Positivity, critical fan discourse, and "Humans of New York"

Paromita Sengupta

University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California, United States

[0.1] Abstract—"Humans of New York" (HONY) is a popular photography project, with a global fandom and great outreach on social media platforms like Facebook. However, the creator of HONY has placed heavy restrictions on political discourse within the fan page in order to maintain the spirit of goodwill and positivity for which the fandom has come to be renowned. Yet the culture of positivity on HONY may be problematized: two case studies show that positivity was utilized to protect white men at the expense of women of color. HONY fans have pushed back against the culture of positivity by reclaiming the right to engage in political discourse or by creating alternate spin-off groups that engage with local political issues. Case studies of HONY provoke questions about what it means to engage in political discourse in a fandom that is premised on lying outside the realm of politics.

[0.2] Keywords—Critical discourse; Fandom; HONY; Photography; Politics; Spin-off; Brandon Stanton

Sengupta, Paromita. 2020. "Positivity, Critical Fan Discourse, and "'Humans of New York'." In "Fandom and Politics," edited by Ashley Hinck and Amber Davisson, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 32.

1. Introduction

[1.1] "Humans of New York" (HONY) is a photography project started in 2010 by Brandon Stanton, with the aim of gathering 10,000 portraits of New Yorkers framed against an interactive map of the city. Stanton engaged his subjects in conversation by asking them questions like "What is your greatest struggle?" or "Give me one piece of advice" and presented the responses as micro-stories captioned onto each photograph. The stories were posted on Stanton's blog as well as the HONY Facebook page, where fans came together to discuss the stories and their emotional impact. Empathy evolved into a desire for civic intervention as the fans began expressing a desire to help the subjects of the photographs through funds or resources, and between 2012 and 2018, Stanton transformed HONY from a street photography project to a social change initiative. The use of reform photography as a way of implementing social change is not unprecedented. In 1890, photographer Jacob Riis published a book documenting the bleak lives of the Mulberry Street immigrants, which resulted in legislation banning the construction of dark, poorly ventilated buildings in New York (Riis [1890] 2014). During the Great Depression, Dorothea Lange's photographs of displaced farm workers and immigrants were central to bringing their plight to public attention (Nardo 2011). HONY also bears similarities to what social documentarian Glenn Ruga calls "actionable" as opposed to "representational" photography, or photography that sparks public discourse, spurs reform, and changes the way we think about the world (quoted in Bogre 2012). Actionable photography initiatives eschew the traditional model of journalistic objectivity for an empathetic storytelling model, through which stories of abuse, survival, and justice can be documented and shared with a wider audience.

[1.2] However, there are three main ways in which HONY differs from other examples of actionable photography. The first is the close integration of the Facebook fan community with the social justice ethos of HONY. Although Stanton has a photoblog where his content is visible, he has consistently used Facebook to interact with his fans and invited them to engage with his work through the comment sections. The Facebook page currently boasts more than 17 million fans, and fan talk in the comment sections has played an active role in shaping the pushing for a more interventionist approach to social change on HONY (Sengupta 2020). The second is Stanton's cultivation of a culture of positivity within the Facebook fandom, by championing the narrative that it is a kinder, more compassionate, and less judgmental space than other internet communities. In a Facebook post from 2016, he said: "I think the HONY community is largely composed of people who try to choose compassion over cynicism, and that's why we've been able to accomplish so much." The third is Stanton's repeated insistence that his work is humanitarian, but not political. In a 2014 video interview on photographs taken in the aftermath of the terrorist attack during the Boston Marathon of 2013, Stanton explained this dichotomy: "The media from all over the country was in Boston. I'm the only dude who spent a week there and didn't ask a single person about the bombings. Media naturally gravitates towards drama…I just try to show normalcy." (

[1.3] Despite Stanton's increasing popularity as an actionable photographer, these three elements contribute to a problematic ideology of the humanity of HONY, which prioritizes unconditional positivity over critical discourse on the HONY Facebook fan page. This paper problematizes the depoliticized culture of positivity of HONY and argues that Stanton's vision of a color-blind, universal humanity is heavily inflected with white masculine politics and ideologies, and contributes to an erasure of race, gender, and nationality-based oppression. It also examines two different but noteworthy ways in which HONY fans push back against the culture of positivity. Through a content analysis of two case studies from the HONY Facebook page, I examine how the culture of positivity has been criticized by erstwhile HONY fans, both on Facebook and other social media platforms. On a more transnational level, the Western colonialist impulse of Stanton's coverage of Iran is critiqued by the HONY spin-off page "Humans of Tehran," which foregrounds Iranian political and social issues by encouraging Iranians to regain control over their own narratives. These two forms of resistance complicate the position of the object of fandom within the intersection of fandom and politics, and raise the question of what it means to engage in political discourse within a fandom that explicitly disavows critical engagement in favor of a culture of positivity.

