The aroma of incense wafts through the air. Motivational messages and the Grateful Dead concert memorabilia line the walls. On a table sits a computer.
Welcome to David Freeman’s living room, the humble nucleus of the Pledge project, one of Eugene, Oregon’s newest nonprofit organizations.
Those who choose to “take The Pledge” do so by joining as members in an online community that encourages idea-sharing and empowerment to further social movements. Ultimately, the project aims to inspire Pledge participants to make a difference outside the confines of cyberspace by contributing to community meetings (“called Community Unity Team Gatherings”). According to Pledge team member Kaya Berry, the social outreach website was envisioned by Freeman “to provide a methodology for uniting people in a way that makes a discernible difference . . . that works for everyone.”
While The Pledge’s approach may seem commonplace, this organization is actually part of a larger trend among similar nonprofit projects. Since the advent of the Internet, protests have gradually been replaced by “Likes”, online petitions, viral videos, and memes. While social and political upheavals in the past were characterized by picket lines and sit-ins, many of today’s budding activists (often derided as “slacktivists”) are more likely to be found sitting in front of their computers. Social media is increasingly becoming the modern platform for raising awareness, but some see the internet as an ineffective way to support social causes and fear that this trend is undermining the progress of traditional activism.
One well-known and controversial episode in the social networking activism debate was spurred in March 2012 with the release of Invisible Children, Inc.’s Kony2012, a thirty-minute film that quickly became a viral Internet sensation. The video, which chronicles the journey of a Sudanese refugee who escaped oppression and genocide as part of guerilla leader Joseph Kony’s army of child soldiers, was viewed over 100 million times in the span of six days. Jason Russell, the Invisible Children, Inc. co-founder and creator of the video, had seemingly united an entire planet against its most
Kony2012 showed the world a prime example of what can occur when millions join in support of a common cause, but it’s unclear whether the campaign created a net benefit in ending child armies in Africa. According to video analysts at Visible Measures Corporation, a set of viewers larger than the population of Germany sympathized with Invisible Children’s pursuit of ending genocide and child armies through the film. Even with these numbers, however, few actually took the initiative to do more than “liking” and sharing Russell’s video on their own page.
Clearly, a debate has formed. Does bringing attention to an issue by using social media make someone socially active, or is this increasingly common habit simply breeding future generations of passive activists? Merely “liking” or sharing an organization’s post online with no further action has become so customary that in 2010 the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS coined the term “slacktivism,” stating it “posits that people who support a cause by performing simple measures are not truly engaged or devoted to making a change.” The term even has its own Urban Dictionary entry.
At 72 years of age, Pledge founder David Freeman is no stranger to activism. Since the 1960s, Freeman has participated in several social and political movements and has witnessed activism’s transformation from marches and protests to Facebook “likes” and viral videos. During the tumultuous cultural upheaval of the civil rights struggle of the 1960s, the United States was experiencing what he terms “a coming together unheard of at that time.”
Watching the positive change he and others like him were making throughout this era motivated Freeman to promote societal unity.
“I remember staring at the sunset near the bay and crying out ‘It doesn’t have to be like this! We are all one,’” he says.
Frustrated with the lack of social justice in the United States during his childhood, Freeman sought an outlet to encourage his peers to coexist.
“I had this desire to find a healing family, connection, and a difference,” he says. “That’s where The Pledge project actually started.”
Since it was first conceived by Freeman decades ago, the project has gone through many changes. Originally, the organization was titled “god’s pledge” with a lower case g to show zero exclusivity. The initial concept was a viral hit with impressive first quarter membership totals for the small Internet community of the time. However, an insufficient server forced Freeman to put his dream and “god’s pledge” on hold.
As he’s continued to age, Freeman’s transformation and adaptation to the times mimics society’s own state of flux. Revamped, reworked, and fresh off its formal re-launch, the modern Pledge project is officially operating using the webpage address www.pledgein.org. The site hosts discussion forums where all beliefs and denominations can share ideas and learn from one another. Freeman calls this medium the “body of wisdom,” and Pledge representatives are optimistic that after finding guidance on the website, members will then become active in the physical world instead of residing exclusively in virtual forums.
Since the inception of websites like Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr, society has increasingly begun using social media as a platform for self-expression. In October 2012, Facebook reached a monumental milestone when the total number of users exceeded one billion. While social network activism advocates like Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerburg claim the Internet can aid philanthropic efforts, critics are uncertain as to whether or not networking has actually rendered any positive results.
The Pledge, on the other hand, purports that a combined online presence as well as a physical community can create an environment suitable for inciting radical awareness and change among its followers. By using sites like Facebook and Twitter, Freeman’s organization has the potential to reach millions of users for recruitment in a shorter amount of time.
“The Internet is an incredible tool,” says Freeman. “Look at the things that have happened through Facebook.”
However, Freeman is also concerned with society’s dependence on social media and disregard for volunteering. After observing the way technology had transformed culture, Freeman decided to incorporate social media sharing on his website to prevent his mission from tumbling down the same obsolete path as flyers tacked to a corkboard.
“It is easy to say, ‘Oh I did my part. I went to Facebook and I liked that.’ But now, go out and actually make a difference,” says Freeman.
There is a fine balance to maintain when reaching out to the public via social networking sites. Too much online sharing, and the cause becomes more about clicks and views than actual activism; too little, and no one will know such organizations or causes exist.
“People like being in a caring, loving social setting,” says Freeman. “And the sharing of information isn’t as great as actually doing things.”
Websites like The Pledge are on their way to accomplishing this, however. One study published by Georgetown University in 2010 suggests that organizations like The Pledge and Invisible Children, Inc. may be onto something. Researchers found that those who share their beliefs using social media and advocate for reform through those networks are twice as likely to volunteer and show up in-person at events such as rallies.
These days, The Pledge is trying to remove the slump from modern activism by promoting its motto “A Different Difference.” Freeman believes his site is unique because of its breadth in appealing to computer users as well as community members, achieving that essential balance of connecting nonprofit organizations with the masses.
“People have looked at The Pledge and they say, ‘What’s the difference between what The Pledge is saying and what Buddha or Jesus said?’” Freeman says. “My stock answer is, ‘They didn’t have the Internet.’”
Though membership is low right now, The Pledge is confident that its ideas will catch on and inspire a socially active member base. Like anyone who has seen as vibrant a life as Freeman’s, exhaustion catches up to the activist from time to time. While he must periodically rest as he works, there is only so much time for leisure during the day. This project is his profession—and his passion.
On this particular day, Freeman reclines to take a break on the sofa next to his computer table. After a time, the shrill whistle of the tea kettle echoes from the kitchen, finally coaxing Freeman from his seat. But only for a moment.
Freeman fills his mug, and then retreats to his computer. The social network beckons.