The Internet as Safety Net

There’s a New York Times Motherlode blog post this week about the emergence of GoFundMe as safety net, with author KJ Dell’Antonia noting that crowdfunding used to be for major life expenses, but “this flow of families just in need of the simplest help — to make the rent while they recover from an assault, to pay the bills while they support a parent in the hospital — is something different.”

I’m not sure if the idea that crowdfunding used to be for big expenses and is now for everyday expenses is necessarily true. Since crowdfunding’s gotten started, people have asked for what they needed, right? (Also: eldercare is a major life expense.)

But it is true that people are turning to GoFundMe for smaller types of expenses, or what the site helpfully categorizes as: Accidents: Personal Crisis. It’s upgraded to “Accidents and Emergencies” on the website, but they left the more evocative title in the URL.

When you look at the listings on Accidents and Emergencices, you see a lot of fires. (Read that as a metaphor for “fires that need to be put out” if you want; I can’t help but do it.) You also see people in need of funding for hospital stays, recovery after trauma, even funeral funding — but I did not expect to see so many people who had lost their homes and their health to fires. I feel like I hardly think about fire as a potential threat, but there it is.

It also feels — and I don’t quite know how to put this — really Midwestern. It’s the idea that there are many different Internets out there, and this section of the Internet is a place where people still use the convention “The Bill Davis* Family Recovery Fund,” just like I grew up reading about the So-and-So Family in my hometown newspaper. You can also tell it’s Midwestern, instantly, from the backgrounds of the profile shots. I don’t know what that means except to say “this is a particular need that GoFundMe is filling.”

I’ve funded a few projects on GoFundMe. Sometimes it’s been friends who needed money, and sometimes it’s been causes like The Leelah Project. You can fund individual GoFundMe projects without seeing the whole scope of GoFundMe requests. You can fund an individual project without fully understanding that over 3,000 people are using GoFundMe to get help paying their rent.

The NYT asks:

What’s different? Are the community institutions that once helped out (the local car repair shop, the church, neighbors) too strapped themselves, or without the kind of ties that move people to help any more? Or was it always this way, with the people who were closely tied to a community — in this case, an online community — and able to write a compelling story edging out the quieter struggles of others for attention and help?

I suspect a little of both, but more than that I think it’s a workflow/process thing: a church group would have to decide which families need help the most, they’d have to talk to the family and write up a page in the newsletter and distribute it and manage donations and all of that. GoFundMe streamlines all of those steps, and allows people to advocate for themselves.

If I were experiencing an Accident: Personal Crisis, I would absolutely get on a crowdfunding site and ask my friends for help. It would probably be about the sixth or seventh plan down the list, after maxing out my credit cards and the rest of it, but I would ask.

Would you?

*Fictionalized name; not an actual GoFundMe listing

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