Of all of the places to recruit new initiates, you'd think a street corner in downtown Berkeley would be easy. How many starry-eyed cultists, after all, have stood on this very spot asking people to come and live on a bus with them and subsist on a diet of bulgur wheat and LSD? And all we were asking, really, was for people to join us -- in other words, to send a passport-size photo to our Leader, a spiky-haired 27-year-old Londoner who accidentally started a cult only because he happened to be very, very bored. But as we stand on the curb trying to lure Friday-afternoon pedestrians with free Tootsie Pops, do they rush to join us? Hardly. Do they look us in the eye? Rarely. Cult indoctrination is much harder than it's cracked up to be.
A few words of explanation:
In the beginning, there was a bar bet.
A few years ago, after a night of ill-advised tequila shots, Londoner Danny Wallace and his flatmate Dave Gorman had a disagreement as to whether or not there existed 54 other people in the world also named Dave Gorman. Wallace said no. Gorman said yes. This resulted in a rather dogged Gorman dragging a rather petulant Wallace around the globe to meet his namesakes, shake their hands, and take their pictures. Wallace's girlfriend Hanne dubbed the bet a "stupid boy project," and it came perilously close to severing their relationship as Wallace frequently ditched her to trot off to romantic locations such as Venice to meet one Dave Gorman or another. The bet's more grueling moments even tested Gorman and Wallace's own friendship, but ultimately they found their 54 Daves. They remained the best of friends, and Hanne forgave all.
But it didn't stop there. Wallace, a journalist and occasional BBC comedy producer, and Gorman, a comedian, parlayed their adventure into a stage show, then a book, both titled Are You Dave Gorman? Their hilarious, rambunctious retelling of the Gorman hunt became a cult hit in the UK, and spawned a manic Gorman-and-Wallace fan base. All very exciting, but none of us would be standing on this street corner had there not been a second act. A New Testament, if you will.
Not long after the Dave Gorman excitement died down, Wallace, now living by himself, was overcome with loneliness and ennui. On a whim, he took out a classified ad asking people to "join" him and send him their passport photos. That was it. "I was just interested to see whether people would," he later recalled. "And then I forgot about it."
Much to his delight, someone joined. In fact, a whole posse of someones. Wallace quickly exceeded his goal of one hundred joinees, and set his sights on one thousand. Collecting them became like a fever. Wallace bounced around Europe, appearing on late-night talk shows and in newspapers to spread the gospel of Join Me. He began meeting with his devotees and taking them out for beers. He set up a Web site and even recorded a theme song, all the while trying desperately to keep his burgeoning secret life hidden from Hanne. But then Wallace's adventure took a new turn: The joinees began demanding to know what, exactly, they had joined.
In fact, they rapidly became irritable with their Leader, who was always mysteriously vague about what it was they were supposed to be doing. They sent plaintive e-mails, and posted theories on the Join Me Web site Wallace had set up, speculating that he was doing some kind of weird statistical research, or perhaps was a "demented megalomaniac" on a "massive ego trip." One of the more enterprising joinees created his own Web site and agitated the others into pressuring Wallace to reveal what Join Me was all about.
Mutiny was afoot. Wallace knew that if he didn't come up with a point, his career as Leader was over. "I would be lying to you if I told you there wasn't a part of me that wanted to use my joinees to spread mischief across the land," he later wrote. "But alas, it wasn't to be. Because I, Danny Wallace, was to be in the service of All Things Good."
So the Leader decreed that the point of Join Me was this: to be nice. His joinees would be foot soldiers in a "Karma Army" whose task would be doing something kind for a stranger every Friday. It would be a conspiracy of kindness.
You might think the urban twenty- and thirtysomethings who had joined Wallace would find this premise hokey. But you'd be wrong. Before long, Wallace's acolytes were pulling off weekly random acts of kindness -- they call them "RAoKs" -- on what became known as Good Fridays. The acts have ranged from the serious to the silly; people have done everything from collectively buying a cow in Join Me's name for an impoverished Indian farmer to chasing strangers down the street to give them presents. Wallace has engineered "Karmageddons," in which hundreds of joinees do simultaneous good deeds, and members have arranged countless "Join Meets" at their local bars and curry houses. The formula: Have a pint or some curry. Make new friends. And then go do something nice for someone.
At first, to allay the notion he might make his joinees wear orange and play the bongos, Wallace seized upon the slogan "It's not a cult, it's a collective." But with global membership now approaching eight thousand people, some of who display a slavish devotion to the cause, Wallace has stopped quibbling. "It's a cult," he concedes. "But as long as it's a nice happy cult, that's fair enough. There's no space travel, and mass suicides are frowned upon."
Perhaps it was the lack of mass suicides that has made Join Me a stupid boy project of global proportions, with adherents throughout the United Kingdom, Western Europe, and Australia, and outposts in Japan, Indonesia, and the United Arab Emirates. The phenomenon spreads via proselytizing by members, online chat forums and, most significantly, Wallace's recent book, Join Me, which chronicles the cult's accidental beginnings. Reading it is like listening to Wallace think aloud. He comes off as the sort of bright, personable, goofy guy with whom you would gladly hang out. Plus, Join Me's contact info is located conveniently at the end, making the book an ideal recruiting tool wherever people read English. Say, for example, the United States.
And that's where we come in -- with Tootsie Pops.
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