Christopher Ponzi is the co-founder and creative director of Rebellious Truths, an "anti-partisan" nonprofit, dedicated to building a social movement for truth, integrity and accountability in media, culture and politics.
The grassroots organization uses all forms of media—from viral videos to digital advocacy—to challenge the status quo. Offline, the group also organizes creative events and hosts contests to build its community of "truthseekers."
On his own, Ponzi just published his first book, a fiction novel called Counting Sheep in Chaos, about "the underground story of an America in digital revolt and the molotov-inspiring mayhem of a young revolutionary leader's secret crusade to end it all."
"Being a writer and storyteller, I recognize that stories are a fundamental component of human nature; it's been around since the tribal days," he says. "What these times need is a story."
The problem is, Ponzi realizes, is that a lot of the stories fed to us through mainstream media are steeped in ideological rhetoric and mis-information. He and his co-founder Mike Maxsenti came together to start a new conversation.
"We realized that a lot of what we had been told was false and manipulative, and there were very deep and underlying political truths that people were not aware of," Ponzi says. "We both decided that we had to do something."
I sat down with Ponzi after meeting him at the StartingBloc Fellowship's Institute for Social Innovation in New York City to learn more about his passion to use media as a positive force in re-shaping our future.
You and co-founder Mike Maxsenti come from opposite ends of the political spectrum. You had many conversations and debates when you first met. What did these reveal to you?
Each one of us would have facts and stats. Ultimately, what we realized is, you have to dig deep to an empathic place and a value-based conversation. Facts are very important, but facts can be manipulated on all sides to fit an ideological perspective. How do we come together? What's our ultimate goal?
We often agree on fundamental values and the way we go about that is how we are influenced by our environment and what media we watch and listen to. We were both really trapped in this false dichotomy of left vs. right. Some of the facts and questions being asked are almost irrelevant and don't actually focus on the root cause of things. Like, what's causing poverty? Or a lack of empathy? And why don't we have a more compassionate framework?
What is so powerful about media?
Media is arguably the most influential and powerful tool to get information out there and influence the world. It's ubiquitous. Any valuable organization recognizes that you can't do anything without media. The media are the cultural architects of this world. When you're born into this world, you're dealing with TV, iPods, music, Internet. You're surrounded all the time. To deny its massive potential and influence is naive.
Who is your target audience?
There is a "caring person's paradox." These people and organizations are so passionate and their perspectives are highly evolved that they forget how to actually reach a wider audience. I wasn't concerned about the activists. I was concerned about how do you reach the guys I was working with, the busboys, the waiters, the construction workers, the kids out of college trying to find a job. How do you reach them?
It's about packaging your story and message in a way that really relates to your audience. It’s not about putting a guy in a suit in front of a screen and saying, "We have an economic crisis, American youth please rise up." I knew that the only way to reach the right audience was through media. And with not having our own distribution channels, YouTube was going to be the way to do it.
Why have your videos gone viral?
We have a social media marketing team. We have a budget. You can’t just make a good video or good product and not market it. Your marketing budget needs to be just as equal, if not more so, than what you put into the video.
We do Facebook and YouTube advertising, and social bookmarking on sites like StumbleUpon. You want to use most of your marketing dollars in the first three days because if you get to a certain point within those three days, you can get on one of their charts. Monday mornings are the best time to release a video on YouTube.
I write the videos myself, with a narrative focus, talking about our political and economic system, with easily digestible facts in an authentic and passionate way.
And you can’t discount what being edgy and cool really does to widen your demographic. That’s something that we’re good at. We really are in sync with that—how to push the envelope.
What's your end goal?
We want people to become supporters of ours: join our email list, Facebook "like" us. You have to provide different avenues for different types of people, like "clicktivists," or people that just want to click on a petition or whatever. We have two unique digital advocacy tools: the Facebook Truth Bomb, and the Free Thinkers Pledge. These are things you could do as a clicktivist to help the cause.
We have also developed this organic nationwide network of truthseeking communities, called Project Truth. You can download the Manual of Responsible Revolution and inspire people.
Ultimately, we're really searching for a mentality shift, to get people ejected from this believe that you've got to go Democrat vs. Republican; us vs. them; left vs. right; liberals vs. conservatives; putting too much value into CNN and Fox news. We want people to get educated and recognize that you can do something beyond just the political system itself. We need truth, integrity. We need to push this new paradigm that's coming, whether we want it to or not.
There will be some growing pains for sure, but it's fair to say the political system is broken and it's not so much about tearing things down; it's about building something better. You have to make people aware of the problems. It's not about galvanizing people towards a Molotov-cocktail-throwing revolution. That's just immature and doesn't make sense.
How do you measure your impact?
The advantage of a YouTube video or Facebook is you have views or likes. You have top favorites. It's an indication that what you're saying is resonating with your audience. And seeing other organizations spring up and become abreast of the situation is an indication that you're doing something well.
Admittedly, it's more abstract. And I think that's the problem some people have with it. It’s not giving children in Africa clothes. It's not that easy to digest. It's not that easy to quantify. But that doesn't make it all that important. How would you measure the civil rights movement? It might be legislation. There will be other ways. At this point, it's about our popularity and the people who want to talk to us, whether it's the Tea Party or the Occupy movement or the libertarians, to be credible among them. And to help work with them.
Watch one of Rebellious Truths' most popular videos, Spark the Flame: