Two stories seem to capture what’s both right and wrong with the sense of self and connection in a digital age. The first was a true story, of a twenty-five year old New York City cop named Lawrence DePrimo — a Millennial who, like many of his generation, lives on Long Island with his parents— who, as we all know, reached into his own pocket and bought a homeless man socks and boots. It was intended as a private gesture —no fanfare, no texts or tweets— but, as it happens, it was photographed by a passerby, an out-of-towner, who emailed it to the New York City Police Department. According to The New York Times, it was the Department that posted it. Officer DePrimo had told his parents about the encounter when it happened —isn’t there something deliciously civil and old-fashioned about doing a good deed without thinking to tweet? —and apparently went on with his life, until the onslaught of attention.
The second story, though, underscores that while “going viral” may be a very good thing if you’re in the marketing biz or you’re a Millennial desperate for attention no matter what quarter it comes from, viruses are, by nature, malignant. That’s the case of “Nolan Daniels”—I have his name in quotation marks because it might not be his name at all— who posted a picture of himself holding up what purported to be a winning Powerball ticket with the caption: “Looks like I won’t be going to work EVER!!!! Share this photo and I will give a random person 1 million dollars.” A girlfriend of mine shared it on Facebook on Friday and it was clear to me that the ticket was fake since the numbers weren’t in numerical order. But I did, in my naiveté, message “Nolan” (it only occurred to me later that the Facebook page might be a fake) to ask why he’d done it. At that time, some 400,000 people had “shared” the photo; as of this morning, the “shares” were at 1.6 million.
I know why people “shared” the photo but why did “Nolan” or whatever his name really is do this? To show how smart he is, and how gullible and stupid other people are? Was this a Millennial version of P.T. Barnum’s sign that proclaimed “This way to the Egress”? I suspect it was the need to “get out there,” to be seen, to have a meme of his very own so he could get the fifteen minutes of fame Andy Warhol promised and an appalling number of teenagers and young adults lust after. Did he mean it as a prank without recognizing how mean-spirited it was? I really hope he wasn’t looking forward to reading the messages from desperate strangers, pleading for the million he’d promised. I’d love to believe that “Nolan” isn’t a product of the digital age but, alas, whatever his name, his act seems to embody the very worst of it: cynical, self-absorbed, narcissistic, manipulative, self-aggrandizing. Funny thing is, though, if he doesn’t have a job, his stunt may guarantee that he won’t be going to work EVER. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself.)
So thanks Officer DePrimo for reminding us that goodness comes in low-tech packages, even in the digital age. And here’s to you, “Nolan,” for reminding us that a virus can and often does leave a bad taste in your mouth.