No one ever expected an Episcopalian chaplain to take on Tom Cruise. But that’s exactly what 36-year old John Green did, in one of the most cut-throat, winner-takes-all bouts in pop culture: opening weekend at the box office. And he won.
Green is the author of “The Fault in Our Stars,” or TFiOS, a beloved novel about two teenage cancer patients who develop a passionate romance. The movie adaptation of the book — starring Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, both alumni of blockbuster franchise Divergent — opened opposite Cruise thriller “Edge of Tomorrow,” or EoT, which garnered high praise for its blend of high-octane action and taut storytelling.
EoT had a huge budget — nearly $180 million, according to the Los Angeles Times — including the high-saturation, omnipresent marketing arm of Hollywood and a lucrative release window during the summer blockbuster months.
Meanwhile, TFiOS, which had a modest budget of $12 million, eschewed a typical marketing for a cheaper social media campaign. By the numbers, EoT expected to dominate its opening weekend. Yet it didn’t. When the dust cleared, TFiOS grabbed $48 million in box office receipts, compared to EoT’s $29 million. Green — an author unknown to most people outside of teen and YA fiction fans — had beat out a cinematic titan.
The secret weapon? His loyal online fans — fellow foot soldiers in an Internet movement devoted to spreading positivity and empathy. And judging by the box-office performance of Fault, they’re gaining momentum.
Green comes from modest origins. Born in 1977 in Indianapolis, but raised in Orlando, Green was regularly bullied and tossed in trash cans at boarding school. But he moved on, graduating in English and religious studies at Kenyon College in 2000.
He then enrolled at the University of Chicago’s Divinity School, in hopes of becoming an Episcopalian priest, and spent five months as a student chaplain in a children’s hospital — an experience that later informed his novels, such as TFiOS. He got caught up in Chicago’s literary scene, as well, reviewing books for “Booklist” and working as a production editor at a local book publisher. During this time, he began writing his first young-adult novel, “Looking for Alaska,” or LFA, later published in 2005.
LFA — the story of a boy at boarding school who investigates the mysterious circumstances of a friend’s death — wasn’t an instant hit, but through word-of-mouth, it became a cult sensation. In 2006, the American Library Association awarded Green its “Prinz Award” for LFA’s honest, sensitive portrayal of teen sexuality, as well as its quality prose.
As Green’s fame grew, he began to publish other books, such as “An Abundance of Katherines” and “Paper Towns,” gaining a reputation for sly teenage wit, sharp dialogue and ruminations on big themes like life, love and death. In a field where vampires, werewolves and dystopian heroines dominated book sales, Green carved a niche for himself by writing perceptive, witty yet big-hearted “realistic” stories.
Green had earned a modest amount of success as a YA author — a respectable number of sales and some awards and critical reputation. But he wasn’t yet a household name.
Still, his fanbase expanded, and in 2007, he became one-half of a YouTube channel called “VlogBrothers” — hosted with his brother Hank. Yearning to re-establish and strengthen their brotherly bond, the two decided stopped texting and e-mailing each other for a year, and instead, exchange video blogs, one every other day, posted on YouTube. They called the project “Brotherhood 2.0.”
The Green brothers covered everything from books to pop culture to shared family memories to riffs on daily life. Sometimes, they spoke in short, snappy bits. Other times, they rambled with heartfelt exchanges. But they were always funny, warm, authentic, smart and often goofy. For example, when “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows” hit the shelves, Hank showcased his homemade Hogwarts tribute songs.
First, friends and families tuned in. Then, a mass of loyal followers began to form into a community of teens. By 2007, the project had they decided to keep vlogging and mobilize their fast-growing snagged over two million subscribers on YouTube.
YouTube sensations, from comedians to beauty gurus, have cultivated large audiences. But the Greens have no ordinary fanbase — their followers have organized into a movement to “increase awesome and decrease world suck.”
“When we started making videos, we hoped that we’d build a small but active community of viewers who would join us in projects,” Green told the New Yorker.
“Active” is an understatement in describing the fanbase, which today resembles a full-on alternate Internet culture. Early on, fans called themselves “Nerdfighters,” after John mistakenly thought the video game “Aero Fighters” was called “Nerd Fighters.”
The Nerdfighters started countless forums, Tumblrs and blogs and gather together at events and informal meet-ups. They have slogans like “Don’t Forget to Be Awesome” — handily abbreviated as DFTBA — as well as their own Star Trek-like hand signal and slang. In fact, type in “Nerdfighter” on Tumblr and YouTube to pull up millions of tagged posts. Collectively, the Nerdfighters call their community “Nerdfighteria,” complete with their own highly active social network.
The Nerdfighters aren’t just an online social life or a pop culture fanbase. They aim to do more by transforming the Internet into a more positive, empathetic space and fighting what they call “world suck.”
On their own initiative, they created the “Foundation to Decrease World Suck,” which holds an annual “Project 4 Awesome” fundraising competition, which raises money for charitable organizations around the world. Last year, over $850,000 was donated for groups as diverse as “Doctors Without Borders,” “Women for Women International,” “Books for Africa” and more. Their group for Kiva — a microlending organization — has lent over $4 million to developing-world entrepreneurs in cash-strapped economies. For a group of loosely organized Internet friends, they are making a big impact for social change.
