When the Northeastern University student body packed Blackman Auditorium for a sold-out show featuring Brandon Stanton, the man responsible for the immensely popular Humans of New York photojournalism blog, the general consensus seemed to be that no one knew what to expect. Although some were undoubtedly in attendance to learn something new or to escape the cold it seemed as if the majority were simply interested in unmasking the enigma who took their favorite photos.
When Stanton took to the stage in jeans and a t-shirt after casually mentioning that he is only 28 years old, the event immediately seemed to be off to a good start. He was relatable, and seemed like a breath of fresh air to a group of students embattled by academic strain. What transpired over the next hour or so was a story of a man who went to school, got a good job, lost it all, and eventually found his destiny by following his passion. It’s an uplifting story that has been told before (Bill Gates? Perhaps Mark Zuckerberg?) but seemed to strike a chord with students conflicted between passion and a future paycheck.
What was most impressive about the event was that between bits of comedy and seriousness, Stanton was able to impart some definite wisdom about the state of success and how today’s generation is currently adapting to the problems of a media-rich world.
Two quotes in particular stand out. The first is when Stanton asserted that “….our world is made up so that you have all the tools you need. You no longer need the Gatekeepers of Success to validate your work and deem you worthy.” The second occurred later in the program and served as a caveat to the first, asserting that “People are constantly fighting for your attention, constantly self-promoting. Social media has made it so that we constantly feel the need for others to validate our work. We want it to be a viral hit and we quit when it isn’t.”
What is fascinating about these ideas is how the audience was constantly validating them. Before the show began, while it proceeded, and once it concluded, nearly everyone in attendance was using his or her smartphone. They scrolled through Twitter feeds and photos on Facebook, deeming certain things worthy of praise via a digital “like”, “favorite”, or ambiguous Internet heart symbol.
Clearly, the issue is not with social media and its uses but with how we utilize its authority as a “tool” that can lead to our success. So often, it seems as if the rules of social media are extravagant: you should be funny and witty, but also professional; you should publish original content, but ultimately its fate is decided by those whose opinions you cannot control; you should use your media access to “spread the word” and advocate for your own cause, but only the best becomes “viral”.
The result, and also inherent problem, of all these expectations is that content is recycled in the name of likeability while the ultimate power of social media to act as a haven for innovative content is reduced.
As Stanton lectured, his biggest takeaway was the fact that HONY’s success is due entirely to its concept. Avidly disavowing any form of self-promotion (he didn’t even advertise his speaking engagement at Blackman), Stanton concluded that his passion and concept were enough to engage people. The intention of the blog was not to serve some higher concept of “all humans are really the same” or as a revenue machine, but to act as an art project that serves the little-picture purpose of providing incredible stories with only a picture and a few words. It’s popular because it’s refreshing, and its popularity is what eventually made it successful.
Stanton’s philosophy about the hazards of social media originality and self-promotion are easily observable, especially when applied to the problem of how political and news information is shared in the fast-paced world of social media. While innovative media sources such as HONY offer a chance for intellectualism and analysis via a constantly renewed artistic medium, the news and political information we need distributed seems to take all the wrong sorts of cues. Answering only to universal causes that can be generally agreed upon and continually relaying arguments that have already proven likeable, social media has helped to undermine the originality and the passion of the American political argument. While people, young and old alike, are engaging with dynamic, artistic content, they are bypassing what they see as the repetitive rhetoric of a non-innovative political machine.
Like everyone’s aunt-on-Facebook or tween-on-Twitter, it seems as if political and news information are over-shared, reactionary, and follow a similar format. It’s no wonder that the biggest news stories always seem to be the most unexpected! After all, they are the only ones that break the mold. They are the ones that are hastily reported and become viral simply because of their strangeness.
For political and news information, the best application of social media also seems to be the Achilles heel of every seasoned reporter. By being able to constantly publish, update, and be “the first on the scene,” news information seems rushed and hard to digest in 140 characters or less. Instead of acting as a reminder of or linkage to useful and creative information, social media is used as a reactionary dumping-ground for every faint whiff of news. As a result, people either get an incomplete story from the information snippet they briefly glimpsed, or are overwhelmed by the largess of an actual article. According to a study done by the Pew Research Center, 1 in 3 Americans now get their news from Facebook while 50 percent of adults who use Twitter report getting their news through tweets.
Meanwhile, when news or political information is shared, social media immediately allows not for the well-constructed opinion of an individual, but for the reactionary thoughts of tens, hundreds, even thousands of people who have glimpsed the same information. Perhaps this is why we are all so accustomed to the memes and political retorts that seem to pervade a majority of our political discussions.
Undoubtedly, certain news organizations, political and information sources have been able to thrive since the introduction of social media and the internet. After all, political organizers often thrive online while organizations such as Mother Jones (a nonprofit journalism organization) and Wikipedia have found their niche in relaying information via the web. However, it’s hard to legitimize and promote when industry-leading organizations perpetuate the failed techniques that Stanton demonstrated do not work.
In an ideal world, informational content on social media would be the ultimate tool of the free market. People would eagerly seek it out, utilize it, and then demand more. The traditional tools of journalism would be examined and re-adapted to create content that flows harmoniously from its newest distribution source. After all, Twitter is a far cry from the New York Sunday Times, and the tricks of the trade are clearly not universally adaptable. If political, journalistic, and information sources seek success via social media, they too must recognize this. Perhaps it is time to recognize the transforming nature of our information-rich world and publish information in a way that is creative and easy to digest, but also highly informative and with plenty of room for personal analysis. Perhaps it is time for our most reliable information sources to take a cue from Brandon Stanton, a blogger who understands the emerging nature of meaningful social media.
Political Science & International Affairs ’18