Nadia Eghbal

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Doing good and being quiet

I sent an email to the Helium Grant mailing list about why I’m keeping grantees’ identities private, and I realized it’s an important topic I want to discuss more publicly, as well.

Quick background: I’ve got a side project where I give out $1,000 grants that enable people to take risks on whatever they want. I originally intended to do it as a one-time experiment last year, but it got such a positive response that I decided to make it into a recurring grant program.

I just wrapped up the last round of grantees, during which I had to tackle this question of: how much do I want to promote the identity of grantees and sponsors?

At first blush, the answer seems obvious. It seems so obvious, in fact, that that’s why (at the suggestion of others) I named these “Helium Grants” in the first place, rather than “Nadia doing a weird experiment on the internet”. Naming the grants gives people a more coherent idea to rally around. Given that less than 2% of applications get funded, grantees probably want something to be proud of. Right?

But having read through about 3,000 applications, I’m also reminded that financial situations are sensitive. For some people, Helium Grants serve as an extra push of encouragement, or recognition that they’re pursuing a worthy idea. For others, it’s extra help while chasing their dreams that means the difference between food or not-food this month.

While I think all grantees are thematically similar - they’re exceptionally motivated people who are pursuing good ideas and doing interesting things - their relationship to money might be quite different. That doesn’t change whether they should get funded. But it means it’s not necessarily obvious, after all, that everybody wants to broadcast their financial situation to the world.

Sponsors navigate the same tension, but in the opposite direction. I’ve asked sponsors whether they want their names to be published, because hey, $1,000 is a pretty sizable donation, and I want them to feel adequately recognized for their gift. Turns out, about half of sponsors asked to remain anonymous. In some cases, people only sponsored if they knew their gift would be anonymous. Again: not everybody wants to broadcast their financial situation to the world.

Finally, all this privacy weirdness applies to me, too. I started this last year not because I was wealthy, but because I kinda just wanted to see what would happen. While it’s been a positive experience overall, it’s also led to some uncomfortable situations, where people (both strangers and friends) expect that I have more cash lying around than I do. I don’t love having my financial situation, or my perceived financial situation, be open to the public, either.

The alternative is to not advertise it at all, and that’s where incentives come into conflict. I genuinely love reading through Helium Grant applications. It makes me feel connected to people all over the world, and I’ve learned so much from reading stories that I never would’ve been exposed to otherwise.

But in order to get more applications, more people need to know that Helium Grants exist. And in order to fund more applications, more sponsors need to know that Helium Grants exist.

So in order to achieve more impact, I need to be less discreet. Right now, that’s okay-ish. But I’m not sure I want to make that tradeoff forever.

I could, of course, only support people I personally know, which is what a lot of wealthy people do, quietly lending financial support to friends and acquaintances. While I think this is admirable, and even encouraged, it also strikes me as wildly inefficient. At worst, it looks like nepotism. There’s no way I personally know all the best opportunities to fund. I want to reach more people, but reaching them means also sacrificing some level of privacy.

It seems to me that a lot of people are navigating a version of this story on the internet today. Technology enables you to do pretty much anything you dream of, but only if enough people pay attention. In the long run, democratization of power seems to come at the cost of authenticity.

But some things are just better when they’re kept private. A lot of people wouldn’t have applied to, or sponsored, Helium Grants if they had to make their stories public. Beyond privacy, sometimes it’s exhausting to stand on a podium with a megaphone, shouting about things that you wouldn’t otherwise shout about, because everyone has to sing for their supper. (See also: Twitter.) It’s always struck me as funny that online transparency and online privacy attract similar activists, because to me, these things are often horrifyingly at odds with one another.

I was reminded of this by a recent Twitter thread that blew up (I’m not linking to it for obvious reasons). A woman and her boyfriend switched seats on a plane with a stranger and mused: “Wouldn’t it be a great love story if they got together?”, then proceeded to document the interactions between those two strangers throughout the entire flight. What started as a cute, romantic story turned creepy when the story went mega-viral, and the female stranger didn’t want her identity revealed. She deleted all her social media accounts, but people continued to try to find her, goaded by the original couple who posted the thread (for which they later apologized).

Similarly, Elon Musk’s ham-handed attempts to solve the world’s problems (first, the Thai cave rescue, and then, the Flint water crisis) straddle an uncomfortable line between generosity and self-promotion, with one of the rescue divers calling Elon’s misguided efforts a “PR stunt”. Doing nice things loudly, even when they seem obviously generous, can infect those actions with a bizarre, dystopian quality.

I wonder whether it’s possible to use our collective internet-brain to achieve things that are impactful, while also retaining our sense of self. I wish it were easier to connect the right people to the right opportunities without making a big fuss about it. I wonder what those tools and platforms would look like.

In the meantime, I’ve defaulted to confidentiality for both grantees and sponsors. The grantees have some pretty incredible stories that I’d love to be able to share out. They can self-identify if they choose (some do, and I’m very grateful for it), but I’m not going to make that choice for them.

Privacy is underrated. Sometimes, it’s nice to do things quietly on the internet.