2. Fandom, celebrity, and the culture of positivity

[2.1] Civic engagement on HONY strikes an uneasy balance between fan activism and celebrity philanthropy. Literature on fan activism argues that it is a useful resource for revealing the political potential of young people who are already culturally engaged, and redirecting their networks and energies toward more political goals by deploying existing skills and capacities in new ways (Van Zoonen 2004). Their affective engagement with popular culture provides them with "touchstone texts" (Kligler-Vilenchik 2015) that enable them to map their political concerns onto the contours of the fictional world. Although HONY is not a fictional world, the social justice ethos of HONY fandom bears many similarities to fan activist organizations like the Harry Potter Alliance. What differentiates the HONY fans from being merely audiences or interlocutors is their intense emotional investment (Van Zoonen 2004; Hunting and Hinck 2017) in Stanton's photographs and the stories behind them—they collectively deconstruct the narrative subtext of Stanton's truncated captions and attempt to write happier endings to the stories through civic intervention initiatives such as raising funds, spreading awareness, or sharing resources. In other words, the fan community uses their affective investment to Stanton and his photography to enact a mode of public engagement that fan scholars refer to as "fan-based citizenship" (Hinck 2019), or a wide range of civic engagement actions that draw on the emotional commitment to a fan object. The social connections and the low barriers of participation for the Facebook comment section provide a further impetus toward activism (Jenkins, Ito, and boyd 2016). HONY fans have raised money for a plethora of charitable causes, including Hurricane Sandy, the Syrian refugee crisis, and the movement against bonded labor practices in Pakistan. The fandom has also used their collective hive mind to help subjects of Stanton's photographs locate missing pets, find employment, prevent a small neighborhood bakery from going bankrupt, and get legal counsel for immigrants. Each of these campaigns was premised on the affective relationships that the fan community developed with Stanton's photographs and the conversations in the Facebook comment sections, thereby aligning their civic engagement along the lines of fan activism.

[2.2] Stanton has also attempted to refashion himself as a philanthropist, both in terms of the social justice causes he engages with as a photographer, and his successful fund-raising efforts. Although celebrity philanthropy has a long history, dating back to the development of radio, the networked era has seen a heightened visibility of celebrities publicly engaging with philanthropic causes (Thrall et al. 2008). Research on celebrity activism has suggested that emotional connections cultivated through intimate feelings between celebrities and fans are key to a successful celebrity philanthropy campaign (Hunting and Hinck 2017), because they generate feelings of "affective proxy" through which their fans feel like they are "making a difference simply by feeling" (Fuqua 2011, 193). His fund-raising work with Hurricane Sandy and the Syrian refugee crisis have been nationally acclaimed, and he has received awards, book deals, a web series on Facebook Watch, and the opportunity to work with high-profile celebrities, including a 2015 interview with President Obama. In 2014, the United Nations recruited Stanton to go on a fifty-day global peace tour to war-ridden countries in the Middle East to publicize their Millennium Development Goals project. However, scholars have also pointed out that the carefully crafted subjectivity of a celebrity philanthropist can problematically blur the line between "altruism, self-promotion, and self-preservation" (Trope 2012, 158), and Stanton is no exception to this. Stanton's subjectivity as a celebrity philanthropist is defined by his self-promotion as a storyteller perpetually searching for the tenuous humanity of human nature, and his subjectivity is key to the culture of positivity on HONY. The narratives that are featured on HONY are filtered through Stanton's personal understanding of what makes a story human, and the culture of positivity is premised on the fan community following Stanton's lead on how to read and interpret a story, instead of mounting independent critical interpretations of it. He has publicly stated his desire for HONY to be a "supportive culture" free of judgement or criticism, where his audience would express compassion for the subjects of his photographs, but refrain from criticizing their stories (Choi 2015; Sengupta 2020). He sees anonymous online conversation as being antithetical to the culture of positivity, and allows his fans to comment only on the HONY Facebook page and not the blog itself. He has also openly announced his intention to ban fans from commenting if they do not meet his standards of niceness. Following an incident where the conversation in the comment section took on a more critical bent, Stanton posted a public announcement stating, "Unfortunately, the 'right to free speech' does not apply here. This is not the place to further an ideology at the expense of an individual…Let's try to get back to saying nice things about strangers. In short, let's make HONY different than the rest of the internet."

