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Monday, July 2, 2012

How to cash in on internet guilt giving

Note: In case, for some reason, it isn't clear that I am not trying to disparage any of the people discussed here in the slightest, let me say that I am not trying to disparage anyone discussed here in the slightest. I'm going to describe a phenomenon and how I think it has worked or could work to their benefit, and how I think that happens.

Recently, I've seen some people being given a really hard time. Publicly, on the internet, where the world is watching. I don't mean to diminish the amount of suffering any of them has experienced by comparison with the other two-- that's not the point. The point is that they've all been attacked in ways that witnesses recognize as obviously harmful, and what those witnesses have done in response.
  • Jessica Ahlquist is a high school student who realized that a prayer hung on the wall of her public school constitutes a violation of the First Amendment. She decided to sue the school district to have it taken down, and at that moment became hated by classmates, teachers, local politicians, and generally people who consider it a violation to have endorsements of religion removed from public schools. She received a deluge of harassment via Twitter and snail mail, including death threats. The sixteen year old endured a constant stream of hate both before and after she won her lawsuit last year, and probably still does today. A state representative called her an "evil little thing" on a radio show. That phrase was re-appropriated by humanists online who had been following Ahlquist's story and sympathized with her, and placed on t-shirts sold to raise money on her behalf. The shirts raised $8,320 for a scholarship fund. A fund was also established to just donate money toward her education, which raised $48,353 in total (I don't know whether that amount includes the t-shirt funding or is separate). 
  • Anita Sarkeesian, about whom I've written plenty already, began a Kickstarter project to do a video series on sexism in video games which was greeted with a furor not unlike that about the ending for Mass Effect 3. But in her case it was personal. The promotional video she did for the project was posted on Youtube, where it was blasted with sexist trolling. There were efforts made to cancel her account based on false allegations that it violated Youtube's terms of service. Her Wikipedia page was defaced with sexist and racist language and  pornographic pictures, and-- you could see this coming, right?-- she received a torrent of insulting and hateful comments on Twitter, Facebook, some of which included threats of sexual violence. People who were already interested in her project were joined by those who were horrified to see the treatment it-- and Sarkeesian herself-- received. Ultimately Sarkeesian's $6,000 Kickstarter project turned into a $158,922 one. 
  • Karen Klein is a 68-year-old bus monitor from New York whose bullying by a group of 7th-graders was caught on video and posted to Facebook, and then Youtube. In the video the students-- four boys-- call her fat and ugly, and basically suggest in all of the creative ways they can summon that she's a worthless human being. The video of Klein spread like wildfire even though it's commonly described as "hard to watch," and Klein appeared on the Today Show to discuss her experience. A man named Max Sidorov (who doesn't have any connection to Klein that I can tell) started a fundraising project on Indiegogo to send her on vacation. His initial goal was $5,000, but the project is currently at $677,046 and has nineteen days remaining. 
An article in Forbes by Todd Essig describes why raising so much money for Klein is so easy:
The genius of the “Lets Give Karen -The bus monitor- H Klein A Vacation!” page is the way it made use not of individual psychology nor group psychology but of emerging network psychology. It first created a psychologically aversive state and then provided a relatively frictionless path to feeling better. It’s impossible to watch the video and not feel poisoned and horrified. You watch it and inevitably feel compelled to do something, anything, to get rid of that horrible feeling inside. But what can one person do to improve the human condition? And then, right there on the side of the screen there’s a bright red-pink button shouting at you and everyone else, “CONTRIBUTE NOW.” With a single click you can join the network of the virtuous and be on your way to redemption.
No need to even pick up the phone. Just click, donate, feel good. Insta-altruism. Altruism creates a pleasant feeling in the person who gives as a result of having passed something tangible to the person in need, and that's why we do it. Our feelings are triggered by the unpleasantness of witnessing someone suffering-- even if not in real time-- and improved by doing something to help them. End of story.

