It’s easy to feel cynical about @HiddenCash, the social experiment/scavenger hunt/ostentatious exercise in public generosity that has, since May, invaded a number of major cities.
It’s less easy to feel cynical about @HiddenCash when the man behind it just paid for your ice cream.
HAPPY 4th of July! FREE ICE CREAM! Ben & Jerry’s. 1 to 2 PM local Locations:1. 1480 Haight St., SF. 2. 3135 M street NW, DC 3. Times Sq.,NYC— Hidden Cash (@HiddenCash) July 4, 2014
On July 4, Jason Buzi — the eccentric real-estate mogul behind the Hidden Cash “movement” — sponsored ice cream giveaways at Ben & Jerry’s locations in three major U.S. cities. There was one in New York, one in San Francisco … and yes, one in D.C. Some 180 people collected free scoops at the chain’s Georgetown location, most of them apparently oblivious to their benefactor and his Internet notoriety.
“Today is my lucky day,” one woman told me. “I was just walking down M Street and saw the signs for free ice cream.”
“It’s sponsored by a Twitter account,” I told her. “You know — Hidden Cash?”
… to which she just looked puzzled and shook her head.
Hidden Cash has, admittedly, been a bit of a puzzling project since its outset, attracting just as many haters as it has fans. On one hand, the scavenger hunt — in which people search for envelopes of small bills, hidden by Buzi and his team — is all in good fun, a light-hearted, feel-good sort of game. But on the other hand, Buzi has seemed determined to cast it as something greater and slightly more self-important, a “movement” or a grand charitable gesture or a means of “giving back.”
Buzi’s goal, the Spanish newspaper El Pais noted, after Hidden Cash’s Madrid stop last Thursday, is to “share happiness with those most in need of it.”
And in Madrid, at least, the winners were indeed happy; @HiddenCash tweeted plenty of pictures of overjoyed Spaniards, clutching their 50-euro notes. What those pictures don’t show, of course, is the hundreds of people, many of them children, who searched for hours in Retiro Park, in the pouring rain, without finding anything. They waded into fountains. Destroyed hedges. Lifted manholes, even. (In a city with 20 percent unemployment, 50 euros is worth a little civic destruction.)
That has bothered Buzi’s critics, who argue — justifiably — that he has plenty of more effective and less ostentatious means “share happiness” and “give back.” Buzi has given away tens of thousands of dollars thus far — why not donate it to charity? Or start a foundation? Heck, start a foundation that organizes scavenger hunts for inner-city kids.
Negative and cynical people would really do well to search their own heart, to borrow a phrase from my favorite author (Steinbeck). Love.— Hidden Cash (@HiddenCash) July 3, 2014
Buzi, in his defense, has said he’s considered all these things, and that @HiddenCash isn’t the only way he currently “gives back.” But the other ways, whatever they are, clearly never made Buzi a worldwide social media sensation, with over 667,000 followers on his main Twitter account and more spin-offs, tributes and local adaptations than we could try to count. And none of the other other ways, I suspect, are quite so fun, either.
There’s definitely an irritating, self-aggrandizing tone to Buzi’s interviews, and a yawning void between his showy aspirations and the simpler reality of @HiddenCash. At the end of the day, though, it’s hard to argue with a little fun and games in a world that overthinks everything.
Then again, I have been bribed.