Tis the season for giving, they say. How does your spirit of generosity stack up against others’? A website called NeedCom (www.pbs.org/weblab/needcom) can help you discover the answer and explore not-so-easy questions about our attitudes toward begging, homelessness, charity and the human condition. The site, playfully subtitled “Market Research for Panhandlers,” offers room for discussion, quick polls and thought-provoking experiential pages. For example, in the “Panhandler Effectiveness Survey,” images and video from six real panhandlers solicit your spare change. Each has a different presentation to which you can respond by giving up to $1 (virtually). Then you can find out how what you gave compares with the average amount other site visitors gave.
The quick polls contain questions such as:
Which statement do you agree with more?
- Panhandling is like being on welfare.
- Panhandlers are like entrepreneurs.
And it keeps a running tally of responses.
The site doesn’t give answers or prescribe any particular stance; it’s a cross between performance art and social research with a humanizing effect for the askers and the asked alike. This virtual installation is the brainchild of multimedia artist Cathy Davies and is one of several provocative endeavors undertaken by Web Lab, a New York City-based nonprofit that encourages and supports innovation on the Web. Marc Weiss, who created the public television nonfiction film series P.O.V., founded Web Lab in 1997. Through its Web Development Fund, it provides funding and support services for independent producers who propose innovative uses of Web technology for pursuits beyond buying and selling or looking for information.
It works in the NeedCom project, whose arresting presentation captures what the artist calls the relationship between panhandlers and the people they ask. She says, “That relationship and the perceptions of poverty it’s based on are what [NeedCom] seeks to uncover. And [it asks us] how do we relate to other human beings in need in a culture where consumption is the highest priority?”