Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Why the Internet Gave the Bullied Bus Monitor $700,000

Over at Slate, Seth Stevenson revisited last year's viral event of do-gooderism, where an elderly bus monitor was videotaped being bullied on a school bus by some twelve-year-olds being particularly nasty twelve-year-olds.

Hundreds of people, spurred on initially by Reddit, donated to give this woman money for a vacation. But then it just kept going and going. The donations ended up north of $700,000.

Which is great. But of all the people out there who need and deserve money, why $700,000 for this one woman? As Stevenson points out, what about rape victims? Isn't $700,000 for this bus monitor a little overkill?

Stevenson talked with experts on crowd behavior, and they pointed out the extent to which we're drawn to simplicity and concreteness when banding together to take action:
Reicher attributes the giving frenzy, in part, to concretization. “For an abstract idea to affect us,” he says, “it often helps if it’s turned into something concrete and embodied. To say lots of people are suffering is an abstract concept. To see this one woman suffering, and be able to help her, is more concrete.”
This concretization also works in reverse, where people who do stupid, simple wrongs can suffer abuse far disproportionate to their initial errors. A woman who posted a picture flipping off a sign calling for peace and quiet at Arlington Cemetery was the subject of online harassment and ended up losing her job, and I'm sure we all remember the author who shot her mouth off at an online reviewer and was then the subject of an Internet witch hunt.

Unfortunately, as soon as facts get complicated we start disagreeing and it becomes more difficult to channel our collective effort. We should be punishing the architects of the financial crisis and the efforts to mislead the public to war, where the stakes are far greater for us as a society and the misdeeds far worse, but those events are complex and it's difficult to agree upon them. Somehow those misdeeds go unpunished even as we heap our collective rage on people who do one small, stupid thing. 

For better or worse, we're drawn to simplicity even as we have a thirst for collective do-gooderism, and it's heartwarming to let one woman serve as the vessel of our goodwill. I hope it won't stop us from channeling our energy to punish graver mistakes and reward greater successes, even if the facts are more complicated.


Bryan Russell said...

Hear, hear.

Anonymous said...

OMG! First!

Nathan, I'm a bit uncomfortable with anything that sounds as if it is questioning the why and how people spend their money.

It is one of the issues people had with the Occupy movement, and I dare say, the "progressive" mindset in America.

At the risk of sounding callous, what did or did not happen to a sexual assault victim is really neither here nor there. Nobody used fraud or any other dishonest means to get her the money. While she didn't earn it, per se, she also didn't steal it.

The only comment should be "How cool it is that the internet, which is used for so much slander and derision, can and is used for good." And "How can we replicate this tool to spread goodwill to others."

But we really must keep this "But why her?" nonsense out of our mouths. If you feel that strongly about it, why not keep your thoughts to yourself, and donate to whatever cause you deem is more worthy?


Nathan Bransford said...


Sure, I don't think in the grand scheme of things this harms anyone.

But taking your logic to the nth degree, if someone donated a ton of money to a neo-Nazi organization I don't have a right to criticize that?

Why is the act of donating money so sacred that no one is allowed to critique it in any way vs. all the other actions people take that we are (apparently) free to criticize?

robintidwell said...

This whole thing rather irked me - a $700K vacation?? Because she was "bullied" by a bunch of junior high kids and they made her cry?

I get that part - I drove a bus for four years, back when, but we didn't call it "bullying." It was a bunch of junior high kids acting like idiots.

Call me bitter, whatever - no one handed me a dime when a bunch of kids told me their daddies were gonna beat my azz ... or a few other choice things. Yet, I've had a couple crowd campaigns online, to build my business. Hardly anyone gave me a dime then.

Sheesh, Internet.

Matthew MacNish said...

Well said. And Anon (Bill), you can't expect to be first if you're going to write something that long. Not around here.

Debbie said...

I think he makes a good point. Abstract ideas and ambiguity don't make easy soundbites.

And don't you think part of it is that people could look at her and picture their own grandmothers? She's a sympathetic character. A cute little grandma.

Linda G Hatton said...

Bullying is in the news and on our collective minds lately. If these kids were willing to bully a grown woman - a woman whose job it was to monitor them - what would they be willing to do to other kids? While I can't say exactly why she would receive donations over other victims (perhaps more people could relate to her and/or feel sympathy to her situation?), I do think the money was a way of saying that bullying is not okay.

Anonymous said...

@Matthew - So true :)

@Nathan, I get where you're going with that. But the thing is, I WOULDN'T criticize anyone for giving to a neo-Nazi group, because that is their right. And that's something we forget.

While this might sound awful, I say let's take some other examples.

