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Gifts for strangers: the ‘ethically ambiguous’ TikTok trend using unknowing people as fodder for content

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A Melbourne TikTok creator was criticised for a video described as ‘dehumanising’ by its subject. ‘Random acts of kindness’ videos get billions of views on the platform. Photograph: Mike Blake/Reuters

Picture the scene. You’re sitting alone, enjoying a coffee. Maybe you’ve got a podcast on. Maybe you’re on the phone to your mum. Enter a random person clutching a bunch of flowers.

“Would you be able to hold this?” they ask, before gliding away, content in the knowledge they’ve just made your day (probably).

A Melbourne TikTok creator has received wide backlash for a viral video described as “dehumanising” and “artificial” by its subject, Maree. The video, which Maree claimed was filmed without her consent, captured her shocked reaction after being given a bouquet of flowers in a busy shopping centre from a stranger.

The 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 globally.

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 positioned in a less positive light.

“It’s the money shot,” she says. “The one moment of charity that runs and re-loops, tugging at the heartstrings.”

‘You’ll never regret being kind’

TOM, a Sydney based TikTok user, has almost 7 million social media followers and more than 200m likes for his “kyndness” content, which features so-called selfless acts, such as giving away items, complimenting “fits” and learning how to do eyebrow extensions for his girlfriend.

In many of his videos, TOM is filmed hovering behind random, unsuspecting shoppers only to float by and pay for their groceries with a swipe of his card, to their bemusement and, in some cases, distaste. “That’s ridiculous,” one woman says. “Get fucked,” another cries.

In some videos, TOM gives away items nobody asked for, like flowers or, in one case, a PS5 to a man eating an ice-cream in a park.

“Nah,” the man says, and walks away.

On his personal website, TOM encourages viewers to donate to make “every video possible” and “impact people’s lives dramatically”.

In other videos, TOM stands on a kerb in crutches, or pretending he is blind.

“Would you HELP someone if they asked?” these videos are captioned, fading to black when people look at him and shrug.

Abidin says the genre of “shame levity” has existed on social media for more than a decade. Its origins are in “citizen journalism”, when users would film poor behaviour in public, like young people taking up seats on a train, or dangerous drivers.

This evolved into the “random acts of kindness” genre, which Abidin calls “humanitarian dramas”.

“It started on YouTube … these agonising conundrums to draw out the benevolence of everyday heroes,” she says. “Using the canvas of everyday people.”

Which is why, she says, they reinforce stereotypes.

“The majority are elderly, or people with children who fall into categories presumed to need more assistance than an able-bodied young man, or a luxurious woman,” she says.

“In the comments, there’s an overtly positive, optimistic tone about how it’s a good trend. It doesn’t leave space for reflection, or for people who may not want to receive these handouts or this type of help publicly.

“We don’t know if they feel embarrassment or humiliation because that’s how video is framed without much further context.”

‘I invited him in and gave him food’

People experiencing homelessness are often the targets of donors in viral content, who use hashtags like #foryou, #give and #homeless.

One creator, primenaz, films himself dropping money in front of people, then, if they attempt to return it, he gives them additional notes.

In other videos, he gives out food, and hides cash in a convenience store he appears to work at, or challenges customers to respond to maths questions correctly to get $100.

“She Said She Didn’t Eat For 2 Days So I Let Her Pick Whatever She Wants And Gave Her $100,” is the caption of one video with more than 10m views.

The dilemma, Abidin says, is these people “can’t say no to unwanted virality”.

“The conversation is comfortable, it’s usually upper class people looking at the homeless from a comfortable vantage point,” she says.

“If you want to help someone there’s ways to do it without showing faces, that moves beyond the discursive space of – ‘oh, that’s so sweet’.”

‘Do you have a couple of bucks for the bus?’

Zachery Dereniowski, on TikTok as “mdmotivator”, has 9.9 million followers for his brand of “gotchas” consisting of wandering the streets, pretending to need bus tickets or bicycles, then giving someone $100.

If it sounds convoluted, yes, it is.

In one video Dereniowski asks a lady on the streets of Mexico for a glass of water, waits until she has gone to the trouble to get out a jug, glasses and ice, only to then ask his interpreter to “tell her 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 guy with an iPhone approaches you asking for a crispy chicken sandwich, he’s probably just trying to give you a bunch money for a TikTok, so don’t be alarmed! (Be alarmed.)

Abidin says there’s ways to make engaging, empathic videos.

Dereniowski’s website, which accepts donations for his content, also crowdfunds for specific causes including helping “Damian’s son [to] afford school” and assisting with “Norm’s medical bills”.

“The distinction to keep in mind when approaching this content is more informative and less entertainment,” Abidin says.

“Are you introducing structured help or is it a flash in the pan moment?

“Making money off people who don’t know they’re fodder for monetised content? That’s ethically ambiguous.”

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