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Kindness: Virtue, vice or comes with a price?

Are brands and businesses turning kindness into commerce now?
Last Updated 24 February 2024, 23:06 IST

Kindness is your new social media buzzword. You may have spotted hundreds of posts on kindness while you mindlessly scroll through social media day in and day out. “Be kind” posters and merchandise are all-pervasive online. There are 21-day kindness challenges, reels and YouTube videos on random acts of kindness, kindness influencers, kindness warriors and kindness ambassadors dotting the online landscape. 

Just look at the sheer number of #bekind #kindnessmatters and related hashtags on social media platforms and you know that it is indeed big. Can brands be too far behind then? From launching campaigns centred around kindness to tapping into the kindness hashtags, they are doing it all. The pandemic further drove home the importance of kindness; brands used it as a hook in their ads and messaging. A fashion brand used kindness as an emotional hook to launch a campaign where it shared stories of ‘kindness warriors’ who went out of their way to help those in need during the pandemic. In 2023, a dating app launched a campaign underlining the attractiveness of kindness. Kindness is sexy, the campaign headlined. 

Readers too have taken to feel-good, uplifting fiction now termed ‘uplit’. If you have loved Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, Fredrick Backman’s novels like A Man Called Ove, any of Alexander McCall Smith’s books or Japanese fiction like Days At The Morisaki Bookshop by Satoshi Yagisawa, you know what uplit is — the kind of literature where kindness, warmth, and human connections are at their core. 

The selling of kindness

Are brands and businesses turning kindness into commerce now? Adishi Gupta, a graduate research assistant from Vancouver explains, “It is no longer a secret that all businesses need a strong social media presence to sell their product because of its popularity, especially with young people. They quickly catch on to internet trends and target their marketing by adding to the conversation in their own way. The more people they can bring to their social media channels and websites, the better hope they have of converting those clicks into sales. But does the popularity of a T-shirt or a bag that says “being kind is cool” mean we are all kinder now? Unfortunately not.”

Branding strategist Rojjo George observes, “Brands often struggle to differentiate themselves in a crowded market. Kindness offers a unique way to stand out.” However, authenticity matters. “In a world flooded with marketing messages, authenticity is a precious commodity,” he adds. Kindness, he says, has a “ripple effect that extends beyond immediate interactions. Just as the impact of kind gestures can spread, a brand’s reputation for kindness can reach far and wide,” Rojjo explains.

A business needs to ensure that its workplace also encourages kindness among employees and fosters a positive environment. Rojjo notes that “by weaving kindness into the fabric of a brand’s identity, businesses can create a lasting impact that goes beyond the tangible and into the realm of emotion and connection.”

The brighter side?

This is not to say online kindness is unwelcome; in fact, it is the balm that we all need. Kindness as an individual personality trait is one thing but kindness on social media could be completely different. The thing about the internet is that it is equally easy to position yourself as an extremely kind person or as a troll, unleashing vicious comments without a hint of hesitation — a result of the anonymity it provides. You may also use kindness as a virtue signalling tool. 

Says Adishi, “The online world, especially social media, is evolving a lot faster than we can fathom. Because of the nature of the medium, a lot of parallel conversations can find centre stage with relatively equal access for different people to contribute to the conversations, despite the global digital divide. While this could be great, it also enables social media optics and some topics end up being discussed to the point of over-saturation, such that they are devoid of any meaning and nuance.” 

Healthy cynicism

Perhaps it is the over-saturation of kindness-related content online that has led to a certain cynicism about the virtue itself. As the insightful introductory chapter of the book, ‘On Kindness’ by psychoanalyst Adam Phillips and the historian Barbara Taylor notes, “We are profoundly ambivalent about kindness. We love it and we fear it; we feel its absence very acutely — it is the misery of everyday life —  and we resist our own kind impulses.”

