NS Internet column
Written 20 August 1999 for the New Statesman
My wife thinks it is the ultimate expression of Western consumerism and idleness; I think it is the first time the Web has ever been used intelligently for altruism. We're probably both right. The Hunger Site is one of the cleverest advertisements ever made. The essence of the idea is a really simple page. It contains a block of up to nine small banner advertisements, and, beneath them, a large button. Click the button with your mouse, and each of the advertisers will contribute half a cent to the UN's world food program. Then the page tells you how much rice you have bought, and how long that will keep someone alive.
Today the site was half full of ads and my mouse click bought someone one and a quarter cups of rice, enough to keep them alive for another day, perhaps. I don't suppose I have ever done so much god with so little effort. A charity credit card might have the same effect, but of course the holders of these cards pay a little extra for them, whereas the spooky brilliance of the hunger site is that it is the advertisers who pay for my generosity.
The obvious temptation would be for the visitors to click until their fingers were worn to the bone, spending other people's money in a charitable cause, as the voters are meant to do under socialism. But this would require a little ingenuity and effort, for the site will only register one click per browser per day. There is nothing to stop them checking it once every day — in fact you are encouraged to do so — and it seems a miniscule effort to make to help a malnourished child. If you have nothing better to do, you can sit and watch the hunger map, which shows a globe on which a country goes briefly dark every three and a half seconds: it happens every time a child somewhere dies of malnutrition: it's like watching death on his tireless rounds, from India, to China, then Indonesia, before hurrying across to Africa and South America.
The founder of the site, John Breen, originally wanted to set up a much more obvious idea: a resource where teachers around the world could exchange equipment and requests for help. But looking into the problems of education in really poor countries, he discovered that it was hunger, rather than a shortage of equipment, which stopped children learning. So he had the brilliant idea of using web advertisements to do something real. The profit for the advertisers is not just knowing that they have done some good for surprisingly little money — the site guarantees that the maximum payout for any single day is $750, which would involve 150,000 separate visitors seeing the advertisement. There is also the point that someone who has just pressed the "Feed the hungry" button is far more likely to go on to read an advertisement than they are on normal sites.
The great problem with web advertising has turned out to be what first appeared its greatest promise: that it is possible to tell exactly which advertisements get any response. The answer is that hardly any do. The basic web advertisement consists of a link to another site, which you must activate by clicking with a mouse, just like the hunger button. Hardly anyone can ever be bothered: one figure suggests that about two visitors in a thousand can shift their fingers the minuscule fraction of an inch required to read on. The response on the hunger site is about fifty times as great, so a company that advertises there is actually getting quite good value for its advertising budget by feeding the starving.
Not surprisingly, the site has become enormously popular even though it is less than three months old. More than two million button clicks have been registered, from all over the world. Britain and Germany come third and fourth in the list of countries from which people have clicked: the really astonishing thing is that second place is taken by Brazil. On the day I wrote this, 48,000 Americans had clicked, and nearly 10,000 Brazilians. But the list of countries from which the site has been accessed is immense. None are two poor. Russians, Ukrainians and Ugandans have all pressed the hunger button. Even the Vatican has got in on the act, clicking for five cupfuls of rice in the month of August.