Paul's Internet Landfill/ 2022/ Poverty, Psychology, Power Laws and Noah Grey

Poverty, Psychology, Power Laws and Noah Grey

In the early 2000s, Noah Grey had some internet celebrity. He was best known for writing Greymatter, a blogging platform at the time that went on to inspire Wordpress. Greymatter developed a following by early WWW adopters, and Grey became known for his blogging, his photography, and his advocacy work for male survivors of sexual abuse.

Time passed, and like many other early Web pioneers, Grey fell out of the limelight.

Last Thursday, Noah Grey put up a GoFundMe campaign begging for help. He and his sister were going to have their house foreclosed if they did not give at least $23k to the bank by Tuesday May 3, and preferably give them $35k to be safe (and pay off the mortgage? This is not clear to me).

Grey namedropped Wil Wheaton in his appeal. Wil Wheaton reciprocated by signal-boosting the GoFundMe, and then the fundraiser exploded. As I write this over 2000 people have donated over $100k to the fundraiser. Noah Grey was overwhelmed. In his thank you video) Grey says he "never felt so seen" by the Internet before.

As I write this Grey is not out of the woods yet, but he has wired the money to the bank.

So this is a happy story, right? Heartwarming, even? People around the Internet rallied to help an Internet pioneer with a lot of health challenges from losing his home?


Before I go on, I want to make a few things clear. First, Noah Grey did nothing wrong. I want you to remember that. I will probably throw around a lot of criticism and blame in this blog post, but it is not directed at Noah Grey or his appeal. He was desperate and he asked for help. Secondly, I am relieved that he and his sister will keep their house. I want Noah Grey to be well, and housed. I want him and his sister to have the emotional and medical supports they need. If you choose to keep reading this blog post, please keep these two things in mind.

But (and you knew this was coming) this Internet event has left me emotionally raw. Part of this reaction is because of my own state these days, and part of this reaction is because so many facets of this situation are so gross and upsetting.

Targeted Advertising

To be frank, most of what I know about Noah Grey I learned in the last three days. I am pretty sure I had heard of Greymatter in the early 2000s, but I never used it and until three days ago it probably would not have come to mind as a foundational blogging platform. But I was a member of that late 1990s cohort of Internet/WWW users, and like many of my fellow Olds I often feel nostalgia for those earlier Web1 days. So I am in the prime demographic to be swayed by this appeal.

And swayed I was. I doubt that all the data scientists at Google and Facebook combined could have crafted a more compelling plea for me. If you haven't already, you should read Noah Grey's GoFundMe appeal. Here is an archived version in case the original disappears. So many aspects of that plea were like punches to the amygdala: He was an early internet pioneer and is now in dire straits. His dad was toxic and abusive. His mother died; his sister died; his husband died. He and his sister tried to stretch income from a single disability check each month and just couldn't do it. But if we donate within the next three days, we can save his housing and probably his life. Pow! Pow! Pow!

Apparently I am not the only one moved by this appeal. I learned about the GoFundMe because another member of that early Web cohort signal-boosted it. Wil Wheaton signal boosted it. This appeal spoke to a lot of people. But if you look at what made it work, the story gets pretty dark pretty quickly:

Whether intentionally or not, Grey crafted his appeal masterfully and I fell for it thoroughly. I have never given to a GoFundMe, but I nearly gave to this one (but opted out for less-than-honourable reasons). This worries me a lot. How am I so easily manipulated that I am willing to donate money on such a quick turnaround? What happens when scammers learn from the success of this campaign and the copycats come along? Because those copycats are coming. How will I resist the scammers? How will I even distinguish genuine pleas from scams?

Internet Karma

I felt a strong sense of injustice in reading this appeal. Noah Grey contributed a relatively-important blogging package early in the Web's history. Furthermore, he deliberately released this package as open source, because he felt that blogging software was not how he made a living. (He justifiably asserted more rights over his photographs, which were his source of income.) The feeling is that Noah Grey does not deserve to be poor. This feeling brings up all kinds of swirling, contradictory thoughts in me.