“Kindly behaviour is looked upon with suspicion; public espousals of kindness are dismissed as moralistic and sentimental,” the book observes. It was published in 2009 when social media platforms were in their infancy.  Adishi adds that often on social media, “it becomes more about ensuring that you are not left out of the conversation whether or not you have anything of substance to add. This desire to add to the conversation quickly becomes a desire to perform for the medium; it is important to show online that you believe in something because it is no longer enough if you just believe in it. So yes, there is a performative element to kindness online, just as there is a performative element to almost everything that happens online. Because it is trendy. Because it sells.” 

Adishi, who is currently completing her Master’s in Human Development, Learning and Culture at the University of British Columbia, started a ‘Letters of Kindness’ initiative in 2019 after she posted a 30-day series on her Instagram account sharing posts on her experiences with a mental health challenge each day.

“In no time, I started receiving a lot of requests, both from people I knew and from strangers. I wrote letters until mid-2021, both digital and handwritten. By then, I had written over 100 letters and short notes of kindness,” says Adishi. What did the initiative mean to Adishi?

“For me, writing these letters was a reminder of the power of words in our relationships and how so many of us struggle to find the words despite having the intention to express something. A lot of the requests were from people wanting to express their love to their loved ones. I signed off these letters with my name while mentioning (whenever relevant) that it was dedicated by their loved one (some people wanted their name to be mentioned, some wanted to remain anonymous)”.

The initiative was also Adishi’s attempt to present a commentary on performativity, commercialisation and romanticisation of kindness. 

Crowdfunding and other ‘random’ acts

However, it’s not all black or white when it comes to kindness online. Random acts of kindness have spawned an entire industry, that of crowdsourcing platforms. According to the India Philanthropy Report 2023 (co-created by Bain & Company and Dasra), Indian crowdfunding platforms raised upwards of Rs 3,600 crore in 2020, on the back of increased online giving during the pandemic. The report cites a Charities Aid Foundation India forecast which says 50 per cent of all giving in India will occur through online channels within the next five years. However, the crowdfunding landscape comes with knotty issues, including the use of graphic videos to guilt the prospective donor into giving. This may be counterproductive as well — constant exposure to such ads may put off many a prospective donor from giving. Kindness is not necessarily about giving financially or even giving — it could be thoughtfulness and consideration as well. No one is a stranger to kindness — everyone has been shown kindness at some point or the other, without one realising it too. 

As these lines from the poem, ‘Small Kindnesses’ by poet, teacher and essayist Danusha Laméris, which keeps going viral from time to time on social media, says: 

“And sometimes, when you spill lemons/from your grocery bag, someone else will help you/pick them up. Mostly, we don’t want to harm each other./We want to be handed our cup of coffee hot,/and to say thank you to the person handing it./To smile at them and for them to smile back.”

Amidst the chaos

Talking of verse, on X (formerly Twitter), Joseph Fasano (@Joseph_Fasano_), who wears many hats, that of poet, novelist, songwriter and teacher, posts daily poetry threads that are immensely popular. His posts have created a community of those who love and appreciate not just the power of verse but also human connection. 

He says, “The great poet Rainer Maria Rilke once said the measure of a work of art is whether it truly needed to be made. If that is the case with a particular poem, it will transcend any concerns of what is or isn’t fashionable. And people will be helped by it, somehow, somewhere.”

Fasano, who also leaves handwritten poems in unexpected places, explains: “Social media has become a lively forum in which people can find poems and beautiful words amidst the chaos, but I have often found myself drifting through the “real” world and wishing poetry were a more prominent part of it, along with the pop songs, relentless advertisements, and apocalyptic news cycles. So I decided to do my part to put handwritten poems in unexpected places, where they might be found. These little artefacts can create a moment of human connection through all the noise of modern living.” 

Here is one such poem he leaves for people:

“What if, after years/of trial,/a love should come/and lay a hand upon you/and say,/this late,/your life is not a crime”

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(Published 24 February 2024, 23:06 IST)

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