Law in the Internet Society

Help Give the Declining Empire a Second Chance at Life!

-- By JoseMartinez - v2 21 Jan 2020

The Disease

As I was writing this essay, I received an email urging me to help fund the Biden-Harris transition team while it awaits the release of taxpayer funds from the General Services Administration. I didn't donate, but I did envision a GoFundMe? page for our current sociopolitical moment and lent its call to action to the title of this piece.

An outgoing administration impeding a smooth transition is concerning, to be sure, but there's something disturbing about a presidential transition team crowdfunding a solution for a critical political failure. And yet, this seems like the next natural step in an iterative process in which a major problem in the United States—whether it's underfunded schools, mounting medical debt, or an uncoordinated response to a pandemic—is solved on a myopic, case-by-case basis through shared social media posts and hyper-targeted emails. Crowdfunded campaigns in the Internet society can, and do, help people, but the reliance on crowdfunding in an era of social alienation and austerity also reveals much about our willingness to carry structural burdens, and an unwillingness to mend a broken system.

The Band-Aid on the Broken Leg

The underpinnings of crowdfunding as a mode of exchange are like those of traditional giving. People want to give for a number of reasons: as a response to solicitation or a demonstration of need, out of altruism or adherence to personal values, to generate happiness or fulfillment, and even out of a desire to signal wealth. People in turn fund causes and organizations, online and offline, to fulfill these motivations.

The main difference comes with the changes in the mode of communication. Online crowdfunding platforms like GoFundMe? and DonorsChoose? help spread awareness of a cause far beyond a community's boundaries. They can showcase projects to people across networks who may be more inclined to donate as compared to the general population. And while crowdfunding makes up only a small proportion of total annual giving, crowdfunding sites also often include social media integration and quick payment options that make it easy to find and fund a cause. During the COVID-19 pandemic, crowdfunding platforms have shown to be effective tools in the mobilization of financial support during a crisis: a search for "COVID" on GoFundMe? shows 374,730 active fundraisers.

But as with other Internet services, there are also pitfalls that follow widespread adoption of these platforms. For one, they are not designed to equitably distribute funds according to one's need. Instead, the guiding mechanisms are similar to those in the market for eyeballs: Potential donors scroll through compelling individual appeals to emotion and vivid descriptions of struggle. Donors must ask themselves, "Is this person's suffering worth my money?" One study shows that, indeed, crowdfunding campaigns involving non-stigmatized health problems or that include carefully curated writing and multimedia are more appealing to donors. Deservingness is thus inextricably tied to the quality of the narrative.

The prevalence of these platforms has the potential to exacerbate alienation and socioeconomic inequality. One study of crowdfunded projects showed that people or causes based in high-income, high-education, and high-homeownership areas tended to meet their fundraising goals more than those in poorer ones. Another suggests that people who can tap into robust and wealthy social networks are more likely to their projects funded in the first place. Fundraisers for medical bills and funeral costs are usually measures of last resort—if who you know and where you live are the determinative factors for fundraising your way out of a vulnerable state, then what hope is left for people who feel forgotten or are disengaged from their communities?

The greatest concern is that as these platforms become ubiquitous, our perception of the underlying problems becomes obscured. These platforms, like any charitable organizations and funds, certainly help fill the gaps for needs that can be addressed on an individual basis. However, it is impossible to crowdfund away the failures of austerity and bad public policy.

We must not treat crowdfunding as a legitimate alternative to an eroding social safety net in the wake of privatization, corporate excess, and spending cuts. If we do, the beneficiaries of these structures will be rewarded for their efforts and they will continue to push back against universal health care, free college, and any other realistic policy goal that threatens the status quo. All the while, the burden of commodifying suffering will continue to rest on the backs of the sufferers and the buck will be passed on to others who are just as weighed down by systemic failures.

The Cure

The inequities that lead to the need for online fundraising in the first place will not vanish overnight. In the meantime, there is room for models that incorporate aspects of both traditional gift-giving and modern crowdfunding schemes without losing sight of the underlying issues nor requiring people to self-market their painful experiences. One example is Watsi, a non-profit that works with medical partners on-the-ground to identify patients whose treatments can be funded by a general pool of donations. Donors are updated about how their money is used, but the donation pool is spread equitably and patients do not have to optimize their narrative to maximize donations. Perhaps the best approaches exist offline: Last summer, ad-hoc mutual aid groups and bond funds were formed throughout the country in response to waves of civil unrest. While many groups used the Internet as a tool to seek and facilitate funding for their projects, the decentralized nature of these approaches ensured not only direct financial assistance but also meaningful civic engagement with their communities.

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r5 - 21 Jan 2021 - 23:57:30 - JoseMartinez
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