Do you recall when Amanda Hocking came to prominence for her Kindle-bestselling vampire stories? "Ugh! Her stories are so lame!" "Why are people spending money on this tripe, when there so much classy lit-r-chure out there?"

Or how about this....."What's so special about some former agent and middle-grade author that he has such a following? I can name 15 better blogs that deserve that kind of attention? All he does is talk basketball and post links!"

Maybe it's part of my right-wing conservative views, but I get irked when I see people have an opinion on why people support the things they support or have an opinion on how money they didn't earn is spent.

If your convictions are that strong, then you should put your own money where your mouth is and support that cause/pursue that goal.

But don't be so cowardly and immature as to be bitter because not everyone thinks your definition of a great idea is their definition of a great idea.


Nathan Bransford said...


So let me get that right... you'll criticize me for being a "coward" for politely questioning whether perhaps the bus monitor was perhaps the best recipient of $700,000, but you wouldn't criticize someone for giving money to Nazis?

The New Englander said...

Great post.

As you said, simple, clear concepts galvanize people and allow for clearer lines.

People sometimes wonder why a discussion about the color of a bike shed can generate more heated (and lengthy) debate in local politics than can a proposal about whether to put a nuclear reactor in town.

Sayre's Law says that, "In any dispute, the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake."

Bike sheds aren't more important than nuclear reactors, but they're easier to form (and express) opinions about.

I feel more visceral outrage seeing what happened to this woman than I do after watching an entire documentary about Bernie Madoff.

Anonymous said...

Okay Nathan, let's slow this down a bit. I'm not a first time commenter, so please don't try to pass this off as me being okay with Nazism of any stripe.

Second, I'm not calling "you", or anyone really, a coward.

I'm saying that people need to accept that in a democracy, and not some authoritarian dystopia, people have the right to spend and donate their money as they see fit. I don't feel one can be intellectually honest by questioning why a bus monitor should warrant $700,000 but then not question why people watch March Madness when they could marching for gay marriage equality, or why spend money on middle-grade speculative fiction books when they good donate that money to soup kitchens.

I am merely saying that the answer in each case is "You may not agree with someone spending that money in this way, but you have to respect their right to do so."

Further, I'm saying that a more effective way to respond to what you (general 'you') perceive to be frivolously distributed resources is to direct your own resources and efforts to what you deem to be an appropriate group/cause/product, etc.


Nathan Bransford said...


I'm definitely not trying to associate you with Nazism, I know you don't believe in that. That wasn't my intent. I may have misunderstood what you meant with the cowardly line, so my mistake.

The distinction I'm making though, is that while I'm not advocating legally restricting how people can spend their money (although, where would you come down on donations to Al Qaeda?), I am defending the right to criticize how people spend their money when they're doing so in a way that impacts the greater good, as I think is the case here, or in the extreme example of giving money to Nazis.

People are free to give (within reason). They should also be free to criticize.

To me, defending the ability to give unfettered money to hate groups at the same time that we should enforce silence about that giving sounds far closer to an autocratic dystopia.

Christine Monson said...

I believe, as you said, if an individual can put a face to a cause then it's easier for he/ she to get behind said cause. And by donating a buck or two, it makes the individual feel good. When many feel the same way, the show of support adds up. This time it's a bullied grandma, tomorrow it maybe a seal attacked by a dog.

If only WE could do the same thing for worldwide problems, just think of the possibilities...

Anonymous said...

Ah. I see. Until I read your post, I didn't know how that sounded. Yeah, giving to Al Queda qualifies you as a terrorist, plain and simple. So my apologies for not making that clear.

Leaving hate groups out of it for the moment, I hear "Why is this bus monitor getting $700,000" and I flash back to all those haters who got on Amanda Hocking's case for being a Kindle millionaire. I hear the same "But others are more deserving," and I think about how people denigrated Joanne Rowling "childish" books.

I remember like two years ago, some clown challenged you (Nathan) to promote your book without your blog. The gall.

Those are the people I refer to when I refer to cowards. That bus monitor was able to have a despicable situation turn out to her benefit. I have nothing but the best wishes for her.

The time I spend worrying about "Why did she get the money and not whoever else?" could be better spent saying, "Gee, I wonder how I can use viral marketing techniques to crowdsource money for Sandy victims."

Or heck, I'd've thought "Wow, I wonder if I could write a satire about a bullied bus monitor who becomes an internet celebrity?????"

We should always be thinking in terms of opportunity, not recrimination, is all I'm saying.


abc said...

