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Altruism Online: Five Uplifting Stories From Reddit

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I want to share five stories of when people have used the social media website Reddit to unconditionally help another. Initially I wanted to write an opinion piece explaining how support is being out-sourced from nucleus based organisations to the anarchy of the 'net but I decided that it'd be better to just show you instead...

1) Making a dream

Last year a 23-year-old man with terminal cancer called Jake Villanueva invited Reddit users to ask him anything about how he was dealing with knowing that he had less than a year to live.

When one user asked Jake what had made him happy, he replied that he'd enjoyed being on holiday with his family. Shortly after, people from all around the world began to offer to let Jake stay at their house, just so he could experience the world in his final months. This included users from Scotland, Switzerland, Canada and Australia. One user, named ElementK, tried to make the trip a reality by offering Jake his 25,000 flight miles. Suddenly this world trip idea crossed over from the realm of harmless discussion and became a possible reality.

The call to send Jake on holiday grew in momentum and a fund was set up by user z3phyr13 and the donations began to pour in. All of this was, in fact, taking place whilst Jake was asleep, meaning he was entirely unaware of the generosity that was taking place in his name. In an interview following the event, Jake reflected, "so when I woke up, there was $9,000 in an account". $9,000 was chicken feed in comparison to the sum Reddit users eventually amassed - $30,000, and all within in just 24 hours. People from all around the world shared their money with Jake, just as he'd shared his story and feelings with them.

Jake unavoidably passed away from his cancer but not before he got the chance to travel and, more importantly, got to feel loved and supported by a global community.

2) A nudge back into the black

In December 2012 a user named ProZacDose wrote a post in the Subreddit Offmychest - a forum where people can anonymously voice whatever is troubling them. ProZacDose explained how he felt like he'd failed his children because he was badly in debt and couldn't afford to buy them Christmas presents. He had got into debt because in the past he'd broken his leg and, as a result, had to take a month off work, unpaid. Henceforth he and his wife had found themselves perpetually playing catch up to pay the bills. Finding that extra money to buy presents that year just didn't seem feasible. What ProZacDose needed was for the playing field to be re-leveled and a chance to start again.

For whatever reason, the assistance afforded by the State either did not have provision for people in his circumstance or did not see him as worthy - Reddit users, however, did. When one user, girlinthecity, saw a chance to help somebody, she posted that she'd like to pay for his water bill. Shortly after another user, illaqueable, wrote "if girlinthecity has picked up your water bill, let me make a dent in your power bill". Reddit rallied and $10,000 dollars was donated to help this family get back on their feet, to help their children have a nice Christmas and to help other needy children. Maybe the most potent part of this story is that at the beginning of ProZacDose's post he wrote "As I sit here writing this I am half tempted to stop. Why? I ask myself, what is this going to solve?"

The people who donated to this crowd-sourced assistance didn't seem to care whether he met certain box-ticking criteria or if he had made the right applications within the correct deadlines. They did comb through his previous posts and debate whether he was genuine. In all, they concluded that this was a man whom needed a gentle nudge back into the black, and that's what he got. Reddit gave him money, yes, but that's not what people did it for. They did it to give him a chance.

3) No payment required

Not all altruism online is from the crowd or about money; sometimes it's just a few people trying to help a stranger out. One month ago a user called stevieboy1984 put up a request for somebody to help restore an image of a photograph. The photograph was of his Grandfather wearing his uniform during WWII. His Grandfather was still alive and treasured this photograph but had lost the original and the scanned image was all he had. The problem was, at the time in which the scan was taken the original image was already diminished, rippled and ripped.

The request was heard and accepted by a handful of tech-savvy users. Each one put in the hours and sent stevieboy1984 their attempt. The end result was a perfectly restored photograph with no rips and no ripples. They didn't ask for payment or anything in return, they just did it to be nice.

4) A Happy Birthday from around the world

On September 4 2010 it was William Lashua's 90th birthday party. In his local town of Ashburnham, USA, flyers were put up stating "Wanted: People for Birthday Party", alongside of details of the venue. When an anonymous individual saw this rather solemn flyer they posted it onto the picture based website, 4Chan. Users of 4Chan and then Reddit saw this, and saw an opportunity to make an old man happy.

Many people made plans to visit William for his birthday but when his Grandson posted on Reddit and explained that the flyer was local and was for people who actually knew William - rather than an open invite - people understood. So instead of traveling, Internet users from around the world sent William simple tokens of human connectivity - birthday cards, presents and... beef jerky.

Although it became apparent that William did have a family and wouldn't spend his birthday alone, the thought to take from this was that when the Internet thought William would have been alone, they want to give him the best birthday ever. When they found out that he wasn't alone, they still wanted to make an old man smile.

5) "Today you, tomorrow me"

This one isn't a story of users helping anybody. This is just the re-telling of a story a user posted about how he learnt the value of 'paying forward' to society.

Two years ago somebody asked Reddit users "have you ever picked up a hitch-hiker?" and thousands responded with their experiences of doing so. One user named Rhoner, however, digressed and told of how he was once helped on the roadside.

After 'Rhoner's' car broke down he waited for somebody to stop to help him, but nobody would. Just before he was about to give up and try walking to the nearest garage, a Mexican family consisting of a father, mother and daughter stopped in their shoddy van. The parents couldn't speak English but the daughter could. The father helped 'Rhoner' replace his tyre whilst the mother gave him food and water. 'Rhoner' felt great gratitude and insisted on giving the family some money for the assistance he'd received, especially since he said their poverty was obvious. Upon 'Rhoner's' last final attempt to hand the father some money, the Mexican man responded himself, in his broken English, and told 'Rhoner' "today you, tomorrow me".

The lesson was simple - if we all do whatever little things we can to help one another today, in the future we'll all receive payment in kindness; money isn't always necessary.

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