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The Impact of Citizen Journalism in Humans of New York on Audience Participation and Activity

Updated on May 29, 2015

Brandon Stanton

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Introduction

In a world where we are constantly connected to technology and have the ability to record videos on our cell phones and upload it instantly to the internet, Citizen Journalism is becoming more common. This is when public citizens play an active role in collecting and reporting news and information. It is a more participatory form of journalism with both citizen media and user generated content. While there are many ‘news’ items filmed by everyday people going about their day who see something important and film it, there are many individuals who are actively involved in guerrilla journalism as a way of creating ‘Flak’ against mainstream media (Herman and Chomsky, 2002). Technology has also shaped the way that citizen journalism has developed and affected the increase or decrease in viewer participation and activity (McLuhan, 1964). The Facebook Page ‘Humans of New York’ (HONY) by Brandon Stanton is an example of how the Web 2.0 feature of ‘liking’, commenting, and sharing has enabled the audience to be more active in participating in both human interest stories and those of a larger scale. Yet through an exploration of a few photographs we can see how the majority of this participation is passive, and how inherent structural limitations restrict the ability to actively engage with the news stories reported.

What started off as one man taking photographs of strangers on the street, turned into a page that currently has 13,054,309 likes (HONY, 2015). In Newspapers and other print media, TV and other ‘official’ news websites, news stories are dictated by what advertisers are willing to sponsor, what is easiest to portray, what other major media companies are broadcasting about and which stories will generate the most shock value and interest from the public due to Media Convergence and monopolies (Bagdikian, 2000). However with Citizen Journalism, many everyday men and women simply seek to make their voice heard and share what they have seen. Hence their stories are often more authentic and ring true with on-the-ground coverage. HONY’s stories in particular, are about every day New Yorkers and that he captures through his uniquely calming disposition and interview technique (UCD, 2014). While most of his posts are human interest stories, Stanton is able to capture views on important issues that affect the world such as poverty, class issues, race, sexuality, and gender. He tells the individual stories that are influenced by structural issues. He also covered events like Hurricane Sandy and the UN Project raising awareness about the Millennial Development Goals in 11 countries around the world.

Brandon Stanton in UDC, Ireland

Factors that Shape Audience Participation

There are two factors that shape the audience activity and passivity in Citizen Journalism in this context; the structural restrictions and guidelines of the ‘Journalist’ and the Technological allowances including the medium. Through an exploration of three different photographs we can see how each one results in greater audience participation overall but less active engagement by the majority of participants. Yet we can also see how technology can increase audience activity or passivity through its features that enable us to engage with the news stories and express our own opinions, and thus incite further discussion. The Medium, the Facebook Page HONY, also plays a large part in dictating how much the viewers can participate in the news portrayed and the way in which they are encouraged to participate.

Structural Limitations and Guidelines in Participation

While Stanton does touch on a lot of important world issues directly or indirectly, others suggest that his approach to telling stories stereotypes the subjects in them and sticks to a certain script. For example, a photo of an elderly person is often accompanied with sage advice about making the most of your youth and their regrets or alternatively a quirky comment about their sex life which results in responses of ‘oh how cute and adorable’ (D’Addario, 2014). Similarly, photos of non-white children in ethnic or colourful attire are often captioned “today in micro-fashion” as if their story is restricted to their alternative clothing. Perhaps the biggest example of this ‘scriptedness’ in the questions he asks and the comments he seems to probe for from the subject is the feel-good warm fuzzies (D’Addario, 2014). This refers to the general tendency for his questions to incite a deep and meaningful response from the individual about their past experiences, their hopes as a parent for their child, their dreams for the future, or a loss that they experienced and how it changed them for the better (Woodbryne, 2014). Essentially the aim of Humans of New York is to show how every individual has a meaningful story and assert the idea that we all have hopes and fears regardless of how ordinary our lives may appear to the casual bystander.

