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Pay It Forward

Why performing a good deed is so important in modern society

Written by . Published on October 26th 2011.

Pay It Forward

WE’RE all familiar with the idea that fifty years ago, it wasn’t uncommon for people to leave their front doors wide open because community spirit brought with it so much trust and protection. And, for the most part, I think we’re all familiar with the fact that such an idea is largely a nostalgic and idealized myth of human interaction.

Good deeds are no longer purely physical acts, but are performed in cyber space in the form of ‘liking’ someone’s not-so-witty status update, or tagging a photograph of someone and writing ‘so hot’ underneath when, in reality, they just aren’t.

The truth is, many of us are naturally quite antisocial beings. We don’t say, “Hi!” and wave to everyone as we get on the train each morning. We don’t long for our neighbours to pop round for a cup of tea when we get home from work and we certainly don’t treat everyone we encounter throughout the day with equal respect and enthusiasm. We enjoy our own space and freedom of choice. It is for this reason that those who go out of their way for others get such good press. A good deed serves as a reminder that we can break the flawed human mold when we put our minds to it. The fact that most of us have practically had our laptops, mobiles and iPads surgically attached has fuelled society’s acceptance of a typically antisocial attitude.

Like buttonLike button

Can we really hold the internet and mobile phones responsible? Or have we simply developed alternative methods of communication that are more suited to the natural human tendency towards self-inflicted isolation? The definition of a good deed has been stretched and arguably thinned as a result. Good deeds are no longer purely physical acts, but are performed in cyber space in the form of ‘liking’ someone’s not-so-witty status update, or tagging a photograph of someone and writing ‘so hot’ underneath when, in reality, they just aren’t. People get their feel good factor from the comfort of their own homes, performing a virtual good deed simply by clicking a button.

Pub BillboardPub Billboard

What is most interesting is that people will happily add you as a friend on Facebook, or follow you Twitter, but when they pass you in the street they stare through you in a silent fit of embarrassed horror, shocked to see you in the flesh and determined to ignore you. It’s almost as though we live in two separate worlds these days, the virtual world and the real one. It is unsurprising that Facebook users share over 30 billion pieces of content every single day. According to Social Media Today, If Facebook were a country it would rank third behind China and India.

Perhaps, if in reality people were as chatty and openly appreciative of other’s thoughts then we’d all be better off. The issue of appearance and self-image is a hugely overarching factor in this equation. People can project their desired image through their handpicked photos, music and blogging material and therefore have the confidence to compliment others, give advice and show sympathy. We are all considerably more self-conscious in real life. We are exposed, subjected to accidental slip-ups and embarrassing moments. We have less control and cannot simply delete, de-tag and start again. In this respect, a virtual good deed is one that everyone can see, a façade in other words; another method of controlling self-image.

Good deeds have become more important today as a way of showing that the likeable, helpful, sympathetic online you is in fact the real you too. What better place to observe human interaction than from the perspective of a barmaid. The customers that smile, hold the door open, ask how her day is going, compliment her pint pulling skills, will make her shift a more pleasant one. She will instinctively provide a better service in return. It’s that simple philosophy: you get what you give.

It's not that hardIt's not that hard

In terms of comparing certain realms in cyber space with the pub atmosphere, Facebook itself likened inappropriate joke pages, about violence towards women, with the sorts of jokes that might circulate around local pubs. Facebook argued that “what one person finds offensive another can find highly entertaining […] just as telling a rude joke won’t get you thrown out of your local pub, it won’t get you thrown off Facebook.” In Cath Elliott’s recent article for the Guardian, she condones the idea that Facebook should be entitled to encourage demeaning and offensive humour. Why should Facebook turn a blind eye to something so obviously antisocial? Fair enough, people can joke about whatever they like with their friends. At least in the pub the joke is likely to be shared amongst a handful of giggling drunken men who aren’t being serious, rather than across a globe full of people who might be. The virtual good deed is a necessity as much a real life good deed, because it is exposed to so many people. Isn’t avoiding offending someone a strong component to any civilized conversation?

It is far too problematic to blame social networking sites for an apparent decline in good deeds amongst members of the public. If anything, the amount of positive communication circulating around the worlds of Facebook and Twitter should be used as an indicator for our capacity and willingness to please others. There is nothing more antisocial about reading the news online as oppose to in a paper. We are entitled to some alone time. Like Twitter, online newspapers and magazines provoke the break down of the fourth wall and anyone can interact with anyone. The problem only arises when this becomes a person’s main source of socializing. So, as with most things, socializing should be about balance. The internet should be the secondary method when you’re too exhausted from real life socializing. Half the people who helped clean up London after the riots probably read about it online first. The internet should be a tool that we use to better our lives, not a life replacement that makes us antisocial.

Scrubbing after London riotsScrubbing after London riots

As with alcohol, the internet lowers our inhibitions because we can become a different version of ourselves. Don Bulmer notes, “behavior in how people engage in online social environments has reached a tipping point based on the level of trust and depth of collaboration […] that matches if not slightly exceeds the trust and engagement in one's more traditional offline social environments.”  It seems we should continue to use the Internet to benefit our experience of the real world and help increase the level of good deeds and acute communication we encounter.

Visit London.TimeBank.org.uk for a local volunteer opportunities search engine to find out what you can do for your community via the internet.

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