[2.3] The culture of positivity on HONY creates a schism between fan activism and celebrity philanthropy. The technical affordances of the internet are often seen as a way for networked publics to circumvent the gatekeeping functions of traditional media outlets, and create their own points of entry into civic engagement (Earl and Kimport 2011; Papacharissi 2014). However, it is also possible for these spaces to create their own gatekeepers, who preclude participation from marginalized voices in the interest of maintaining a conflict-free atmosphere for the majority. Although the social connections and affective relationships that the fans develop redefine HONY as a touchstone text for fan activism, Stanton's moderation of critical discourse demarcates him as the celebrity philanthropist whose personal beliefs and ideologies demarcate the boundaries of political talk on HONY. As the two case studies discussed below indicate, Stanton has repeatedly used his gatekeeping powers to protect white men at the expense of women of color. However, each example also indicates ways in which fans have pushed back against his moderation policies by voicing their opinions in the Facebook comment sections, and even migrating to other digital platforms to continue the political conversations if they were unable to engage in these discourses on HONY.

3. Data and methods

[3.1] The primary research question of this study is how the HONY fan community subverts its founder's contrived culture of positivity and engages in political conversation. To answer this question, I conduct a critical content analysis of two Facebook pages—the "Humans of New York" page created and moderated by Stanton, and the HONY spin-off page "Humans of Tehran" run by Iranian photojournalist Shirin Barghi. On the HONY Facebook page, I focus on two case studies where Stanton invoked his gatekeeping powers to shut down critical discourse on race and gender in an attempt to preserve the culture of positivity, leading to criticism and backlash from the fan community. The culture of positivity that lies at the heart of Stanton's celebrity philanthropist subjectivity is implicit not only on HONY, but his photographic tour of Iran. Framed against the background of Stanton's depoliticized and color-blind perspective on Iran, I examine "Humans of Tehran" as a HONY spin-off page that follows the basic structural paradigm of HONY, but moves away from the culture of positivity by encouraging Iranians to engage critically with local political issues and regain control over their own narratives.

[3.2] Both "Humans of New York" and "Humans of Tehran" are public Facebook groups, which means that group membership is not needed to view, share, or comment on posts. Accordingly, I identify Brandon Stanton and Shirin Barghi as public figures because of their status as founders and admins of the Facebook groups "Humans of New York" and "Humans of Tehran," respectively, and use their real names when quoting them. However, I have avoided using the real names or social media handles of individual fans. The only exception to this is Brianna Cox, whose blog "Chocolate Pomp and Circumstance" was central to my analysis, and whose name is featured prominently on her blog. Unfortunately, the blog is now inactive, and Cox could not be reached for permission to be quoted. Data for this study was gathered from posts from the Facebook pages "Humans of New York" and "Humans of Tehran" published between 2014 and 2017, manually coded using an inductive approach, and analyzed using textual and discourse analysis. As a member of both "Humans of New York" and "Humans of Tehran," I have long been engaging with the content of both groups. In 2014, when Stanton publicly announced his decision to delete comments that disrupted the culture of positivity, I started using a screenshot tool and cached pages to document posts every time issues of race, oppression, or religion came up, and the post ran the risk of being deleted from Facebook. Using this method, I have assembled an archive of approximately 3,500 screenshots of discussions that have been removed from the HONY Facebook page. While this method of archiving is arbitrary and imperfect, it does offer a countermeasure to the fragility of social media research in the face of online gatekeeping. While there were several posts that had been removed for being too contentious, two stood out as examples that not only revealed the normativity of white masculinity that underlies the culture of positivity on HONY, but where Stanton's gatekeeping practices faced severe backlash from HONY fandom.

4. Race, gender, and the gatekeeping of fan conversation

[4.1] Fan scholars have stressed the importance of paying attention to political talk in "interest-driven networks" (Kahne, Middaugh, and Allen 2014), or spaces where groups of people can discuss politics with their peers in a supportive and enjoyable environment. Kligler-Vilenchik (2015) traces the wide spectrum of conversation in fan spaces from "wizards and house-elves to real-world issues" to young people's alienation from civic action, sometimes because of age restrictions, and at other times because of the exclusionary language and social groundlessness of electoral politics. The fan context, which Kligler-Vilenchik describes as "the love of the stories and the mastery of the text" brings diverse groups of people together, and provides an informal space for discussing political issues that are relevant to them. However, given HONY's uneasy negotiation between a space for fan activism and for celebrity philanthropy, fan talk in the HONY Facebook comments has repeatedly become an area of contention between Stanton and the fans.

[4.2] On April 11, 2014, HONY posted a photo of a white teacher at a school in Harlem, with a caption reading: "I worry a lot about the kids who aren't on the 'college track.' Many of them just don't have a culture of expectation at home." Although the majority of the fandom expressed their support and appreciation for the subject, one HONY fan named Brianna Cox pointed out that a "culture of expectation" can be difficult to attain "when you are in a culture of 'I work 16 hours a day.'" Although her comment was not critical of Stanton or his subject, it was an indictment of the white privilege of speaking uncritically about cultures of expectation in an overwhelmingly nonwhite school district, without addressing the systematic inequalities that sustain these conditions. Following this comment, Cox was banned from posting on the HONY Facebook page, and her comments were removed from the post. Cox, who is a woman of color who owned a blog called "Chocolate Pomp and Circumstance" about race and education in America, responded with a detailed blog post titled "Why I Will No Longer Follow Humans of New York." She wrote from her position as a long-term HONY fan who had been drawn to the fandom because of its social justice ethos, but found the culture of positivity contrived and stifling. Her post concluded with a call for open engagement with uncomfortable issues, like race and oppression, even at the price of discomfiting white people:

[4.3] Critical discussion about race and racism should not be silenced. I hope you will reconsider your choice to ban a person for their attempt to address racism in all of its forms, even the seemingly subtle forms that can be difficult to discuss without people feeling hurt…If you are going to ban people for discussing race, then you must ban all discussion of race, not just the ones that make some white people uncomfortable. (Cox 2014)

[4.4] By publishing a story that provokes the fan community to think about "cultures of expectation" in society, Stanton is invoking a certain social consciousness, but as a producer and a moderator, he is also imposing strict boundaries on the political discourses that arise out of that consciousness, especially when those discourses disrupt the stream of supportive messages. In other words, while the culture of positivity is ostensibly meant to create a wholesome online community focusing on sharing stories, creating empathy, and helping strangers in need, in reality, it is racially coded. Stanton's gatekeeping practices preclude critical discourse, and hold up a single norm of color-blind humanity to which the whole community has to subscribe, or risk censure. The act of removing and blocking comments from marginalized voices from within the fandom is a deliberate act of erasure. Technocratic spaces like Silicon Valley are rife with ideologies of color blindness, which obscure structural and social oppressions under the guise of protecting multiculturalism and diversity (Noble 2013). Cox was permanently blocked from posting comments on the HONY Facebook page, and her condemnation of racial discrimination was dismissed in Stanton's next post: "If you're attacking the subject with an erudite, graduate level vocabulary, you're still attacking the subject. Again, you're not being oppressed, silenced, persecuted, or targeted for your beliefs…But please, write about it on your own blog. Humans of New York can continue to exist without your enlightenment."

[4.5] Stanton's response indicates that the culture of positivity on HONY demanded an attitude of uncritical niceness from the entire fandom, without acknowledging that individuals are positioned differently on the axes of oppression, and might have experiences that contradict the insouciant narratives that Stanton favors. The erasure of Cox's testimony, not just as a fan but as a cultural critic and a black woman, effectively protected a white man by silencing the voice of a woman of color. Thereby, the innate whiteness of Stanton's vision of humanity is accepted as normative and even rendered invisible.

[4.6] The first example highlights a solitary HONY fan's attempts to exert her right to political talk in the face of Stanton's gatekeeping, but the second indicates how Stanton's actions have drawn more widespread criticism of Stanton from the fan community. It concerned a photograph that featured a Sudanese woman, engaged in conversation with an Orthodox Jewish rabbi. The caption read:

[4.7] I came upon these two on the sidewalk. They were having a conversation. "Excuse me," I said, addressing the girl: "I'm sorry to interrupt, but is there any way I can take your photo?" "Why would you want my photo?" she asked. "Because you look beautiful," I said. And she did. She was Sudanese. There is a very distinct beauty among people from the Sudan, and she was filled up with it. Suddenly the man cut in: "I was just telling her she was beautiful," he said…As I examined the photos on my camera, the man started whispering to the girl. She answered him in a loud voice: "I told you! I'm not that kind of girl."…When the man left, the girl's demeanor changed completely. She seemed shaken. Her eyes were tearing up. "He just offered me $500 to go out with him," she said. "And then when I said no, he offered me $1000. Why does this always happen to me?" "It happens a lot?" I asked. "All the time," she said. "Do you mind if I tell this story?" I asked. "Please," she said. "Tell it."

[4.8] The post went viral within moments and was reposted widely by the fan community on Facebook and Tumblr, but within 24 hours Stanton deleted it. He followed up with a disclaimer saying: "There is deviance in every religion, simple as that." He also posted a letter sent to him by the Orthodox Jewish community, which read:

[4.9] You have a microphone that now reaches beyond the humans of New York. You can speak to the humans of the world…often, in our quest to do justice, we rush to false judgment…It's a foundational imperative in the Jewish tradition of dan lekaf zechut—judging another favorably—or refraining from judging another unfavorably in the absence of proper evidence.

[4.10] Both these posts have been deleted from the HONY Facebook page since, although the second post is still visible on the HONY photoblog. However, I managed to archive screenshots of comments from the two posts before they were deleted from Facebook. While a large number of the responses to Stanton's original post started conversations about sexual violence and shared personal stories about rape culture, for the purpose of this study I focused my analysis on the 356 comments that were explicitly critical of Stanton in order to better understand how his fans pushed back against the imposed culture of positivity on HONY. I textually analyzed the comments using an inductive coding method, and the data indicated the presence of two prominent themes in the fan responses.

[4.11] The first was in reference to the explicit exoticization of a woman of color by two white men, as evidenced by Stanton's casual statement, "There is a very distinct beauty among people from the Sudan, and she was filled up with it." Rape culture is augmented by practices of victim blaming, where society fosters the belief that it is natural for an attractive woman to experience higher instances of sexual harassment in her personal and professional life (Sills et al. 2016). Of the 356 fan comments in the screenshots I was able to obtain, forty-two argued that not only did the detail about her appearance add nothing of significance to the story, it brought in female attractiveness and sexual harassment together into conversation in a way that contributes to the widespread normalization of rape culture. Critical race scholars have also argued that rape culture in America has been shaped by the violence inflicted on the black female body (Roberts 1998). Female slaves had no autonomy over their bodies, and were not in a position to refuse the sexual demands of white men. The fans' critique of Stanton was explicitly phrased in terms of his insensitivity to the lack of autonomy women of color have over their bodies and narratives. This perspective was represented by twelve comments in one comment chain, which asked Stanton if he would have mentioned her attractiveness in the context of his story about sexual violence if she had not been a woman of color.

[4.12] The second critical response focused on Stanton's decision to delete the post despite the victim's request to document and share her story. The original post faced some backlash against Stanton for not recording a commensurate statement from the rabbi, but instead of asserting his position as a reliable eyewitness who had seen the scene unfold before his eyes, Stanton chose to delete the post—a decision that impairs political talk on HONY in three different ways. Firstly, Stanton's attempt to disguise the racial politics of this story in order to preserve HONY's culture of positivity was a deliberate act of epistemic violence. It mirrored the systematic erasure of black women's trauma and sexual exploitation from the annals of American history (Noble 2013). The erasure is further amplified by the rhetorical gaslighting of his follow-up post. Gaslighting is a form of psychological and emotional manipulation through which an oppressor destabilizes and delegitimizes the victim's testimony through misdirection and denial, and it has been linked to both gender (Stark 2019) and race-based oppression (Davis and Ernst 2017). Stanton's disclaimer, "There is deviance in every religion," gaslights sexual violence against a black woman by misdirecting it into a conversation about religion and calls the HONY fandom to band together in solidarity for a flawed, human religion instead of condemning it as an instance of racialized and gendered violence. Finally, Stanton's decision to replace the testimony of a woman of color with the imperative to "speak to the humans of the world" shows that Stanton's celebrity philanthropy is entrenched in a system of exchange where it is more beneficial to his personal brand to champion a universal, color-blind humanity than to acknowledge humanity as a dominantly white male privilege. As Dyer (1997) pointed out, when constructs like diversity and humanity are leveraged in opposition to race, it furthers the notion that Whiteness is "human, individual, and without race, while the Other is racialized," and the humanity of "Humans of New York" is inextricable from the whiteness of Stanton's philanthropist subjectivity.

[4.13] From my archive of screenshots, I was able to obtain 278 comments that responded to Stanton's decision to remove the original story from HONY. Textually analyzing these comments also indicated two major thematic categories. The first was fans' backlash against Stanton for removing a post about sexual harassment, despite the explicit request of a black woman, in order to protect a white male harasser:

[4.14] Calling attention to the FACT that the aggressor, the perpetrator of this outrage was the one protected, and the victim is just supposed to disappear? To that I say no. No. Open season on Black women is OVER.

[4.15] You said you would share that Sudanese woman's story. Why didn't you leave it up in respect of her family and her wishes? Why did you side with the man who caused the problem in the first place? Why does he deserve more respect than she does?

[4.16] I'm incredibly disappointed that you took down the picture of the Sudanese woman and her harasser. I know why you did it, but more than protecting his privacy, you silenced a victim of sexual harassment and a member of one of the most marginalized and ignored segments of society: women of color. Why is this man's privacy more important than taking a stand against sexual harassment? Perhaps he should've considered not harassing an innocent woman if he wanted privacy.