The idea that we can't criticize--well, eek! It's totally legitimate for Nathan to argue his point. He's not preventing anyone from giving money to her cause, he's just questioning it (at that crazy level!). We should always welcome debate. If you spend 1000 dollars on a designer dog from a puppy mill I'm totally going to judge you and say out loud that you ought not to do that. Even if it is your money and you earned it and blah blah blah.

Nathan Bransford said...



I think the difference there is more that I would never criticize the bus monitor for *receiving* the money, just as I would never criticize Amanda Hocking or any author for any success they achieved on their own, without harming anyone. I agree with you that we shouldn't pile on those people.

So yeah, from that perspective, definitely no harm done.

I also understand your perspective about individual liberties - people are free to give their own hard-earned money as they see fit.

All I'm suggesting is that if people stopped and thought more about the way they allocate their resources (both positive and negative) they could be diverted in ways that would benefit all of us more effectively.

Anonymous said...

Can't really argue with you on that point Nathan.


robintidwell said...

Yes - the benefit. 700K for a vacation for a older who woman who was "bullied," or a tenth of that for her, over half a million for something to benefit a larger number of people.

I DO wish her well - but there are a lot of people who could be helped by that. Someone said that unless it's a crowd-source funding that someone can "brag" about, it means nothing. Interesting.

inklings Anon said...

not sure what this had to with writing. I don't think there's too much psychology in it. let's not over think it. I do think a lot of people are getting on the band wagon of let's sit down and talk about bullying. Bullying isn't a new thing. I remember an episode of Punky Brewster where the goal was to stand up to a bully and not hold a forum for it. People keep wanting to talk and not do anything. If they do anything it's either giving money to something or abstaining from giving money to do something. It's superficial to say I gave to this cause or to that cause. After two seconds and you forget about it and it doesn't matter anymore. What about actually investing in someone's life that isn't a part of some global movement? What about making a difference in some one's life just because that's who you are and it's in your nature? What about actually doing instead of talking or throwing money at something. I think a particular shoe company's slogan comes to mind

Mr. D said...

I'm a Middle School teacher, (for twenty years now,) and I see bullying way too often. And if any of you think it's just other kids or school bus monitors being victimized by it, you are wrong. I've seen fellow teachers quit their jobs midyear as the result of their inability to handle the abuse from these types of "kids." Sure, 99% of Middle School students are wonderful and amazing kids, but it only takes one, just one kid to ruin your day, and even an entire school year. I'm an art teacher, so I've got it easy, but I've lost count how many times my students have told me that Ms. So-and-so had broken down crying during their prior class because of the abuse from these bullies.

Elissa M said...

I am hesitant to comment because it's so easy to be misconstrued, but I honestly don't think one's knickers should get twisted because someone else got a pile of money.

People win millions in lotteries. Are they deserving? Shouldn't that money go to a better cause?

Exactly how do all those million and billionaires get those bucks? Okay, sure, maybe those athletes and actors work for a living, but what about those CEO's. Do they truly earn their pay? Maybe that money should go elsewhere.

What about those best-selling authors? Are their books really a million times better than most of the other books out there? Did they work harder writing them? Wouldn't all that money be better spent on improving literacy or some other worthy cause?

My point: The amount of money someone else earns or otherwise acquires through legal means is not my concern. I do what I can to aid causes I find important by donating time and resources. It's unproductive to waste my energy worrying about how other people spend or distribute their wealth.

Anonymous said...

I think the larger point being made here is not whether people should have donated money to this particular woman. She's just being used as an example.

The bigger question is: How do people decide which deserving story, out of all the deserving stories in the world, is going to be the one that gets our attention and aid? (Or, in the case of the internet pile-on for bad behavior, which one gets our vitriol and abuse.) Why do we choose these heroes and villains out of so many others?

I don't know if there's a set of rules for why it happens, or if it's totally random. There is something powerful about an individual story that stands for so many others. There may be something attractive in efforts that are concrete, easy to understand, and easy to accomplish. I would love to know!

WndrngY said...

Wow. Why is it any mention of money is so galvanizing? First, I think we need to differentiate between voicing an opinion on how others spend their money and trying to control how others spend their money. I didn't see anything in Nathan's comments that implied anyone had a right to prevent others from spending thier money how ever they so choose. He simply stated his opinion that $700,000 to one woman might have been overkill.

On that subject, I say this: No one set out to give this bus monitor $700,000. People gave a little or lot here and there as they chose and that's how it ended up. The amount is really not the point. The point is that we saw an older woman working a low paying job and being treated like less than a human being by children who were taking pleasure in her pain. It was disgusting and disturbing and I think many people gave money because they can't go to those childrens' homes and change who they are and how they're being raised.
I think we all just want the world to be a little better, kinder place and as mentioned in the piece, this gave people a concrete way to try and make that happen.

There's my two cents.


