Last month, amateur photographer Mo Gelber snapped this candid photo (above) outside of the Manhattan Criminal Court. Last Wednesday, Gelber found out this photograph had become a front runner in Canon’s Imaginat10n contest with Ron Howard. A jury will choose 10 finalists from thousands of submissions, and the winner will have a short film series made aobut their photograph. However, in order to be considered for the grand prize, the subjects must sign a release form. Desperate to learn the couple’s identity, Gelber asked everyone for help. The photo was eventually passed along to Brandon, the photographer behind the popular blog Humans of New York (HONY). On September 5th, 2012 HONY posted Gelber’s photo on their Facebook and tumblr pages. The two media platforms generated thousands of shares, likes, comments and reblogs within 10 minutes of its posting. Thanks to HONY’s help, Gelber was able to generate lots of media attention (including this article) and eventually discovered the couple’s identity. The same day HONY posted the picture, a woman came forward claiming the couple to be her and her boyfriend, a graffiti artist arrested for tagging a wall outside of Milk & Honey on the Lower East Side. However, she refuses to sign any papers until her boyfriend is released from Rikers. The contest ends September 24, so Gelber is certainly running out of time but not out of luck for his something-from-the-movies story. Gelber was pleased to generate so much buzz about himself through his photograph, but HONY and Imaginat10n are also generating a large amount of press thanks to Gelber.
Besides the incredible story, the news outlets are amazed that it was social media which sparked conversation and eventually revealed the identities of the couple. Not only did the two outlets allow users to share or reblog the picture, spreading it to their friends who spread it to their friends, etc. but it happened so fast. The nature of Facebook and tumblr are both asynchronus with “participants communicat[ing] independently” (Donath). However, HONY is so popular, that multiple (likely hundreds if not thousands) of its 276,202 Facebook fans were actively communicating at once. Even though it is asynchronus, the rhythm is quite fast as there is such a large amount of users participating around the same time.
Gelber’s story is an example of Baym’s social shaping discourse. Baym defines social shaping as “the social capabilities technological qualities enable – and the unexpected and emergent ways that people make use of those affordances” (Baym, 44). Gelber and HONY used the existing social media available to them, and actively engaged users and fans with a simple question: Anyone know these two? Similarly, there are websites that are reverse picture databases. Instead of searching for a picture, users can upload a picture and the database will show all the sites that picture is located.
Besides being a phenomenal story, it really highlights the positive potential of social media, which is connecting people. HONY has a clear mission statement, and his goal is to essentially create a photographic census of New York because Brandon, the man behind the blog, is genuinely interested in New Yorkers and their stories. Unlike street style blogs (which HONY might appear to be at first), HONY is first and foremost interested in the person and not what he/she is wearing. The subjects wearing kooky clothing might get more attention, but it is really the stories that are the essence of HONY. Gelber was able to connect to HONY through friends, who then shared Gelber’s photograph to a massive audience. What the Daily News seems to be most hesitant about is that this story is real and it actually happened. Gelber relied on the kindness of many, many strangers to help him out, including over 5,000 shares on Facebook and over 6,000 notes (mostly reblogs and comments) on tumblr. Of course that is to say there wasn’t negative feedback, but in the end Gelber was able to find the couple and somewhat achieve his goal.