Reed Rosenbacher: How #GivingTuesday became the selfie of altruism

Thursday, December 6, 2018 - 5:07pm

It seems like every six months there is a new holiday that spends an entire day absolutely obliterating social media feeds. Last week, #GivingTuesday took its turn in this newly created digital spotlight, prompting me to wonder where #GivingTuesday came from and what #GivingTuesday can tell us about the current state of charity work.

#GivingTuesday’s rise has been nothing short of meteoric. In 2012, just after being founded by the United Nations Foundation and 92nd Street Y, #GivingTuesday was able to raise an “inspiring” $10.1 million. This past week, only six years later, #GivingTuesday raised a whopping $380 million. In 2012, Mashable was “thrilled” about the “new annual celebration” that “is less about buying gifts and more about giving back,” referring to the mass consumerism and abject purchasing that occurs every Black Friday and Cyber Monday.

But how did #GivingTuesday become such a phenomenon? And why does it seem to exist almost solely on social media? The answer is actually quite simple; from #GivingTuesday’s inception, “the movement” was able to score partnerships with a litany of powerful technology and social media companies. Its official sponsors include the likes of Skype, Cisco, Microsoft, Sony, Mashable, Facebook, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Google Plus. 

#GivingTuesday’s digital strategy can be seen in every part of the movement. In fact, on #GivingTuesday’s official website says “#GivingTuesday harnesses the potential of social media.” One also doesn’t really have to look past the name, which officially has a hashtag in it (cringe), to see that #GivingTuesday was tailor-made for social media.

On the surface, #GivingTuesday seems like it is not much more than a shining example of the more noble potentials of social media. While the positive material outcomes of #GivingTuesday are undeniable, it’s important that we don’t allow corporate-created social projects to exist solely in their desired state of unbounded positivity.

I can’t help but feel a cold draft rush into the room when I think about the advanced publicity chess move that sponsoring #GivingTuesday is for a company like Facebook. It is no secret that Facebook has been under massive amounts of public scrutiny ever since the 2016 election. Of course every corporation is invested in maintaining its public image, but it’s important to understand that image is far more important for social media companies than almost any other type of company.

Facebook does not actually sell people a product, nor do they actually provide anything that cannot easily be replicated; someone halfway through a computer science degree could recreate Facebook from scratch. The entire value of Facebook comes solely from the fact that other people use Facebook. Essentially, anyone can create a Facebook 2.0, but it’s nearly impossible to convince billions of people to sign on. It’s this dynamic that puts Facebook at a very uncomfortable crossroad.

I wonder how many board meetings Facebook has had on this exact topic: If people say they hate Facebook so much, why do they keep using it? Or rather, why don’t they stop using Facebook? There are tons of interesting potential answers to this question, but, for Facebook, #GivingTuesday is a solution. By supporting #GivingTuesday and making Facebook a fundraising friendly website (started in 2017) in general, people start to view Facebook with a sense of idealism and as a place where organizing and sharing thoughts to help those in need is easy and abundant.

In short, Facebook’s shift toward philanthropy seems to fit a timeline in which Facebook wants people to think of Facebook less as a place filled with fake news and conservative radicalization and more as a place that helps facilitate the homeless to get their next meal. It may be unfair to cast Facebook’s philanthropy efforts as being completely disingenuous, but it is also unfair to ignore #GivingTuesday as a publicity stunt for Facebook and tech companies alike.

The broader idea of creating a charitable movement around social media also reads as deeply troubling and reflective of the hyper-individualized times in which we live. The best and most ethical ways of giving back have been debated by philosophers and religious communities for thousands of years, but most people agree charitable acts should center on those in need, not those who are giving.

The central tenet of social media is for people to express their individuality: to share with the world what you are doing, to tell everyone what you are thinking about, to have everyone see you in all your beauty. If we agree the highest forms of charity revolve around unrewarded self-sacrifice, doesn’t a platform designed for self-praising seem like a really weird place “to do” charity?  

After perusing the #GivingTuesday website for a while, I started to wonder if #GivingTuesday saw a way for people to give back by non-monetary means. #GivingTuesday does recommend and provides truly useful tools for finding local charities at which volunteer. But #GivingTuesday also suggests people post a “#UNselfie” in which they take a selfie of them doing charitable work and attach #GivingTuesday and #UNselfie to their social media post.

At every turn it appears #GivingTuesday is a charitable movement that is sustained by a matrix of self-interest. From a rough and zoomed-out perspective, it seems that our critical response to the consumer capitalism that occurs on Black Friday and Cyber Monday is to participate in a corporately-sustained social media campaign that allows us to tell our friends how much money we gave to charity.  My point is not that contributing to #GivingTuesday is necessarily unethical, but rather that #GivingTuesday is the perfect yet slightly terrifying symbol of altruism in postmodern times.

Reed Rosenbacher can be reached at rrosenb@umich.edu.