[4.17] The second category of responses expressed an active desire to archive the deleted story on other social media platforms, so that the anonymous woman's testimony could not be erased in its entirety. The Tumblr pages for Feminist Media, Stop Street Harassment, and Real Men Don't Rape issued calls to action, asking their individual communities to save copies of the screenshots on their hard drives, and keep reposting them, even as Tumblr tried to take down the posts for intellectual copyright infringement. Comments indicate that the fans' digital archival effort was framed explicitly in terms of countering the erasure of women of color:

[4.18] I will always reblog this, because if this woman were white, the mass-erasure of this image and story would not be happening. and that just speaks volumes to me. The bigotry that contributes to this woman's constant harassment is the same bigotry that led to the erasure of this story in order to "protect" this man. This is a vicious cycle that perpetuates anti-blackness and the degradation and silencing of black women, and women of color as a whole.

[4.19] Tumblr deleted this post from everyone's blog. Here it is again. And people have saved copies to their computers, including me. Reblogging this picture has an educational reason behind it—to show how black women are dehumanized, and then silenced if they ever speak out. Story's not going away. The internet is forever.

[4.20] Jenkins et al. (2016) assert that participatory politics in the networked age is often the result of informal, noninstitutionalized, and nonhierarchical groups in and around the internet seeking to change the world through "any media necessary." Although HONY fandom did not come together out of a shared interest in politics, they do not see spaces of fandom as being divorced from political and cultural issues, and resist Stanton's celebrity philanthropist instinct to keep HONY depoliticized, color-blind, and free of critical discourse. The two HONY incidents discussed in this study resulted in fans exerting their right to engage in political discourse in interest-based networks, and even migrating to other digital platforms such as personal blogs and Tumblr in an effort to counter the culture of positivity. It also points to the nature of social media terrains as highly contested spaces, where networked publics will use any media necessary to stage guerrilla warfare. As digital culture researcher, I often use screenshot tools and cached pages to archive discussions before they disappear from social media communities, but the same method acquires a more radical overtone when it is used by HONY fans to preserve the testimony of a woman of color, and circulate it indefinitely within their own digital networks. In the face of the racially coded culture of positivity on HONY, the act of posting and reposting the story on Tumblr marks the collective resistance of people of color against the erasure of marginalized voices.

5. Decolonizing humanity in "Humans of Tehran"

[5.1] In this section, I want to analyze the fan-created spin-off group "Humans of Tehran" as offering an alternate model of actionable photography, which replaces the culture of positivity and celebrity philanthropist subjectivity of HONY with a more grounded approach to storytelling. Jenkins, Ford, and Green (2018) define media spreadability as a participatory logic that leads audiences to retrofit material to the contours of their particular community. Unlike virality, which is quantified by how often content is shared and circulated online, spreadability refers to how well a media artifact can be altered to fit the contours of a particular cause or community. The "Humans of" model is memetic in its spreadability because it can be culturally transmitted from one group to another, and be personalized and adapted by various communities to tell their own stories (Shifman 2014). "Humans of" spin-off groups span transnational boundaries, and several major international cities currently have their own "Humans of" pages. Pop culture fandoms have fictionalized spin-off pages, including "Humans of Westeros" ( and "Humans of Hogwarts" ( The format has also been widely parodied, and there are spin-off pages for "Orcs of New York" (, "Goats of Bangladesh" (, and "Non-Humans of Bombay" ( The spreadable media model recognizes that audiences play an active role in determining how the content is circulated—their decisions, investments, and agendas shape the value of the content (Jenkins, Ford, and Green 2018). Within the HONY fan-verse, more than one spin-off group has rejected Stanton's culture of positivity in favor of engaging with and documenting local political issues. "Humans of Flint" ( focuses on coverage of life in the face of the Flint water crisis, "Humans of CSB/SJU" ( ran a photo-series on cyberbullying on college campuses, "Humans of Late Capitalism" ( runs a steady stream of critique against large industries and exploitation of labor, and "Humans of Hindutva" ( satirizes the right-wing, militaristic rhetoric of the Hindutva movement in India. Framed against the context of Stanton's color-blind, universal humanity and his photographic representation of Iran, "Humans of Tehran" establishes itself as a counternarrative to Stanton's Westernized sentimentalization of the Middle East.

[5.2] In 2012, Stanton traveled to Tehran, and wrote extensively about his experience on his Facebook page. He described how his trip had started with fear and trepidation, believing that the country was "angry, fanatic, and bent on conflict with the West," as portrayed in popular media depictions of Iran, but his fear slowly gave way to a feeling of being underwhelmed: "I was underwhelmed by the danger. I was underwhelmed by the religious fanaticism…The only thing present in a larger-than-expected dose was normalcy. The entire country was plagued by normalcy. Everywhere I looked—on street corners, inside of shops, and even inside of homes—there were normal people doing normal things."

