Monday 19 May 2014

Do a good deed, you're on candid camera

Civic initiatives capture kinder side of S'pore and inject positive tone in social media
By Lee Jian Xuan, The Sunday Times, 18 May 2014

Street photography that tells the stories of ordinary people, "candid camera" shows that test how Singaporeans react in challenging situations, and organised picnics for strangers.

These are among recent initiatives that have been launched to promote a more gracious, empathetic society at a time when social media is becoming increasingly filled with negativity.

Many of these initiatives have been set up as a result of casual conversations. Take, for example, 20-year-old Rovik Robert, who came up with the idea for his Hidden Good website after talking to a friend on an MRT train.

"We felt there was a lot of negativity online," said Mr Robert, who plans projects for the Hidden Good site on top of his day job as a social media executive. "We thought: There has to be a place for people to get together to talk in a more positive way and share their stories."

One of the Hidden Good's more popular projects is its YouTube video channel, The Hood Factory, which has almost 4,000 subscribers.

Mr Robert and his team secretly film Singaporeans, by staging social situations to see how they react. One video, which has attracted more than 27,000 views, shows national servicemen witnessing a snatch theft, which was staged. All but one of them ran after the "thief" to stop him.

"I've always wanted to do that video even when I was in NS," said Mr Robert. "My friends and I felt that NSFs (full-time national servicemen) get a lot of unwanted attention online. We wanted to tackle the issue head on.

"We don't plan anything, so all the reactions are spontaneous. It's very exciting and affirming. I feel good going up to Singaporeans and saying to them, 'What you did is what we want to show people.'"

Strategic consultant Shitij Nigam, 23, and his friend, undergraduate Darshna Dudhoria, 21, roam the streets and the heartland every weekend to photograph and interview people for their Facebook page, Humans of Singapore.

With more than 19,000 "likes", the project is a nod to the popular Humans of New York page started by an American photographer who set out to capture 10,000 subjects in the Big Apple.

The Singaporean version has featured people ranging from a nonagenarian who still looks after his handicapped daughter even after his son cut him off, to a domestic abuse victim who is picking up the pieces of her life.

"The goal is to build empathy," said Mr Nigam. "When we meet people on the street or train, we often don't realise they're going through so much in their lives. We hope that by sharing their stories, this will help Singaporeans know more about other people."

The duo intend to exhibit some of their photos at the Fengshan Community Club next month.

Gratitude and sharing were also the main themes of this year's StandUpFor.SG event.

The two-year-old movement held its fourth event on Vesak Day - a community picnic at which Singaporeans were invited to share their appreciation for one another

This followed previous campaigns to encourage people to be gracious while using public transport and to thank bus drivers.

Organiser Wally Tham, 37, told The Sunday Times that his team of volunteers forked out about $10,000 to stage the event.

"You can't have a sense of pride in the country, unless you acknowledge the good and bad," he said. "We appreciate both the good things we have and the hardships we've gone through. We hope others will do the same."

Such civic initiatives arise usually because people "see an opportunity that they believe in, and feel a strong compelling need to act", said a social media expert, Dr Michael Netzley, from the Singapore Management University.

"It could well be disagreement with the spiteful minority who are so outspoken on Singapore's social media channels."

Dr William Wan, general secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, said that the trend shows how "younger people are taking ownership of kindness and graciousness".

He expressed hopes that in the future, such efforts will reach a tipping point where "it is not cool to be unkind".

"We will then be exerting subtle pressure on everyone to be more respectful and considerate," he said.

But while such initiatives may contribute to a more positive atmosphere, online "trolls" are not the types who frequent the pages set up by these projects, said Dr Ang Peng Hwa, director of the Singapore Internet Research Centre at Nanyang Technological University's Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.

"It is interesting that these groups are all on Facebook," he said. "You can decide how you want to let people in to join. That would be one way to enforce civility - step out of bounds and you're banned."

One key challenge for these groups is to maintain growth and convince "people who generally agree without strong emotion, and those in the middle" to join them, said Dr Netzley.

Graduate student Irwin Ho, 25, said such movements are a "small step towards a more gracious society", adding: "Our perspectives can be quite narrow. These projects open our eyes and show us a different side of other people's lives."

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