The HONY Effect And The Power Of Social Media

‘A picture can speak a thousand words.’

When Brandon Stanton initiated a project on street photography, little did he know about the potential it held. It started with Stanton losing his job in 2010 and exploring his hobby. He walked down the streets of New York, capturing random people engaging in their daily routine.  He would share these images on Facebook and eventually started sharing their story. Today, the page has become a global social media phenomenon with more than 17 million likes and 20 million followers on Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr. Humans of New York has become a social media revolution.

This is not because Stanton is the world’s best photographer. He isn’t the world’s best journalist either. And yet, this initiative captured people’s attention like no other social media endeavour ever had. Why did this happen? What sets HONY apart?

The most unique aspect about HONY is the story every protagonist shares about his or her life. The stories have connected people across the globe, inspired people and most importantly, have touched people’s lives in ways Stanton never anticipated. Research suggests that stories have this uncanny ability to break barriers and connect people because they are man’s primal mode of communication. They transcend generations by thriving on emotional connections. They influence our perception of the world because they are formulated in line with our cognitive structure.

Stanton’s true ability is the ease with which people disclose their stories to him. In an interview, Stanton revealed that it was the energy with which he approached people that made all the difference – ‘I come in peace’, he said. This allowed him to create an atmosphere of intimacy and trust with total strangers. In fact, research suggests that it is surprisingly easy to share intimate details with a stranger. One does not have the same sense of accountability and vulnerability with a stranger as one does with people in their lives, which leads to increased openness. Stanton taps into this human tendency and is able to get strangers to share their intimate desires, fears and happiness in 20 minutes.  

By channelizing this medium of communication, HONY effectively utilises the most powerful tool of our times: social media. Over the years, social media has grown in importance, reaching out to millions of people across the planet. It is this power to reach out to millions that makes social media so special – it has scaled heights of connectivity previously unseen in history, making it the most effective way to share your ideas with the world.

HONY has done precisely this – it has harnessed the power of social media. By sharing people’s stories on Facebook and Instagram, it has taken these stories to the world. And the impact has been phenomenal.  People have not only responded to the posts with words but also with action. It has channelized people around the world to help those in need. Stanton was inspired by the ability of storytelling to move people and embarked on a world tour, voicing unheard tales of people from isolated corners of the world.

His photographs of the Syrian refugee crisis were amongst the most powerful stories heard. The Syrian crisis has been one of modern history’s most heart-wrenching events, with several individuals left in a lurch in the midst of ISIS savage assault. Stanton documented stories of twelve refugee families, which attracted attention of high-profile followers like US President Obama and actor Edward Norton. Norton, in fact, raised $300,000 for one of the featured refugees. It also eased America’s acceptance of these refugees. Stories do facilitate social change and HONY has been a quiet force, letting stories make a difference.

It has also aided fund-raising prospects. One famous instance of HONY’s popularity helping raise funds is the story of Duane and Kristen who had adopted their daughter from Ethiopia. When Stanton met Duane, he was trying to raise funds to adopt a brother for their daughter. Within 1 hour of their story being posted on the HONY page, Duane had raised the required money - $26,000.

The success of HONY has inspired similar pages across the world. Humans of Bombay is a page closer home, sharing stories of people living in India’s city of dreams. Social media has been the underlying force, taking the stories to the world. HONY, while telling every individual’s unique story, has united people by common emotion.  And that is the power of a good story. It can make you happy, it can make you cry, and it will reach out to your deepest emotion. Brandon Stanton has touched humanity by capturing stories in their most honest, earnest form – the reality of which has left an imprint on everyone’s heart.

Chinmayee Kantak