Reddit's uncanny altruism

This roundup of the altruism exhibited by Reddit users is truly heart-warming; from a suicide-prevention hotline to silly, mass-scale Secret Santas to countless small and large acts of fundraising, technical assistance, and general niceness, the author makes a good case for Reddit as a kind of real world Callahan's Place, the bar featured in Spider Robinson's wonderful series about a science fictional bar where all problems are solved. What's clear to me from the article is that it's just as possible to build a society on social norms of mutual aid, compassion and whimsy as it is to build one on juvenile, meanspirited trolling and cynicism.

5-year-old Reece loved helping on his parents' produce store and sharing his ideas about running the business, and fruits and vegetables in general. One day in 2008, he told his parents about an idea he had to get his classmates more excited about trying new fruits and vegetables: to let them on the delivery truck and give them free samples of foods they wouldn't get to try at home.

Just a couple of months later, the family was involved in a devastating car accident that left Reece with a brain injury and unable to speak. Then, nearly two years later, while Reece struggled in therapy 5 days per week, the Pepsi Company announced their new Refresh Grant program, wherein the company would be awarding grants to fund projects that could benefit local communities.

Reece's dad, Redditor "stinkeye", immediately thought of his son's idea, and posted it on the grant application site. Stinkeye then posted the whole story on Reddit and asked the community to make his son's idea a reality by going to the Refresh Grant website and voting for Reece's idea. Within days the idea had jumped to the #1 place on the Pepsi site. It was subsequently approved by Pepsi and awarded a 25K grant to make it happen.

Reddit's Astonishing Altruism (via Reddit)


  1. This works if you’re a popular poster. If you’re a quiet, shy person, you’re out of luck. Your cry for help probably won’t even be noticed.

    Not everyone is one of the cool kids, alas.

    1. Whoa,

      That’s completely not true. Most of these cases of community giving have nothing to do about being well known, popular, “cool”, etc. Actually quite the opposite.

      If you do a little digging you’ll see that.

  2. Archergal, you have a point – there are social strata at reddit, and not all simply of the “gold lounge” variety. But it’s also true that General User can, at least sometimes, make a point and be noticed, or post something novel and be noticed, or do something kind, and be noticed. IMHO, there is more to love about reddit than the (quite valid) point you make would indicate.

  3. Reddit is incredibly fickle. It helps to have a big name like Pepsi or Steven Colbert behind you. I’ve asked several times for money to help a struggling cat shelter and gotten a few hundred bucks*, but mostly snark in return — suggestions we stew the cats to feed the homeless & someone offering to take all our black cats (but don’t ask what happened to them after Halloween). That’s even after a paid ad — you know, the things that help keep the site running.

    There’s a lot of good going on at Reddit, but I really wish I could figure out what it takes to reach that generous core instead of the 4chan overflow seating.

    * Every dollar helps, so I don’t want to appear the *LEAST* bit ungrateful here. Some Redditors have stepped up and you can be sure your donations and our other supporters’ have already been dropped off at the vets’ offices and at least one vet has started treating our animals again. We thank you. So much.

      1. Since you asked :) It’s Cat Guardians in Lombard, IL.

        We’ve had a record number of cats illegally dumped on our doorstep this year because of the economy and owe our vets over $11,000 in addition to our usual expenses. We’re all donation-driven and volunteer-run, so ever penny goes to caring for the cats and the facility they live in.

  4. This is not a thing unique to Reddit, I’ve seen examples of such things among the SomethingAwful and even Fark communities as well. It’s a “large online community” sort of phenomena. (excepting, maybe, 4Chan. Heh).

    1. Even 4chan is known to occasionally engage in somewhat ridiculous displays of altruism. I think the little stuff is more common on Reddit, and it may have to do with the continuity of identity (and the whole having-your-profile-downvoted deal), but I wouldn’t say altruism is unique to reddit or even necessarily more common there.

      In reference to the cat shelter thing: people on the internet don’t like getting asked for money, typically. This may be a kneejerk reaction dating back to when the web (and before it, usenet) suddenly became full of ads and commercialism (much of it scams) in the mid-nineties. Doing something like that listed in the snippet above (asking for votes so that some established organization with lots of money will fund something) will go over much better, and has more or less the same results; I don’t think it’s based on the big-name factor, but instead based upon the fact that it doesn’t come off as a direct threat to one’s wallet.

