Is there a problem with social media giving?

Humans of New York logo

There’s been a lot of coverage recently of the £1 million dollars Humans of New York raised for Mott Hall Academy in Brownsville, Brooklyn. It’s a great story. If you’re already familiar with the story, you can skip to the what could possibly be wrong section. If you’re fresh to it, then let me catch you up quickly.

Vidal Meets Brandon

Humans of New York is the brainchild of Brandon Stanton. He takes pictures of New Yorkers and captions these with their answers to questions he puts to them. Here’s what happened when he met Vidal.

Brandon later met the inspirational headteacher and asked her what he could do to help. Ms Lopez said how important it was for the children to feel at home in elite institutions, so she suggested Brandon help her fundraise for a regular class trip to Harvard University.

The fundraiser was massively successful, meeting its 100,000 target in less than a day and eventually exceeding a million dollars. The Harvard trip was guaranteed for years to come and extra money put towards a summer program at the school and a scholarship fund for Vidal. A meeting between Ms Lopez, Vidal, Brandon and President Obama followed. Ms Lopez confessed she had been on the verge of breaking but had been reinvigorated by the messages of support from all around the world.

So a great feel good story in an otherwise rather bleak news cycle.


What could possibly be wrong here?

 It is a great feel good story but there is a problem with stories like this that focus on a few individuals.

The narrative is of a problem which is then solved. A teacher is reinvigorated, a school reborn. The social media feel good story has finished its arc and within a few months the internet will have moved on to something else. The story of Vidal, Ms Lopez and the other students and teachers at Mott Hall Academy should, however, be the start of a conversation not the end of it.

This conversation should include questions about how many other schools and neighbourhoods are in similar straits and why they are in this position. We need to zoom out from these individual stories to the bigger picture. If we don’t, I’m worried that nothing will ever really change.

To stem the impeding hate mail, let’s be clear about something. This is a general worry about society rather than an indictment of those who gave. I’m well aware that many of the individuals who gave money to HONY are not only aware of the bigger picture but actively working to change it.

However, news reporting of the story just doesn’t talk about the general problems faced by the countless other schools like Mott Hall and the reasons for these problems. The wider issues aren’t even addressed in many of the mainstream media articles. When that happens, individual stories can become a distraction from change rather than its impetus.

Below are some stories from the big publishers so that you can judge for yourself. It’s worth noting that PBS (where they just let Lopez speak) seems an exception to what I’m talking about. Ms Lopez arguably contradicts me when she says “I think what has been highlighted are other communities of need.” Let’s hope she’s right, that the highlight doesn’t fade and the right questions are asked.

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