The Emotional Pornography of Facebook’s 'Humans of New York: The Series'

Social media site has turned Brandon Stanton’s photography sensation into a series where nameless subjects with heartbreaking stories become famous for 15 seconds, to wearying effect

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From Facebook's "Humans of New York: The Series."
From Facebook's "Humans of New York: The Series."Credit: "Humans of New York: The Series"/Facebook
Neta Alexander
Neta Alexander

Facebook this week released the first two episodes of its first-ever TV show, “Humans of New York: The Series,” based on the popular blog and books of the same name by American photographer Brandon Stanton.

Stanton’s original concept was a huge hit after he started creating his “photographic census” of New York in 2010, with 18 million Facebook followers, 8 million Instagram followers and three books that made the New York Times best-seller list.

Now he has turned the blog into a 12-episode documentary series, with episodes ranging in length from 15 to 25 minutes.

The episodes are being shown exclusively on the series’ Facebook page and on Facebook’s new platform, Watch. (The trailer, which debuted last week, quickly racked up 5 million views.)

Facebook recently announced its plans to get into the television market and to invest millions of dollars in developing original content. In early August, the social network announced that its Facebook Watch platform would include original content, user content and personally tailored recommendations based on the viewing habits of each Facebook user.

Stanton’s show is executive produced by Julie Goldman, who has worked on successful documentaries like “Weiner” (2016), about disgraced politician Anthony Weiner, and “Life, Animated” (also 2016). Stanton is said to have begun working on the series four years ago, and it is based on more than 1,200 interviews collected over 400 days of filming.

The first episode, which dropped on Tuesday, had more than 2 million views in less than 24 hours. Unlike Netflix or other streaming sites, which don’t provide a way for viewers to post responses to their shows, Facebook’s main advantage is that it offers the possibility for fierce online debate after people watch the show. More than 2,500 viewers left – mostly positive – comments on the series, and hundreds of others shared it with friends.

Facebook had already said its investment in original content would also include reality shows, children’s shows and live spectacles such as sporting events. But the decision to invest such a substantial amount in developing Stanton’s series and the PR for it (including sending out links last week that allowed U.S. journalists to review the first four episodes) makes perfect sense.

Stanton’s series fits the world’s largest social media site like a glove: It offers that same quick, easy-to-digest mix of catastrophe, humor, “human stories,” aerial shots of Manhattan at sunset, and the illusion of immediate empathy.

In less than 30 minutes, the first episode crams in the story of an older woman whose cancer has returned while her husband deteriorates from Alzheimer’s (“I’m afraid to die before him,” she says to camera in a trembling voice); a father whose only son has an incurable degenerative disease (“I try not to think about the day he’s going to die”); two Muslim teenage girls who talk about how they decided “to meet a homeless person and cook him a hot meal”; a homeless man who’s afraid of losing his sanity; and more and more heartrending stories that have been packaged into two or three photogenic minutes of extreme close-ups.

Between each segment you watch interludes that look like extremely lazy versions of a Nike commercial: Black kids in Brooklyn playing in the spray from a fire hydrant; a young man riding a skateboard in the sunset.

Over the next three episodes Stanton skips lightly among dark, heavy subjects like police brutality, PTSD, unemployment, abusive parents, betrayal and disease – and people who provide comic relief, like a Hispanic man in a teensy bathing suit whose big dream is “to go on ‘Dancing with the Stars,’” or the skinny white dude with a pink streak in his hair and round sunglasses who says drily, “Family is prison.”

Stanton didn’t invent the genre of the documentary mosaic composed of spontaneous interviews with strangers (that honor goes to French filmmaker Jean Rouch and other pioneers of cinema verité in the 1950s and ’60s). But he is undoubtedly the first to turn it into a money-spinning machine that turns out best sellers and rakes in millions.

Brandon Stanton, creator of the popular Humans of New York blog, in New York, 2013. The television adaptation has been an instant hit on Facebook.Credit: AP

To his credit, he has used the tremendous reach he’s attained as an effective fundraising tool for various humanitarian causes, and many of his subjects have received financial and other types of aid after being seen by his millions of enthusiastic followers. These followers include former President Barack Obama, who responded to one of Stanton’s Facebook posts.

But the Facebook series heightens the disturbing sense that Stanton’s photography project initially inspired back in 2010: With less than two minutes of screen time allotted to each subject, there’s a need to “sell” us the story as quickly as possible, in order to generate immediate (and fake) empathy. So, just five seconds after we first meet a nameless – like all the interviewees in the series – woman, we find ourselves watching her sobbing and praying that cancer won’t kill her before her husband dies. It’s heartbreaking, and her tears are real. But it’s hard to really relate when, 30 seconds earlier, we were marveling at a New York sunset and 30 seconds later we’ll be watching another traumatic tale about another horrible disease.

Rather than empathy and human connection, what we get instead is emotional pornography in which people try to sell their tragedies for 15 seconds of fame.

In all four episodes released to date, Stanton remains behind the camera. Like God. We’re aware of his divine presence, but we never get to see or hear him. The result is interviews that are devoid of context, making it impossible to guess what the questions were that spawned the revealing confessions.

Completely absent of any reflection or depiction of the process, “Humans of New York: The Series” is a perfect product of our social media age – short and catchy human stories that practically beg for “likes.”

We’ve long since internalized the fact that in order to gain exposure, even among our “friends,” we must burnish our writing skills and turn our lives into a sharply edited collection of amusing, interesting, surprising, tragic and original bits.

But just like aimlessly browsing a Facebook feed, watching the show causes an existential sensation of nausea, due to the endless skipping from tragedy to attractive images – from a video about Syrian refugees to a high school friend’s wedding pictures. One second we get cancer, then it’s “Dancing with the Stars,” hip-hop, orphans, food, anonymous giving, “Believe in yourself,” “But I loved him,” “Motherhood changed me,” “Why oh why doesn’t God take me already?” “Blue is my favorite color,” etc., etc.

And all with just the right amount of identity politics – as if following a formula for “two blacks, a transgender person, a Hispanic person, a Muslim woman and a white man” that must seemingly appear in each episode so that Stanton (a white heterosexual male) can claim the series represents all of New York’s minority groups.

To judge by its impressive success by Wednesday, television’s major networks should have cause for concern – though it looks like being a long time before Facebook will be able to say it’s part of the Golden Age of television. And so far, Stanton doesn’t look like being the one who will make that happen.

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