Random Acts of Kindness: A YouTube Phenomenon

I try to not spend too much time on YouTube. I find that I easily slip into the habit of endless scrolling down the rabbit hole of human strangeness displayed for all to see. But, with my penchant in check, I do every so often dip my toes in the water –  so to speak – and if I’m lucky I come across something that surprises or encourages me. Some months ago I stumbled onto a few YouTube channels that really made me smile. I know what you’re thinking – but no, it wasn’t a video montage of cats in knitted Santa suits…as delightfully moving as that may be.

It turns out that I’d come across something that’s become somewhat of a trend in certain reaches of the YouTuber world: giving! That is, random acts of kindness in the form of extravagant giving to the unsuspecting. What fascinated me even further on taking a closer look, however, was the number of subscribers these channels have, as well as the number of views that these giving videos rack up. As a disclaimer I must naturally add that this is in no way a wholesale endorsement of everything on these kinds of channels – they have other content too – generally some pranks. But it got me thinking. What is it about giving that resonates with us so – especially when we see people receiving gifts that they don’t expect, gifts that they haven’t earned, and gifts that are extravagant?

If, unlike me, you’ve been able to assuage your scrolling penchant with something more productive – like arm knitting, croquet, or competitive mobile phone throwing (an official sport in Finland) – then perhaps you’ve not come across these types of videos. In general the videos include things like giving students in public libraries new laptops, tipping excessive amounts to servers and delivery drivers, going into areas where people are struggling and paying their rent, giving people at the bus stop a new car, paying for cataract surgery, and the list goes on. Some of these channels have more than 200 million subscribers and their giving videos getting upward of 150 million views. This isn’t exactly a new trend though. I remember in the past there have been many TV shows that do the same kind of thing. One in particular would select a family who couldn’t afford it, and build them a whole new home. There is something about seeing this that draws us in and pulls on our heart.

One example in particular that does this kind of thing is a YouTube channel that has more than 10 million subscribers has a series of videos in a section called ‘Giving Back’ with a collection of 70 videos where he gives away expensive tech to random students at university campuses, or huge cash tips to servers at restaurants. Some of these videos have up to 18 million views, so I’m definitely not the only one who found something interesting to see here. In general the response of those on the receiving end is something like “are you serious?”. They’re in complete disbelief. A few of the videos were filmed in the thick of COVID lockdown and he 1 in particular stood out to me. A young lady arrived at the YouTuber’s house to deliver an order and he tipped her $1000. Immediately she began to cry with gratitude and through tears began to share how she had recently lost her baby and had hospital debt to pay, and that this would help her family more than he knew. He ended up finding her details and setting up a GoFundMe page to get her family more support, raising nearly $70 000. That video has almost 4 million views, and a quick reading of the comments section has one resounding sentiment: this is good! Watching this I was deeply moved in seeing someone who’d been through such trauma receiving a gift that made such a difference in their life.

It goes without saying that these YouTubers use the platform as a form of income generation, which is directly linked to the number of views and subscribers that they have – and there’s much that could probably be said about this. But what I want to focus on is the sheer number of views that these giving videos attract, and what it is that makes us resonate with them seeing kind acts.

There’s a story that Jesus told which is recounted for us in the Gospel of Luke, chapter 10, which has come to be known as the Parable of the Good Samaritan. Jesus tells the story of a man on a journey who was attacked by robbers and left for dead. A priest passed by and didn’t help. A Levite, a member of the Hebrew tribe of Levi – meant to be holy people, passed him by. Then a Samaritan came along – Samaritans were considered the enemy – but he saw the need, and he helped. There are many, many complex contextual points Jesus was making through the parable, but the point I want to highlight is that intuitively we all look at the last man that came along and we say that what he did was good – we see the compassion he had and our heart resonates with it, saying this is good. We see it as something noble, worthy of praise. And we look at the former 2 passers by and say that their indifference was wrong – they should had compassion.

When I consider the story Jesus told, and what we see in these videos that are so popular, I begin to wonder. I wonder why there is the seemingly universal experience that we call this good, and have the reflex to condemn opposite actions as bad. We see justice delivered and we applaud. We experience the mountain-top vista and exclaim beautiful. We see a gift given to the undeserving, or someone in need restored, and our hearts sing in compassion as we feel the glow of hope that it brings. In a world that is so full of hate and despair we want to draw near and be part of the experience.

Have you ever wondered if maybe, just maybe, the deep longings and intuitions we have are an indicator of something more going on – a homing beacon of sorts. The Bible teaches that we are made in the image of God. If this is true, then this shared experience of seeing these acts of giving as something noble is what I think we should expect. We resonate with them because there is more to us than meets the eye – we have the love of God written on our hearts, and that love pulses as we see the good done in the world around us. Perhaps God has put this there in our hearts as an indicator of His presence and reality – to point us to Him.

I think there is another level on which we resonate with this though, perhaps in a way that is less apparent at first. When we see those in need or the undeserving getting a great gift we resonate with it because ultimately we too are in need – deep spiritual need – and are undeserving – not living the perfect life God would have us live, we don’t deserve God’s love. The message of the cross of Jesus Christ – the foundation of Christianity – speaks directly to this experience. God, in seeing our need, and in His great mercy, has given us the most lavish and unexpected gift of all – He has given us Himself. And God’s supreme act of kindness wasn’t random, like our YouTuber; but deliberate, targeted, planned and costly.

This is the core of Christmas that is celebrated in so many places around the world. For many Christmas is about the giving of gifts and being with those we love – which is something I love – but sadly I think the core message has often been overlooked or misunderstood. Christmas is about a baby in a manger – but no ordinary baby. Christmas is the celebration of the most extravagant gift of all time. The gift of God entering in to our human experience, taking on the human nature and experiencing life alongside us. God saw our spiritual need and brokenness and entered in, not remaining far off and removed from our human experience came into the world to bring forgiveness and life through Jesus Christ.

The more extravagant the gift, the more unbelievable that it is ours. But the gift of God’s grace is ours – all we need to do is receive it. As you give gifts this Christmas and spend time with those you love – which I hope you will have the opportunity to do – remember the gift of Jesus Christ.

May the Lord bless you abundantly this Christmas.