Title

Life storytelling around the digital campfire: Commenters’ networked participation on the humans of New York Facebook page

Author Identifiers

Li GUO

https://orcid.org/0000-0002-5646-0626

Date of Award

2022

Degree Type

Thesis

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

School

School of Arts and Humanities

First Advisor

Danielle Brady

Second Advisor

Paul Arthur

Abstract

This thesis investigated one ongoing life storytelling project, Humans of New York (HoNY) and, in particular, commenters’ networked participation on its Facebook page. HoNY collects oral life stories and portraits of ordinary people worldwide primarily through impromptu conversations, before transcribing and publishing them on its official website and social media platforms including Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Since its establishment in 2010, HoNY has attracted approximately 30 million social media followers and given rise to more than 50 projects imitating its format around the world.

This thesis focused on the comments and stories posted on HoNY’s Facebook page and aimed to answer two research questions: 1) How can HoNY be understood as a life storytelling project? ; 2) In what ways do commenters on the HoNY Facebook page participate in the project? The broader concern of this thesis was to examine the interplay between life storytelling and social media, and especially, how they are being reshaped by each other in this digital age. To answer the two research questions, two groups of theoretical perspectives were applied in this thesis. The first group was drawn from the literature on storytelling and narratives, mainly including “second stories”, “small stories” and “dimensions of living narratives”, focusing on the narrating aspect of HoNY. The second group incorporates “communication community”, “egological intersubjectivity” and “radical intersubjectivity”, “participatory culture” and “networked publics”, focusing on the interactive and participatory aspects of HoNY. Narrative analysis and textual analysis were the two main methodologies utilised for data analysis.

The main findings of the thesis were as follows. HoNY is a life storytelling project embedding a contradiction between the diversity in the lived experiences of its protagonists and the uniformity in its narrator and narrating format. In HoNY, protagonists’ life narratives undergo a transition from being oral autobiographical telling to being biographical digital traces. However, this significant transition is covered or at least downplayed by the stories being transcribed in the first-person voice of “I”, demonstrating the continuity between HoNY and life narrating before the digital age. Nonetheless, HoNY is still essentially different from life storytelling projects or work before the digital age, in that, commenters’ networked participation on its Facebook page becomes an inseparable part of and profoundly reshape the project.

In contrast with HoNY’s homogeneous manner of narrating life stories, commenters on the HoNY Facebook page receive these stories in heterogeneous and even colliding ways. Commenters form networked publics, who engage with the stories by decoding, untangling and co-creating multiple meanings and, in so doing, establish a sense of discursive and imaginary intimacy and solidarity with the narrated protagonists and with each other. However, this sense of intimacy and solidarity is contingent as the commenters, at the same time, appropriate and manipulate the stories to serve their individual and even competing agenda. Whether it is between the commenters and protagonists or between the commenters themselves, intersubjectivities mobilised through their interactions are much more often egocentric rather than mutual.

This research served as a starting point to future inquiries on the great number of life storytelling projects imitating HoNY’s format. More significantly, it has interrogated the intersection of life writing and social media studies and contributed to the increasingly needed effort in bridging the two fields in this digital age.

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