by Eric Bombicino Thursday December 20, 2012

If a charitable act doesn’t appear on Facebook, will it make a difference?

I scribbled this down a few days ago in response to a picture on Facebook. It was a friend – who hadn’t posted a picture on Facebook in months - volunteering at a local soup kitchen with some people from his work. This hour or so of selflessness was roundly applauded by various commenters while my response received a wide-range of generalized hate including the poster’s mother.

This blowback forced me to think about what I was actually trying to say. The more I thought about it, the more my mind was divisively split into two extreme and viciously opposed camps: the cynical idealist and the practical optimist.

Here’s what they had to say:

The Cynical Idealist

Charity shouldn’t be a branding exercise for your digital persona. It’s social gamesmanship, people jockeying for position trying to gobble up as many social points as they can like a megalomaniacal Pac-Man avoiding the ghosts of self-awareness. Their lives have become a videogame with numerous levels to reach on the social hierarchy; a virtual reality indistinguishable from their real lives, but more rewarding.

This is the opposite of charity.

Charity is based on empathy: the realization that whoever you are helping is the same as you and deserves dignity and respect. Charity flattens position; everyone is on the same level - as opposed to occupying a position in a social hierarchy based on "likes."

Anything that decreases empathy decreases the motivation for charity.

A 2010 study at the University of Michigan found that American college students are 40% less empathetic than they were in 1979, with the largest decline – of 48% - occurring in the past decade. As one author of the study claimed, “Generally speaking, there’s a lack of empathy as narcissism increases.”

When we stare down at our palms, furiously scanning and clicking away, we interiorize, going deeper and deeper into ourselves. We are not connecting to other people, but consuming more and more of ourselves becoming less attuned and empathetic towards others. We are becoming narcissistic

This leads us to the cruel irony at play when we post our charitable acts online. Simultaneously as we post charitable acts, we are engaging in a hierarchical game which feeds narcissistic tendencies, undercutting empathy and our motivation to do charitable acts in the first place.

The point is simple: charity is not competitive; it is not something that should feed your need to be admired or better than or help you scramble up an invisible and meaningless social ladder; it is being collectively bonded by empathy, care, and concern and the simple – yet profound – realization that we are all on the same level and all deserve dignity and respect.

Anything that does the opposite, hacks away at the roots of charity and, as Mark Kingwell argues, even our democracy:

The Practical Optimist

Unfortunately, we do not live in the best of all possible worlds. We do not have unicorns, some voters are not fully-informed, and Nickelback and Pauly Shore movies exist.

Also, as people in the western world die of as-of-yet untreatable diseases, people in less-fortunate areas of the world are dying of diseases we eradicated decades ago (19 000 children every day). Both need help and by that I mean they both need money. It’s as simple as that.

Any mechanism – bird, plane, soapbox oratory, or Facebook – that helps purchase and deploy pharmaceuticals and mosquito nets and helps pump money into R & D, saves lives.

Sure, it would be nice if everyone were motivated by pure, distilled altruism as opposed to wanting to be deemed socially valuable – which by definition they are – but how does that help get a mosquito net to a three year-old in the Sudan?

Social media is an incredible organizational tool for collective action, not just for fostering democracy in the Middle East, but charity in the West.

I could say more, but I’ll let these numbers do the talking. In 2004, a small group in Melbourne, Australia, organized 30 men to grow a mustache for 30 days during the month of November in an effort to raise awareness for prostate cancer and depression in men. This charitable group, now known as the Movember Foundation, largely through social media, has grown into a global charity that raised $125 million last year, and $128 million and counting this year.

The Paradox

Both are wrong…and right. With any major shift in communications technology, there are pros and cons and those that preach its virtues from the mount – I’m looking at you Chris Anderson and Don Tapscott – and those that focus on only its negatives – hello there, Nicholas Carr.

When the radio was invented, many claimed that this would be the death of knowledge as people read less and less. Although this may be true, with the spread of public libraries and reading initiatives helping temper these concerns, they failed to see radio’s awesome potential to spread information even allowing the American President to connect directly with the electorate with soothing and informative “fireside chats.”

In terms of charity and in general, social media enables greater organization for collective action (the practical optimist) while simultaneously deepening individualism (the cynical idealist). This is the heart of the tension between both sides. While the cynical idealist is focused solely on the rise of selfishness and individualism at the expense of selflessness and empathy, the practical optimist sees only the awesome organizational machinery of social media. Neither is wrong, but they are failing to see the big picture, they are failing to see the paradox: the use of this technology depletes the will to use it (for the collective good). In other words, the machinery is not the problem - as the cynical idealist argues - but how we use it.

So, how do we fix this? I could offer some obvious and banal answers – i.e. greater user awareness – but that’s not the point. Like evolution, our technological progress will undergo changes that come in bunches, some increase fitness and some decrease it, some make us better off and some make us worse off. We need to naturally select the good, and select out the bad. Simple enough, but when we see the whole slew of changes as bad, we try to bash down everything, when we see it as all good, we try to keep everything. Neither approach will increase the fitness of our species. It’s not a game of whack-a-mole where you choose to participate or not.

So, yes it’s great when charities can reach and mobilize more people, but when we splash a photo of ourselves at a charity event on Facebook and then immediately go back to the important business of whining about Taylor Swift dating all the hot guys, or making the mushroom pizza we ate look like it was from 1972 with Instagram, we may have a problem.

And when you post a photo volunteering at a local soup kitchen for an hour or so with your work – which is mandated selflessness by the way – you are using the misery of others for your own social aggrandizement. So I stand by my original Facebook statement, despite the fact that my friend's mom now hates me. 

Image credits: Facebook, The Guardian.