One day last February, Josh Stern sat on a bus with his classmate Daniel Kahn, talking about kindness. Second-year medical students at the University of Ottawa, the young men had just completed a two-hour exam. But rather than head back to his apartment to crash for the rest of the afternoon, Stern became obsessed with an idea: he wanted to give away some sandwiches.
As he explained to Kahn, the plan was simple. He would film himself handing out food to homeless men and women in his neighbourhood, upload the video to his Facebook page and challenge a few friends to carry out their own random good deed. “People will want to pay it forward,” reasoned Stern. “That way, they aren’t the person breaking the chain.”
For weeks, the 23-year-old had been distressed about the “neknomination” videos circulating online. The binge-drinking competition, in which students goad each other to push the limits of what they can consume by posting footage of their antics, has claimed at least five lives in Europe. In one case, a 20-year-old in London, England, died after chugging-or “necking”-a lethal brew of wine, whisky, vodka and lager. Then, a week before his mid-term, Stern stumbled across a YouTube video of a young South African who decided to reply to his neknomination in a novel way: giving food to a vagrant standing by the road. The young man’s about-face into positivity excited Stern, who wondered about bringing the idea to Canada. Why not replace the deadly neknomination craze with a different kind of dare, one that could prove social media wasn’t useful only for spreading terrible things? He even had a hashtag ready: #feedthedeed.
“Catchy name,” Kahn told Stern. “But I’m not sure it’ll work.” He countered that neknoms are popular because people like to laugh at their friends and like it when friends laugh at them. “I doubt you’ll get the same reaction doing something good.”
Stern got off at the downtown campus. It was a 15-minute walk to the grocery store, where he bought a six-pack box of assorted deli-meat sandwiches. Located close to the Ottawa Mission, the area has a large homeless population. Stern recognized several street people from his commute to school, and distributed his gift.
He hurried home and posted the two-minute footage, tagging three friends in different cities-Calgary, Windsor and Ottawa-in a bid to spread the idea. Within minutes, they shared the video. An hour later, dozens more passed it on. A week after, the hashtag had jumped his social circle, with hundreds of people in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto creating Feed the Deed montages of their own. One group of young men donated dozens of pairs of socks, toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste to their local Goodwill; another supplied free tokens at a subway station; yet another delivered Valentine’s Day treats-flowers and chocolates-to paramedics.
Six months, 30 countries and over 1,000 videos later, Feed the Deed is a viral force for good. That success is, in part, due to the involvement of Stern’s friend, Russell Citron, who runs Kindness Counts. The Toronto-based not-for-profit, that fosters creative acts of generosity in high schools and universities, now hosts many of the videos on its Facebook page. The partnership has helped spread Stern’s idea to campuses throughout the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States. Recently, a Maryland student spent part of her day offering free rides to classmates.
According to Pamela Cushing, a cultural anthropologist and professor at Western University in London, Ont., Feed the Deed marries a defining trait of the current generation-its need to obsessively document and share every event-with the tendency for people to want recognition for their altruistic deeds. “The feel-good effect of being noticed is what often leads people to do good,” she says. Stern’s coup, Cushing argues, has been to transform social media’s stagecraft: upgrading the selfie for the diffusion of selflessness. “He has proven you can create a social network around a sense of goodness,” she says.
The good-deed mini-industry Stern has spawned keeps reaching new people. Every day, new videos appear starring “deeders” paying for a stranger’s groceries or gas, or surprising police officers with coffee. Stern has been courted by several social media companies that want to bring his project in-house, but isn’t making any decisions yet. “I’m trying to keep the organic nature of Feed the Deed alive,” he says. And his doubting Thomas friend? “Oh, he’s a believer now!”