It’s 1am and there is a stranger asleep on my sofa, rucksack at his side, snoring gently.
Six hours earlier I’d been standing in Manchester bus station, scanning the crowd for a face I’d only seen in a few blurred photographs.
Until now, Ashley Drew and I hadn’t even spoken on the phone. All I knew from our brief and infrequent emails is that he’s 28 and from Melbourne, he likes animals and snooker, and the location of my sofa is rather appealing.
Ashley is a couchsurfer, one of over a million members worldwide. The idea is simple: rather than jostling for expensive hotel rooms with other tourists, the couchsurfing movement gives backpackers the opportunity to crash on sofas for free, with the added bonus of tasting real cultures and experiencing places other sightseers probably wouldn’t. As for the hosts, they receive the simple pleasure of helping somebody out.
Couchsurfing is just one example of the emerging social trends to sweep the globe in recent years.
With just a click of the mouse, we can train as ‘clown activists’, join a local food movement, swap houses with a family in Peru, or partake in some ‘flash mobbing’- whether it be a mass pillow fight in Trafalgar Square or heading down to a central London station to dance in synchronicity, an activity elevated from its subculture status by the popular mobile phone commercial.
Some, like ‘the slow movement’, are disgruntled reactions to perceived problems in society- in this case, what the founders call ‘time poverty’, a backlash against the rat race and living by the clock, against a society driven by instant gratification.
Others, like ‘bookcrossing’ (leave your favourite book somewhere public with a note inside and trace how much happiness it has given to the lucky recipient through the Internet) are simply a way of sharing with others those things that make you happy.
Then there are those simple but genius ideas that spread like wildfire, such as the ‘free hugs campaign’. This movement began when founder Juan Mann felt lonely upon his arrival at a Sydney airport and decided to hold up a sign offering free hugs to passers-by. After 15 minutes of being ignored, a lady tapped him on the shoulder and told Mann her dog had died that day- the first anniversary of her only daughter’s death in a car accident.
“What she needed now, when she felt most alone in the world, was a hug,” Mann remembers. “I got down on one knee, we put our arms around each other and when we parted, she was smiling.”
The free hugs campaign is now a global activity, with thousands of participants in hundreds of cities around the world.
No doubt cyberspace can be credited with the speedy growth of these movements, but is technology solely responsible for their conception, or is it merely the vehicle for ideas that are almost inevitable in the 21st century?
Professor Nick Crossley, head of sociology at the University of Manchester, believes the Internet is crucial to their existence.
“I’m sure these activities are attractive because they fill gaps in mainstream culture,” Crossley concedes. “But technologies facilitate networks, and I’d be reluctant to interpret these new cultural forms as social and political reactions.”
But some involved with these modern trends wouldn’t necessarily agree.
Mark Aguera is founder of SwapRepublic.com, an online swap shop for everything from skills (I teach you guitar, you do my gardening in return) to houses, cars and personal possessions.
Rather than seeing the Internet merely as a means of connecting with like-minded individuals, Mark says that SwapRepublic’s philosophy is “to eliminate cash from transactions, because cash means the state has power to tax.” His aim, he says, is to remove power from the state and give it to the individual.
For Reid Mihalko, former relationship coach and massage therapist, technology may well have caused the emergence of movements like these – but not for the right reasons.
“The Internet has both helped and hindered society,” Mihalko says. “We feel more connected by social networking sites and we can easily track down others who share our interests, but these connections never occur face to face.
“We are social animals, and physical connection feeds us in a way the Internet can’t. You might have 500 facebook friends, but you’re still going home to an empty apartment every night.”
Along with partner Marcia Baczynski , Mihalko launched the ‘cuddle party’ in 2003. At the events, strangers don their pyjamas and give and receive non-sexual affection through a variety of hugs with punchy titles such as the ‘canoodle casserole’ and ‘puppy pile-up’.
In the five years since the first New York event, the appeal of embracing a stranger has proved to be a desirable pastime, with cuddle parties springing up all over the western world.