Open Source Poverty

Noah Grey's story is not new, especially in open source. Open source projects are chronically underfunded, even when you consider programs like GitHub sponsors. We think of financial support for open source projects as "donations," not "expenses", and then those who build open source software out of principle remain poor.

There are many examples of this: The OpenSSL story that came out after the Heartbleed bug, Joey Hess hoping to crowdfund a house because writing free software did not give him enough funds to buy his property outright. These particular stories worked out well in the end, but there are many many others that we don't know about, and which have much grimmer endings. Is it any wonder that open source organizations pivot to user-hostile but lucrative approaches later? You monetize or you starve.

Deserving and Undeserving

There is a way to frame Noah Grey's crowdfunding efforts in terms of karma: twenty years ago Grey created something important, and now he gets his financial reward from people who appreciated his contribution. Thus he will keep his house.

That is well and good, I guess, but it is important to note that this framing is transactional. Those who contribute karmically to the early Internet get rewards, and everybody else... deserves to have their houses foreclosed? "Noah Grey deserves to be housed because he made a contribution" and "Noah Grey deserves to be housed" are two very different sentiments, and although I see the appeal of the first, it also seems disgusting. It divides those in need into the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor, and implies (but never says out loud) that it is fine if the undeserving poor die in destitute poverty.

Also, I find myself asking why Grey did not get his reward earlier. An old CV indicates he received some rewards. For example, he consulted with Google on Picasa. But something happened, and Grey fell off the map, and now he is desperately poor. If karma was real the universe (or his Internet friends and admirers) would have helped him financially long before this. Instead he felt as if he was isolated and unseen by the Internet as a whole.

Internet Winners Take All

I am happy that Noah Grey will get his $100k. I also feel that it has caused a lot of collateral damage. Noah Grey is not the only desperate person out there. He is not the only desperate person who put out a heartfelt plea on GoFundMe. But many (probably most) of those other people will not blow past their fundraising goals. Forbes published an article reporting on a (paywalled) study which examined medical fundraisers on GoFundMe between 2016 and 2020. They found that only 12% of these appeals succeeded. A lot of desperate people did not get their medical needs met on GoFundMe. Grey's fundraiser was in the "emergencies" category, not the "medical" one, but I am guessing that success rates for the two categories are similar. Also note that the study found that the most successful fundraisers happen in the richest socioeconomic areas, which means that those who are in poor areas (and often need the help the most) are exactly the ones who don't succeed.

This is not the story that the fundraising platform -- or the Internet pioneers! -- want to tell us. They want to tell us that anybody can speak their mind on the Internet, and that anybody can put up a GoFundMe to raise money for some worthy cause. That is not an outright lie, but it is deceptive: although anybody can speak their mind on the Internet, nobody is guaranteed an audience. Although anybody can put up a GoFundMe, there is no promise it will be funded. In fact, it is the opposite: with fundraisers, as with so many other Internet phenomena, Zipf's Law (aka power law distributions) apply -- where a very few people gain almost all the rewards, and the amount of reward received by others drops off exponentially. A few bloggers/Substackers/Twitch Streamers/Youtube stars/Instagram influencers are wildly popular and make lots of money, and almost nobody else makes a living.

This appears to be what happened here: Noah Grey was one of the big winners, and a lot of his peers won't be. In some of the Twitter comment threads, you can see other people desperately trying to gain publicity for their $1500 fundraisers, and they are nowhere near their goals.

This is the collateral damage from these fundraisers: other equally desperate people who are not Noah Grey and did not develop Greymatter see his success and think they can get crowdfunded by strangers too. So they put up their GoFundMes which flop. All too often, this reinforces the messages people already believe about themselves: that they are unworthy, and that nobody cares whether they live or die.

In my possibly-incorrect judgment, Noah Grey seems poor in many ways. He has a number of financial and medical challenges that drove him to desperation, but he had some strong assets: Internet celebrities who remembered him, and some rich friends who were both willing to donate and lend him money. These assets were enough to make him a fundraising winner and not one of those driven to greater desperation a few days from now. I will keep reiterating: I am glad he won't be homeless. But what a terrible, inequitable way to solve people's problems. It is such an American response to desperation: run a popularity contest, and those who are "most worthy" (by virtue of having influential and wealthy connections) are the ones who succeed. It's socio-economic Darwinism at its worst.

