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Free Hugs: The Virus of Connection

BY Micah L. Sifry | Friday, September 29 2006

First, watch the "Free Hugs" video on YouTube. Now, ponder what this might teach us about politics, the internet and the zeitgeist.


Some background is in order. A year ago, Juan Mann was just an odd guy standing in the Pitt Street Mall in Sydney, Australia offering "free hugs" to passing strangers. One of the people he hugged was Shimon Moore, the lead singer of the Sick Puppies. They became friends, and one day Moore decided to borrow a video camera showing Mann doing his thing. As the "free hug" campaign started to spread, the city council tried to ban it, even attempting to impose a huge liability insurance requirement on him for offering free hugs in public. So Mann and his friends mounted a petition campaign, and after presenting more than 10,000 to the city council, the calls for a ban died away.

That would be the end of a quirky story, and it certainly isn't the first time someone has tried the stunt of offering public hugs, as this 2004 story from the New York Times shows. Except for this. After Mann's grandmother died, Moore decided to mix the video he had taken with the Sick Puppies song All the Same, to lift his friend's spirits. He did an amazingly good job, posted it on YouTube a week ago, with the following caption:

Sometimes, a hug is all what we need. Free hugs is a real life controversial story of Juan Mann, A man whos sole mission was to reach out and hug a stranger to brighten up their lives.

In this age of social disconnectivity and lack of human contact, the effects of the Free Hugs campaign became phenomenal.

As this symbol of human hope spread accross the city, police and officials ordered the Free Hugs campaign BANNED. What we then witness is the true spirit of humanity come together in what can only be described as awe inspiring.

In the Spirit of the free hugs campaign, PASS THIS TO A FRIEND and HUG A STRANGER! After all, If you can reach just one person...

In less than a week it has had more than one million viewings and drawn nearly 7,000 comments. Good Morning America featured the video two days ago. A group of college kids at Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada posted their own video response, showing their "free hugs" effort from yesterday. Others are doing the same thing, and quick look at Technorati shows it sitting at the top of its most popular videos list, with fresh blog posts linking the video coming in at about ten an hour. I'm betting this becomes as big as "flash mobs" in the next two weeks. Note what is happening in Free Hugs: people are spreading a message and taking action. All without a penny spent on marketing.

Why is this message spreading? Sam Rosen of the Verticality Group points out, "It's grassroots. Not coming from a corporation. Feels authentic. In fact, the only item promoted is the music." I think Rosen is right. Back in 1999, when the authors of the Cluetrain Manifesto talked about the internet as a "strange attractor" because it felt like a place where real conversations were happening, as opposed to marketing, they were pointing to the same thing.

Compared to this kind of personal, intimate, knowledgeable and highly engaged voice ... top-down corporate communications come across as stale and stentorian -- the boring, authoritarian voice of command and control. The glaring difference between these styles is the strange attractor that has brought tens of millions flocking to the internet. There's new life passing along the wires. And it hasn't been coming from corporations.

The net may be a powerful new tool for corporations and politicians to do what they've been doing for years--talking at people, not with them--but it is also a place where real feelings and spontaneous gestures and genuine communication matter just as much.

Why Now?

"Free Hugs" also hits our consciousness at a time when we are being carpet-bombed daily with messages of fear and disconnection. That guy in the shopping mall with a backpack? He might be a terrorist. Report suspicious activity, the signs say everywhere (at least in New York, where I live). Surrender your personal items before boarding a plane. A full-body pat-down by the TSA doesn't do much for my emotional state. I'm not much of a Jungian analyst, but the human need for connection doesn't go away, even in times like these.

Now, when you think of politics today, does any of it inspire you to be hopeful? Right now, the messages I'm absorbing are either about fear (and the need to trust the President to protect us) or about anger (and the need to stop the President from making things even worse. As a woman who was at the Demos talk I did yesterday with Allison Fine noted, we're mostly seeing activists using the new technology to shout even more loudly at each other, rather than figure out how to bridge differences and solve problems. None of the 2008 contenders are doing much to convey hope about the future.

Which is why I think it would be really smart for some politician to embrace the "Free Hugs" campaign right now. C'mon, John and Elizabeth, go stand in a shopping mall in North Carolina with a "Free Hugs" and get a volunteer to tape you! How about it Hillary? Mark? Do they dare? If you're really for "One America" that goes "Forward Together," why not?


Hard to picture, right? This is one of our biggest problems. The disconnect between the public and politicians is so severe that we can't imagine someone doing this without thinking that it would be a stunt. Recall though, this powerful photo of President Bush hugging 15-year-old Ashley Faulkner, who lost her mother in the World Trade Center on 9-11. Taken spontaneously by her father, the photo was used to deadly effect by Republican admakers in the final weeks of the 2004 campaign. Of course, in the image of that hug what was being reinforced is the sense of Bush as protective father, instead of a meeting of free and happy equals.

At the moment, the only semi-well-known politician in America who I think could spontaneously join the Free Hugs phenomenon without being seen as a jerk might be Jim McGreevey, the former governor of New Jersey. He was on the Daily Show last night, and demonstrated that coming out and being his true self as a gay man has been the best thing that ever happened to him. He spoke movingly about how he had lived a life of lying, and that the same habit of lying about his identity infected all of his public behavior as a politician.

Stewart, who has the best sense of the zeitgeist of any public figure alive today, saw a very strong lesson about politics in all of this. After hearing McGreevey describe the world he had left, where politicians and their handlers don't make a move without polling on it first, asked, "So, do you think all politicians are born this way?"--a sly reference to the nature/nurture debate about sexual identity. McGreevey seemed confused for a second, and then Stewart said (I'm paraphrasing), "you know, born addicted to polls and afraid to be their true selves."

Our true selves want a public space that is filled with positive connections, not fear and anger. No wonder we hate politics. But politics is about everything that we can and must do together as a community. So we better fix politics and make sure it is completely open, genuine and believable. Our leaders are all afraid of being caught out, of us seeing who they really are. In some cases (Hello, George Allen?), they should be afraid. But someone is going to have to show some courage, and my guess is they will be rewarded when they do.

[Thanks for the tip to Tom Munnecke and his Uplift Academy]