In a recent article for The Guardian, Irish academic and journalist John Naughton claimed that ‘couch potatoes have killed the internet dream’. A bold statement, considering the staggering variety of things that go on throughout the internet, from education, to fundraising, right through to the darkest parts of the ‘deepweb’. But his statistics speak for themselves. He quoted Dr Craig Labovitz, CEO of Deepfield- a company that specialises in software to track internet traffic. According to Labovitz’s data, more than half of today’s prime time internet users can be traced back to just thirty companies, including Netflix and Google.
So capitalism may have killed the internet’s creativity. But the web is still a polite and open-minded place, right? Wrong. I’m not even going to quote statistics here- I’m not sure I need to. Just take a look at any of the major social networking or media sites, and scroll through the comments part of any random post, and you’ll see for yourself how devoid the internet can be of common courtesy: an article by a well-known newspaper? People at each others’ throats over nothing. A music video on Youtube? A random and completely unprovoked flame war regarding the Islamic State. And this isn’t even taking into account the effects of Troll Culture, discussed in depth by Kieran Moriarty in the last issue of Palatinate.
And then comes along ‘Humans of New York’. The photoblog, which now has over ten million followers on Facebook, is the brainchild of photographer Brandon Stanton. After losing his job as a bond trader, Stanton turned to his passion of photography and started to take photos of people on the street. His portraits are simple, straight-talking and always bold. The stories that accompany them can be uplifting, absorbing, tragic, heartfelt, and sometimes just plain funny. They range from a simple exchange of one or two words, to small essays. Sometimes his subjects are illiterate, and sometimes they’re not even human.
The name ‘Humans of New York’ is a conundrum, in that it appears to be treating people as low value, like mere animals in a nature documentary, or a circus parade. And yet, for a page with such an apparently dehumanising title, I have yet to find anywhere on the net so full of compassion, good humour and cultural acceptance.
HoNY, as it is frequently referred to, is the exception to everything I have previously stated. In a social media environment, where comments jostle for position at the top, competing for ‘likes’, all too often it is the crass, uninformed and darkly humorous remarks that win out. Top comments can be vile, off-topic and ad hominem, merely trying to ‘get one up’ on those who are attempting to add something constructive to the discussion- they get ‘liked’ for their humour and shock value far more than their genuine worth or intellect. But with HoNY, people of all ethnicity, ages and cultures are united by the sheer humanity of Stanton’s images. Top comments for his images are always ones of sympathy, interest, and above all, positivity.
As internet communication ingrains itself ever deeper into the public psyche, these aforementioned patterns of popularity through humour and shock will no doubt be seen more and more- not just on our screens, but in the real, actual world. A week or so ago, Nigel Farage got into a twitter spat with comedian Frankie Boyle. Yes, a potential future leader of our country was joining ranks with- justifying the comments of- a comedian, a man whose job it is not to solve the world’s problems, but to simply be funny. I weep for a generation that can’t tell apart its politicians from its comedians; its leaders from its clowns; its mentors from its trolls.
For me, HoNY is a refuge; a safe place, hidden away from all this one-uppery and cyber-bullying. People flock to Stanton’s photos to gain a wider perspective, to be educated, and to listen to the voices of the everyman. He has served the internet a fresh steaming bowl of world awareness, using only a camera and a wifi connection. But perhaps his greatest achievement has been showing off the kind and open-minded side of the social media generation, in a way that few others have managed.
Illustration: Lara Salam