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Charitable Donations and Sustainability 

2 week sprint, followed by a 6 week long process 

In beginning of my networking project, I had a very clear idea of what my process looked like: eight weeks of work, with each week dedicated to a specific portion of my project.

That eight-week-long project lended itself to some amazing insights and learning opportunities and got me thinking: what would it look like if I experimented in my process while experimenting in my subject matters? How could I shape my process to be equally considerate of the same amount of research and ideation I might do in eight weeks but format it in a different structure? How can I best find what forms of process work for me? ment, on both the giving and receiving ends.


With that being said, with this next project, I structured my process a little differently. Instead of one, long, eight-week project, I wanted to see what sort of inspiration I could drive into a two-week-long sprint, and then if I could use that sprint as inspiration to drive a following six-week-long project. Right now, all of my work (in both the sprints and the longer piece) surrounds the topic of charity engagement, on both the giving and receiving ends.

Secondary Research

I started with secondary research, learning primarily about those that donate their income and what percentage of their income they donate. I found some interesting statistics: significant research has shown “that lower-income Americans give proportionally more of their incomes to charity than do upper-income Americans.” (NYT, 2010) On average, the wealthiest Americans donate 1.3 percent of their income; the poorest, 3.2 percent. (The Atlantic, 2013)

In a study done by Paul K. Piff, a Ph.D candidate in social psychology at UC Berkeley, it was found that the “lower class” subjects in his experiments tested were more “attuned to the needs of other and more committed generally to the values of egalitarianism,” in comparison to the “upper class” subjects that prioritized their own needs.

With that information, I asked the questions ‘How might we influence upper-income Americans to be more generous? How might we engage upper-income Americans in greater generosity?’

Sander van der Linden, a professor in the department of psychology at the University of Cambridge, found recently that in these sorts of emotionally driven videos, “instead of relying on abstract statistics, effective campaigns ask people to identify with someone who will benefit from our collective goodwill. That empathy can be contagious, especially when paired with emotional imagery.” (Mashable, 2017)

Content that is personal, emotional, and story-driven can be particularly addicting- so much so, that “In 2013, when Facebook decided that the curiousity-gap headlines and clickbait articles offered by viral websites like Upworthy (“the fastest growing media site of all time”) and ViralNova were wearing thin, it changed the algorithm for News Feed, the main river of content for Facebook users.”

However, engagement in content does not necessarily mean donation or action. Slacktivism as it’s been coined, was highlighted by Unicef during a 2013 campaign: “Like us on Facebook and we will vaccinate zero children against polio”. (The Guardian)

This is where Facebook’s “Donate Now” button comes in. The tappable button provides an opportunity for easy and integrated action, where users can click on ‘Donate Now’ and select suggested donation amounts.

With all of this information in mind, I started to think about the intersections in emotionally engaging (and sometimes manipulative) content and donation.


In my brainstorming phase, I quickly ideated on solutions revolving around emotionally engaging content and charity donation.

As I looked through my brainstorms, I began to notice something: while the intention of charity engagement might often be positive and well-meaning, the usage of tools based in emotionally engaging and manipulative content could easily be negatively consequential.

This is something that, in my own life, I constantly notice. It seems as though the virtual attention economy we see on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram sometimes lends itself to the creation of and engagement in cute, fun videos of puppies getting along and random acts of kindness- but sometimes, this content can suck us into hours of time we might not have planned to spend online. This problem can also be explained in great detail by Tristan Harris’ Time Well Spent, so I’ll leave that here for more discovery.

This got me thinking. What if in my first sprint, I worked on a sort of Black Mirror-esque idea: instead of considering a good and ideal solution, I decided to explore a solution that easily would have both positive and negative consequences and emphasize what the negative consequences would be.

The Solution

With all of this in mind, the concept I came up with is one called Viral.io. This is an envisioned idea; not a working product or even remotely a fleshed out idea. This is design fiction, aimed at speculating what the future might look like with emotionally manipulative technologies and practices on the near horizon.

Viral.io is a website concept that uses image recognition and machine-learning technologies to create story-based viral videos.

Here’s how it works: the site listens to the user tell their story, parses through words and ideas that other uses have paired in their videos, and finds clips of videos via image recognition technologies that contextually fit.

The site similarly finds fitting music and places that over the entirety of the video, and writes out the user’s story at the bottom of the screen.

Afterwards, the user has the ability to edit the videos to make sure the content is right, and can then directly publish the edited video onto Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.

This all looks a little something like this, in it’s most basic form.

How it could be used

Sounds great, right? Technology that tells and shows stories better than people can?

Below is a little storyboard of a scenario of a user using Viral.io. In the storyboard, the user checks their charity’s bank account, sees it is low, and decides to use Viral.io. They then let us in on what their charity does — in this parody example, their charity eliminates homelessness by petitioning and attempting to defund shelters — and the system outputs a video that is then editable by the user.

The user is able to post on social media platforms with directly connected donate buttons or easily accessible donation links and then sees an influx in donations.

This is an example of what sort of harm these kinds of technologies could do; manipulate users into feeling empathy and then encourage them to turn that empathy into donation. Often this sort of empathy-driven incentive to donate can be positive; however, it can also lead to negative consequences.

Consider the Kony 2012 campaign, which attempted to make Ugandan cult and militia leader, indicted war criminal and fugitive Joseph Kony globally known in order to have him arrested by the end of 2012; this however proved futile, though some $30 million was donated in efforts to the cause.

What drove those donations was a short film that spread virally online; one of the first of its kind to harness the power of storytelling and social media in video form.

It is critical that in this age of political tumult we actively consider what the causes we wish to donate to actually do, and engage with our peers and outside community to better inform our understanding before engaging in donation. We have the ability to invest in power and positivity, and it is critical that we create technologies that help support that; not more technologies that drive haziness and manipulate emotions.

With that being said, I am going to spend these next six weeks diving deeper into donations and the economics of charitable giving.

Contact me at natrlew@gmail.com            ︎ ︎ ︎