We’re entertained by a lot of absurd things — from cat videos to eating contests and memes to twerking videos. But the newest trend in online video-watching is one we should feel pretty good about: charity as entertainment.
Many prominent YouTube stars, most getting millions of views on their videos and being rewarded accordingly by the market, have undergone the transition from prankster to philanthropist.
Vitaly Zdorovetskiy, whose YouTube channel “VitalyzdTv” has over 4,000,000 subscribers, plunged his way into the internet spotlight by causing trouble. In the infamous Miami Zombie Attack Prank he acted like a zombie and chased people around one of Miami’s more dangerous neighborhoods. He was arrested pretending to be a Russian hitman with a weaponized briefcase. In the admission line for Ultra Music Festival, he licked Nutella, in his words, “off girls’ booties.”
But on July 30, Vitaly uploaded a video entitled Extreme Homeless Man Makeover. In it, he befriends a homeless man named Martin. Vitaly and friends take Martin to buy new clothes, enjoy a steak dinner and spend a couple nights in a hotel. The outpouring of support catalyzed by the video included a job offer, which Martin accepted.
Andrew Hales, a YouTube prankster known as “LAHWF,” brought holiday cheer to his local supermarket by paying for people’s groceries through a secret arrangement with the store.
The reactions were incredible, with shoppers in speechless, utter disbelief, breaking down in tears as they hugged the cashier. What a difference a cost-free cart of groceries can make in someone’s life. The shoppers never even knew it was Hales.
Perhaps not everyone is ready to embrace this new form of charity. When Jesse, Jason and Kong — whose YouTube channel is called “SimplePickup” — raised money for the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, the organization rejected the $2,080 donation. The fundraising effort was premised on a video in which the trio pledged to donate $20 to breast cancer research for, according to News Limited, “each woman who let them shove their faces into their breasts” and motorboat them.
With methods unconventional and potentially offensive, but completely consensual, SimplePickup raised a total of $7,000, including additional money pledged based on the number of views the video received. Because of outrage expressed by a group of feminists who took issue with the video, the organization refused to accept the donation.
SimplePickup put the money to use anyway, donating it to Crystal Cody, a struggling breast cancer patient who was unable to pay for her treatment. In addition to the money raised, they gave her another $7,000 from an anonymous donor and have since raised an additional $10,000 through an online crowdfunding campaign.
I have high hopes that this kind of YouTube behavior will amount to so much more than just philanthropic voyeurism. These videos might not immediately launch battalions of young do-gooders into the streets, but they soften our hearts, push us to pay it forward and make us more compassionate.
And for this, we have the market to thank. Popular YouTube users are invited to participate in the YouTube Partner program, which pays them at least half of the advertising revenue generated from their videos. Feel-good, charitable videos garner views, and those views generate the revenue necessary to pay for $3,000 gifts to the homeless, 1,000 turkey sandwiches handed out for Thanksgiving, reverse pickpocketing, getting jobs for homeless parents and tipping restaurant servers $200 each.
In other words, through our viewership — which is a market signal — and the revenue it generates, we drive and make possible these wonderful acts of charity.
The guys behind a channel called “whatever” bought a flight home for a Czech man named Jaroslav who was robbed and became homeless in New York. Yousef Erakatok paid for a makeover, new clothes and a hotel room for then-homeless Matthew Frederick, who was so thankful for a “hand up, not a handout.” Surely there are small acts of kindness we can do in our daily lives — it’s not that hard, and it feels pretty damn good.
This is, to be sure, charity that is unconventional and sometimes a little crazy. But it’s helpful, inspiring, market-driven and wonderful to watch. And we won’t stop at watching. Let’s treat the videos as starting points, not as ends in themselves, and get out there and do something good today.
Jeff Nadel is a College junior from Boca Raton, Fla. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him @theseends. “Give Me Liberty” appears every other Monday.