Last week, Reddit user syncretic realized he and his pregnant wife were going to be hungry.
They had both mistimed their bill payments. Then rent came due. Then, they had nothing -- no money, no credit, and nothing but ramen noodles in the cupboard. And it would be two more days until either had anything to spend.
So on a lark, syncretic, a preschool teacher in Central Ohio whose first name is Sean, posted to a peculiar sub-community on Reddit. (Sean asked that we not use his last name.)
While Reddit’s best known for its rollicking discussions of news, images, and videos, its users often connect over causes, some of them quite personal.
Within five minutes of Sean’s posting, a stranger from Norway, halfway across the world, had bought them a pizza -- from their favorite restaurant, no less.
The subreddit Sean used, called Random Acts of Pizza, connects Redditors in need with others who feel generous -- especially with the tomato pie.
Generosity from strangers is nothing new on Reddit. But this case shows not just the quirky specificity of that generosity -- it’s about pizza and only pizza, after all -- but the way it can redefine the relationship between a redditor’s online and offline lives.
The subreddit was started earlier this year by Daniel Rogers, an attorney. Rogers knows what it’s like to live off nothing but noodles and PBJs -- he paid his own way through college and was unemployed for a year and a half during the recession, he said. His idea was to help out the kind of person he once was -- someone not necessarily deep in poverty but still struggling to put food on the table.
And it was always less about food than it was about support.
“Getting food and seeing a random person on the Internet who you don’t know who’s willing to help you out,” Rogers said, "that kind of restores that security in someones life.”
Some redditors have immediately identified with Rogers’ idea. Tanya Gallagher, a technical instructor in Silicon Valley, has given away so many pizzas she can’t remember the total -- 8, she thinks, or 10, or maybe 12.
Gallagher, 41, said she feels lucky to have kept a stable job in bad economic times. She’s always been philanthropic, but said Random Acts Of Pizza was special.
“I want to know that I’m helping individuals, to know that I’m helping somebody right now, right here,” she said.
As for Sean, he took a picture of his wife holding the pizza and turned it into a thank you post for Olav Eggesvik, the 23-year-old Norwegian journalism student who had gifted them with pizza.
He also wanted to use the post to make the subreddit more popular. As a moderator of some pretty big subreddits on the site, he knew how to make a post get huge. And he succeeded -- it quickly shot up to the front page, and Random Acts of Pizza’s subscribers jumped from a few hundred to 3,766 as of this morning.
On Thursday afternoon, Reddit’s admins jumped on the bandwagon, sending $125 worth of pizzas to the Homeless Youth Alliance in San Francisco, the city where Reddit is headquartered.
Still, Sean and his wife weren’t immune to the Reddit community’s often intense and sometimes cruel scrutiny. Many scolded them for getting themselves in a financial mess to begin with -- something critics characterized as a “first world-problem.”
Redditor FrenchAffair summed up the arguments succinctly: “You should eat your ramand [sic] noodles and be fucking thankful for all the things you have that are out of reach for the vast majority of this world.”
Some of the criticisms were so personal and insulting that Sean’s wife deleted her Reddit account.
But for him, even the well-reasoned arguments missed the point.
“[Random Acts of Pizza] is not about feeding starving children in Ethiopia,” he wrote in reply to one particularly critical commenter. “It's about cheering someone up in a tough time.”
Anyway, Sean added that he planned on “paying it forward” with his own gifts of pizza once he gets his next paycheck.
And sure enough, on Saturday he followed up on his promise, buying a pizza for Redditor WWDanielJacksonD.
For his part, Eggesvik, brushed aside the critiques. “It's part food, and part cheering other redditors up,” he wrote.
And besides, it’s also about deepening ones relationship with the community.
“Usually on Reddit you only interact by writing, arguing upvoting and downvoting,” he said. “This was a little bit different.
He added, referencing Reddit’s unique way of keeping track of helpful contributions to the site: “It’s real life karma, and it’s Reddit karma.”