[5.3] He explained that unlike the unfriendly denizens of New York City, Iranians had been warm and accepting of his presence, and happy to be photographed. He also praised Iranians for their love for America and their integration into American culture; they watched the same movies, listened to the same music, and lived in homes "fully supplied with Western ideas and Western art." Stanton's celebration of the Westernization of Iran celebrates traditional white American values—family, hard work, hopes, and dreams—but reframes them as underwhelmingly normal, and therefore human. An Iranian experience made palatable to a white audience is a colonial interventionist project that promotes diversity and tolerance for populations demonized by Western media, but only when they subscribe to the ethnically neutral model of "normal people doing normal things." However, the Western impulse to humanize the Middle East has long been resented by local artists and storytellers, who want to be able to gain control over their own narratives. According to Iranian-American anthropologist Alex Shams (2013), it is demeaning for Iranians to be forced to prove their humanity to the Western world on a quotidian basis: "It seems that just about every other week another Western journalist 'discovers' Iran and its 'manically welcoming' people, explaining to the world for the fifty-millionth time that contrary to the audience's assumptions, Iran is a pretty nice place to visit." The implicit subtext of the Western colonial gaze that equates American cultural integration with normalcy is the essential deviance (or non-normalcy) of Iran's own traditions and cultures.

[5.4] "Humans of Tehran" is a HONY spin-off group that was created on Facebook in 2012 by Iranian multimedia journalist Shirin Barghi, and currently boasts 170,000 fans, despite the government ban on Facebook in Iran. In an article in Aslan Media, Barghi expressed the need for Iranian storytellers to have their own narrative space free of the constrictions of a Western humanizing project: "Western journalists and photographers frequently describe their work as 'giving voice to the voiceless'…Our project decentralizes the 'voiceless' approach and we strive to take foreign intermediaries out of the creative process." As a long-time fan of HONY, she decided to start a spin-off page where Iranians could build "a new visual vocabulary through which the world can communicate and connect with Iranians, who have been politically, and in many other ways, isolated in recent years." Content analysis of the 400-odd posts published by "Humans of Tehran" between 2012 and 2018 indicates that although it mirrors the basic structural format of HONY, there are three main ways in which the spin-off page offers a fan-generated alternative to HONY's depoliticized universal humanity by engaging more critically with Iranian culture and politics.

[5.5] Stanton's account of his photographic tour of Iran portrayed Iranians as being warmer and more welcoming of an American photographer than the native New Yorkers whom Stanton encountered on a daily basis. However, Barghi's own experience with creating the spin-off fanverse of "Humans of Tehran" was quite different. During the government crackdown against the Green Movement of 2009, surveillance equipment was used to covertly photograph protestors at demonstrations, and use them as intimidation tactics. Therefore, when Barghi started approaching people on the streets of Tehran, she found them cautious and suspicious about being photographed anonymously for a public platform. Although Barghi has never spoken publicly about moving away from HONY fandom, her comments are indicative of a certain fannish discomfort she felt when she attempted to replicate Stanton's methods in in Iran: "I love the captions that 'Humans of New York' provides for its photos, but it's not the same in Tehran, people don't want to tell their stories. People are very, very private, as soon as people go outside, they become private people and they set up these barriers." As a fan and creator of an alternate fanverse, Barghi's comments complicate the Western colonial impulse of Stanton's textual world of homogeneity and normalcy, and the fact that she publicly acknowledged the messy origin story of "Humans of Tehran" and its intersection with the cultural politics of Iran indicated that she did not repudiate political discourse in favor of a culture of positivity.

[5.6] "Humans of Tehran" also inculcates a space for political discourse, either by engaging directly with political issues or by collaborating with other storytellers. Barghi works with Iranian photographers Omid Iranmehr and Nooshafarin on curating the photographs and translating the captions from Persian to English, and solicits photographs for consideration from the entire fandom, thereby allowing native Iranians to surpass the colonial lens, and tell their own stories. "Humans of Tehran" addresses a wide variety of complex and sometimes uncomfortable political issues, such as government censorship, the growing suicide rate among young women, and the struggles of maintaining transcontinental familial connections in the face of the US travel ban. To encourage young people to vote in the presidential elections, the page ran a series profiling students and young professionals, where they shared what it meant for them to lend their voices to partisan politics. The page also highlights the voices of women in technology in Iran, an area frequently overlooked by American photojournalists. One post featured a female graduate student who had been accepted to doctoral programs in the US, but who had to turn down her acceptance because of the travel ban. Another post interviewed a blogger who narrated a story about becoming weary of the white, meritocratic technoculture of Silicon Valley, and returned to Iran to open an independent bookstore. Political commentary also takes the form of satire, as in a photograph of a newsstand captioned: "Newsstands in Tehran are absolutely awesome—you can find anything in them, lock, stock and barrel." The caption is a mischievous reference to the fact that newsstands in Iran run a flourishing trade in alcohol and marijuana, even in the face of government control and a possible death sentence.

