(Photo by Zoi Koraki)
Humans of New York is beloved. To criticize it is anathema, and criticism quickly ignored or deflected. It would seem that HONY is beyond criticism, placing it in the same category as holy books. But we know (don’t we?) that nothing is beyond criticism, even if it makes people feel good or is widely regarded. In fact, these are the precise reasons to criticize Humans of New York. Many people seem to think that the page and its author can do no wrong. This is dangerous, but totally predictable based on the environment Brandon Stanton has engendered.
I want you to go to HONY on Facebook. Pick any post. Look for a negative comment. I’ll take a wild guess and say you didn’t find one. Now, you can take this as a triumph of humanity that, yes, there is a place on the internet immune to vitriol and malign! Let’s be real, though. We all live on the internet. We know. Oh, we know that there’s not a chance that this page is an oasis of warm fuzzies. What’s happening here is that Brandon Stanton is banning people from commenting on his page at the drop of a hat. A no-strike policy, first offenders are censored approach. It’s ironic that a page dedicated to giving people a voice is so quick to pull the trigger of silence. Stanton subverts his own ideas with this behavior.
This makes HONY an online “safe space”. No one’s feelings get hurt. No one has their ideas challenged. It’s all safe. Gather here, little sheep, and sup upon the warm teat Brandon Stanton offers you. Know that no harm can befall you here, gentle lambies. What is the price for this? It is censorship. It is an illusion, you lie to yourself about how people really feel. It is a culling of participants so that only those who share your vision and voice are heard. Because Facebook, Instagram, tumblr and other sites where HONY appears do not have an upvote/downvote feature, thus allowing for a democratized tailoring of comments which are most seen, Stanton and whoever else monitors the page has opted for a more Stalinist approach to the problem. Do some posts merit deletion? Sure. Do all people have the right to spam and troll threads at their leisure? Certainly not, but that isn’t what’s happening here.
I maintain that HONY would be a more honest, more robust and more interesting project if comments were disabled. If this page were really about listening, learning, observing and feeling compassion for people unlike you, or for people would are likely to never meet, then the comments undermine that effort.
That’s not what HONY is for, though.
Paul Bloom and his associates have suggested that expressing moral outrage is a way to garner trustworthiness. This is what I would call moral posturing – expressing a moral position for the purpose of having been seen expressing it. Humans of New York is a mill for churning out this feeling of being seen morally, and no one benefits from this more than Stanton. This is evident in moments like when he posted an open letter to Donald Trump in a feeble attempt at morality, decrying his bigotry toward Muslims months after Muslims themselves had spoken up about the issue. Somehow people missed that his letter what primarily about himself (“I travel the world. I am a journalist. I have met good Muslims. I am saying Trump is bad.”). Stanton is at least generous enough to share this bounty with his innumerate followers. This may strike you as innocuous, but because it is an unthinking, reflexive community, because it is a place which champions feeling and eliminates a critical aspect, it is dangerous inasmuch as it is stupid.