Not a Happy Ending

One definition of poverty I ascribe to is "lack of buffer". Rich people have buffers so that they can recover when they make mistakes. Poor people lack those buffers, so one mishap (say, a car breakdown) cascades into another (say, being late for work and getting pay docked) cascades into another (say, not having enough in the bank and suffering the fees associated with a bounced cheque). It is no surprise that all too often poor people have a lot of drama in their lives. (I am no exception to this.)

If all goes well, Noah Grey keeps his house (for now). He has raised over $100k, well beyond the $35k he asked for. That gives him some buffer, and presumably that will make a significant difference in his life. But I doubt it will be as beneficial as people hope. Both in his fundraising appeal and in a followup tweet he describes some other expensive problems in his life:

There are probably other expenses as well. $100k will pay off some some of these problems, but it probably will not address them all. Furthermore, after all this dies down, he and his sister will still be expected to live on a single disability cheque, in one of the cruelest states of the United States, in a time of great inflation in prices and (I expect) no inflation in disability income. Already the disability cheque could not pay for the property tax on his home; how will he cover property taxes in the future?

The real answer to this would be some kind of stable income. No doubt many people are hoping that Grey can leverage his re-exposure into some kind of paid work. I don't know one way or the other, but I worry that this is not a realistic hope. Grey says he is frail, that he has suffered permanent brain damage, that he had intended to take 2022 off to recharge and recover. Maybe he will sell more photographs and prints now. Maybe somebody will help him or his sister access some more sustainable income streams. Otherwise, the spectacular success of this fundraiser does not get Noah Grey and his sister out of dire poverty.

A hundred thousand dollars seems like a lot of money. But it is one year's salary for a senior software engineer, two year's salary for almost anybody in tech, and three years salary for many other people. If only there was some way for Grey to get that kind of money year after year I would be much more relieved. (Ronald Reagan's ghost is screaming in my head that the best social program is a job.)

I also worry that this money could do some harm to Grey and his sister. For one thing they will probably have to pay taxes on the money. For another it might affect his disablity benefits. I don't know how things work in Texas, but in Ontario any earnings above a certain level are clawed back at seventy-five cents to the dollar. (That is a great incentive for people to work, no?) If Texas has similar punishments then there could be complications, which is likely why this fundraiser is not for Noah Grey directly, but rather for his sister (whom I am guessing is not on disability and has no other income at all). Free money is usually not free.

The success of this fundraiser is a happy start. But it is not a happy ending.

Beggars in Spain

What happens if the buffer runs out? Would the Internet be as generous to Noah Grey if he made a second desperate appeal in a year or two? If he made a third appeal? My guess is that we would tire of the novelty pretty quickly.

In a similar light, by donating so generously to Grey's fundraiser we leave ourselves open to the "beggars in Spain" problem, described by Nancy Kress in her novel of the same name. You give to one beggar and feel good about yourself. Then you are swarmed by other beggars, and you are not able to help them all even if they did not repulse you. Witness the utter indifference with which we treat most fundraisers by people who did not write Greymatter.

Fundraisers like Grey's are compelling so long as they are rare. Unfortunately the circumstances Grey and his sister are facing are not rare.

Maybe the novelty is the one silver lining of this appeal, and our one defence against the copycats. But it is not good for the many people who are in similar circumstances.

Feel-Good Story

If this fundraiser is not going to get Noah Grey out of poverty, and if it inflicts collateral damage to many desperate people whose fundraisers will not be successful, then does anybody benefit at all? I think yes: all those comfortable, financially-stable, socially-acceptable tech people who were feeling guilty benefited, because they were able to donate money and feel good about themselves. They may have gotten their starts by using Greymatter, and they might have felt bad that Noah Grey did not end up as comfortable as they did, but they did something good! They gave some money and contributed to A Moment that reminds them of The Old Web, where people helped each other out! They helped Noah Grey save his house and probably his life!

