The Problem With Humans of New York

A girl from the required class for English majors at my college has lately been sharing a lot of posts from the website Humans of New York. I was inclined to dismiss it all as dumb clickbait—this was, after all, a girl who'd responded to the novels of J.M. Coetzee by asking about the South African head of the state "Madea," whom she knew Morgan Freeman had played in "Invictus"—but something more pernicious was at work. Turns out the site is actually popular.

Humans of New York was founded by Brandon Stanton, a former bond trader in Chicago. Its explicit goal, at its outset, was to capture a photographic portrait of every single person who inhabits this city. (The site "began to take on a much different character" as it developed, Stanton writes.) The site, which uses Tumblr and has a Facebook operation as well, publishes photos of New Yorkers with short captions quoting what they've told Stanton in interviews, an infinite scroll of man-on-the-street items, all accessible from your phone.

The result has been a steady stream of clickbait. Since Humans of New York was started in 2010 with the goal of capturing "an exhaustive catalogue of New York City's inhabitants," it's amassed some 8.8 million Facebook likes, outpacing the population of New York City (estimated by the U.S. Census Bureau as 8.175 million people).

Looking at the site, however, a viewer gets the sense that all New Yorkers are, at their core, kind of… the same. They are quirky and voluble, and have a story to share that's both interesting (enough) and what we'd have expected. Each citizen is a special snowflake with deep laugh lines or the irrepressible excitement of a child, or both.

This comes out most piquantly when Stanton finds a notable Human, like Ed Klein (of Obama/Clinton fanfiction fame) and places it in the stream with an unnamed black woman who says she's "a little headstrong at work." From bestselling authors to people who struggle at work for being a little too obstinate—we're all just Humans, aren't we.

In the world of Humans of New York, however, humans are actually caricatures. The people Stanton photographs are reduced to whatever decontextualized sentence or three he chooses to use along with their photo. And so the nattily dressed Klein, cigar in hand, lectures us about how we should all follow our dreams, while the woman whose photo was posted near his tells us that she wants things at work, where she's under the boss's thumb, done "my way." But both photographs and "stories," as Stanton calls them, even if they are a mere sentence, exist to fulfill stereotypes; the evidently rich fellow gets to brag about his achievements, the nonwhite woman gets to complain about her lot in life.

It appears that Stanton sees people not as people but as vectors of how young, white New Yorkers see them. One hardly need to read the captions, which are drawn from conversations Stanton has with his subjects—the sentences he chooses are never surprising or enlightening. They're designed to confirm safe assumptions about the inner lives, or lack thereof, of everyone in New York.

The exhaustive catalogue, such as it is, focuses in some detail on the old and on the young. Older people, photographed in close-ups so sharp I haven't seen since the "Six Feet Under" crew wanted to show off their makeup work during the series finale, call themselves cougars or describe what getting older is like or, cutely, say they "got experience" after 50.

Each subject is shot in a tightly focused frame, so we can impute meaning to every wrinkle across their faces even before we read the caption provided, which is usually, handily enough, about the aging process (I've known plenty of older people who speak about things other than what getting older is like, at times; if Stanton has, he doesn't let on).

And young children provide the exact opposite function, photographed in full frame so we can assay their little limbs and hear how they're obsessed with Ninja Turtles, or giants, or Derek Jeter, with getting their picture taken. Most strange of all are the photos captioned "microfashion," which focus on nonwhite children simply wearing clothes their parents thought looked cute outside any fashion context.

The site's posts get to their emotional endpoint easily. A close-up photo of an elder will move you to "like" Humans of New York, as will a child dressed in a cute outfit. And so will a photo in which a heavyset man dominates the frame and tells us that he's "struggled with weight my whole life." In a follow-up (Stanton caught a live one, here), we see an almost gratuitously unflattering shot of the protagonist, and we learn that for this man, "it's been a lifetime of loneliness." That post got nearly 13,000 notes on Tumblr. Why? What, exactly, are the likers liking? If anything, they're emotionally manipulated by the snippet of this man's life Stanton presents to press the thumbs-up sign.

In another show of dissonance, a photograph of a black, tattooed arm, one with a comparatively low 4,786 notes as of this writing, indicates that the subject didn't want his face on the Internet: "Nah. I've got warrants." To like the photo means… what, exactly? To acknowledge Stanton's hard work in notifying all of us that some black, tattooed men have warrants out against them?

This instance is more troubling—it's dehumanizing. The humans of New York, generally, get to show their faces—faces are the very point of the site. This individual, who told Stanton he didn't want to be part of the project, is represented as a faceless notion of "a criminal," just a tattooed limb. Confronted with a person whose real life makes a twee photography site seem rather insignificant, Stanton decided it would be artistic to break from his normal style and depicted the arm as an object, out of context, with no body, face, or mind.

The site, it seems, is disappearing up Stanton's own navel—more and more posts depict the humans of New York telling Stanton that "I knew you'd stop me one day" or that "I've always been terrified of running into you and having absolutely nothing to say" or "I was just talking yesterday about the inspirational thing I was going to say to you!"

Obviously, the site isn't journalism—it's documenting nothing more than Stanton's own viewpoint and, now, how much he evidently enjoys being a known quantity. And art thrives on the unexpected, so it's not that. Humans of New York is, as Stanton pushes his book and finds fans on the street, neither human nor, really, of New York.

I guess it makes sense that my old classmate who keeps sharing the photos has been living in Philadelphia since graduation. Maybe it's easy to sell an idea of authenticity to those for whom New York is just someone else's vanity project.

Daniel D'Addario writes about television for Salon.

[Image by Tara Jacoby]