The fallacy of random acts of kindness videos

“If you do something nice for someone and you don’t film it, did you even do it?”

by Roisin Lanigan
29 July 2022, 2:03pm

The entire internet wants to be TikTok. Instagram Reels is just TikTok, Facebook’s newsfeed update is just TikTok; these are all attempts from the social media giants of old to desperately compete with a once laughable little app that somehow transformed itself during the pandemic from being a place American teenagers went to do Fortnite dances and mime lyrics to sped-up ABBA songs, to a conglomerate with a billion monthly users. Only TikTok, it seems, has the power to transform ordinary, garden-variety people into sex symbols, number one musicians, TV presenters, visual essayists and wholesome influencers just by virtue of having a gimbal. But the way to get internet famous the quickest – at least, as TikTok would have us believe – is to be kind.

Last week Harrison Pawluk, a 22-year-old Australian content creator with over 3 million TikTok followers, became a brief main character of the internet for a video in which he gave an elderly woman in a shopping centre a bunch of flowers, secretly recording her reaction as he walked away. It has 12 million likes. The video is part of a flourishing genre of content on TikTok, which is a sort of “kindness prank”, like Jackass or Dom Joly for people who love Richard Curtis films and have anxiety. Rather than accosting a stranger in public to make fun of them, you do it to make their day better. Whether they are still embarrassed by this is on them, not you. You, the content creator, are just trying to be good, to make someone’s day, and if you also make some money from the Creator’s Fund in the process, that’s just a karmic gift from the universe.

On Harrison’s YouTube channel, where he has a fraction of the following he boasts on TikTok, his pinned video is more of the same content; a prank entitled I WAS JUST TRYING TO BE NICE.  In his other TikTok clips he posts himself spontaneously paying for a stranger’s groceries or giving food to the homeless while recording himself from a distance (although, the most recent top comment on the latter, “exploitation king”, suggests a slow-growing cynicism to this kind of stunt).

“That was so beautiful I swear I could cry”, writes one person under the TikTok of him giving flowers to the elderly woman, his most viral kindness prank to date. “It looks like she needed that,” reads another. Other comments which aren’t so convinced of the video’s fundamentally good intentions – “if you do something nice for someone but don't film it did you even do it?” – have significantly less traction. The woman in the video was also not convinced. Shortly after Harrison’s TikTok views went into the millions she was tracked down by a radio station in Melbourne and called the entire thing “patronising” and “dehumanising”. Refusing to give her last name (fair enough), Maree said, “he interrupted my quiet time, filmed and uploaded a video without my consent, turning it into something it wasn’t … I feel he is making quite a lot of money through it.” She added that she couldn’t be bothered carrying the flowers home on the tram. “I feel like clickbait.”

Harrison may have become the temporary face of this particular brand of online kindness terrorism but he’s not alone in the genre. Creators like Lawrence Choto and Hunter Prosper have harvested cumulatively millions of likes and views for posting their “notes to a stranger” videos, where they give handwritten and heartfelt sentiments to passers-by and then record their reaction. The fact that the fortune cookie style notes are often generic enough to be applied to any stranger’s situation and struggles — “don’t forget why you started”, “life is too short to spend it battling with yourself” — only lends to the popularity of the videos because the recipients seem genuinely moved to receive them. They’re not, of course, immediately aware that their reactions are being filmed and posted.

As well as kindness pranks there are also kindness paparazzi videos, recording young couples in love or tender moments of affection between (well dressed, conventionally attractive) strangers around London, Paris and New York. Then there’s kindness vox-pops, where friendly content creators ask perfect strangers the kind of piercing questions you’d usually expect to hear come with a confidentiality clause in a therapist's office (“what’s the most painful thing you’ve ever been told” is the current favourite).

The inherent cynicism of these videos has only become more obvious as they’ve become more popular. As Maree herself points out, it’s hard to ignore the fact they don’t exist as what they purport to be (random acts of kindness) because they’re fundamentally not random: they’re created for the algorithm. These stunts are the natural end point of the “pics or it didn’t happen” attitude that defines our online behaviour. We’re already used to proving our experiences exist by posting them online so people don’t call us liars. Now, we’re getting used to proving our goodness exists by posting it online so people see how kind we are. What’s the point, after all, in being good or nice if the internet can’t see what we’re doing and reward us for it in likes and engagement and attention on a monetisable platform? These videos are the spiritual evil twin to filming a Karen having a meltdown, or women fighting in a Birmingham Primark. If we are conditioned to record shocking, bad behaviour then it makes sense that we’re becoming more and more used to filming good behaviour too, even if the recipients of our kindness are unaware or recalcitrant to be involved in our content.

The problem comes when we have to confront the realisation that although we can curate our own online platforms and narrative of our own kindness, we can’t control the reactions of others. The main character syndrome we’re all guilty of, especially on platforms like TikTok, might make us think that everyone else is a kind of NPC to our spiritual journey, but reactions like Maree’s prove that this simply isn’t the case. Even filming these kind of spontaneous kindness videos with people we actually know isn’t a sure bet. Last year, “couch guy” became an internet hate figure for weeks on end when he was the subject of a TikTok in which his long-distance girlfriend surprised him at college. The internet didn’t believe his stunned reaction was romantic enough, and subsequently speculated endlessly about whether or not he was cheating on her. Both Couch Guy and his girlfriend had their platforms spammed with messages telling them to break up, calling them delusional or immoral. Thousands of videos recreated the moment, turning what was supposed to be a sweet surprise into a meme. Whether the creator had invited this backlash by posting what was essentially a private moment online in the first place didn’t make the reaction seem any less disproportionately cruel, even if it was manipulatively disguised as a sort of “dump him girl!” concern for her (the couple are still together).

Our overdue cynicism over these videos is inevitable if only because now, the internet is constructed almost entirely around the growingly meaningless tenets of “being kind”. As the IRL world has become more and more depressing and we’ve become simultaneously painfully aware of the very real effect online abuse can have on our mental health, irony and snark has become passé. Insulting people online now has to take place via toxic pseudonymous message board forums and anonymous Q&A apps for the sake of our own reputations. Reality shows are forced to remind us on Twitter not to bully contestants (whilst simultaneously editing those contestants to be villains crafted specifically for the TL). Post-irony in its association with the alt-right has become little more than a byword for online fascism, and our once gleeful doxxing of cancellable figures has transformed into a demand for nuance. Even our memes have become “too pure for this world”. It makes sense that we’ve retreated into wholesomeness. It’s just a shame that now that wholesomeness has become little more than a performance too.