Take one intelligent woman with a good job, a nasty credit card debt, and a stunning sense of entitlement. Add an internet culture hungry for novelty and cheap karma. What you get is cyber-begging, a brand-new, particularly odious practice that's infecting the internet.

Panhandling, once considered the province of the addicted, utterly impoverished, or otherwise disenfranchised, is coming into vogue thanks to a stylish Information Age makeover. Need money to pay off your Manolo Blahnik bills? Set up a website, preferably one that includes glimpses of your oh-so-privileged lifestyle offset by witty, urbane captions and self-effacing wit. Ingratiate yourself - remind your readers that "everyone makes mistakes" and "you were once young and foolish, too" (never mind that you're pushing thirty). Promise nothing in return for money aside from your eternal gratitude. And remember, it helps to be cute, sophisticated, and female. In a plaintive (but not quite desperate) tone ask everyone to send you a buck or two, and be sure to play to the myth that cyberspace is one big, happy community. Sit back and watch as not only your debts get paid off by admiring strangers but you become a minor celebrity.

Welcome to Karyn Bosnak's world. You may have seen her on the Today show or in People magazine. If you haven't yet made her virtual acquaintance, get ready - she's been offered a movie contract and a book deal. This past June, she was flat broke, despite having a good job as a television producer and a cushy apartment in Brooklyn. A self-proclaimed "shopaholic", Karyn had racked up over 20,000 dollars in credit card debt, and she couldn't even buy groceries. Worse, she couldn't afford a pedicure. In her own words, "I think a lot of women, whether you're high-maintenance or not -- you identify who you are with what you look like. It was kind of like, when I couldn't color my hair, couldn't do all these things, I kind of got depressed for a while. I couldn't go out and buy cute clothes, I just felt funky every time I went anywhere, in like old clothes, stuff like, ugh. It's just weird, but it's true!"

Are you nauseous yet?

Her previous job as a producer for The Ananda Lewis Show paid 100,000 dollars a year (yeah, that's six figures, y'all), but she'd been laid off and hadn't put much money aside. So she did what some call innovative and what some call proof of the decay of modern morality - she became a Paypal panhandler. Her site's received over a million hits, and in the space of four short months - are you ready for this? - she's netted over 17,000 dollars in donations.

Seventeen. Thousand. Dollars.

Obviously, her success has been inspirational to dozens of other poor little rich girls and boys, and sites have sprung up all over the net like brightly colored poisonous mushrooms. People can't eat, but by God, Karyn's Gucci shoes will get paid for. People who wouldn't spare a nickel for the corner crackhead seem to have no compunction about doling out as much as 1,000 dollars to a woman whose shopping addiction put her credit rating in jeopardy. She's received not only money but a staggering collection of personal gifts ranging from teddy bears to cosmetics to free boots from Chinese Laundry, a hot, upscale shoe retailer. She's golden. Why?

Marketing. In this day and age, image really is everything, and Karyn sells herself like the pro she is. It's that simple. Her success is, in my opinion, an indictment of our collective susceptibility to style over substance. Rather than donate to an unsexy, worthy cause (for example, My Sister's House, an organization devoted to helping battered women repair their lives), some people see Karyn's "clever" ploy to raise cash sufficiently witty and "fresh" to donate their own hard-earned money to her cause. Maybe it's a direct result of 9/11 - a well-intentioned desire to help one's fellow man. It doesn't hurt that Karyn's a New Yorker, and that she plays up the fact that the loss of her job was directly related to the 9/11 tragedy. But I've mulled this over for a while, and I really can't see how or why she would elicit such an overwhelming altruistic response. Frankly, I'm shocked that her website (SaveKaryn.com) hasn't been brutally hacked.

Then again, she's cute. And isn't that all that really matters?

On October 2, 2002, the online magazine Salon.com published an article by Janelle Brown entitled "Brother, can you spare a dime for my Gucci bills?" (Unfortunately, it's listed as a "premium only" article and can be viewed only by Salon members.) Much of the article consists of an interview with Karyn Bosnak, and when I read it my head almost exploded. After she's giggled and "like, y'know"ed her way through the interview, Karyn heads toward the subway with Ms. Brown. They are interrupted by a young man who asks Karyn for a dollar "to get to school." Here's what happened:

