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Day 11/06/2014

Just Ask: Amanda Palmer, Humans of New York, and the Art of Connecting

I’m a big fan of questions as a vehicle for intellectual growth. Recently I started thinking about questions as a vehicle for interpersonal growth.

When alt-rock musician Amanda Palmer launched a $25,000 Kickstarter campaign to cut an album, her donations mushroomed to $1.3 million.

In her much-discussed 2013 TED talk, with 5.6 million views to date, she makes the case that digital music should be free and shareable, and that fans should support musicians directly.

But one aspect of her talk, “The Art of Asking,” made me uncomfortable. On tour, Palmer asks her fans for a lot more than money. She posts requests on Twitter — for meals, places to stay, instruments, opening acts, a neti pot — and her fans provide. Her art of asking struck me as a bit audacious, a bit narcissistic.

Around the same time as Palmer’s talk, I discovered Humans of New York, the photoblog created by Brandon Stanton and popularized in a bestselling book (Amazon) and a HONY Facebook page with 6.1 million followers to date.

The HONY formula is quite simple: Stanton approaches strangers, asks to photograph them, and interviews them. He then posts their portraits online, along with a pithy excerpt of their conversations.

But these are no ordinary conversations between strangers. As an interviewer, Stanton often probes his subjects’ inner fears, regrets, and pain.

A few examples from the past week.

Screenshot 2014-06-11 06.54.34






Over the 15 months that I have followed Humans of New York, I have been moved again and again by the candor and authenticity of Stanton’s subjects. More than that, I’ve been amazed by the response. Not just the exponential growth of Stanton’s audience, but the demonstrations of empathy and support in that audience. Occasional replies will be essay-length outpourings of shared experiences — the best of which are “liked” by thousands and rise to the top of the comments chain.

Among the tens of thousands of HONY’s fans who write enthusiastic replies are hundreds willing to go a step further. Through crowdfunding, Stanton raised money for a horse-crazy boy with special needs to visit a dude ranch with his parents, for kids in Bedford-Stuyvesant to attend summer camp, and for a family to adopt the sibling of their Ethiopian-born child. In each case, the crowd has vastly outpaced the fundraising goals, often by a factor or two or three.

A recent post spurred a striking grassroots call to action.


A man shares an intimate and painful memory, and nineteen thousand people, many wiling to send money and even travel to New York, express interest in the idea of throwing him a party. [The HONY site doesn’t clarify if this is happening, and comments seem to be closed.]

HONY regularly inspires outpourings of concern and affection like this.

In fact, HONY sometimes makes me think that the general public is just waiting around for opportunities to help, to mend past pain, to offer support to perfect strangers. I suspect this is, in a way, true. HONY seems to speak to a very real hunger for meaning and connection that many of us have. I call this “the HONY Effect.”

What struck me recently, then, was the connection to Amanda Palmer’s TED Talk. The good will among strangers that HONY inspires would not be possible but for one act: Stanton asks.

I think the roots of real connection as simple as this.

And on second viewing, Palmer’s talk is not at root about the music industry. It’s not even about asking, really. It’s about creating a connection. And more than that, it’s about what’s possible when people feel connected to each other.

The media asked, “Amanda, the music business is tanking and you encourage piracy. How did you make all these people pay for music?” And the real answer is, I didn’t make them. I asked them. And through the very act of asking people, I’d connected with them, and when you connect with them, people want to help you. (…)

For most of human history, musicians, artists, they’ve been part of the community, connectors and openers, not untouchable stars.

[I blog and tweet] not just about my tour dates and my new video but about our work and our art and our fears and our hangovers, our mistakes. And we see each other. And I think when we really see each other, we want to help each other.

What Palmer and Stanton seem to have demonstrated is that a sense of connection may be all it takes to spur people to be open and generous.

They just need to be asked.

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