world that are not easy to hear. Readers of HONY engage their personal attitude when they make deep connections with the stories being read, and possibly engage their civic attitude by reading further into the topic or issue presented through the story and taking action. Although some people may use HONY as a source to provide information on the events of a particular country, the Facebook page overall creates a space on the Internet where people can be exposed to, engage with, respond to challenging issues.
Altogether, HONY has expanded its network around the globe as a social movement in cross-national political mobilization in sharing incredible, difficult stories of how people experience the world. Through providing the public with these stories, HONY creates a democratic space where readers can be inspired by struggles experienced by others and motivated to engage in a greater political dialogue by researching more about a topic brought to the surface by HONY or through civic participation.
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