Viral Charity and the Feel-Good Mentality

So, this is what it’s come to. The same country that pioneered the practical application of electricity, that was the first successfully to split the atom, that beat the Soviet Union in landing a man on the moon and bringing him back safely, and that spurred the information technology revolution that would fundamentally change the world and society . . . last year, this very same country produced SnapCrap, the first iOS application made specifically to alert the San Francisco government of the existence and location of human excrement on its streets.

Of course, many will clasp their hands to their forehead and gasp, “what a wonderful, marvelous idea.” Perhaps it is. We should all be in favor of a tool that makes public sanitation simpler and more efficient. But the fact that this application was widely covered by the media and heralded as a potential solution to San Francisco’s massive public waste problem is indicative of the increasingly unimaginative and complacent way we approach life in our society today.

Instead of attempting to address the fundamental issue causing the massive amounts of fecal matter on the streets, engineers will build tools to address the symptoms. Needle sharing programs, police-officers armed with naloxone, and free condom programs across the country are just a few other examples of the increasingly defeatist attitude we are taking to some of our largest societal problems.

This is not to say that these programs do not help some people—no doubt they have saved a statistically significant number of lives in certain instances. But saved them for what? These programs don’t fundamentally change anything. They don’t actually help people who are suffering to make their lives better. And they’re not meant to. Instead, they are meant to assuage the guilt of smug pseudo-intellectual millennials and guarantee the comfort of wealthy yuppies.

After all, we can’t have our Native-American Bisexual Pottery major stepping through shit on their way to Starbucks before class, where (high enough to forget about the student loans they are racking up) they will order their daily latté (skinny venti iced, quad, sugar-free syrup, half goat-milk, half 3.1415 percent milk, extra leather whip, please, and hold the check).

We shouldn’t be particularly surprised. We live in a society that increasingly thinks posting a hashtag on social media or applying a filter to their profile picture counts as “social action.” It is a society that is happy to ignore the systematic rape of thousands of young girls because acknowledging it might “rock the multicultural community boat.” It is a society that is—to circle back—more willing to create an app to catalog shit than to do anything about the rampant homeless problem causing its accumulation.

Even many of those who put in the time, effort, or money to try to make the world a better place end up being fleeced by a world more concerned with viral virtue-signaling than with actual improvement. Consider the many feel-good stories we have heard ever since the internet allowed for the widespread and decentralized dissemination of information. For every Ted Williams—the formerly homeless man with the golden pipes who went viral—there are dozens of other talented homeless men and women who don’t win the jackpot (if you can call it that).

Many of the people who donate their time and money to help the one person out of millions of other people in need are certainly good people. But some of them are just virtue signalers who want everyone on Facebook to know how good and generous they are. Regardless, both types end up engaging in a twisted lottery system where the most spreadable tragic story ends up on top.

Last year, a New Jersey couple and a homeless man were accused of making up a feel-good story to raise money on GoFundMe. The story was that the homeless man had given his last $20 to a woman who was stranded on I-95 in Philadelphia. The fundraiser ended up raising over $400,000 for the homeless man. Now, assuming that the story was in fact true . . . why on earth should such an act of kindness net someone nearly half a million dollars?

A few thousand? Perhaps. Ten-thousand? Eh, stretching it a bit. A hundred-thousand? Well, it’s your money. Half a million? You do realize that there are plenty of homeless people in your community that you could be helping, right?

But it’s not about the homeless person. It’s about the person donating the money. And that’s the problem with SnapCrap, the naloxone shots, the endless virtue signaling and profile photo filters, the socialist tendencies of many young voters, and the viral feel-good stories. These things do not actually fix any of the fundamental problems in our society. They are all about making us feel better about the fact that we are lazy and complacent. They are all symbolic; they are all about giving the would-be do-gooders that extra hit of smugness that will help them fall asleep at night. Just imagine if we spent half the effort we spend on making ourselves feel good on actually making society better.

Editor’s note: The author is the director of A Soldier’s Home—a 501(c)3 nonprofit in Utah that helps homeless veterans buy homes. Learn more about their work by visiting

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Photo Credit: Human Wasteland

About Karl Notturno

Karl Notturno is a Mount Vernon Fellow of the Center for American Greatness in addition to being an entrepreneur, musician, and writer. He recently graduated from Yale University with degrees in philosophy and history. He can be found on Twitter @karlnotturno.

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