Screenshots showing a screen asking for a tip at a self service kiosk. There is text that says 'Main Character of the Week' in a web_crawlr font.

@lexmerico/TikTok (Fair Use)

Main Character of the Week: Self-service kiosk asking for a tip

As we enter the holiday season we want to spread joy to a person—not a kiosk. 


Ramon Ramirez


Main Character of the Week is a weekly column that tells you the most prominent “main character” online (good or bad). It runs on Fridays in the Daily Dot’s web_crawlr newsletter. If you want to get this column a day before we publish it, subscribe to web_crawlr, where you’ll get the daily scoop of internet culture delivered straight to your inbox.

The internet is a stage, and someone unwillingly stumbles onto it weekly. This makes them the “main character” online. Sometimes their story is heartwarming, like basically every time that NFL pundit Shannon Sharpe becomes a meme; usually it’s a gaffe. In any case, that main character energy flows through the news cycle and turbo-charges debate for several business days.

Here’s the Trending team’s main character of the week:

It’s the self-service kiosk that asked at least one TikTok user to leave a tip.

Let me let you in on a little industry best practice: For money reasons, it’s important to produce news stories about topics that people are interested in. And when they are into something, you double down until it stops working. Remember when the Malaysian plane went missing and it became a 24-hour event on CNN? That was not because it was the most newsworthy happening: CNN saw that you were hooked and kept the good times rolling until you lost interest.

Relatedly, my internal data suggests that you can’t get enough news about the ongoing debate in American culture about tipping. I get it.

Until recently it was understood that you go out to eat and you tip 20%. If you fail to do that, you are out of touch with the American worker. 

But now you go to the Starbucks drive-thru and are asked by a Starbucks barista to leave a $5 tip. Five dollars on a $3 coffee!

Now, my philosophy is that by participating in society we must play by the rules and tip generously to keep this entire thing going. Yes, I tip $5 at the Starbucks drive-thru like once a week. But I have no idea why

It does seem like a comical markup that should be instead covered by an extremely successful corporation on behalf of its workers and not its customers.

There are purists who don’t believe in tipping at all of course. They are mostly European and like to tell you about their wage system that is more fair and equitable. That’s fine, but here in America please tip instead of being snobby and then not even tipping, which I’ve seen at least one Scottish colleague do. He said something like, “Where I come from we don’t exploit our labor by making them dance for tips” and then didn’t even tip!

Recently, a man on TikTok went viral for saying that he would rather pay more for his meal than tip. He argued, to much controversy, that tips should only be for exceptional service.

That capitalistic idealism ignores that service workers are underpaid by their employers and dependent on tips. It really doesn’t matter if they do good work or not, you must tip unless they crossed a professional line. That is the social contract we enter when we dine out in the U.S.

Again, this was understood for many decades until this week when an inanimate object asked a customer for a tip. That money presumably goes to the workers who stocked the items, but we don’t really know, and we have no contact with them. Does that matter? Well, yes, we as consumers want to reward a human being we have interacted with.

On a primal level, we also crave the validation and absolution that comes from seeing a worker happily receive a tip as we imagine them thinking, “Hey this customer is a generous person.” That’s how the game works and it’s OK to pay someone a little extra in order to feel better about yourself.

This problem can be solved with a nice note like “Would you like to leave a tip for our workers who stocked these items?” 

As we enter the holiday season we want to spread joy to a personnot a kiosk

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