Imagine the scene. You are sitting alone, enjoying a coffee. Maybe you have a podcast. Maybe you’re on the phone with your mom. Enter a random person holding a bouquet of flowers.
“Would you be able to hold this?” they ask, before walking away, satisfied knowing they just made your day (probably).
A Melbourne TikTok creator has received wide backlash for a viral video called ‘dehumanizing’ and ‘artificial’ by his subject, Maree. The video, which Maree said was filmed without her consent, captured her shocked reaction after receiving a bouquet of flowers from a stranger at a busy mall.
Video is just the tip of the iceberg for this TikTok trend. There are thousands of “random acts of kindness” videos on the social media platform, with billions of views worldwide.
Dr Crystal Abidin, a digital anthropologist at Curtin University, says viewers of these viral videos benefit “at the expense of the receiver”, who is usually cast in a less positive light.
“It’s the money shot,” she said. “The only moment of charity that runs and re-loops, tugging at the heartstrings.”
“You will never regret being kind”
TOM, a Sydney-based TikTok user, has nearly 7 million social media followers and more than 200 million likes for his “kyndness” content, which features supposedly selfless acts, such as giving away items, compliment the “adjustments” and learn how to do eyebrow extensions for his girlfriend.
In several of his videos, TOM is filmed hovering behind random, unsuspecting buyers only to float around and pay for their groceries with a simple swipe of a card, much to their bewilderment and, in some cases, disgust. “It’s ridiculous,” said a woman. “Get fucked,” shouts another.
In some videos, TOM gives items no one asked for, such as flowers or, in one case, a PS5 to a man eat ice cream in a park.
“No,” the man says, and walks away.
On his personal website, TOM encourages viewers to donate to make “every video possible” and “have a huge impact on people’s lives”.
In other videos, TOM stands on a sidewalk with crutches, or pretend to be blind.
“Would you HELP someone if they asked you to?” these videos are captioned, fading to black when people watch and shrug their shoulders.
Abidin says the “lightness of shame” genre has been around on social media for more than a decade. Its origins date back to “citizen journalism,” when users filmed bad behavior in public, like young people riding a train or dangerous drivers.
This evolved into the genre of “random acts of kindness”, which Abidin calls “humanitarian dramas”.
“It all started on YouTube…those nerve-wracking puzzles to entice the benevolence of everyday heroes,” she says. “Using ordinary people’s canvas.”
That’s why, she says, they reinforce stereotypes.
“The majority are elderly people or people with children who fall into categories presumed to need more assistance than a young, able-bodied man or a woman of luxury,” she says.
“In the comments, there is an overtly positive and optimistic tone about how this is a good trend. It leaves no room for reflection, or for people who may not want to receive these aids or this type of help publicly.
“We don’t know if they feel embarrassment or humiliation because that’s how the video is framed without further context.”
“I invited him and fed him”
People experiencing homelessness are often the target of donors in viral content, who use hashtags like #foryou, #give and #homeless.
A creator, primenaz, films himself Deposit money in front of people, then if they try to return it, it gives them extra notes.
In other videos, he distributes food and hides money in a convenience store where he appears to work, or challenges customers to correctly answer math questions to get $100.
“She said she hadn’t eaten for 2 days so I let her choose what she wanted and gave her $100,” is the caption of a video with more than 10 million views.
The dilemma, says Abidin, is that these people “can’t say no to unwanted virality.”
“The conversation is comfortable, it’s usually upper-class people looking at homelessness from a comfortable perspective,” she says.
“If you want to help someone, there are ways to do it without showing faces, it goes beyond the discursive space of – ‘oh, that’s so nice’.”
“Do you have a few dollars for the bus?” »
Zachery Dereniowski, on TikTok as “mdmotivator”, has 9.9 million followers for his brand of “gotchas” of wandering the streets, pretending to need bus tickets or bikes, then giving 100 dollars to someone.
If that sounds convoluted, yes, it is.
In one video, Dereniowski asks a lady on the streets of Mexico City for a glass of water, waits until she has bothered to pull out a jug, glasses and ice, and then asks her interpreter to say I didn’t.” need water”.
“The first person who was going to give me water, I was going to give them 10,000 pesos.”
The moral of the story? If a white man with an iPhone approaches you asking for a crispy chicken sandwich, he’s probably just trying to give you a lot of money for a TikTok, so don’t worry! (Be alarmed.)
Abidin says there are ways to create engaging and empathetic videos.
Dereniowski’s website, which accepts donations for its content, also funds crowdfunds for specific causes, including helping “Damian’s son [to] pay for school” and help with “Norm’s medical bills”.
“The distinction to keep in mind when approaching this content is more informative and less entertaining,” says Abidin.
“Are you introducing structured support or is it a flash?
“Making money from people who don’t know they’re looking for monetized content? It is ethically ambiguous.