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Join the crowd

Why try to save the world when we can give $700,000 to a crying bus monitor?

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NEW YORK -- Last summer, Toronto nutritionist Max Sidorov was surfing the Web when he stumbled upon a video titled Making the Bus Monitor Cry. It showed a group of young boys aboard a school bus in upstate New York cruelly taunting the 68-year-old woman who was charged with supervising them. The boys call Karen Klein "ugly" and a "fat ass" and, yes, make her cry.

Sidorov felt moved to do something nice for this beleaguered woman he'd never met. He created a donation site on Indiegogo with the stated goal of raising $5,000 for Klein as a token of people's kindness. "Let's give her something she will never forget," he wrote to prospective donors. "A vacation of a lifetime!"

By the time Sidorov's funding drive ended a month later, more than 32,000 people had given a total of $703,168. Klein accepted the money and soon after retired from her bus monitor job. She gave $100,000 to establish the Karen Klein Anti-Bullying Foundation. She kept the rest.

When we watch the truly nasty scene that unfolded on the school bus that day, we all want to give Karen Klein a big hug. We might even, like Max Sidorov, want to send her on a lovely vacation. It seems much less obvious that we'd want to hand her $700,000.

Compare the 10 minutes of verbal abuse that Klein endures in this video to the ordeal of Lydia Tillman, a Colorado woman who was raped, savagely beaten, doused with bleach, and left for dead in an apartment her attacker had set on fire. Tillman survived after leaping out a second-storey window. She suffered a stroke, was put in a coma, and awoke five weeks later without speech or motor skills. Her brother launched an Indiegogo campaign that managed to raise a smidge more than its goal of $65,000. This money wasn't meant to fund a vacation for Tillman or to let her quit her job, but rather to pay for a surgery that would allow her to eat solid food again.

It's not my intention to create a hierarchy of deserving victims. But surely we can agree that, in hindsight, the monetary outpouring for Karen Klein seems disproportionate.

Donations reached $5,000 within the first two hours, according to Sidorov, and were up to $100,000 by the end of the first day. People who went to the web page could easily see that there was already more than enough money to send Karen Klein on 20 vacations. They didn't care. They just kept giving.

"When it got to $300,000," Sidorov recalls, "I thought, 'Hey, this is a lot of money,' and I posted on the Indiegogo page that maybe some percentage of the donations should go to anti-bullying initiatives." But that's not what the donors wanted to happen. "There was a big reaction. People said no. They wanted all the money to go to Karen."

Stephen Reicher is a psychology professor at Scotland's University of St Andrews. I asked him about the Karen Klein case. Why had 32,000 people eagerly pigpiled to help this one particular woman?

Reicher attributes the giving frenzy, in part, to concretization. "For an abstract idea to affect us," he says, "it often helps if it's turned into something concrete and embodied. To say lots of people are suffering is an abstract concept. To see this one woman suffering, and be able to help her, is more concrete."

Reicher suggests that the "archetypal elements" involved here played a role as well. As we watch the video, we might flash back to moments when we were bullied on a school bus. Or feel guilt about having bullied others. The video also pits strongly defined, archetypal personas in opposition to each other -- brash youth versus wise elder. (Max Sidorov thinks it's this juxtaposition of foulmouthed little kids and a weeping older woman that really messes with people's emotions.)

Is there something inherently different about crowd behaviour on the Internet? Certainly, material that might incite a crowd can spread faster and further via social media than it can offline. And Reicher argues that the web is especially suited to exerting "metaperceptual influence." Seeing lots of Facebook likes or retweets or charitable donations can guide our own actions.

John Suler, a psychology professor at Rider University, has studied "deindividuation" -- the loss of personal identity within groups. "Deindividuation happens online as well as offline," says Suler. "But there might be a tendency toward it online due to the enhanced opportunity for anonymity. Deindividuation unleashes the emotions and wishes below the surface of people. It can steer us toward punishment or altruism."

-- Slate

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 17, 2013 A2

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