That's the way charity works. Those who are being charitable feel virtuous, and (if they are playing their parts correctly) those who are receiving the charity are humbly grateful in exactly the way Noah Grey has been. Let us never ask whether the poverty of those who receive charity has anything to do with the wealth of the charitable.

Charity vs Taxes

I have been dancing around this for too long, so let's get to the point: in my opinion Noah Grey does not deserve to be poor, and neither do the many other people who live in destitute poverty, regardless of whether those people are "deserving" or "undeserving" poor. There are many facets to poverty, but one facet is that poor people do not have enough money. Another facet is that they do not have enough supports (although they have plenty of monitoring, which is not the same thing).

There are many in society (myself included a lot of the time) who are wary of institutions -- in particular the "caring" institutions, which all too often displace genuine grassroots supports for uncaring professsionalized ones. But I do not think that voluntary charity is enough to solve poverty. Voluntary charity is great for making the charitable feel good about themselves (regardless of whether they are actually doing good or not). But unless that charity is consistent it does not help the poor.

That leaves involuntary taxes. Paying taxes feels much less virtuous than contributing to a GoFundMe, but it is arguably more important because it is stable. Noah Grey had few Internet supports and thought he was out of friends, but he still had disability cheques and Medicaid, which were paid for via taxes. The institutions that provide those programs have their problems (to say the least) but they are more stable than any GoFundMe will ever be.

One issue, of course, is that people (myself included) do not like paying taxes, and we especially do not like paying taxes to "welfare bums" and "cheats". This means we do two things. First, we fund social assistance programs as meagerly as possible, so that poor people never get too comfortable. (This is called "incentivizing people to get jobs.") Secondly, we put all kinds of humiliating means testing in our social programs so people don't "cheat the system". (Raise Reaganesque spectres of (black) welfare queens here.) The end result is that social assistance programs are both humiliating and inadequate. As Grey writes in his appeal, his social security disability is "supposed to be the minimum for one disabled person to live on". These systems keep people poor -- even destitute. They actively punish those who try to better themselves (and then politicians tell stories about how people need "a hand up, not a hand out").

Don't get me wrong. I do not think these social safety nets are the answer. I explained a number of reasons why in my anti-UBI rant. I also think that actually addressing poverty is expensive, which is a shame since people (even comfortable, financially-secure tech people who got their start on the Web using Greymatter) want to keep their taxes low. At the very least it would be nice if these social programs allowed people to maintain their dignity, but that is also too much to expect. We all get too resentful at the idea of "people sitting around collecting money" from "our hard earned taxes". Traumatized and severely disabled people (including but not limited to Noah Grey) pay the price.

But if we actually were willing to curtail poverty by funding dignified anti-poverty supports properly, there would be fewer desperate people and fewer opportunities to feel good about ourselves by giving a few bucks through voluntary charity. What would be the good of that?

Broken, with Gifts

Another aspect of Noah Grey's appeal hit me hard. Grey has had a difficult life filled with traumas. It appears that he is quite disabled. He describes himself as a "spoonie", which indicates that he has to watch his energy expenditures carefully to get through the day. He is autistic and manages many phobias. There are a lot of ways in which we might label Noah Grey broken.

Also, Noah Grey is a marvellous writer, and from what I can tell is also a good photographer who creates striking images. He is broken, but he also has gifts. Those gifts do not justify his existence, but they exist.

The world (especially the working world) is not set up to let broken people contribute their gifts to the workplace. Being a worker means being on time, working hard for every minute of employment, giving 110% to the cause, getting along well with others. Those of us who don't do those things are locked out entirely.

In addition to Noah Grey being able to keep his housing, if there is one hope I have for this fundraiser is that the publicity will help him find a way to use those gifts to once again supplement his income. It would be great if a lot of people bought his photographs.

And maybe that won't happen. Maybe Noah Grey will never be able to contribute anything again. Maybe he is too ill. Is that okay? Or is there an expectation that he has to repay the windfall he received during his fundraiser somehow? This question comes up a lot for me, in many different contexts -- the elderly, the profoundly disabled, the lazy. We say that every human being has intrinsic worth, but I do not think we mean that, and it is not even clear to me what our position should be.

