Anyone venturing online on any given day could be forgiven for expecting a virtual tidal wave of bad feeling, anger, conceit and exasperation. The links we share on social media seem to be dominated by things we find distasteful and, for some reason, require our friends to find distasteful too. Indeed, some web business models seem entirely predicated on serving up content that's guaranteed to provoke fury, recrimination and tedious argument.
But occasionally internet virals emerge that buck the trend; things so conspicuously and unexpectedly nice that they stick out like a sore thumb. Towards the end of last week Buzzfeed posted "21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity", a collection of images - some well known, some less so - that depict acts of altruism and kindness. From the two Norwegian men rescuing a hapless sheep in difficulty after falling in the sea, to the bookstore sign explaining that if you "don't have money to buy books and want to read, then help yourself", we were all over these pictures like a rash; blubbing into our laptops and thankful that we'd managed to find an oasis of goodwill and decency in a desert of self-promotion and righteous indignation.
But we could always do with more of it. Two months ago, a 10-minute film called Caine's Arcade delighted millions; it's the story of a 9-year old boy, Caine Monroy, who'd built his own amusement arcade out of cardboard boxes inside his dad's car parts shop in Los Angeles. No-one ever visited Caine's Arcade, or bought the Fun Passes he'd produced to allow people to have a go at his painstakingly constructed football game. But a passing film-maker was intrigued by Caine's efforts, invited hundreds of people to visit the arcade and the subsequent global interest in the film has led to the establishment of a foundation to find and fund creativity and entrepreneurship in children.
You can find other examples dotted around the web. Search for Ike Ditzenberger, a boy with Down Syndrome whose touchdown in a normally fiercely-competitive high school football clash was the result of some affectionate sportsmanship on the part of the opposing team.
Canadian photographer Markus Thompson found an enthusiastic internet community willing and able to help him track down the owner of an expensive Canon camera -with photos intact - that he found while scuba diving. Last week's outrage at a video of verbal abuse meted out by children to an American school bus monitor, Lisa Klein, has led to close to half a million dollars being donated to send her on holiday. The website Letters Of Note, which collates notable items of correspondence, has heartwarming examples of kindness in its Top 10 most viewed posts, including a fantastic letter of encouragement from Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi to a young cartoonist who'd sent him some of his work.
"We're constantly bombarding each other with negative news items, tales of unimaginable woe," says Letters Of Note founder Shaun Usher. "To the point where any glimmer of human niceness is devoured as if it's going out of fashion. These things do, if only for a short period, restore your faith in humanity and remind you that plenty of good occurs in the world." Mick Sheridan, an upholsterer living in Carmarthenshire, recently started a blog documenting his odd habit of placing chairs he's restored in seatless bus stops for old people to sit down on; needless to say, his blog has received far more attention than your average upholstery website.
"Over the years I've convinced myself that acts of kindness are repaid in some way," he says. "Every time I give my loyalty points to the person behind me in the supermarket queue I'm amazing how surprised they are - as though not being selfish comes as a shock. And I've always enjoyed doing small things that shock people in a tiny way."
Our hunger for online altruism hasn't gone unnoticed by companies; Coca-Cola has just launched an advert featuring footage from security cameras showing people demonstrating acts of generosity, thereby using our own kindness to sell fizzy drinks back to us. But let's gloss over such cynicism. Darwin described in The Descent Of Man how we're a profoundly caring species and while the web isn't renowned for supplying many examples to support this view, there's definitely stuff out there. You just need to know where to look.
- The Independent