      1. Can you really call it “altruism” though if all you’re doing is clicking a link on a website to spend someone else’s money? When I think of Reddit’s altruism, I think of how the community raised half a million dollars for Donors Choose to buy supplies for teachers. Donors Choose has always been a favorite of Reddit’s because we all were (or still are) students once. But once Steven Colbert promised to do an interview (IamA post) if we raised that seemingly impossible sum, it happened. And a lot of students will benefit from everything from basic supplies to iPads that their teachers asked for and their own school districts couldn’t provide.

        The shelter is asking for 4% of that and can’t get it. I’m sure at least 4% of the community were (or still are) cats once, too. Ok, maybe not. But cat lovers, at least.

        I don’t want to seem too down on Reddit because they don’t support my personal favorite charity. There’s a lot of charities out there that need money, and I wouldn’t have spent an unhealthy amount of time on Reddit in 3 years if I hated it that much. But I am becoming increasingly aware that it’s just another herd of people and, yes, fame does play a big part in how that herd responds to you.

        I also have to admit that the snarky responses really hurt. It’s hard to see everyone on the front page congratulating themselves for being so generous while people are telling you to make stew out of what you love (insert “Stranger in a Strange Land” reference here).

        1. I’m a cat lover, and a cat owner, but there’s no way in hell that I would donate to an arbitrary place just because I saw it on reddit; in fact, my gut response would be to assume that because it has resorted to spamming on reddit it’s not actually legitimate. This is also my gut response to people who ask for personal money on the internet, regardless of the sob story. I’m quite sensitive to emotional manipulation, and it has a tendency to backfire for me. I don’t think this is atypical of those on the internet who are not already in mountains of debt, because even were we to discount the scams (which probably make up the vast majority, since it’s far easier to construct a sob-story than to have one come true) there’s more than enough worthy causes one can donate to to clean casual donors out completely. When it’s someone else’s money, it doesn’t come off as a scam, which is very important even if you don’t end up receiving it.

          Now, maybe I really am alone in being sensitive about who I give money to online. If someone wants to counter this, please do. I think, however, that when it comes to money you will have much better results with an indirect method.

  5. The obvious thing to do here is to somehow figure out how to isolate the altruism from the snarkiness.

    What it amounts to is social capital. Social capital can be used for social investment, the benefits of which don’t really need explaining.

  6. In my youth, cats were fed once a day (just enough to keep them alive) at the barn. They were mousers and were not attributed with human qualities or rights. They had a job to do as did the dog and the cow. Yes they’re cute, and I’m sorry for their plight and am disappointed by the irresponsibility of most in not fixing their pets so their off-spring do not become pests. But the cries and whimpers of the children – who have done nothing to deserve death by starvation – are so loud in my head that I cannot hear what you are saying.

    1. Somewhere, the worst possible thing is happening.

      This is why I’m comfortable with not caring about anything else in the world.

  7. “What’s clear to me from the article is that it’s just as possible to build a society on social norms of mutual aid, compassion and whimsy as it is to build one on juvenile, meanspirited trolling and cynicism.”

    Right on, Cory!!

  8. There’s an enormous issue in my opinion with all those crowd source affords.

    We celebrate where and when they work, which is in a minority of cases (one could argue that’s better then zero, but I digress).

    However due to the mass of people involved, and the mass of people seeking attention for various purposes (or sheer enjoyment), most people get drowned out, down voted, spam filtered or moderated out by the subreddit moderator of choice.

    Most posts, even most of those post who would deserve genuine altruistic eyeballs never ever make it to any subbreddit frontpage. A lot of post don’t even make it to the what’s new/upcoming site. And even if they do, most of those quickly drop off because other posts by more popular people quickly kick them off to the second page.

    If you ask me, it’s broken. But hard as I wreck my brain, I don’t know a solution, so maybe it’s unfixable.

    1. Pyalot,

      Something will come along that’s better than the Reddit model. I’m sure of that. Reddit as we have it now is just the current step in the evolution of social news/content sharing sites. We had newspapers with editors. Radio and TV were pretty much the same, but with pictures & sound. Then we had blogs pulling from multiple sources but still edited by one person. Now we have sites like Reddit that let the community control what appears on the front page. And we know there are faults in this model, specifically what you mentioned. Something will evolve to address that.

