I recently came across a video about a bus monitor named Karen Klein who was subjected to terrible bullying by four individuals in middle school. The recorded interaction was put on Youtube (warning: lots of bad language) and Karen received a lot of deserved sympathy from the community. Then something else interesting happened: someone started a campaign to raise money for Karen so that she could go on a nice vacation. The initial goal was set at $5,000, but as the time of this writing the campaign is on day 2 of 30 and has already acquired over $500,000. (Incidently, as is usually the case when a lot of money is involved, articles begin popping up relating to the monetary amount of the campaign, with the emotional content of the event as a subtext.)
With only a cursory glance at this phenomenon and others like it one is apt to think “an injustice is on the path to recovery” and to have a somewhat restored faith in humanity. Indeed – this view is perpetuated by articles like those previously linked which proclaim things like:
Never underestimate the charitable good will of the Internet.
However, articles and attitudes of this nature cultivate a false sense of altruism while giving us a glimpse of the current cultural milieu: that people want to be a part of a story. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t believe that the raising and donating of money in situations like this is bad in and of itself, but contrasted against the backdrop of the broader landscape of widespread poverty, starvation, homelessness, etc, it seems irresponsible. Taking the case of starvation: the United Nations estimates that approximately 25,000 people starve each day. Consider what it would feel like for you to starve or to watch a family member starve and the fact that it happens each day to way more people than you have ever met. Couple this with the fact that 1.4 billion people exist on $1.25 a day (purchase power parity adjusted) as of 2005 it is quite easy to see how $500,000+ could benefit these people massively more than just one woman who has been mistreated, leaving aside the question of whether or not money is the appropriate vehicle to resolve a social injustice of this nature.
This is not to subscribe to the fallacy that “you made a mistake in donating to X because you could have gotten more utility donating to Y”. While this is a good rule to hold in general, a categorical following would quickly lead one insane. The point I really want to make is this: people, when presented with a story (and by this I mean a narrative like description of a real social event, often with beginning, middle, and end) are compelled to be involved – much more so than with isolated, stale facts like poverty which have been around for a while and don’t quite carry the same romanticism and immediacy as the current drama on the news.