Father Kevin always told us not to boast about our good deeds, but I believe Matthew the Apostle said it first. Raised Catholic and now lapsed-with-some-exceptions (I tend to find God on turbulent planes, during bouts of food poisoning, and once at the top of Splash Mountain in Walt Disney World, Florida), I find parts of my religious upbringing stick with me. I feel a lot of guilt. I try to do unto others. And, despite knowing better, I baulk when someone boasts about giving to charity.
The internet, then, is increasingly difficult to navigate. While I often cry at touching viral videos – such as one posted at the end of June, in which Bristol students gifted a university cleaner £1,500 for a holiday – I cynically wonder whether these interactions really need to be filmed. Well-meaning students are one thing, but on YouTube there is a whole genre of charitable videos that are, on second glance, anything but.
In a video titled “GIVING YEEZY’S [sic] TO HOMELESS PEOPLE!”, 18-year-old YouTuber Tanner Fox sells a pair of Yeezys (trainers designed by the rapper Kanye West that retail for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of pounds) in order to buy food and toiletries for the homeless.
“You really thought that I was going to give all these Yeezys to the homeless?” Fox says incredulously at the beginning of the video, ignoring the fact that these are the words he chose for the title. While he commendably uses $400 (£303) to give ten homeless people gifts, he also films their tears. This – and the title of the video – are used to encourage as many people as possible to watch, which in turn allows Fox to earn more money (there are three adverts in the 14-minute film). So far, the footage has been viewed 1.3 million times, meaning Fox has earned anywhere between £1,400 and £3,600. Not bad.
There is now an entire genre of videos on YouTube where wealthy vloggers exploit homeless people for views. In “Giving Homeless $100 Every 10 Minutes…” the ViralBrothers call people “junkies” and “drunks” before finding the “right” homeless person to give money to (first they “test him” to see if he is “a nice guy”). They give the man a new bill every ten minutes and film his reaction, as though his life is a game.
The manipulation in this video crosses a line, but is filming your good deeds inherently wrong? These videos go viral because there is an appetite for them, and despite the pious little Catholic grumbling in the back of my head, I can’t deny that they can do good.
If a homeless person gets toiletries and food, does it matter where they got them? If a YouTuber gives to charity and no one hears about it, it doesn’t make a sound. We need the falling tree of charity to crash and boom around the forest, so that people can see and hear that giving generously is aspirational. “I am inspired,” reads one comment under Fox’s video. In another, a fan asks if any other viewers would be up for helping the homeless in their local park. Children imitate YouTubers, and it is far better that they learn to give generously than to – as other vloggers encourage – buy more toys, lipsticks and merchandise for themselves. I’m far from alone in my status as a lapsed Catholic – in the modern world, young people can learn morals from a new breed of floppy-haired atheist disciples.
Still, there’s nothing wrong with being cynical. Charitable giving is now even part of the patented “YouTube apology”, made when an online celebrity messes up. After 24-year-old YouTuber Alfie Deyes (net worth approximately £4m) was criticised for filming a video in which he tried to live on £1 for a day, he apologised for trivialising poverty and decided that “100 per cent of the profits from that video” would be donated to charity. This is a common trope – and one which obscures the fact that the apology video itself makes the star even more money.
It’s about now that I should admit that I’m a hypocrite. When a friend raises money online for a charity via a crowdfunding service, you are often given the option while donating to write your name or stay anonymous. Father Kevin and Matthew before him would undoubtedly have me tick the “anonymous” box, but sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I want my friend to know that I care about their cause. That I support them. And yes – Lord have mercy on my eternal soul! – that I donated £10 more than Bethany, whom I hate.
Such is the way of the web. On social media, users post and boast about their donations, and as with many things, people may feel compelled to talk about charity in an effort to keep up with their peers. Thankfully, the internet is also a vehicle in itself for charitable giving. More money can be raised with a viral GoFundMe page than with a sponsorship form and a tin for pennies, and charity campaigns cash in on narcissism by asking people to post photos of themselves after they donate.
Who, really, can complain?
“Take heed that ye do not your righteousness before men,” Matthew said – but he said it before Facebook.
If I’m honest, I shall continue to find certain videos distasteful. Anyone who profits from the struggles of the less fortunate may not have to worry about heaven – but they should think more carefully about their impact here on Earth. Yet there is a difference between an online star filming the homeless and a student simply sharing the unadulterated joy on a cleaner’s face after he receives a generous gift. Yes, perhaps they profit in some way by making their good deeds known, but between the fake news, arguments and jealousy, social media should make us feel good about ourselves and the world – just sometimes.
This article appears in the 04 Jul 2018 issue of the New Statesman, England in the age of Brexit