Shea Serrano is an aficionado of all things hip, fast, and witty, from rap music to basketball to the TV series Scrubs. Serrano, 38, who grew up on the south side of San Antonio, is a journalist for The Ringer and an author of several best-selling books, but these days he’s probably most known for his tweeting. He has a following of 369,000-plus fans who hang on his every word—about his three kids, his wife, his San Antonio neighborhood, his books, his favorite movies, the Spurs, Lil Wayne. Serrano tweets early and often, sometimes a couple hundred times a day, often talking directly with fans and calling out others for what he says is nonsense.
In 2016 he began harnessing his army of followers to raise money for people—sometimes nonchalantly (a Christmastime tweet about how he had no cash to tip an airport parking lot attendant who had helped him find his lost car led his followers to send him almost $3,000, which he passed on to her) but usually in a more focused way. After Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in 2017, Serrano tweeted that he was going to start raising money for victims—and followers started sending donations to his Venmo account. Ultimately, Serrano and his army raised $134,000 to help those displaced by the storm.
On Thursday, March 12, Serrano was sitting on his couch watching TV when he felt overcome with anger over all the people losing income or otherwise struggling to deal with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. So he sent out a tweet: “Fuck coronavirus / who has a bill coming up that they’re not sure they’re gonna be able to pay / send me your bill and your venmo.”
Tweets poured in from followers—requests accompanied by screenshots of loans due, overdue bills, empty refrigerators—along with the person’s Venmo or Cash App address. Serrano sent out money and also began taking it in from followers—and sending that out to people in need, too. By the next Sunday, he had raised $10,000. Recipients sent him appreciative thank-you tweets, sometimes accompanied by photos of groceries bought or bills paid. He’s kept it going over the past three weeks, sending out pitches every couple of days, and by April 1 he had delivered $61,600. His actions also inspired his followers, who were sending dollars on their own. It was citizen philanthropy at its finest, an inspiration for everyone in a time of chaos and fear.
Serrano took a break from tweeting to talk with Texas Monthly about giving online during a crisis.
Texas Monthly: All of us want to help other people. What made you get off your couch and actually do something?
Shea Serrano: Well, I’ve done it before, and at this point I know the way it works. It’s not as difficult as it might seem. Mostly people say, “I wanna help some way, but I don’t know what to do.” I’m not gonna go out and work at a hospital—that’s hero work and I’m a coward in real life. On the Internet—that’s easy. This is a way for me to help out. And everyone is already connected on social media accounts—Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. Every single person there has access to people who need help and all you have to do is say, “Who needs help? I’ve got a little money I can give you.” It’s not that complicated. More than anything it’s overwhelming, because when I put a message out there like that, I’ll get six thousand messages in 45 minutes. That part is intimidating.
TM: How do you pick?
SS: I just do it at random. I open Twitter, scroll, and stop, and that’s the person I pick. I don’t ask no questions. If it’s direct action, I don’t wanna say, “Can you prove it?” The ones that are easy to avoid are the ones that are obvious bots, with seven numbers at end of the user name. I just mute those whenever I see them. Mostly everybody else seems like real people. I’m certain I’ve been burned several times by doing this, but that’s just a thing that has to happen.
TM: You’ve built up this community of people who follow your enthusiasms for music, basketball, Scrubs, so you know they will jump in and contribute.
SS: That’s true. This only happens sporadically. We did it at Christmas, we did it now, we might do it a couple of times a year. Most times we’re on Twitter dicking around, wasting time at work, making jokes about stuff, making fun of each other, about this or that. It feels like a group of friends. With the coronavirus giving, of all that money in the first batch, $60 of it was money I had in my Venmo account—as of now I’ve contributed about $3,000. Everyone else gives because they don’t know how to do it themselves. Usually it’s small stuff: “I had $4 in my account.” But if 1,500 people do that, all of sudden we have $6,000 to give away. Two women reached out to me and said, “Here’s $2,000, can you give it away? We don’t know how to do it.” Some guy from Oregon did a fundraiser with Oregon Ducks gear, and I’m a big Oregon Ducks fan. And he said, “I made $1,500 off this, can you give it away?”
TM: Does that $61,600 include the money your followers have donated to people on their own?
SS: No, this is what I can keep track of. Separate from that, there are tens of thousands of dollars people are jumping in and giving away. The other day someone tagged me—a New York TV station mentioned me in the story. I opened it and thought it would be like, “Shea Serrano gives NY man $250.” But I watched a two-minute video clip—it was someone who had responded to my first pitch. I didn’t see it—it was lost among the others. But other people jumped in, and through other people sending him money, he ended up getting $1,300. And this is happening to plenty of people. It’s crazy. Everybody needs help. I would prefer you just jump in and do it yourself.
TM: You also tweet things like, “Pay grocery workers and delivery drivers a decent salary.” This isn’t just about philanthropy—you’re saying things you believe in, and people are responding.
SS: Because I think, this is me guessing, you grow up a certain way. I grew up on the south side of San Antonio in a bad neighborhood, and we didn’t have much education, and everybody—a significant part of the community—was on welfare or in Section 8 housing. You live this life and you know what it means when someone doesn’t get a shift they were expecting at their job, you know it’s going to fuck up everything over the next three weeks. There’s probably a portion of the people who follow me now who didn’t have to grow up like that. Now they get to see it.
It’s one thing to read a story on the internet and you say, “Oh it’s about someone who didn’t have grocery money today.” But then there’s the story where you send someone $250 and they tweet a picture of the groceries they just bought and they’re putting it in an empty refrigerator. That’s a powerful image for people to see. And you realize, if you send in $5 or $20, you helped. And it makes everybody feel better about the state of affairs. Because ultimately there’s nothing we can do about any of this bullshit because none of us are in charge—we don’t have any real pull. But it feels like it helps a little bit.
TM: How much longer are you going to keep doing this?
SS: They announced the stimulus package—$1,200 if you make under X amount in a year. But $1,200 is nothing. If there’s no rent freeze, that money is gone. In most of Texas—in San Antonio or especially Austin, that doesn’t cover rent. It’s not gonna cover your internet bill, your car, your insurance, your bus pass. As long as this thing lasts, I’m gonna try to help as much as I can. It’s not too hard for me to send a tweet: If you need help, respond. People are always going to respond.
TM: What has all this shown you?
SS: I would say all this shit has shown us that there are a lot of bad people in charge. Clearly that’s the case. We’ve seen that Trump has been doing wrong things for three months and now people are going to die. And that sucks. There’s very little we can do about that, but we can at least help each other.
TM: Helping our families and extended families.
SS: Yeah. And it doesn’t have to be a lot. That’s the crazy part about all of this. If you send somebody $25, maybe $25 does not feel like much to you, you just happen to have it in your Paypal account. But there are people who have less than zero dollars in their account right now and they’re just looking at an empty refrigerator and they’re listening to two kids complaining about why are there no snacks, what are we doing for dinner? You send them $25. If you grew up poor and somebody gave you $25, you can stretch that shit out for a week. That’s what you learn to do. It might seem small to you, but it’s huge thing.
I’m in my house, we have food in our pantry, my kids are doing their online schoolwork because they each have a computer in their room, my wife is running around doing whatever it is she’s doing. I could send you $250 and it’s not gonna affect me much at all. That might change three weeks of somebody’s life. It doesn’t matter what it feels like to you, it’s gonna feel bigger to someone who needs it. So, send $10—and see what happens. I guarantee you you’re gonna feel real good.