What’s the hidden message of @HiddenCash?


What are we to make of @HiddenCash, the “anonymous social experiment for good,” created by a wealthy Bay Area man who has told media he just wants to put a smile on people’s faces?

The anonymous donor, who reportedly made his fortune in real estate, has been leaving envelopes stuffed with cash around the Bay Area (and more recently in Los Angeles), posting context clues on Twitter, and watching the social-media fueled treasure hunt unfold as wildly excited winners dash to the cash and swoon, all to mainstream media’s delight.

Whoever this rich guy is, his oddball brand of DIY philanthropy has certainly generated a buzz, with 450,000 Twitter followers amassed in a short time.

But beyond the treasure hunts and online media blitz, @HiddenCash is also playing around with a hefty concept: The value of money. Instead of spending it, he's giving it out, apparently to ignite some trend of generosity. His timing is interesting, given that income inequality is now higher in San Francisco than anywhere else nationwide.

While expressing pure intentions of spreading "love," "generosity," and "EPIC fun," @HiddenCash is waltzing into the public arena from the side of the fence where wealth is growing, not shrinking. Cash does not equal survival to him; instead, he has the luxury of using it as a prop in a grand experiment. Rather than use it to buy stuff, he can use it to produce fleeting moments of joy, buzz, and positive media.  

But after a week of jolly experimenation, it seems @HiddenCash started to become overwhelmed by being sought out by cash-strapped souls in desperate need. Critics are deconstructing his actions, because the anonymous millionaire made his fortune in real estate, and many lives have been turned upside down by eviction in San Francisco as of late. Is this experiment being conducted as a way to give back after taking part in that dirty business? We don't know for sure; @HiddenCash did not respond to a request for an interview.

On the other side of the fence, money problems loom large. The rent is too damn high. Friends and communities are being splintered apart as economic shifts trigger eviction, reconstructing social realities in long-established neighborhoods. Many households don’t have enough to put food on the table.

Against this grim backdrop of the widening wealth gap, @HiddenCash is playing a game that almost resembles a redistribution of wealth. Of course, his actions alone won’t make a dent toward lessening inequality. But in media interviews, @HiddenCash has talked about “starting a movement,” presenting himself as a trailblazer for other rich people who might follow suit.

Think for a second about what a wave of @HiddenCash copycats would mean -- if more and more rich people simply decided to give freely for the sake of making others happy. It still probably wouldn't do much to cure inequality, but it might have a positive effect for the donors themselves. This fascinating New York Times piece dives into the effects of unchecked greed, or “wealth addiction.” As the author, a Wall Street banker who became horrified by cash-obsessed culture, wrote:

“Ever see what a drug addict is like when he’s used up his junk? He’ll do anything — walk 20 miles in the snow, rob a grandma — to get a fix. Wall Street was like that. In the months before bonuses were handed out, the trading floor started to feel like a neighborhood in ‘The Wire’ when the heroin runs out.”

Maybe @HiddenCash's message to the rich is more important than the message he’s sending to treasure hunters. Maybe he’s signaling to the wealthy that money isn't, in fact, everything.

That's a movement worth a retweet.

That said, is anyone who benefits from income inequality really going to buy it?

I wouldn't bet on it.