Except...well, all of the other stuff. Right? Even with the ability to help people instantly, there are certain triggers that make us more likely to instantly help some people rather than others. Neuroscientist Joshua Greene dug up some pretty interesting information on how people regard personal vs. impersonal moral dilemmas. He showed that according to our brain patterns, there's a clear difference between our reactions to the two-- that there's evidence of a gut impulse which makes us pay more attention and be more sure about helping people in need who are right in front of us rather than distant, even if the distant party has a greater need. So it stands to reason that people are more inclined to help someone, even generously, when the evidence of that person's suffering is right in front of your face. Greene theorizes that this tendency has evolutionary roots-- that we simply didn't have an adaptive incentive to empathize long-distance because it wasn't necessary for our ancestors who only had to interact with members of their immediate group.

The internet certainly accomplishes making it seem as if people who are actually quite far away are in fact part of your immediate group, and therefore increasing the likelihood of you feeling the pull of sympathy when seeing them suffer, or seeing people act toward them in ways that would make you suffer. But the suffering--demonstrated or implied-- needs to take a certain form in order to get a significant response, and here's what I think the maximally effective form is:
  1. Be attacked. Have something horrible happen to you as a result of the deliberate actions of others, when you were either minding your own business or in pursuit of a goal that a select audience will find sympathetic. The target's situation should be familiar or appeal to the audience's sense of justice, but preferably both. 
  2. The target should be female. I'm sorry guys, but this seems to matter.
  3. The target should not be obviously well-off, so that it doesn't seem as if she doesn't need and wouldn't appreciate financial help.
  4. Have someone set up a way for unconnected strangers who were made privy to this attack to help out financially. The easier the better, and it's also better if that person is not the target. The fund-raiser should be as distantly connected to the target as possible. 
  5. Here's what concerns me most-- the distribution of the target's experience, and the appeal by an objective third party, should not happen too often. Otherwise there's a risk of desensitizing the audience and making them less willing to care, and hence to give. 
This last point is a big indicator of why internet guilt giving is not the solution to the suffering of most human beings. Even if we could videotape every last one as he/she is being attacked and made to suffer and post them all on Youtube, we would not succeed in getting most people perusing Facebook or Twitter in the morning to care. We would simply go into appeals-for-sympathy overload, and it would continue to not work as well for people who are suffering the most-- and whose televised experiences Sally Struthers has narrated, which haven't succeeded in providing for the care of children in third world countries by first world adults. 

I'm not trying to be cynical, and I'm not trying to shame. Really. Not even in the way Essig alludes to at the end of his article, which is to say
On one hand I say bravo. Karen Klein deserved a break. And she got one by winning the social media lottery. But on the other, for those who donated, those who may have taken an online simulation of human contact to be the same as the actual thing, I fear the benefit will be short-lived. 
I fear a crowd-sourced donation will feed the souls of those giving about as well as a Farmville harvest can feed someone’s body.
I can't know this, of course, but I think this is the comment of someone who communicates online but doesn't form relationships on it. The crops and animals you care for in Farmville are not real. The people you form relationships with online are. It might be tempting to focus the few dollars sent via Paypal and say "Relationship? That?" but that misses the point. The relationship is in what triggers a person to send that money in the first place, and the satisfaction he or she feels in having helped a real person in real life. Essig suggests that making such a donation is an act performed in lieu of helping someone in "meat space," but I would say that this is actually evidence of the bias Joshua Greene describes-- that in-person altruism is somehow superior to helping someone across a distance. There certainly isn't any reason why a person can't do both, or that his or her entire social life should be summed up in the decision to click a button and send a suffering stranger some cash.

Soul-starving? Souls are supposed to be immaterial, aren't they? And yet the aid given by an online donation is tangible, based on real feelings and for the purpose of real benefit. I see nothing vacant or vacuous about that.

ETA: Hat tip to Dr. X

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