An influencer approaches a homeless man and asks him for a dollar. “Sorry to bother you,” he says, explaining that he needs the money to catch a train home. The homeless man, bearded, pushing his possessions down the street, reaches into his sock and pulls out a ten dollar bill. Then: His mouth falls open in shock. The influencer has revealed that, actually, he doesn’t need a dollar at all. Instead, he wants to give the man $500. He hands over a stack of cash. The men hug.
This encounter was captured in a Tik Tokvideo uploaded in February by Zachery Dereniowski, known to 9.3 million followers as @mdmotivator. On his channel, Dereniowski regularly approaches strangers, pretends to be in need, and asks them for a small sum. If people are kind and willing to help him, he returns their money and rewards them with hundreds of dollars crowdfunded from his followers. After adding a schmaltzy soundtrack, Dereniowski shares the resulting clips with millions who find them moving and motivating.
Dereniowski’s videos are part of a larger genre in which TikTokkers “test” members of the public with money and reward those who are deemed to be “good.” The hashtag #honestytest has 51.5 million views on the platform—among other tests, creators drop bundles of cash in front of people as a “social experiment,” filming them to see if they’ll pocket the money (some of these people are experiencing homelessness; many of these videos are clearly staged). Ultimately, “dishonest” people are embarrassed in front of millions of viewers, while “honest” people are rewarded financially.
Unlike other TikTokkers, Dereniowski isn’t big on shaming—his channel mostly focuses on the people who help him and are rewarded as a result. Consequently, his videos are hugely popular: 38.6 million people watched the encounter with the bearded homeless man, while 69.9 million watched him give $500 to a man in a wheelchair asking for help with his rent money (despite being in need, the man gave Dereniowski a quarter when asked).
Other creators have had comparable success with similar clips: @steven_schapiro earned 26.2 million views on a May TikTok entitled “Asking Strangers for Gas Money, Then Giving Them 100x Back!!,” while on YouTube, “BigDawsTv” earned 1.5 million views in March when he posed as a homeless man, asked strangers for money, and gave them back 100 times whatever they donated.
For many, it can be hard to see the downside of rewarding strangers for their generosity; during a cost-of-living crisis, it is warming to see people gifted significant sums of cash. But these videos raise questions about the nature of modern charitable giving.
If the bearded man had been unwilling to give Dereniowski any money, would he have been undeserving of the $500? If a child watches these videos, will they come to believe that any time they give to a stranger, the stranger should give to them in turn? We are now so used to viewing the world through our screens that many of us forget to question the fact that a camera is rolling at all. If someone approaches you on the street, filming you, and asks for money, are you pressured into sharing? Should vulnerable people have to perform for viewers before they’re deemed worthy of help?