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In 2015, a year before the launch of TikTok, Twitter launched an app called ‘Periscope’. The app allowed users to watch broadcasts of other people’s lives. Some people would walk with their dog in a mountainous forest; others were experts in in anything from musicology to mediaeval literature and would talk extensively on their subject, taking questions. When protests or fires broke out, Periscopers would be there, hashtagging away while millions tuned in.

But, as Coburn Palmer wrote in a 2015 article in Inquistr, the possibilities offered by these kinds of social media platforms generally go unfulfilled: ‘Live-streaming apps have the potential to increase citizen journalism and revolutionise the way traditional news outlets operate, but so far have been mainly used to showcase the contents of users’ refrigerators.’

Seven years later, TikTok dominates the social media scene. It’s the fastest growing platform, with one billion active monthly users. With the introduction of each new platform, the way we engage with social media changes. Facebook brought us the word ‘slacktivism’: the practice of supporting a social or political cause with very little effort involved. Instagram spread hashtags like COVID at a kid’s party. And now we have TikTok, a never-ending stream of frenetic videos which harness the power of hashtags to create ‘trends’. There are dance trends, filters, sound bites, green screens, and make-up artists creating surrealist creatures out of their faces.

And then there’s #randomactsofkindness. It’s a nice idea. Harrison Pawluk, a 22-year-old Australian TikTok celebrity, films himself giving flowers to a woman enjoying her coffee alone, and the video is viewed over 65 million times. He uses hashtags #foryou and #wholesome. Turns out, she felt #dehumanised by the whole thing. ‘He interrupted my quiet time, filmed and uploaded a video without my consent, turning it into something it wasn’t, and I feel like he is making quite a lot of money through it,’ she said to Virginia Trioli on ABC Radio Melbourne.


'If an act of kindness happens and no one is there to film it, did it really happen?'


We all know the Internet can be a seething cesspool of vitriol, so the presence of heart-warming videos of people slipping $20 into someone’s coat pocket or randomly complimenting a stranger, even the ubiquitous handing out of flowers, is largely welcome. But is this actually kindness? If an act of kindness happens and no one is there to film it, did it really happen?

Ironically, in the age of COVID, going viral is the prize. TikTokers play to an astounding number of people globally, all eager for views, likes and comments. Brands line up, throwing cash at them to be associated, achieving a greater reach than both brand and creator alike could have previously imagined was possible. According to Forbes, the top earning TikToker Charli D’Amelio earned $17.5 million in 2021 in brand deals and endorsements.

So, back to Harrison Pawluk. Is it possible that a TikTok ‘celebrity’ with 3.2 million followers, intent on building a personal brand, is doing #randomactsofkindness for selfless reasons?  Harrison himself claimed in an interview on The Project, ‘If I can inspire even one per cent of the people that watch my content to go out there and do something good, I have done something that I believe is good for the world.’ A recent video shows him giving a stranger a makeover. The finishing touch? A necklace from the shop which sponsored the video (the same necklace he appears to be wearing on The Project).

Why should kindness be selfless anyway? Perhaps he’s killing two birds with one stone: inspiring others to be kind while reeling in the sponsors. But it just feels icky. Maree, the lady he gave flowers to, said, ‘it’s not really about me anymore’. It’s a bit like when your sister gave you that CD for Christmas which you knew she secretly wanted and will probably listen to more than you will. A tokenistic gesture that reaps personal rewards.

Recently, I was at a drive-thru coffee, experiencing one of those hellish car trips with my kids, my nerves thoroughly frayed. I pulled up at the window to pay and the girl announced it was free, courtesy of the car before me who’d donated their free coffee from a loyalty card. This person didn’t know me. I could have been driving a BMW and afforded to buy the next thirty people coffee myself. But the small act of kindness landed. No one witnessed it except the people working at the shop. The driver drove off, no one around to pat them on the back for their good deed — certainly not an audience of millions with corporations knocking on their door.

While acts of kindness performed for a TikTok audience feel tacky, there is something inherently noble in the countless kindnesses that go unwitnessed. The people who serve their community in a million quiet ways: donating to food banks, volunteering, knitting hats for babies they’ll never meet, giving blood. Social media has made a giant stage of the world, and the performance of acts of ‘kindness’ now seems to be mostly inspired by a desire to serve one’s own celebrity rather than the common good.