Looking at one photograph for example, we can see how the subject appears to be a smiling female in her 40’s in a uniform working at Starbucks in a Train Station (HONY, 2015). It is captioned “After I finish my shift at the bakery, I start my shift at Starbucks. I work 95 hours per week at three different jobs. One of my sons graduated from Yale, and I have two more children in college. And when they finish, I want to go to college too. I want to be a Big Boss. I'm a boss at the bakery right now, but just a little boss. I want to be a Big Boss." The statement itself, in this informal form of citizen journalism, could result in several different discussions, such as a heated argument about minimum wage and the difficulty in making ends meet, praise for her ability to put her children before herself and the sacrifices she makes, others saying ‘you ARE a Big Boss!’. Or alternatively, an impassioned rant about her positivity and humble brag about your own difficult circumstances, or complaining about the ‘system’ and how it isn’t inspirational but sad to see a woman have to work so hard just to get by (HONY, 2015).

All of these points were mentioned, yet due to ‘likes’ on certain comments and not on others, the most relevant comments at the top, are all to do with how she is a Big Boss and an inspiration to others to remain positive, commending her efforts. Any comments that deplore the system, scream of despair with capitalism, or suggest that it is sad and depressing that a woman has to work a 95 hour week and have her kids grow up without her are not liked or supported as much by viewers. In fact the moderator Stanton commented saying “Don't feel sorry for her on behalf of her working 95 hours a week. She was one of the most naturally joyous people I've ever met. Giggled through the entire interview.” This received 126,210 Likes and 666 replies from viewers (HONY, 2015). It is statements like these that illustrate how a script is encouraged, a tone of positivism and support for the subjects where negating views are shammed by other viewers. Hence although HONY itself encourages participation, there are constraints on how the viewers can participate based on the unwritten and sometimes vocalised rules of the page itself.

The second story I examined was a series of photographs telling the story of Vidal, Ms Lopez and Barack Obama. Stanton met Vidal, a high school boy on the streets of New York on January 20 2015 and asked to take his picture and find out a bit more about him. Vidal told HONY of his inspirational principal Ms Lopez, in answer to who has influenced him the most “When we get in trouble, she doesn't suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built down around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter." This sparked a lot of discussion on HONY about educating young people and changing lives. On January 23rd, HONY went on to meet Ms. Lopez herself and do a profile of Mott Hall Bridges Academy in Brooklyn (HONY, 2015). The conversation that resulted led the pair to go on the Ellen show on February 4th to talk about making a difference in young peoples’ lives and making them believe they deserve success. On February 6th Stanton photographed Ms. Lopez and Vidal talking with President Obama about what it takes to be a leader and believing in oneself. The speed at which this story travelled and the way that resources were mobilized to make this happen within two and a half weeks is testament to the way in which citizen journalism not only reports news, but through its activity and user participation, it makes news happen. Yet what is evident in the post itself is that users who are motivated to take a personal interest and actively engage with the story do so, while the majority of users function simply as a passive audience clicking ‘like’ and sharing the post.

The final example I will explore is HONY’s ability to mobilise funds through citizen journalism and increase awareness about international issues such as the progress of the Millennial developmental goals. In the photograph I have chosen to look at, two women in Nairobi sit on sacks of food in a market and one comments “My mother died when I was three. I don't remember much about her. But I do remember, when she was very sick at the hospital, she said to me: 'Never let a man steal your life.” The photo has 269,555 likes and 15,110 shares. While it is an endearing comment and very relatable for many people who have lost mothers and remember the advice they received from a parent on self-worth and choosing a spouse, it hardly speaks of the gravity of their lives, or lends any complexity or historical background to the issue at hand which is the millennial developmental goals (Kweifio-Okai, 2014).

This ‘scriptedness’ that can be seen in HONY, supports the idea that although it increases overall audience participation, the nature of this participation is very much passive as Facebook users are encouraged to respond in a certain way. It results in a standardisation that Adorno refers to in his discussion of the Culture Industry. In encouraging a particular view or a ‘niceness’ about subjects portrayed, it crystallises ideas and forms of critical thinking, excluding the ‘trolls’, which result in organic cultural change and a shift in paradigms (1991).