Mihalko puts the movement’s popularity down to modern living: moving away from loved ones to pursue careers in cities where we feel alone, losing community ties, and coping with social boundaries that mean hugging a co-worker could get you sacked for sexual harassment. He even claims one infant school in Pennsylvania recently slapped a ban on pupils cuddling each other, citing this behaviour as ‘inappropriate’.
“We’re living in interesting times. Things are getting weird, and people are starting to notice,” Mihalko concludes.
Some might argue that collectively, these movements seem to signal a change in attitude, a step in the right direction towards a more humanitarian and philanthropic society.
Catherine Ryan Hyde is founder of the global ‘pay it forward’ movement. The philosophy, made famous by the 2000 Kevin Spacey/Helen Hunt film based on Ryan Hyde’s book, advocates the belief we can only make the world a better place by doing good deeds and asking for nothing in return – except that the person we help comes to the aid of another needy cause, thus ‘paying it forward.’
While Ryan Hyde agrees the Internet “has the power to tie people together; ideas can spread without the money and power needed to control the media,” she is confident these movements are far bigger than that.
“My opinion is that society tends to swing to the far boundaries of any
social change before finding the middle ground,” Ryan Hyde says.
“When I was a child, people rode buses together. Neighbours sat on their porches and talked to people walking by. If I had needed help while on my own, an adult would have helped me.
“I think the information age initially isolated us,” she goes on. “We have swung to the end of the pendulum of war, violence, dysfunction, suspicion, hate. We look at what we’ve accidentally created and know we don’t want it. Our altruism was never dead, it was only sleeping – and when more people wake up to the kindness that is inherent in our nature, it will be contagious.”
Her colleague Charley Johnson is just as optimistic, referring to pay it forward as “the foundation this world is missing.”
“Making the people around you better starts with yourself,” Johnson argues. “It’s the only thing that will move the six billion people on this earth back in the right direction.”
So, could these trends really represent a deep human urge to counteract the world’s many wrongs, or is this just idealistic nonsense?
“It’s true there’s been a sea-change in the nature and behaviour of social movements over the past 25 years or so,” Another professor of sociology at a leading British University (who would rather remain anonymous) admits. “But a quick visit to a few websites allows us to be more aware of the range that exist.
“Unfortunately, it is not at all clear whether or not the increase in social movements heralds a new egalitarianism, or a new politics based around an anti-capitalist ethos.”
But a spokesperson for the UK Freegans society, known only as JD, says that for him, freeganism is not about rooting through supermarket bins in a bid to save money, but rather a direct protest against an unjust market.
“We are becoming increasingly aware of the devastating impact mankind is having on the environment,” JD argues. “This has largely been caused by unsustainable policies designed to maximize the profits of the few at the expense of the many. Freeganism attempts to address the imbalance caused by this.”
Other ethical trends include freecycling, a worldwide movement of five million people in 85 countries. The idea is to keep unwanted goods out of landfill by offering them to your local community for free. There are over 500 community groups in the UK alone, with participants giving and receiving everything from furniture and clothes to cars, pets and travel tickets.
When I asked habitual ‘freecyclers’ their motives for giving away possessions they could quite easily sell, responses pointed to a growing environmental awareness, an underlying anti-consumerist feeling and, more surprisingly, an indifferent attitude to material wealth.
“We live in a throwaway society,” One lady explained after offering a three-piece suite, apparently in great condition, she would have otherwise taken to the tip.
“I feel like I’m doing my bit for the planet, and I can find most of the things I need on freecycle without paying over the odds. On top of that, I don’t need the money from selling my unwanted goods.”
Overall, though, basic generosity seemed the biggest incentive. “I just like the feeling of making someone happy,” one lady stated after giving away a campervan worth over £2000.
As author and social commentator Mal Fletcher states, “A number of these emerging social movements are about rediscovering a sense of our core humanity, both as individuals and within communities.
“In a consumerist society where personal value is associated with what one owns, and consumption is divorced from any sense of responsibility, many people are awakening to the notion that things which supposedly lead to a more comfortable life do not necessarily contribute to a more meaningful life.”
First published in the Big Issue