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The sullied and un-hip Web?

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image These Humans of New York don't look like they would sully up the Web. MItch Traphagen Photo

Yes, I'm afraid to say it but there is lawn-tractor porn.


Sometimes I think the Web is the bane of society’s existence. The (assumed) anonymity of it seems to bring forth crass and downright rude behavior from otherwise apparently decent people. Not only that, but I can’t begin to count the industries upon which it has wreaked havoc with little in the way of return. When was the last time you visited a travel agent?  When was the last time you bought a CD?  Newspapers, local television, mom and pop retail stores (and some big box stores), even florists have taken a hard hit in being replaced by a handful of billion dollar companies (on paper) with a handful of cool billionaires (on paper) and several dozen minimum wage jobs. OK, maybe that is a slight exaggeration. Maybe.

Now before I sound like a raving Luddite eviscerating technological advancement in the defense of the buggy whip industry, I am well aware that the Web is probably the greatest achievement of our era. It has connected the world and has played a key role in toppling dictatorships. But that doesn’t mean I can’t be irritated by it now and again. Actually, in fairness, it’s not the Web so much as the anonymously obnoxious people that sully it up for the rest of us.

I got my first computer in the late 1970s, and I connected to the Internet before there was a Web, when connecting meant calling a long-distance phone number in Washington, D.C. to get a text screen that welcomed me to go anywhere that I specifically knew to look. The Google guys weren’t billionaires yet — at that time they were probably young enough to think a nickel was better than a dime because it was bigger.

Since then technology has progressed, of course, but socially we seem to have regressed. Today when I see the vile underbelly of the World Wide Web (It’s almost impossible to not see it. I once did a search on a phrase involving lawn tractors — and yes, believe it or not, there is lawn tractor porn. Seriously — who wants that? And then, of course, there is the endless flow of chain emails, partisan whacked-out blogs and comments of the downright caustic and ignorant to such a degree they suck the life out of….well, life.), I wonder what the future holds for us. I’m almost certain that at some point all of these computers are going to realize that, as a collective society, we aren’t all that bright and they are just going to take over and suck out our souls. Just Because They Can. Of even greater concern is some people might not notice that.

Suffice to say that despite spending the bulk of my life working on or with computers, I’ve become somewhat jaded. Perhaps if computers had managed to build the long-promised flying cars or jet packs for the masses I would be more forgiving, but they haven’t. In fact, I think that despite having the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, we are actually on the verge of becoming dumber.

Even the uber-socially connected New York Times columnist David Carr told The Verge (theverge.com) that the web (presumably meaning out in the wild via a browser) doesn’t really exist for him anymore. And this is a guy who is so hip that he probably doesn’t even recognize himself in the morning because even in his sleep his hip-ness increased to the point that yesterday’s Carr wasn’t nearly as hip as today’s. Regardless, by and large, he’s jaded about the Web’s tendency towards self-promotion, other people’s kid promotions, and an overabundance of foolishness, insolence and nonsense. In other words, it’s not just me being a cranky old guy; there are at least two of us.

And then, just when I was almost at the point of completely losing my mind (no, really, I haven’t yet) to the relentless onslaught of cute and remarkably superficial quote images shared by people who apparently make a living by endlessly cranking out superficial quote images on Facebook (they sit there and make you smile, but slide right off your brain the moment you scroll past them), I stumbled across HONY.

HONY is the Humans of New York. It is a website, a blog, and a Facebook page with nearly 200,000 fans. A young man named Brandon Stanton took to the streets of New York, hoping to photograph 10,000 people and catalog their stories and locations across the city, created it in 2010. It quickly became more than simply an archival project, however. HONY began to share life in all of its normalcy and glory with an ever-growing audience. Mr. Stanton is not only a skilled photographer with an excellent eye for perspective, beauty (in all forms) and irony, but also he may well be the best caption writer the world has ever known. He has the unique ability to share a compelling story in 20 or so words and often with as few as five.

What struck me most about HONY, however, was that thousands of people would click “Like” on the photos and captions, and hundreds would share comments — and virtually all of them were positive and uplifting comments!  For me, it was like being connected to a Web in a much happier parallel universe.  Later I found out that Mr. Stanton spends a great deal of time keeping those comments positive by deleting the negative ones. He allows someone to disparage him but has zero tolerance for someone slamming the person or persons who are the subject of his photographs. To date, he has photographed nearly 4,000 people. He almost always interacts with them and asks for their permission to take their photo, along with an insanely pertinent question that brings the pixels of the photograph to life for his readers.
Simply put, it is beautiful and wonderful and it accurately, I believe, portrays humanity for the completely normal, compassionate, confused, creative, committed, emotional, happy, sad and amazing creatures we are.

Of course, in New York there is a endless parade of such humanity. To my pleasant surprise, I also found Humans of Florida. Created by photographer, artist, RN and all-around cool person Marilyn Behar Lerman, HOF is not simply a clone of HONY, Marilyn puts her own spin on things with more interaction between artist and subject and more in-depth stories to accompany the photographs. She also beautifully reveals the oft-mentioned but rarely-uttered-as-a-positive diversity in the Sunshine State. People here are literally from here, there and everywhere, and there is magic in what they bring to Florida, as Marilyn’s photos and stories so beautifully illustrate.

“Everyone’s story contributes to this thing we call humanity,” said Marilyn, a former Human of New York that has called Florida home for the past 25 years. Certainly, she is our gain.

I have been a cynical son of a…gun, lately. People aren’t flaming idiots sullying up the Web, at least not all of them. People really are beautiful and fascinating, and the world would be a pretty boring place without every single one of us. So basically, those two sites have restored some faith in humanity and have saved the Web for me.

Well, that and funny cat videos, that is. I doubt even David Carr could resist a funny cat video.

Humans of Florida is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/HumansOfFlorida. Humans of New York is on Facebook at www.facebook.com/humansofnewyork or at www.humansofnewyork.com.

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