Technologies Impact on Audience Participation

In order to observe the activity in HONY, I decided to do a real-time study of audience participation using HONY. I chose one post as soon as it was published, and then documented the number of likes and shares on the post every half an hour for a period of time. As you can see in the table below, the number of likes and shares increased exponentially over this time and yet is merely an indication of how fast posts are ‘liked’ and shared indicating a more passive participation.

Live Time observation of Activity

Unfortunately, I was not able to measure the amounts of comments but it was easy to see that the top comments on each post on HONY is always positive about the subject. While this is simply one post that I’ve observed over a few hours, other posts at different points of the year have many more views and likes, ranging from 381k plus likes on a photo of Katy Perry at the Met Gala 2015 to 242k plus likes on a photo of an anonymous woman’s hand holding that of her child, commenting on an abusive relationship.

The use of Web 2.0 technology has enabled this rapid exchange of information and participation from users, however impassive it might be through the use of likes and sharing. While comments garner more attention and show more involvement and active engagement, the majority of users simply ‘like’ a post to show support. Tim O’Reilly suggests that the difference between the two web eras is that Web 1.0 was the result of the internet itself being created while Web 2.0 is dependent on the use of networks of users, who create content and value themselves, and feed into this loop like a symbiotic organism (Anderson, 2012).

Focusing on Humans of New York as a form of Citizen Journalism, we can see that technology is not just incidental in the participation of users in creating content and actively engaging with content. The Technology is one of the driving forces and with its parameters, it enables certain forms of participation and also creates constraints. Kevin Kelly argues that the web is a machine-human hybrid that has led to this increase in participation and collective knowledge (2005). It has resulted in the trend that we see as common place today, it is normal to interact on the web. Decades of progress with technology and our own comfort with using it have made it normal to interact with strangers on the web, people who have views on the subject, participating and actively engaging with “news” in the process.

McLuhan uses the term affordances to describe what technology and mediums “afford” us to do (1964). For example, as the air affords birds flight, similarly, a Facebook page with a “like” button affords us the ability to click it and show support. Similarly the comment feature affords us the ability to share our views with a comment with a restriction of up to 8,000 characters on posts (Constine, 2011). While the ability to “share” posts enables it to reach a far greater audience that it would have without the technology, the nature of the engagement is more passive than active. Simply liking a post is not considered active participation in a news story discussion, let alone playing a role in changing the outcome of a story. In much the same way that consumers fulfil their need to be seen as caring people by signing a petition on Change.org, Facebook users may ‘like’ a post to indicate they care about the plight of homelessness or unemployment.

Ultimately, while the technology enables a certain extent of communication and active participation on HONY through its features, the nature of this engagement is determined mostly by representation. As discussed earlier, the scriptedness in HONY results in a stagnation of critical thinking by its users and a regurgitation of the same ideology (Adorno, 1991). This standardisation can be explained by the way that images are represented, as discussed by Hall (1980). Firstly, the representation always freezes what it purports to represent which can be seen in the way that a photograph on HONY of a woman in the street could have many different meanings to it. We can make inferences based on her clothing, her ethnic appearance, her health, age, marital status. Yet the statement that the subject makes, or that which is probed from Stanton through his questions, is one that freezes the image we have of her in our minds and the representation we take away from it. While there are many truths, there is one defined meaning that we get out of it. It limits other meanings that can be taken from this photograph and the woman that exists outside of the photograph, and fact that circumstances change over time. With regards to large scale news events and stories such as the Millennial Goals in the UN Tour discussed earlier, it shows viewers the day to day lives and relatability to people living in poverty but it also standardises and reduces their experiences to that one representation and doesn’t allow for any complexity (Bromwich, 2014).

