Day 158: The Unexpected Cult Of JoinMe

originally published June 6, 2012

This is Danny Wallace. If you haven’t heard of him yet, you probably will soon.

I don’t like devoting articles in this experiment to other comedy writers; it tends to come off as pandering and a little wankish. So instead I’d like to focus on one of his works – more a sociological experiment than a comedic concoction. But I guess a little bio about the guy wouldn’t hurt.

Wallace was born in Scotland. Being much more astute and tuned-in than the schmuck on this side of the keyboard, he started his writing career in his teens. One of his early successes was as the original producer of the BBC hit The Mighty Boosh. I’ve never seen the show, but my sources tell me that I’m an idiot for having passed it up. My sources don’t mince words, nor do they care if their words hurt.

He wrote a book in 2005 about the six months he spent saying yes to anything – they made a Jim Carrey movie out of it called Yes Man, which I also never saw, though my sources assured me I saved myself 104 minutes of cinematic rag-water. I asked my sources if John Michael Higgins was enjoyable in the film, and they rolled their eyes disdainfully. John Michael Higgins is always a delight.

I could prattle on – Wallace’s resume reads like a bullet-list of high-concept cleverness that begs the question why he’s less famous in this country than Dane fucking Cook – but that’s not the point of this article. I’d rather focus on the topic Ms. Wiki stamped on my screen this morning. The time Danny Wallace accidentally started a cult.

An unnamed relative of Wallace’s had made an attempt to start up a pacifistic hippie-ish commune on his Swiss farm, but passed away without ever having achieved his goal. Wallace was inspired by this attempt to create a community out of nothing, and decided to try it. For fun – and without having any clue how he was going to follow through on it – Wallace placed an ad in Loot, a British classified ad rag in 2002. The ad said simply: “Join me. Send one passport-sized photograph to…” and then listed Wallace’s address.

This is the 21st century. This is the age in which people look at an ad that tells them to do something, and dammit, they’ll oblige. Wallace wanted to improve upon his deceased relative’s success of recruiting three people. Four would have been a win. Instead the responses reached into the hundreds.

Wallace was thrilled with the public interest, but people were inevitably getting around to the question of what, specifically, they were joining. A valid query, I suppose. For all they knew, this guy may have been enlisting people to firebomb Latvia, or to participate in some spontaneous flash-mob-turned-orgy in Trafalgar Square. It was a little risky, sending a photograph along with one’s return address to a stranger with no stated intent, but if there’s one thing Nigerian princes and typographically-challenged neck tattoos have taught us, it’s that people will do weird shit simply for the sake of doing weird shit.

A purpose had to be found. To Wallace’s credit as a comedy writer, he didn’t opt for staging some elaborate gag, like having everyone call in to local radio stations simultaneously and yell, “Bababooey!” Nor did he seek to enlist these wayward joiners into a shaven-head mischief-making army of anarchists, a-la Fight Club. Wallace instead elected to utilize this freshly minted mailing list of local monickers for good, rather than evil or goofiness.

Wallace proposed that his followers perform a random act of kindness, ideally to someone they don’t know, every Friday. Why Fridays? Apart from the fact that his followers would adopt the term ‘Good Fridays’ for their kindness days, it was probably an arbitrary choice.

The number of ‘Joinees’ increased as word-of-mouth spread. What no doubt started as a tiny human-interest story exploded, and the Joinee Collective (who also call themselves the Karma Army, though for some reason not the ‘Karmy’) grew to over 12,000 members.

In 2005 Wallace presented a six-part documentary on the BBC in which he explored the possibility of founding his own independent country, then proceeded to do so in his London flat. This new micronation, which he called “Lovely,” drew further attention to the JoinMe movement, as some of the members took part in filming the video for Wallace’s national anthem.

Gatherings were staged – creatively called Join MEets – which allowed people to perform acts of kindness in group form. In December of 2003, hundreds of Joinees met up at a gathering called Karmageddon, during which they climbed into cars and raced around the streets of London, mowing down pedestrians and causing millions of dollars in property damage.

I’m kidding of course – that would be Carmageddon, the immensely popular PC game whose latest sequel will be hitting store shelves next year.

Karmageddon started at the Tottenham Court Road tube station, then moved along Oxford street. The mass of people handed out gifts and leaflets, then retired to a pub to reflect on the good they’d spread.

Wallace was thrilled by the response, and wrote a book about the movement. He shows up at some of the Karmageddon gatherings, and posts regularly to the Join Me blog as the movement’s ‘Leader.’

If this all seems a little cult-ish, that’s because it kind of is. But just as religion can be used for good and unworldly evil, a cult doesn’t necessarily mean living on a compound, shaving your head and drinking toxic Crystal Light when a comet pokes its nose into the sky. A cult implies groupthink, and sometimes groups can think a little light into the world.

I’ll return briefly to my unsolicited praise for Danny Wallace. He took a quirky experiment and turned it into something that makes the world a better place. As a fellow quirky experimenteur, I can assure you I have no such lofty goals. Though if the opportunity were to present itself (1000 words for peace? Probably not), I’d like to think I’d make a go of it. And I’ll tune in if this ever happens:

… that’s a still from the Awkward Situations for Men pilot that Wallace shot with Laura “That 70’s Show” Prepon and Tony “Buster Bluth” Hale in 2010, based on one of Wallace’s books. From the looks of it, Wallace’s cultural hammer appears ready to slam down on the North American nail. If and when that happens, I’ll be ready to Join.

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