Awesome Activism

It’s not your mama’s activism: at noon EST, December 17, 2007, hundreds of young people from all over the U.S. and as far away as Norway, Australia, and Peru simultaneously uploaded onto YouTube over four hundred homemade videos promoting their favorite nonprofits. Thousands more young people were poised to actively comment on and rate the videos throughout the day. Together, within twenty-four hours, they’d done it — the “most discussed” page of YouTube had been dominated by humanitarian and environmental concerns. Each video bore the same thumbnail: “Project for Awesome.”

They made videos about clean drinking water, old-growth forests, protecting animals and wetlands, ethically disposing of electronic waste, and reducing junk mail. They made videos about libraries, ending world hunger, blood and organ donation, women’s rights, and helping the people of Darfur. They referred viewers to more than three hundred groups, from the nationally prominent — The Nature Conservancy, EarthJustice, the World Wildlife Fund — to smaller groups in their own backyards, like Adopt-a-Block Poughkeepsie in New York, or Friends of the Rouge River in Dearborn, Michigan. Their broadly stated mission was “to help decrease world suck.”

The Project for Awesome, aka “The Day the Nerds Took Over YouTube,” was another collaborative project of the video-blogging brothers Hank and John Green and their viewers, a group of bright, active teenagers who call themselves the “Nerdfighters.” John, thirty-one, writes books for young adults, including the recently published Paper Towns, and Hank, twenty-eight, runs the environmental technology website

They’ve also raised money for Illinois state representative candidate Daniel Biss, and given microloans to people in the developing world.

When the brothers started their blog nearly two years ago, their main purpose was to exchange video messages. “The viewership was a surprise,” John said. “The activism that resulted from having a viewership was just a natural product of who we are. We spend a lot of time talking about how to decrease world suck because it’s something we think about a lot. We’ve also spent a lot of time talking about Harry Potter.”

Some of the Greens’ appeal might be their lighthearted approach to serious issues. In exchange for viewers contributing to the political action committee, John filmed himself drinking a blenderized Happy Meal. When he made a video explaining the political situation in Pakistan shortly before Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, he did so while eating twenty-four Halloween-themed Peeps. But their appeal goes beyond hilarity, say viewers. “[My friend] Liz and I agree that we’re better people after having become Nerdfighters,” viewer Kristina Horner, twenty, wrote in the text accompanying their project video. “We both care a lot more about the things that are important.”

For those who grew up marching in protest to make a difference, what the Greens and the Nerdfighters do can look suspiciously subtle. “The work being done today is more about making the current system better than about changing it,” Hank said. This is consistent with what others have pointed out about the activist tendencies of the generation coming up: it’s upbeat, team-oriented, and tech-savvy; it makes broad connections among social, economic, and environmental concerns; it focuses on small, practical changes and makes them fun. John describes his and his wife’s attempts to live a greener life, and Hank gets excited about the Chevrolet Volt, but these thoughts get sandwiched between jokes and daily concerns.

“[Young people] are simultaneously the most energetic and the most bored members of our society,” Hank said. “Being able to tap the energetic free time of youth is like having a 100 percent efficient solar collector. If you could do it all the time, you could rule the world.”

Katrina Vandenberg is the author of two collections of poetry, The Alphabet Not Unlike the World and Atlas. Other essays she has published in Orion have been selected as a Notable Essay for the Best American Essays series and won a Pushcart Prize. She directs the creative writing programs at Hamline University and lives with her family in Saint Paul, MN.


  1. Interesting how earnest sincerity needs to be accompanied by random tidbits of absurdity (i.e. peeps, Pakistan). As a teacher on a college campus, and one who once taught about World Affairs out of the oftentimes droll Economist, I noticed that my lessons about politics were best received when spiced with a little humor, especially when we discussed domestic politics. Though, when I talked about Darfur or Kashmir or AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, I refused to joke and students still paid attention. But I wonder: What about the world is so awful that engagement requires a Daily Show dose of humor? Or is it not about the world, which has no historical monopoly on “suck,” but that our wonderful college-aged generation raised on DVDs and computer games requires entertainment even when confronting the world’s messes? Thoughts?

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