Perhaps our motivations can never be pure; but why does purity of motive matter? Because an act of kindness should be an exercise in turning our focus outward, towards others, unfettered by any thought of what we might receive in return. In order to achieve its goal, kindness must surely be grounded in sincerity rather than being performative or acquisitive in nature — its goal being to bring happiness to others rather than to benefit ourselves, to make others feel valued and respected, and in doing so to effect positive change in our communities.

Nevertheless, I do miss the good old days when livestreaming was a peek in someone else’s fridge.



Cherie Gilmour is a writer from Torquay whose work has appeared in Voiceworks, The Australian and her blog.

Main image: Illustration by Chris Johnston

Topic tags: Cherie Gilmour, TikTok, Kindness, Social Media, Influencers



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Existing comments

Spontaneity and impulsiveness seem to be important in random acts of kindness. If the acts are planned, or appear forced, it takes away ‘something’ necessary for an ease of relationship. Nevertheless, kindness in all its forms is important. In the age of social media we need to ensure though that admiration by others (i.e. onlookers) is not the predominant motivation. Xx

Pam | 03 August 2022  

‘there’s #randomactsofkindness. It’s a nice idea….Turns out, she felt #dehumanised by the whole thing’

Is, in general, a ‘performative’ (ie., public) act of kindness dehumanising?

It depends on the cost of the token to the performer and value of the token to the recipient. If the value is high, the recipient cannot claim to be dehumanised without appearing precious and churlish. If the cost is high, the recipient cannot claim to be dehumanised without appearing precious and churlish.

Ditch the flowers. A conventional bouquet, like fiat currency, has no intrinsic value but, unlike fiat currency, is also undeserving of any imputed value. For the cost of a bouquet, the performer could have bought with his own money a lottery ticket with the great prize to go exclusively to the recipient. Perhaps he should have bought a lottery ticket costing the equivalent of four bouquets. Then, it would be difficult to say that the performer was merely preening vanity and perhaps more difficult also to agree with the claim that the recipient justly felt entitled to not being disturbed.

Better still, substitute kidney for lottery ticket (assuming the recipient was known to be in need of one).

The moral of the story is that if you want to make a statement about #kindness, make it a big one or stay home. Or stay in your foster dad’s carpentry workshop, as the case may be.

roy chen yee | 03 August 2022  

I have been the recipient of many acts of kindness without them being recorded. As an old woman using a walking stick or rollator, I have had many offers of help to carry my parcels, try on shoes (can be tricky!) and load my car on a rare occasion when I am using it.Someone once carried a rather heavy parcel from the shopping centre to my home. I am grateful to all these kindly people and am sure many others have been in this situation too. Kindness joins us all in solidarity in the community and strengthens our ties. We need kndness now in the difficult situation of Covid and will need it even more as Climate Change wreaks havoc with our dauily lives.

Mary Samara-Wickrama | 04 August 2022  

Hmmm. Spontaneity...it's all about timing; the instantaneous impulse of how long you had to think about an act and perhaps evaluate if you had the nerve or need to do it. F'rinstance, is 2 and a half seconds really long enough? If you had a spare flower to give would it be carefully considered for the outcome unless you'd planned or trained prior? Does carrying a flower with premeditation translate the giving from a gift to an offence? Apparently 2 and a half seconds really is long enough to think it through if you're a police officer drawing a gun; the difference between an instinctive reaction and a manslaughter or murder charge. You can change someone's life with a flower or a gun; our protesting "dehumanized" recipient of the flower hasn't got much further to complain, no doubt she'll have a story for life of how that intrusive flower got her on talk back radio...and perhaps that was the real gift: unknowingly, Harrison gave a premeditated solitare flower that would wilt but a bouquet of life long indignance. Lucky he didn't pull a gun on her... or spill her coffee "on purpose".

ray | 05 August 2022  

Yes genuine kindness is about THE OTHER, not about YOU! I used to agree w a friend who said she wouldn’t give $ to a homeless person who smokes but isn’t that saying sth about One’s Opinion About Smoking rather than the person who Needs a cigarette ( count yourself lucky for NOT needing a smoke). Of course it’s ok too if you’d rather not give to sb who needs a cigarette but will be prepared to donate that to sb who needs food or is hoping to get enough to be able to afford a good bed f a night or more.

Teresa Martin-Lim | 05 August 2022  

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