When we started Humans of St. Louis (HOSTL), we were two social work students inspired by Humans of New York (HONY), wandering around downtown St. Louis in the winter, and a lot of people wouldn’t talk to us. Week after week we kept at it, feeling out our approach, going to different neighborhoods, and five years later we're still talking to strangers to share those random run-ins with all of you.
As the audience has grown, there have been a lot of questions about who we talk to, where we go, what we ask, and why. How do other “Humans of” site’s work, and why did we choose to become a nonprofit? So we thought it would be informative here to share more about how HOSTL started and how is evolving.
The truth is, there’s no formula for who we approach, what we ask, and where the conversation leads when we look for stories. It’s organic in the sense that storytellers will head to any neighborhood and approach people on the street who seem available to talk and the conversation just unfolds. When we hit the streets for a few hours, we might choose a place or an event to go to to start. Early on, we decided a 30-mile radius around St. Louis would be a good size area to consider venturing around. Most of the interviews take place in the City because there is more foot traffic there, but we’ve also shared stories from the County, Illinois, and throughout Missouri. It’s been incredible to see how the audience has received those.
Most of the interviews take place outside because this is a street photography project. We do not typically solicit companies or ask for permission to talk to a restaurant’s patrons. Public spaces like the metro, libraries, and museums are great to meet people though, and when it’s cold out, we will duck into spots like these or even go to college campuses because it’s more comfortable to conduct interviews when the weather gets extreme. Once in a while, people invite us into their businesses and homes. And one in a while requests and come in through our inbox or someone we’ve met.
After introducing ourselves and the concept of HOSTL to who we meet, we get permission to interview and jump into it with open-ended questions, like, What are you most proud of? Who’s been your biggest cheerleader? When’s a time you had to take a fork in the road and how did you choose? What’s the hardest advice you’ve ever had to take? What’s on your mind today? The interviewee essentially chooses where the story starts to go from the topic they bring up, a memory, or a lesson learned that they decide to share. We take their portrait, ask again if it’s okay to share with our audience what they shared with us, and exchange contact info. During the editing process, their pictures are paired with their quotes, and we run it by the subject again to correct for accuracy. Then, we let them know when everything will post. Without this layer of consensus building to ensure the subject is okay to move forward, HOSTL would not work.
As soon as we publish the photostories to social media, the second part of this storytelling comes to life when the audience weighs in with their impressions, encouragement, cheers, resources, questions, occasional criticism, but mostly support. We try to promote a respectful conversation on the site. A profanity filter is set to automatically grey out anything with swear words. Those comments are occasionally unhidden as long as they are not hateful toward someone else on the thread. As long as followers aren’t bullying, swearing toward others, or trolling, all comments are welcome. Inappropriate followers are given a warning in private, then in public, and, in extreme cases, blocked. So far, there have only been about six people blocked in the page’s entirety.
Before attempting to start HOSTL, we wrote Brandon Stanton, the founder of HONY, but he’s a busy guy. We get it! So we figured if there are so many other “Humans of” pages people are running, then it should be okay to try to start one in our city, too. We reached out to HONY again but didn’t hear anything, so we launched HOSTL in May 2014.
That week, the admin for a private group called “Humans for Humans” invited us to join. It’s made up of all the storytellers for other active “Humans of” pages so that everyone can stay in touch around the world. It’s been wonderfully helpful to be connected to a larger community of image-makers and interviewers doing something just as specific yet different than us. We are able to ask each other advice about interviewing, editing, collaborating with companies, building books, and highlighting amazing humans from Dublin and Amsterdam to Minneapolis and San Antonio.
A year after HOSTL launched, private messages started coming in from companies and organizations asking if we could do this same type of storytelling by generating content and sharing some of it with our growing audience for a fee. We received our first ask in May 2015 to do a collaboration with the Ferguson Commission who was looking for a storytelling component as they built their report, Forward Through Ferguson: A Path Toward Racial Equity. We ended up interviewing all 16 commissioners as well as community members who spoke to the four pillars outlined: Youth at the Center, Justice for All, Racial Equity, and Opportunity to Thrive. Then Parents and Researchers Interested in Smyth-Magenis Syndrome (PRISMS, Inc.) and the St. Louis Regional Chamber of Commerce asked us to capture a series for them also.