Hot and Cool Medium

McLuhan suggests that ‘the medium is the message’, implying that it doesn’t matter what the actual message that is being conveyed, or the content is, the means by which it is conveyed is what influences us. While there are many contradictions to this argument, the idea that different mediums of media can be ‘cool’, that is allow the audience to interact with it and participate with it, or ‘hot’, that is mediums that dissuade participation and critical thinking, is highly relevant (1964). There are aspects of HONY that can be seen as cool media, such as the ability for an ordinary citizen such as Brandon to take photos of strangers in the street and ask them a few personal questions which he can then share to the rest of the world with their permission, and the ability to potentially reach anyone who has access to the internet and the interest in his stories. Secondly, the development in technology of features such as ‘liking’, ‘commenting’, and ‘sharing’ posts means that viewers can get involved and show their support by clicking ‘like’, or commenting about their views on the subject and their statement, or sharing the post with friends who might be interested and inciting further conversation online or offline. Prior to this development in technology, if Facebook had existed, or if a photographer had uploaded a photo onto another website, it would not have the same effect or reach as it does now. People would not be able to comment on it with their views, enabling other viewers to respond to those views and reply to them, or share the photo with friends, increasing the range of people who see it. Although there are other social networking sites such as Twitter, and previously MySpace and Bebo, none have taken off as successfully as Facebook which indicates that perhaps it really is the Medium, and its accessibility and ease of navigation that is the message. Facebook as a medium can be seen as ‘cool’ in the way that it encourages users to comment and share posts, creating discussion on controversial subjects.

However, there are other aspects of it that make it a ‘hot’ medium, to do with the technology and the structure. Not everyone in the world has access to the internet so the viewing and participatory nature of the medium is restricted to individuals who have internet access and possess the ability to access Facebook legally. Furthermore, although technology has developed enough to have a ‘dislike’ button on Facebook, as can be seen on YouTube for example, the creators of Facebook have determined that they do not want to enable this feature. This affects the way that the viewers can participate in the stories being portrayed as structurally, they are already primed to ‘like’ it, or comment positively. In fact the site itself says that negative or derogatory comments will not be welcome about the subject, which restricts the kind of comments that users are allowed to make and views they can express (HONY, 2015). Indeed, HONY has many white knights who rush to take up for any of the subjects whose actions, choices or statements are challenged or ridiculed by other viewers.

Conclusion

Through the exploration of audience participation in HONY, we can see how the development of Web 2.0 has been utilised in order to increase the volume of users participating in the news media stories. However it is evident that this ‘participation’ has not necessarily increased the active engagement from users. The ability to click a ‘like’ button succeeds in making users feel like they have done their part without having to actively engage with the issue at hand and contribute to it or shape the way the story develops. While HONY has succeeded in mobilising funds towards several issues and has made internet sensations overnight, giving them opportunities they would not have had, it is the users who have always been inherently ‘active’ who have engaged with the post. Hence it suggests that those with power still continue to have their interests served, as they are often in the best position to mobilise resources towards a candidate deemed ‘worthy’ of their help. Furthermore the lack of alterity and scripted representations of subjects in the photographs and the comments extracted from them result in a further crystallisation and standardisation of ideology perpetuated by the Culture Industry.

Reference List


Adorno, T. (1991). “Culture Industry reconsidered”. In The Culture Industry: Selected essays on mass culture, London: Routledge. 85 – 92

Anderson, C. (2012). Web 2.0. New York: Oxford University Press. DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780199756841-0072

Bagdikian, B. (2000). ‘Preface to the Sixth Edition’. In The Media Monopoly. Boston: Beacon Press: vii - xivii

BBC. (2014). Humans of New York Photographer Brandon Stanton goes Global. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UJqaO1HSLf0

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Humans of New York. (2015). Timeline [Facebook page]. Retrieved May 21, 2015, from https://www.facebook.com/humansofnewyork?fref=ts

Kelly, K. (2005). We are the Web. In Wired. Vol 13.8. Retrieved from http://archive.wired.com/wired/archive/13.08/tech.html?pg=1&topic=tech&topic_set=

Kweifio-Okai, K. (2014) Humans of New York Blogger hits the road for World Tour. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/sep/05/-sp-humans-new-york-world-brandon-stanton-world-tour

McLuhan, M. (1964). ‘The Medium is the message’. In Understanding Media: The Extension of Man. London: Routledge. 7 – 23

University College Dublin (UCD). (2014). On how I approach strangers in the street. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KPxzlGPrM3A

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