ChulaSlim said...

Brave post. I hope you don't take excessive flack from it. As for me, you've got my vote.

Lesley said...

Then again ChulaSlim, if Nathan were to be attacked we might feel the need to support him with say, I don't know, maybe a small donation that collectively gets ENORMOUS and feels really good because we would have a concrete way of helping him.

But, then again, Nathan might not be helped so much by that because he's a thinker, so Nathan might give some or alot of that ENORMOUS amount of money to a worthy cause, which would be a concrete way for him to feel good too.

So, it's all good. Kinda Zen really.

wendy said...

Stories like this warm my heart and make me feel good to be a part of the human race. It's not why don't they give to someone else more worthy, but how great that people felt kindness and the need to reach out to make another feel better about their life.

lynnfc said...

It was overkill. We all know that the juvenile and teenage mind is way underdeveloped and prone to very bad behavior. What I missed from this woman was taking charge and putting these miscreants in their place.

If she were interested in serving justice, she should have donated the money to a cause of her choice, maybe even one that educates miscreant adolescents against bullying of all kinds. Imagine what those misguided kids do to their school mates?

Anonymous said...

I don't want to donate money half as much as I want to beat up those kids

Stoich91 said...

Interesting food for thought. Good note for story telling - the power of the plight of ONE will always be stronger than the general plight of many.

The comments are even more offense, but they compel one to wonder about the level of education of some users...sheeeeesh

Anonymous said...

I agree (with Nathan) . I also hope no one takes advantage of her, and that she pays the appropriate taxes that might be owed, though I'm not sure how that works in this case.

Gayle Pescud said...

Besides being concrete, I believe this particular cause is extremely relatable: the more relatable, the more people will act. Most of us have been the subject of some form of teasing at some point. We get it. I believe there was a collective empathetic reaction that was as much about assuaging personal pain as it was about this particular woman's pain and circumstances - she stood for everyone who's ever been teased.

I have been wondering about this, though. At the time (and even now) I had been trying to raise money for a young Ghanaian boy (my brother-in-law—I’m Australian) who became paralysed from the neck down when he fell out of a tree and broke his neck in Sep 2011.

Until I read this post I never considered the idea of the concreteness of the story. Without realizing it, I did do that. It was concrete.

Most of us have climbed trees and most of us are lucky we didn't slip and become severely disabled. This boy was unlucky. He was being a kid like any kid anywhere on earth. Despite making his story clear and raising a whole $1000, it was nowhere near enough.

It was not relatable. That’s what I think.

His parents have nothing. Literally nothing but a mud-brick house in a rural farming village in the far north of Ghana with no running water or electricity. To explain why they’re in those circumstances would require a book. They're in their fifties and sixties, did not finish primary school due to poverty, and they still have to farm to produce food to live.

Most of us can’t relate to that. Since September 2011 when he fell out of the tree, one of them has had to stay with their son in hospital every single day, without a break. So only one of them can farm now, reducing their ability to feed themselves.

When it comes to medical care, little Jo has had no specialist spinal treatment since he fell in 2011. There are no specialists in his region – he’s stuck at the opposite end of the country from the capital. One of the world’s best spinal surgeons is Ghanaian. He opened a specialist spinal clinic in Accra, the capital, 800 kms away over bumpy roads, earlier this year. We’ve been discussing Jo’s situation on and off since last year. They will see him. They will do whatever they can.

We might find out if he will recover – he’s already got some movement back – a far cry from the prognosis of “he will die” or “he will be paralysed for life” that we got in October 2011 when non-spinal specialists spoke to us for a whole 5 minutes in a hospital where the doctors went on strike for 3 weeks after his accident.

But unless we raise the money, he never will get to a specialist. He won’t be helped by experts. Maybe he’ll only half recover when he might fully recover, if he could get there and we could cover the costs. We already donated over ten thousand dollars of our personal savings. And family and friends contributed another $1000 via facebook.

While I don't wish to diminish the experience or need of the woman bullied on the bus, it's depressing that that went viral and much more needy individuals don’t get the same attention or response.

I do get it, though. It's a pain that most people can relate to. It's literally and figuratively close to home. Little Jo's paralysis is hardly relatable, and not close to most people's home, unless you live in Togo or Burkina Faso. I hope that's the difference why one went viral and the other didn't. Otherwise it's too depressing to think about.

For what it’s worth, Jo’s little video:

I didn't intend this to be a plea, but I guess it is. If you know how to make this little video elicit just 3% of the good will that the bus lady received, please let me know.

Jenn Elliot said...

Lovely post. Nothing makes me happier than seeing a wrong righted. She deserves the money. And the verbal support of others.

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