Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Mercy Markets

That there is always hardship in the world, always a person in need of a leg up financially, is not peculiar to our time, but social media have worked to collapse these tragedies indiscriminately into our lives, eradicating the levels of distance that once seemed built in to them. We could once justify not giving to a homeless woman on the street because we had no cash on us, or to the charitable cause some earnest teenager called about by claiming we’re out on a run and don’t have our cards handy. But the internet’s bottomless well of needs appears directly into our timelines often enough that we can’t go on making excuses for why we don’t give. Even if those excuses are just to ourselves. (...)

Such projects allowed funders to feel like they were investing in human potential, taking direct responsibility for the technologies and cultural innovations that will propel us into the future. But giving to a medical crowdfund is less about creating the future than salvaging something from a status quo that is not actually in our best interest to perpetuate. “Producing a worthy illness: Personal crowdfunding amidst financial crisis,” a study by professors Lauren S. Berliner and Nora J. Kenworthy, looked at 200 randomly selected GoFundMe campaigns seeking funds for medical care and found that the “campaigners do not seem to feel that it is necessary to explain insurance status in order to demonstrate deservingness or credibility, indicating that Americans are well-acquainted with the inadequate financial protections offered by insurance, and the unavoidable, extraordinary medical expenses that characterize serious illness or disability within contexts of health care austerity in the U.S.”

The publicly available data from crowdfunding sites suggest people are eager to give: GoFundMe has raised over $3 billion dollars from its 25 million donors, with medical expenses being its top fundraising category. YouCaring has raised over $550 million across 290,000 fundraisers since its inception in 2011. The promotional copy on all these sites, coupled with the campaigns that earn a spot on the local or national news, make it seem as though crowdfunding works and works well. There is some truth to the idea of American altruism: Pew Research Center found in 2016 that while only 22 percent of adults had contributed to a crowdfunding platform, 68 percent of those were for individuals facing hardship. (The second most common contribution, funding a product or invention, was 34 percent.) And seeing as 61 percent of Americans didn’t know the word crowdfunding, it’s possible they’ve given to a crowdfund without knowing it.

Beneath those feel good numbers is a more stark reality: Berliner and Kenworthy’s research revealed that 90 percent of the campaigns did not meet their goal and that average level reached was about 40 percent. The sheer volume of needs on crowdfunding sites means that for any campaign to be successful, it has to become far more visible than the rest. “On top of managing your health and your expenses, now you have to make sure you present your malady with authenticity. Think of your cancer as the origin story a tech startup tells about itself on the About section of its website,” writes Luke O’Neill in a recent Esquire feature on how crowdfunders often rely on going viral. In this context, the sick cannot rely on, say, the inherent good of supporting cancer treatment in general but must market themselves as being especially worthy and more likable than other cancer patients. (...)

The crowdfunding platforms are aware of this need for virality, but rather than mitigate it, they offer false hopes for success in the form of exceedingly basic best practices for campaigns. YouCaring has a post, “Viral Fundraising: Make the Most of Your Campaign’s Potential,” that features detailed instructions on everything from what time of day to post your campaign on social media to the always helpful advice to use high-quality images instead of those ultra-shitty ones you had planned. On Generosity, IndieGogo’s charity vertical, a post on “impactful” personal messaging implores campaigners to “Share, share, share!” and notes “You aren’t limited to your network, or even your network’s network — with the right sharing strategy and a little bit of luck, you have the potential to share your fundraiser with millions of people worldwide.”

What these instructions don’t mention is that you’re probably out of luck from the start if you don’t have key social media literacies that lend themselves to people believing in your deservingness. They also don’t mention the research that demonstrates that fundraising while visibly Black has proved less successful than fundraising while white. They don’t mention that you’re more likely to attract contributions if users identify with you in some way that compels them to act on your behalf — meaning the more marginal your identity with respect to your audience, the less likely they are to give to you. They don’t tell you how a 2016 study in Information Systems Frontiers found that longer project descriptions yielded a higher likelihood of funding, as did having a moderately positive tone — though too much positivity was linked to lower funding outcomes, perhaps due to credibility issues. In short, the sites’ advice do not address the many biases of potential donors.

In Berliner and Kenworthy’s study, they compared a highly polished campaign for Van, a six-year old with rhabdomyosarcoma, with a father of four’s campaign for funds to pay for adenomatis polyposis treatment and for care and treatment for his two autistic sons. From that description alone, it is one tough game of “Would You Rather?” But the high media literacy of Van’s campaign managers put him miles ahead of the father of four, whose trouble articulating specific needs and even navigating the site have left his campaign largely neglected.

Moskowitz points out in his Wired article that championing ad hoc public fundraising for infrastructure and social services normalizes the idea that individual citizens should consider themselves responsible for such basic necessities. Given the political history of health care in the U.S., the onus on the individual feels ever more urgent.

The decision to click on the crowdfunding link comes most often from a decent place, but decency alone cannot help us determine the worthiness of a campaign. Most citizens are unequipped to determine whose financial and medical needs are most acute and are actually more likely to withhold contributions to those with the most complex and dire needs because their requests are not as coherent or specific as those with the social and real capital to put together flashy campaigns starring photogenic, chronically ill children.

by Alana Massey, Real Life | Read more:
Image: Aiden Morse