Panhandling in Cyberspace

For a brief period during my teenage years, my family vacationed at Hampton Beach. After long, glorious days of lying on the beach, listening to the radio reminders to “turn before you burn,” and applying copious amounts of baby oil (yes, before anyone worried about skin cancer), my friends and I would spend our nights panhandling on the boardwalk.
The long promenade teemed with people on those hot summer nights. The smell of fried dough, saltwater taffy, and cigarette smoke filled the air. We’d move slowly through the crowd, searching for a place where we wouldn’t block the sidewalk traffic, where people naturally slowed down. Once settled, we’d smile at people as they passed, look them in the eye, and ask, “Do you have any spare change?”
 We didn’t need the money, not like the runaway teenagers or homeless men who lived on the fringes of our vacation experience. At the end of the night, we’d take our loot and give it away to the first person who asked us for spare change.  The thrill was in the boldness of asking strangers for cash, in looking people in the eye and asking the question.
Now there’s a new type of panhandler. One no longer has to fake cancer for handouts or stand on a street corner. Sites like gofundme.com and kickstarter.com provide a painless way to ask for cash. Got a book you want to self-publish? Why dip into your own savings account when you can put the touch on your cyber friends though Twitter. Want to spend a year in Europe? Saving money for your trip is a time-consuming drag when you can put out a plea to your Facebook friends to pay the cost.  The best part of cyberbegging is you don’t have to look anyone in the eye. Just hit send and wait for the bucks to flow in. Hey, we’re friends, aren’t we?
When I deal with real panhandlers, as opposed to virtual ones, I have choices. I can cross the street, avert my eyes, ignore them totally, or toss them a coin. Virtual beggars are harder to ignore. They send emails that evade my spam filter and clog up my social media feeds.  They use peer pressure in an attempt to pry cash out of my pocket and have an arsenal of guilt inducing tools at their disposal. Whether they list contributors on the site, giving everyone the opportunity to see who has, and hasn’t, ponied up, send personal emails, or use their Facebook or Twitter feed to individually thank those who have contributed and keep the begging project front and center (sort of like a panhandler that follows you down the street), it makes those who don’t contribute feel singled out.
But, what is the etiquette for those of us who don’t want to give? And what is the social cost for ignoring the beg? Do you owe someone an explanation for not contributing?
I say treat them like the panhandlers they are. Donate, tolerate it silently, or remove yourself from the situation. Remember we’ve opened our cyber doors to these people, we can shut the same door in their face.
Friends, if you want to beg, look me in the eyes and ask me once. I’ll appreciate your boldness.
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