Infectious Generosity

Let’s harness the power of the internet to bring people together instead of driving them apart.


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You wouldn’t think that a cluster of atoms weighing less than one-trillionth of a gram could amount to much. Yet one such cluster, following a tiny tweak to its shape, entered a human body in late 2019, sparking a chain of events that killed more than seven million people and shut down the world economy.

Among the many lessons of COVID-19, one of the most profound is this: You don’t need to be big to be powerful. You just need to be infectious.

Any pattern that can replicate itself can have unlimited impact. Coronaviruses do it by avoiding human immune systems, creating billions of copies of themselves, and then triggering us to cough or sneeze those copies into other people’s air supply.

But many other types of infection are possible.

I want to persuade you that one such possible contagion could actually transform the world for the better. Its name? Generosity. If we figured out how to make generosity truly infectious, it could turn the tide on the growing divisiveness of our world and usher in a new era of hope.

Generosity? Really?!

It’s an odd word, to be sure. A little old-fashioned, perhaps. It seems, on first blush, too soft a force to be deployed against the challenges we’re facing. You, as an individual, may be as generous as you like, but how can your well-intentioned individual gestures and sacrifices amount to anything?

But that’s the whole point. They can. Any generous act can have extraordinary impact if it can make the leap from isolated to infectious. With a few little tweaks to their shape, acts of generosity can become explosively powerful.

Generosity’s infectious potential draws from two key drivers: human nature and the connectedness of the modern era. Overlooked traits that lie deep inside every human can combine to create chain reactions of generous behavior, and these ripple effects can be turbocharged by the internet for world-changing impact.

The internet is of course famous for enabling contagions of all kinds, from social media memes to viral marketing. As with a virus, humans are the vector for the internet’s infectiousness. Instead of replicating in noses and lungs, words and images ignite in our brains, provoking our fingers to press Like or Share.

Alas, many of the contagions that spread online are not healthy. Fueled by ad-driven business models that seek to glue people to their screens, social media platforms have turned the web into an outrage-generating machine. Instead of seeing the best in one another, we’re often seeing the worst, and it’s driving us apart.

Along with many others, I used to dream of the internet as a force for bringing people together. And I’m not willing to let that dream go. I believe there’s a pathway to reclaiming a healthier internet, with infectious generosity playing a starring role.

My belief is anchored by two complementary themes: The internet can turbocharge generosity and Generosity can transform the internet. Each theme feeds the other. If we see the internet as a scary, inhuman mass of strangers ready to judge and exploit us, it will be hard for us to trust it with our good intentions. But without people making efforts to connect with others online in a generous spirit, the internet can’t deliver its potential as a force for good. It’s tempting to dismiss the internet today as a downward spiral of toxicity. What is desperately needed is for us to start an upward cycle in which the growing visibility of a more generous version of humanity inspires people to play their part in contributing to the common good.

I feel a real sense of urgency about this. We’re in the early stages of seeing our world turned upside down by artificial intelligence. Guess what the source of the power of A.I. is? It’s the internet. In essence, the most powerful A.I. systems are designed to digest the sum of what humans have posted online and create predictive models. Do we want to rely on A.I. trained with today’s internet? No! We really don’t. We’ll risk amplifying much that is dangerous. If we can find a way to nudge the internet to a kinder, more generous, more positive place, it could have an incalculable impact on our future, both directly and by providing a healthier foundation for A.I.

It may seem absurd to you to imagine us humans, with all our imperfections, ever overcoming the internet’s woes: division, disinformation, data surveillance, addiction, social media-fueled insecurity, and so much more. I hear you. But under the radar, there are remarkable things afoot. They’re worth learning about.

Moreover, we must take on this problem. I see no choice. Our whole collective future is at stake. Paradoxically, the very urgency of the problem may help us. The greater the sense of crisis, the more humans shift from me to we. We’re in a moment when people are really worried. I think that means we’re also craving things that could draw us together.

The good news is that the ingredients to infectious generosity are hiding in plain sight. Simple, ordinary, unremarkable human kindness, for example, now has the potential to ripple outward like never before.

Take the following story. You’re sitting in your car at an intersection when a rainstorm hits. You notice two people by the side of the road getting soaked. One of them is in a wheelchair. So you jump out of the car, run to them, and give them your umbrella. No doubt, acts like this have happened countless times throughout history between people stuck outside in rainstorms. It might seem mundane.

However, when this act of kindness happened in Washington, D.C., in 2022, a stranger in another car captured it on video. When the clip was posted online, it attracted millions of views and more than 90,000 likes on Reddit. Comments from inspired viewers poured out: “I wanna be like him.” “Gives me hope.” “If he did that to me I’d feel the inescapable urge to pay it forward.” “I’m going to start carrying extra umbrellas.”

An act that, pre-internet, might have meant something to just three people ended up inspiring a multitude.

But an instance of everyday kindness captured on a viral video is just one example of infectious generosity. There are countless other ways to ignite it. Everyone can do something that has the potential to spread: A retired engineer posting invaluable know-how on You-Tube. An artist sharing work that provokes and enchants. An act of human courage that inspires millions of people on social media. A company that offers free courses on a technical subject in which it has expertise. A storyteller who highlights a powerful cause that an online community can fund. Or just someone who wakes up grateful for something in their life and decides to pay it forward, sparking an online chain reaction.

As head of TED for the past 20 years, I’ve had a ringside view of many of the world’s most significant discoveries, inventions, technologies, and ideas. I’ve come to see generosity as the essential connecting thread between the most important lessons I’ve ever learned — as an individual, as the leader of an organization, and as a citizen of the world. For years, TED’s tagline has been “ideas worth spreading,” and I have come to believe that generosity is the ultimate idea worth spreading.


Chris Anderson has been the curator of TED since 2001. His TED mantra,“ideas worth spreading,” continues to blossom on an international scale, with some three billion TED Talks viewed annually.

From the Book Infectious Generosity: The Ultimate Idea Worth Spreading by Chris Anderson. Copyright 2024 by Chris Anderson. Published in the United States by Crown, and Imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

This article is featured in the July/August 2024 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.


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  1. It seems that what prevents a lot of people of being so widely generous is a fear of being ripped off. Theft over the internet — of others’ artwork, ideas, instructional materials, etc. — is a thing that we try to protect ourselves from, transforming us from generous givers to stingy owners. We need to relearn generosity as a willingness to give away what belongs to us . . . like the umbrella. If we begin with the intention of giving something away, vulnerability to its theft becomes a moot point.

  2. I’ve found this to be true myself. Some months back, I opened and held the door open at Applebee’s for a woman using a walker. Later, the restaurant manager came over to my table smiling that my dinner had already been paid for by this same woman who then smiled and waved to me. Of course I thanked her, only for her to thank me again.


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