We shared a selection of that work on our page that we thought the audience would appreciate and we realized that being a part of making those series gave us access to individuals who we may not always be able to run into on the street. Plus, these in-depth pieces took another level of planning, care, coordination, and more wear and tear on camera equipment. So it felt rewarding to know that we were compensated and could reinvest in HOSTL even more. HONY has publicly shared that he’s able to do his work full-time because he gets paid from presentations and sales generated from his three book publications. We spent a year debating which business model would be best for HOSTL and sought a lot of input from our teachers, mentors, and social network who had been following the project. By May 2017, we incorporated as a nonprofit with three board members and one lead storyteller. It was important for us to build a community project that wasn’t owned by any one person, but that could create room to build a team, grow, become sustainable, and continue the storytelling for years to come.
Since becoming a 501(c)3, HOSTL has continued to feed the feed with regular everyday HOSTL stories as well as the ones we build together with our partners. However we are introduced to the subjects, they have given us the biggest gift to be able to keep the storytelling page alive. And the partners have done the same by requesting our services and trusting us to generate content in the HOSTL style. HOSTL will always provide free content for the public on our pages. And, for organizational sustainability, we have been able to flourish from a mix of paid content partnerships, photography sales, grants, speaking engagements, and donations. Our model is different from other “Humans of” pages for many reasons, and there was a lot of trial and error along the way, but it has worked well so far since we began with just 300 followers on the first day.
As we transitioned to becoming a nonprofit, our partnerships grew in more ways, too. We continued working with Forward Through Ferguson to build a series around the report’s 189 Calls to Action by bringing attention to how people are incorporating them at the forefront of their work. This was followed by the #STL2039 series to show people’s vision for St. Louis 25 years after the death of Mike Brown. We have worked with Migrant and Immigrant Community Action Project (MICA) to do their Portraying Humanity series, with the United Way to interview their donors and volunteers, with St. Louis Community Foundation to share stories of their work with Invest STL in revitalizing Cornerstone and Dutchtown, with the Regional Arts Commission to highlight the contributions of artists in the creative community, and St. Louis Community Credit Union to show how the not-for-profit financial cooperative is more than just a credit union.
In the past, we have referred to this work as collaborations. Recently, we have been asked by some viewers to follow the Federal Trade Commission Endorsement Guides and include a hashtag delineating the difference between regular everyday HOSTL and collaborations. Moving forward, we will be adding #paidcontentpartnership at the end of stories HOSTL was contracted to create so there is less confusion. And we will never post #ads.
Today, the HOSTL team has grown to include a board of directors made up of 6 people; the storytelling team made up of 1 lead storyteller, 3 new storytellers in training, and a 3-5 member volunteer editing team; and the book team which fluctuates between 10-15 creatives depending on the phase of the project. It’s still a small team, and we realize that some of the stories make a large impact. We do not always agree with the featured subjects’ statements or point of views, so we added a disclaimer to the page to reflect that. Nevertheless, we do believe in valuing and promoting a culture that listens, and we are committed to sharing content that allows for conversation, growth, and reflection.
Because the co-founders and storytelling team have a background in social work, public health, and documentary street photography, our project offers a unique lens. We are open to interviewing anyone who is on the street in St. Louis when we are there too, and vice versa, as long as we mutually agree to have an honest conversation. Interviews may last anywhere from three minutes to an hour and a half. Of all the things we hear and that people confide in us (and, trust us, it is not always pleasant to listen to), as storytellers we’re always searching for and asking ourselves, “What’s the story?”
The majority of people we’ve met are genuinely good at heart. However, strangers have also told us incredibly problematic things that would be unimaginable to share with a larger audience. So we do not share hate speech and racial slurs or harassing language. At the same time, when we release a portion of what people share with us, sometimes we miss the mark. And when we do, we are committed to listening, regrouping, addressing concerns, and recalibrating. The whole point of the page through the stories we capture is a reminder for all of us to look at our neighbor and consider what they have to share and how we can learn from them. And that starts with us welcoming when the audience weighs in with contributions, feedback, or things we miss the boat on, whether it’s as small as a punctuation error or as big as requesting more context and framing.
We are so appreciative of your interest in our storytelling over the years. And we thank you for holding us accountable while also being challenged to hear perspectives different than you might hold. If we run into you on the street or are introduced to you another way, we look forward to hearing your story!
Thank you, always, for your support.