[5.7] The third difference lies in the way "Humans of Tehran" views humanity not through an overtly sentimentalized lens, but as a signifier of communal diversity. Where Stanton saw Iranians as unremarkable in their normalcy and Western integration, Barghi portrays Tehran as a rich and multicultural metropolis through photographic micro-series of the ethnic minorities in Iran. A series of photos taken at a Sikh gurdwara in Tehran speaks of the experience of being a turbaned Sikh sardar who speaks Persian with an effortless Iranian accent. Another series features a young man from a Persian-speaking, Muslim minority in China, who had traced his heritage back to the Bukhara district of Iran. Unlike HONY, the coverage of ethnic minorities is not always positive and uplifting. The page has collaborated with the "We are all Afghan" advocacy campaign to raise awareness about the persecuted Afghan refugees in Iran by sharing photographs describing the ethnic discrimination and racism faced by this community.

[5.8] The three differences between political conversation on "Humans of New York" and "Humans of Tehran" are conducted within the infrastructure of allowing Iranians to regain control over their own narratives and depict their culture on their own terms. They affirm that actionable photography can tell stories and raise awareness about political issues without shutting out political conversation, or silencing marginalized voices. Barghi has never publicly disavowed HONY, or indicated that she had become apathetic toward the fandom. However, as Busse (2018) argued, fans can sometimes replace their attachment to a canonical text with an alternate fanverse full of new creative possibilities. Unlike the color-blind humanity of the canonical HONY universe, "Humans of Tehran" can be read as an alternate fanverse that engages with Iranian cultural and political issues in a way that celebrates the community's ethnical uniqueness, while allowing for room to critique government autocracy. It continues to pay homage to the civic-mindedness of the HONY fandom, but pushes back against Western colonial interventionism by allowing the community to tell their own stories, and offers alternatives to the dichotomy of demonization and integration that characterizes stories about Iran in American photojournalism.

6. Conclusion

[6.1] HONY was purportedly meant to create a space for community and storytelling, focused on appreciating ordinary human interactions between strangers. However, as Stanton started getting global recognition as a celebrity philanthropist, the culture of positivity for which the fandom was renowned was channeled into a draconian moderation policy that augmented an invisible normativity of white masculinity. Stanton's model of universal humanity silenced marginalized voices amongst his fandom, and homogenized other cultures in a misdirected attempt to humanize the unfamiliar for a Western, white audience. In 2015, Stanton delivered a lecture at the University of Dublin where he spoke about being in negotiations with Facebook about using keyword filters to moderate the comment section, and altering the Facebook mobile app such that comments would be organized in order of popularity instead of chronologically, pushing the upvoted comments to the top of the post, where they would have the most visibility ( This would allow Stanton to maintain the culture of positivity by upvoting the comments that aligned with his own vision and further suppressing dissenting opinions. Therefore, on a social media platform that is already premised on color-blind content protection clauses, HONY's contrived culture of positivity becomes an even larger threat to marginalized voices within the fandom.

[6.2] Fans have pushed back against the culture of positivity on HONY by voicing their disapproval in the Facebook comment sections, and continuing the conversation on other social media platforms when they were banned from commenting on HONY. They have also used any digital media tools, networks, and platforms at their disposal to combat Stanton's gatekeeping efforts, and make sure that a testimony of sexual trauma was preserved on the annals of internet history. The critique of the culture of positivity and the subsequent guerrilla warfare staged by HONY fans establish their right to articulate their political opinions on an interest-driven network, and affirm that no fandom can be apolitical, even if the object of fandom specifically demands it. The spreadability of HONY as a template for actionable photography also makes it possible for spin-off groups to engage more directly with local politics and representations. "Humans of Tehran" has structural similarities to HONY that makes it a part of the HONY spin-off tradition, but it deconstructs the model of universal humanity, pushes back against Western colonial understandings of the cultural Other, and encourages the community to regain control over their narratives. Therefore, as a fan-created artifact that violates one of the central tenets of the original fandom, "Humans of Tehran" can be read as an alternative fandom that replaces the rules of the canonical text with new rules and possibilities. The varied fan responses to the culture of positivity of HONY confirm that fans can engage with political discourses through a myriad of different ways, some of which might even conflict with the ideologies of the touchstone text. Political talk within fan spaces does not fit the historically understood categories of civic engagement, but it is critical to establishing how spaces of everyday talk contribute to the development of a political consciousness.

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