I feel that many of us (myself included) have labels that identify us as broken, and also have gifts. If you focus on the brokenness then you stay broken. If you focus on the gifts sometimes you make a contribution. But as I have aged it has become more apparent that both things are real. One cannot just wish away the brokenness by ignoring it.

Freaks on the Internet

Not everybody in the early Internet was a freak, but there were lots of freaks in the early Internet. We are trying to erase that history now, but broken people (sometimes unpleasantly broken people) made a lot of contributions. Partially this was because the Internet was a place where freaks could gather and participate in a society that was different from the real world. Partially it was because the early Internet was in flux, and one's contributions mattered more than one's credentials, so if freaks made good contributions to projects they were accepted even though they were freaks.

The Internet (and the tech world in general) is not like that any more. We pay lip service to diversity and acceptance, but if nothing else we enforce credentialism; if you want a tech job that is over the API you had better have a university degree, or at the very least a certificate from a coding bootcamp.

Early geek culture railed against "the suits", but modern tech companies embrace the suits by other names. They have hierarchical management ladders ("project managers", "product leaders") and one advances in one's career by managing others. These layers of middle management are supposed to increase productivity, but I strongly suspect they exist primarily as a way to advance the careers of the comfortable. Sometimes there are parallel "technical" tracks for good employees who don't want to manage people, but even these are reserved for people willing and able to play the corporate game.

And the freaks? Some of the freaks have done fine in this new world. And some have been pushed out, because all of the things that made life difficult in the pre-Internet world (charisma, communication skills, empathy, social acceptability) have come rushing back. It does not matter if you are a freak who produces at twice the rate of your peers if you don't get along, or if you hold the wrong opinions, or if other people find you offensive. At best you are a problem employee who has to be managed carefully, and at worst you are unemployable. This applies to free employment (producing FLOSS, for example) as much as it applies in the working world.

Where do the freaks go now? I am not saying that all the freaks are difficult coworkers, or hold improper opinions, or engage in improper social behavior that makes other people feel unsafe. I am also not saying that the coworkers of freaks should put be required to put up with harassment or abuse. But I am saying that there was a window of time where freaks -- difficult freaks, unpleasant freaks -- could make incredible contributions to building great things, and now I worry that this window has closed. (If I had any readers, no doubt they would tell me that this window never existed, and that freakishness does not absolve bad behaviour, and that freaks are actually privileged people who oppress others, and that it is our moral obligation to make sure they are not able to harm others with their freakish ways. Okay. I am not going to fight that fight. But I am still going to worry.)

Look. I never contributed anything of value. But I will will wholly identify as one of those freaks, and I will admit to feeling profoundly out of place in the modern world. I do not know whether Noah Grey would consider himself in that category or not, but even though I am neither as traumatized nor as disabled as he is his story strikes a deep chord within me.

Projecting Much?

Yes, I am projecting. A lot. My situation is not as dire as Noah Grey's, but I am in an acutely bad place these days, and I can easily visualize myself ending up in a situation similar to his -- but in my case, there will be no grateful Internet brigade to rescue me. If there is one thing I have learned over the years, it is that nobody will rescue me. I have benefited from opportunities I do not deserve, but at the end of the day I stand or fall on my own.

I believe Noah Grey fell into poverty because of underlying systems, and I feel those systems are pervasive. I have seen them in Kitchener-Waterloo, and I see that they are getting worse. Housing prices and inflation are not helping. It does not surprise me at all that homeless encampments are springing up all over town. I can see myself getting swept away by the unaffordability crisis too.

There is so much going wrong with the world these days. I can understand why people supported Grey's fundraiser with such enthusiasm -- in a world of global warming and pervasive poverty and broke governments and terrible punitive Republican legislation it is so tempting to grasp onto Noah Grey's fundraiser as good news, as a bunch of people banding together to achieve real change for two people. I ought not to be critical of that, but clearly I am.

I wish the best for Noah Grey and his sister. I am glad they met their fundraising goal. I am glad that Noah felt seen by the Internet, and I am glad that so many people were able to express their appreciation for him. I just wish the underlying motivations for our good feelings were not so gross, and the systems that left Noah Grey in destitution were not so intractable.