Social media has perverted charitable giving and turned tragedy into spectacle. Two recent videos which received national attention prove this point quite nicely.
The first is the case of Garden City High School custodian Brian Junk. A group of students at the school noticed that Junk’s work boots were in poor condition, so they pooled their money and purchased a new set of boots for Junk. They presented the boots to him, recorded his reaction, and posted it on social media. The video and the story were picked up by local media outlets and for a day or two it was the feel good story on syndicated news outlets across the country.
The act of taking up a collection and helping out a man who is dedicated to his school and its students is in no way a malicious act, and if there is only one counter to the argument that I am about to make, it’s that the publicity surrounding guerilla acts of generosity will help to precipitate more of it amongst our young people. But the motivations behind charity are more important than the charity itself.
People give to the less fortunate for reasons ranging from self-aggrandizing narcissism to empathy. Politicians work in soup kitchens and roll up their sleeves at disaster sites, not because they actually care about the homeless and poor, but because they want to convince voters that they do. There are thousands of charity stunt videos where obscene amounts of money are given away to homeless individuals in order to force a video to go viral. Many of those videos have millions of views. Aside from what Youtube pays these content creators in advertisements, many of them also have sponsorship deals and sell their own merchandise. Whatever is given away in these videos is less than the value of the exposure and the cost of production.
But let us return to Brian Junk, the students who gave him the boots, crowded around him and each videoed him as he opened his gift. Whether or not the students purposefully staged the event for publicity is irrelevant because the end result is the same. The recipient of the charity is made into an other, a lesser being for us to take pity on. These videos allow us to experience the positive emotions of charity without having to participate in it, and the public enjoys that feeling, and because the public enjoys feeling good about itself, these videos are produced by and publicized by media companies for profit.
The current spectacle of small and individual acts of charity taint the altruism of the original act. Social media, like so many other things, has made intimate acts of charity public and self serving. Those kids had good intentions I’m sure, but their gift shouldn’t have been staged for a performance. The titles of the videos above read like perverse game shows or unethical social experiments, and prove that turning charity into media perverts it and dehumanizes the less fortunate.
If the students want to buy their school janitor new boots, then by all means they should, but they shouldn’t benefit at all from the act with exposure through social media. Brian Junk being paraded through the media for his implied poverty sets him apart and destroys his dignity.
Social media has also changed the way that society processes and deals with intimate and personal tragedy. People beg for donations for cancer treatment. Online prayer chains are places for gossip. A post about a neighbor’s cheating wife isn’t a sin if a prayer for the children comes at the end. Every negative interpersonal experience becomes public as each participant rallies their online support systems and sends them off to do battle. If a bully at school says something nasty, the appropriate response on the part of the parent is no longer to comfort their child and teach them to overcome through private inner strength, it’s to record the child’s tears and weaponize the faceless hive mind.
Take the case of Keaton Jones. A video of Keaton crying went viral after being shared by his mother. Keaton and his mother got national attention for the video, and a crowdfunding campaign raised more than $50,000. There are now pictures of Keaton online hanging out with celebrities, and his family completed an interview circuit a few days after the video got picked up nationwide.
The most disturbing thing about the video is the notion that the first instinct of any parent, when faced with their emotionally devastated child would be to pull out a phone and conduct an interview. In that moment, Keaton didn’t need a show of solidarity from celebrities, news media, and followers. In that moment, Keaton needed a kind word and guidance from his mother.
What is more disturbing is the way social media has changed bullying itself. Acts of bullying are now hyped and staged. There are thousands of videos with millions of views of children. Unfortunately, the recent case of Lauren Williams is not as unique as the media would have you believe. Any school teacher frequently sees cases of bullying like Lauren’s. Lauren has a skin condition and wears a wig. Bullies at her school ripped that wig off, humiliated Lauren, recorded it, and shared it. Those students followed the crying and screaming girl into the bathroom and even went as far as taping her over the stall.
It’s not hard to imagine dozens of students at the school watching that video and laughing. It’s not even hard to imagine the students who committed the act bragging and being congratulated on a superior act of cruelty. The public nature of all action has changed our exposure to cruelty and our tolerance for it. Students who previously needed to overcome one bully, now have to manage a complex web of social media that could include a majority of their class. The embarrassing act becomes so public that every sideways glance arouses suspicion.
For these students, home doesn’t even provide respite from their suffering. Their cell phones cross the threshold too. The devices and software are designed so that interaction is irresistible. They can’t help but pour over the comments. The bullies can look up their accounts and send messages directly into the home. There never is time for peace, recovery, or reflection. The online mob is relentless, and aside from withdrawing from social media, the only solution seems to be to rally a sympathetic mob to combat. The end result is that the two sides duke it out only until a fresh outrage emerges. The bully never learns that actions have tangible consequences, and the victim never learns self reliance, assertiveness, and quiet confidence.
But social media hasn’t only changed the extremes of life, it has changed the more mundane and routine aspects as well. The infinite scrolling of social media never ends. New content is created at a pace that only increases as the personal social network expands. There is always some new and tantalizing bit of information to consume, and there is a constant and nagging need to consume it for fear of missing out. It has become socially acceptable for a person to check their phone while being addressed by another person. We’ve all seen the husband and wife sitting at the restaurant table so completely engrossed by their phones that they don’t make eye contact before the bill arrives. I’ve flipped through social media during family functions and during family meals. Many of us have.
Our spouses and family holidays represent the known. It’s difficult to justify listening to grandpas tired stories and pretending to hear them for the first time whenever infinite novelty is at hand.
When we aren’t ignoring each other though, we are arranging our lives for the consumption of strangers. Every meal must be photographed and captioned. Every restaurant must be reviewed and liked. Every event must by recorded, shared, commented on, and poured over. Nothing is ever fully experienced. Our attention is always facing toward our devices, our efforts are in appearing as we are not, and our concern is with displaying the best of ourselves for others.
The result is that we ignore the people we care about the most for those we care about the least in an effort to impress the best parts of our lives on others for our own grandeur. We are all living in a constant high school reunion. We weigh our lives against the lives of others in order to determine our value as people. It’s satisfying to see the school bully go through a nasty divorce or a prolonged unemployment. It’s even better to know that he will see the posts you’re making from your vacation to Cancun.
Either side of the equation is harmful to society in general. The social media obsessed are either covetous failures or successful braggarts. There isn’t much in between, but both sides are forsaking the important relationships right in front of them for the trivial and invisible mass of accumulated acquaintances.