Over the last couple of years, Humans Of New York has become the most followed photography blog on the Internet. Every new post garners thousands of likes in minutes and several spin-offs have been trying to emulate Brandon Stanton's project in other large cities or countries (Humans of Paris, Amsterdam, India, etc.)
A strange phenomenon seems to occur whenever Stanton posts a picture. Somehow, the 29-year-old photographer has managed to tap into the Internet's more benevolent side, one that is often ignored or buried deep under the usual layers of trolling and insults. On HONY, hateful comments don't belong, and the only ones you will ever see rise to the top of the list are often the nauseatingly nice. For example, "Parenting done right!" is a big favorite, consistently expressed on any picture that features a parent and child, and this comment regularly generates thousands of likes.
By and large, this seems to be quite the anomaly, a deviation from the more traditional purpose of commenting on articles on the Internet, which is usually to shame the author of an article into suicide, or to make some snotty remark about some guy's mother's weight problem, or how that dude should learn to spell before making any sort of statement, ever.
Perhaps it's the content that influences the attitude. HONY's pictures are full of heartwarming stories, glimpses of raw humanity, and force us to stare straight into the face of things we usually like to avoid, like death and poverty and addiction. If anything, these photos are humbling—even to the meanest, most cynical internet trolls out there.
But what's important here is the possibility that having such an audience opens up. Brandon Stanton has seen the potential, and over the past year has launched four crowd funding campaigns via Indiegogo, all of which have exceeded their goals, often by more than half.
First, there was the joint campaign with Tumblr to support Hurricane Sandy victims, that raised $318,530 from a $100,000 goal, and that became one of Indiegogo's top 2012 success stories. Then, Stanton's ambitious effort to raise $75,000 for his local YMCA in Bed-Stuy garnered a total of $103,710 in less than a week.
This summer, Stanton met a young boy named Rumi, who was selling toys with his mother in Washington Square Park in order to buy a horse. The photographer decided to share Rumi's story and to raise $7,000 in order to send the boy on a "Wild West Adventure." Okay, not a horse, but a week in a top-notch family ranch is probably as close as it gets. Again, HONY fans did not disappoint, and the goal was met in 15 minutes(!), while money continued to flow in, reaching an astounding $32,167 by the end of the next day (the extra $25,000 went to Equestria, an organization that provides disabled children with horse-riding lessons.)
Yesterday, HONY struck again. In his new post, Stanton introduced us to a cameraman named Duane, who adopted a half-blind Ethiopian girl a few years back. In the story, Duane shared his anxieties about adopting, how he wasn't sure he could love a child that wasn't his own, and how those fears vanished when he saw his new daughter. Now, he and his wife want to adopt again, and have identified another Ethiopian orphan, Richard, but they lack the money for processing fees and travel. Enter HONY.
Again, the Indiegogo campaign has been a remarkable success. Less than a day after its launch, the $26,000 goal has been reached and tripled, with donations now nearing the $80,000, and 15 hours to go. Not only will Duane be able to bring Richard home, but he will be able to send both his kids to college with the extra funds.
It is, I believe, a rare occurrence, when such a philanthropic enterprise ends up raising more funds than it needs. And Stanton's work is, in a way, a testimony to the hidden power of the Internet. For too long, we have understood the anonymity brought forth by the web as the ability to express the ugliest, least admissible traits of our personalities. It might be time to realize that Internet is simply a catalyst for the extreme. Extreme rudeness, in most cases, but also, sometimes, extreme humanity.