Ever the savvy self-marketer, she weighs her decision carefully, knowing full well that a reporter is standing next to her and waiting for her response. "Sorry," she finally tells the man, and walks on, glancing out of the corner of her eyes at me. "That's going in the story, isn't it," she says, flatly. I ask her why she didn't give him a dollar, and she responds with confident self-righteousness: "He was crusty, and smoking a cigarette," she explains. "That dollar wasn't going to go toward the subway." She's probably right, but I have to wonder: If he'd confessed that the buck was really going to go toward a six-pack of beer, would she have reconsidered her decision? It seems doubtful. In the world of Karyn and her circle of friends, the generosity of strangers seems to turn on a giggle and a plight that a Web-linked peer can relate to. Crusty beggars looking for subway money just don't have currency in Karyn's world, where a worthy cause is a "funny" "sweet" girl with a Gucci jones. It is about branding -- in all things. Karyn heads home guilt-free with a smile on her face, knowing that today she is blessed; that when she gets home another box of letters and cash will arrive in the mail; that an offer for a book deal will be on her voice mail; that the economy is finally looking up and so is she. (Salon.com, "Brother, can you spare a dime for my Gucci bills? Janelle Brown, October 2, 2002)


This story has really touched a nerve with y'all, and I'm glad. There's something so intensely repugnant about an able-bodied young woman refusing to take responsibility for her own actions, isn't there? I thought I'd include some of the comments I've received over the last few days in response to this node. Some are insightful, some are outraged, and some are too damn funny NOT to share.

anonymous noder: re cyber-begging: grr. What I could do with that much money... grr.
anonymous noder: re cyber-begging : i don't know who karyn is, but when i read this, www.oddtodd.com came to mind. if i was a creative type and could make animations in flash, i'd probably have a job by now. but i think he's made more money with his tip jar than with a job.
anonymous noder: re cyber-begging: have you seen dontsavekaryn.com?
anonymous noder: Damn, I saw that girl on a talk show and I was like, NUH UH. She was talking about how surprised she was that people were negative about it, she was like, "I just don't know WHY anyone would hate me for this." I guess there are websites dedicated to hating her. Poor 'lil thing spent more than she could make, SO FUCKING SAD I CRY INTO MY RAMEN NOODLES EVERY NIGHT.
anonymous noder: heh. like i said, i haven't seen her. yes, it's unbelievable, considering many of those people won't give money to mercy corps or programs like that
anonymous noder: That woman and her website make me want to vomit. I really believe that this woman is symptomatic of a generational problem. For some reason, young 20-somethings who netted a job paying them well above their skills seem to think that they are entitled to a certain lifestyle. Dear God, does this woman need to be beaten viciously with a clue-by-four. I make NOTHING, and even I give change to panhandlers. Perhaps she never heard the 'There but for the grace of $DIETY go I." I wish that the IRS would take an active interest in this case; this has become her livelihood, and we'll see how fast the cash pours in when everyone knows that 50% is going to the gvt. That oughta shut her the fuck up.
anonymous noder: re cyber-begging: Auughghghhh! (I heard about this is in the catbox. Hard to believe.) Could you include a website for My Sister's House, or a list of websites of *better* causes? Thanks.

I thought what the last "anonymous noder" said was a great idea.

My Sister's House is a local charity that helps battered women and their families. I like to give my time and money to local charities, because I firmly believe that by supporting them we can all make our communities stronger. Their website is at http://hadm.sph.sc.edu/Students/KBelew/sisterh.htm and is worth a look. You can find charities in your own locale by going to http://www.lic.org/ or to http://www.givespot.com/shortcuts/location.htm. Time is often a better gift than money; tutoring kids from your local elementary school, reading to disabled children at the library, or answering phones at a rape crisis center are just a few ideas.

The Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation is the leading national non-profit organization devoted to the research and eventual cure of pediatric HIV/AIDS. The website is at http://www.pedaids.org/

Big Brothers and Big Sisters is a multi-national program that pairs at-risk children with a willing (usually young) adult for mentoring. I have a couple of friends who have worked in this program as mentors, and the relationships they've built with the kids they worked with have been rewarding and beneficial to them as well as to the children. To find out more, go to http://www.bbbsa.org/

In the UK, all registered charities can be found at either http://bubl.ac.uk/uk/charities/ or at http://www.charity-commission.gov.uk/default.asp

To find out about fraudulent charities (do be careful, people), check out http://www.gofso.com/Premium/LE/15_le_cg/fg/fg-Charity_Reg.html for info on how charities work, tax information, and the right questions to ask before you donate.

Finally, if any of you have a special favorite organization you want listed here, /msg me and I'll include the url and any information you give me.

You guys rock, you really do.

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