      Digg tried to evolve the model further, and failed. But that doesn’t mean people will stop trying. I’m interested in seeing where these things go next.

  9. If such online communities, based on mutuality, are to exist, let alone flourish, the trollishness that inevitably arises will need to be dealt with swiftly and mercilessly.

    A bit of internally contrary reasoning? Yes, for a greater good. Would we tolerate someone in a university seminar standing on a desk and screaming about something meaningless? Would anyone here welcome someone into their living room only to have that person urinate on their carpets and begin setting the furniture on fire? Would any of you tolerate someone screaming in your face and throwing your laptop on the floor while in your favorite coffee shop?

    If such behavior would not be accepted in three-dimensional space as “freedom of expression” then why is it considered so in an online setting?

    Such reflexive granting of license (the counterfeit of freedom) is presumed by the trollier types and they rely on an excess of tolerance for their intolerance. It’s always the first defense they put up: “But you’re not allowing me freedom of speech.”

    Salon’s letters to the editors has been utterly ruined because they are unwilling to moderate effectively. TPM Cafe’s readers’ section was destroyed for the same reason.

    Thou shalt not suffer a troll to live.

    1. I agree that communities would probably function better absent trolling, but it’s telling that two of your three examples don’t remotely map to trolling. Setting your house on fire? Smashing your laptop? These are actions that do real, physical, and possibly irrevocable harm. That’s not at all the same as saying something offensive, even if the intent is to bait other users. Standing on a desk screaming isn’t a perfect analogy, either, since that could actually make it difficult or impossible to hear the more relevant speech, which isn’t in general the case in online discussions.

      I should stress–although I am a staunch supporter of freedom of speech (one may even say I am an extremist in that regard), I do not believe that ‘freedom of speech’ means that private entities are required to provide a forum for all speech. I do not disagree that communities should feel free to remove those members that they believe are not prouctive. But to speak of trolling as though it were equivalent to much more serious offenses can lead to an over-eagerness to prevent trolling, to the extent that it can stifle discussion. There are those who would consider the use of such hyperbole as you used to be a form of trolling, albeit a minor one–making tenuously related statements in order to evoke an emotional response. Take care not to be too fervent in your pursuit of an ideal community.

      1. What I am referring to, and making extreme examples for, is the disruption trolling and other abusive online behaviors amount to. Since three-dimensional space is more “real” than online space, I chose to use real-world disruptions and damage to be proportionally illustrative.

        Sorry that didn’t register for you.

  10. The big issue, as with charities in general, is that it doesn’t get money where it’s needed/neccessary/does the most good, but where it’s easiest to raise money for.

    Cute animals get money, not so cute animals, not so much. Cancer gets ridiculous amounts of money other illnesses, not so much. etc…

    Charity is overwhelmingly driven by emotional decision making (can I guilt trip you into giving money by showing you an emotionally charged picture?), not rational choice.

    What reddit did for Donors Choose is great and actually on the rational end of the spectrum, but I can’t help but ask why these schools are not adequately funded to begin with! But if you have donated you have done your part, fullfilled your obligation, and are now excused from fighting to change the system that created the situation in the first place.

    (one of my favorite quotes: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” –Dom Helder Camara)

    Sorry got lost on a tangent there.

  11. I recently joined reddit after the digg fiasco and it really is a pretty amazing community. Reddit’s altruism can sometimes be a two-edged sword though because redditor’s will look for causes sometimes where there aren’t any. Recently, there was this huge hubub over a few undelivered books that was just completely blown out of proportion. In general though, it’s a wonderful thing because peer pressure can go both ways and they really encourage each other to help out.

  12. Thank you everyone who donated because of this post. I really wasn’t trying to solicit donations here, but you guys have been great.

  13. “What’s clear to me from the article is that it’s just as possible to build a society on social norms of mutual aid, compassion and whimsy as it is to build one on juvenile, meanspirited trolling and cynicism.”

    Or both, when it comes to somewhere like Something Awful.

  14. Thanks to YOU –

    A big thanks to all of our wonderful and generous supporters who donated to our Fall 2010 Medical Appeal. Although we fell short of our $20,000 goal, we were able to raise just enough money to pay off our outstanding vet bills. The cats and kittens are truly lucky to have such amazing support from generous people like you.

    From the bottom of our hearts – THANK YOU!

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