The Nerdfighters and Green reached a tipping point with the publication of his mainstream breakthrough TFiOS. Published in 2012 and inspired by Green’s experiences as a student chaplain, the Nerdfighters helped TFiOS debut at the top spot on the New York Times bestseller list, where it has stayed for over 130 weeks. To date, it’s sold about seven million copies, been translated into 46 languages and named as a top book of 2012 by both Time and USA Today. Last month, Time even named Green as one of its most influential people.
The Nerdfighters also likely mobilized on the film’s opening weekend to edge it over Cruise — the film sold more advance tickets on Fandango than any drama in the service’s history. They aren’t just fans — they’re a pop culture force able to move millions of dollars of movie tickets and charity funds.
Nerdfighteria is special because of the particular kindness and closeness between its originators and followers. Collectively, they’ve created a safe online safe space where people can express themselves, gain support and offer advice, empathy and care.
But Green developed a particularly close friendship with Esther Earl, a teenage girl and video blogger who he met at a Harry Potter conference. Earl was an early Nerdfighter, and videos she posted to YouTube — under the name Cookie4Monster4 — showed a quirky, warm, open-hearted personality. In 2010, Earl was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Despite her illness, she continued to post videos, all the way through to the end of her life.
Green and Earl met in person only a handful of times, but they had a strong impact on one another. Earl is the direct inspiration for his teenage cancer patient heroine in TFiOS, but more than a muse or a fan, she was a friend. Before Earl died, Green asked her what she wanted the Nerdfighters to do on her birthday, August 3. She said she wanted her day to be about “family and love.” Today, the Nerdfighters celebrate her birthday as “Esther Day,” where they tell friends and family how much they love and appreciate them. The unblinking sincerity, empathy and open-heartedness represent what the Nerdfighters mean to one another — and what they want to put forth into the world.
At the heart of the phenomenon is the idea of empathy — the ability to understand and share the feelings and emotions of another person — to put yourself in their shoes in a meaningful, emotive way. We give empathy when we help a neighbor as they deal with a family illness, for example, or bring food or do chores when they may be too overwhelmed. We also give empathy when we closely listen to someone, acknowledging what they have to say and helping them feel understood.
According to Psychology Today, we have three types of empathy. We can understand someone’s perspective, a process called “perspective-taking.” We can literally “feel” Someone’s emotions, which psychologists call “personal distress.” And we can recognize someone’s emotional state, feel it with them and show appropriate concern, or “empathetic concern.”
Empathy can be tough to translate over into the digital realm, especially in an online culture where it’s easy to bully, to hookup, and to distract ourselves into oblivion. Digital empathy is, at its simplest form, remembering the impact of our online actions on others. It’s trying to understand the people we’re writing or commenting about, whether in a blog post or a Facebook comment.
We’re empathetic when we imagine how a picture we post will affect the people in it, as well as those who will see it. It’s reaching out for support, donating to an online charity campaign that resonates with you, or simply sending an e-mail or message that someone’s words, images or online actions had a positive impact on you.
The Nerdfighters try to practice empathy with one another, offering heartening evidence of a generation living online and consciously trying to use technology to be positive and kind with one another. If anything, they offer evidence that social media and online forms of expression, such as blogs, Tumblrs and Twitters, have turned all of us into media creators, whose words and images can have unexpectedly wide impact.
What message do we want to spread?
Cruise has nothing to worry about. EoT is expected to do well internationally, which is where Hollywood really earns its profits. Meanwhile, the brand of drama and romance of TFiOS doesn’t traditionally translate well in international markets.
The Nerdfighters alone aren’t enough to keep TFiOS at the top of the heap, though word-of-mouth and the book’s overall popularity should expand its audience well beyond its loyal community. The film adaptation has managed to hang in there in the week following its debut. But it dropped down to fourth place, eking out a bit over $15 million against the much-anticipated “22 Jump Street” and “How to Train Your Dragon” sequels. Overall, TFiOS stands at over $80 million for over 10 days of box office, recouping its budget many times over.
But box-office numbers don’t matter in the long-term, as Green and the Nerdfighters phenomenon expand beyond their sprawling yet humble origins, starting with the startling success of both the book and movie versions of TFiOS. Green himself is handling an increasing amount of fame as an author. According to Wall Street Journal, the self-identified hypochondriac draws massive crowds on his promotional tours now, which unnerves him. Fans routinely show up at his house in Indianapolis as well. Some 5,000 people showed up for a screening of Green’s movie at a Miami mall, and safety concerns shut the event down.
All this success may bring up some ambivalence for a movement that has deliberately kept itself under the radar, at least by its leaders. “One of the reasons Hank and I have always resisted being on television is that we don’t really want Nerdfighters to be a mainstream cultural phenomenon,” Green told New Yorker. “I worry that mainstream cultural phenomena need, like, Message Singularity and A Brand and an Institutional Voice and stuff. That kind of thing does not interest us at all. We just want to make cool stuff with people we like.” Green, though, can’t help now but be a public face for his work and his Nerdfighters, drawing more attention to the phenomenon.
Media attention has pluses and minuses for the Nerdfighters. They may gain more participants and spread their commitment to sincere, empathetic expression on the Internet, but it also opens the movement up to the sniping that characterizes so much of the Internet. The pleasant, hermetic bubble of positive energy could prove fragile under the glare of the spotlight.
However, the Nerdfighters — and perhaps the generation they represent — could surprise us. “I’ve found that sometimes, often even, kids are capable of tremendous kindness and generosity,” Green told Yes Magazine. “In fact that’s been the hallmark of the Nerdfighter community for over seven years now. There are always Nerdfighters who will listen to you if you listen back. And that is truly awesome.” ♦