We have Shut SaveTheSoldiers.com Down
Almost 15 months of my life was invested into SaveTheSoldiers.com. It was 15 months, where I would learn some tough lessons and ultimately conclude, this project was a distraction in my life.
Yes, we learned a lot.Yes, we grew from the experience.Yes, we did a lot of good, but in reflection I see this project as a distraction in my life.
So, how did an innocent project to support the military turn out to distract us without even realizing it? Before I answer that question, let me start by telling why I share this story.
In reflection of this journey, I was looking through old emails that had been sent and received while I was active on the project. There was one email that stuck out as I read it. It was sent in response to a video we created showcasing the extreme atrocities done by Islamic Extremists. For the efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan to be successful, it meant us working together with the people in Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of these people are Muslim, and while our video was directed at the extremists we were broadly criticizing their religion. Our efforts were alienating the very people we were trying to help and who's help we needed to be successful.
In reflection, I felt we were shooting ourselves in the foot. While we thought what we were doing at the time was "helpful", I have come to realize it potentially did more harm than good. It was at this point during my reflection I became very uncomfortable with the website being live. There was content on the website that I believe was no longer reflective of who I am. It was an inaccurate image, and I wanted that image to be taken down.
In this moment, I realized I could not just take it down. I felt compelled to bring others along. I wish someone would have engaged with me long enough to help me realize what I had to learn the hard way. In hopes that you do not have to learn the hard way, I want to share my story. I believe it can inspire others who are in a similar journey to truly reflect on what they are a doing, and more importantly, why they are doing it.
Elves and an ultimatum. The beginning and the end of our journey.
Our beginning came as a result of SaveAnElf.com. This elf site was created in 2005 as a way to illuminate the secularization of Christmas in America. Every time someone said 'happy holidays' instead of Merry Christmas an elf died. Our goal was to save as many elves as possible. Shortly after this project launched, it garnered a lot of attention. This led to a discussion between me and my wife resulting in the idea of SaveTheSoldiers.com.
This project was similar in vein to SaveAnElf.com, but instead of protecting fictitious characters we would work to protect real people, people we loved and cared about.
The vision was clear. We would create an on-line community dedicated to supporting our armed forces by creating a central point of information collection and distribution. By creating ongoing active content benefiting the community and videos that both entertained and educated, we were able to increase both observation and participation in the on-line community. In many areas the campaign was successful with its biggest result being the traffic it sustained. Launching the website in January 2006 we quickly grew to tens of thousands of visitors per month in October 2006.
We had quickly established significant brand traction, and political organizations were reaching out to us. This influx in influence led to us receiving numerous letters from soldiers sharing their support for our efforts. At this point, the traction created a sense of obligation in us to continue this forum where we would expose those that sought to use our soldiers as a political football for their own benefits.
By any means of measurable success, this was the peak of our journey.
We were great facilitators of content. We were also very open in our efforts to partner with others, and we came to realize this network allowed us to quickly syndicate the unique content we would create and find. We showcased soldiers, gave them a voice and connected the web for those who believe in actively promoting the soldiers on the front lines. We were even invited to come out to Parris Island to take pictures and videos of Marines in training!
A Destructive Eco System
On the surface level, it appeared to our own audience, that what we were doing was noble and great.
With all the busyness that ensued, it seemed we all missed the root of what was really going on, what was really happening underneath the surface. These motivations contaminated what we were doing. Much of which I am still seeking to understand.
In this experience an eco-system was created. It was one created by our actions, but not one where we fully understood its drivers & consequences. As we grew, there were several perspectives that were influencing us.
At the top were main authorities on the topics. They were prominent people, websites, tv shows, radio shows and news networks. They were the leaders of the pact. They really drove the conversation and talking points of those that submitted themselves to it.
We then had our peers. Others that were on a somewhat even playing field in their influence and size. We were building these relationships primarily as a way to grow our own network.
Our website visitors were influencing us. The vocal members were telling us what they liked and cheering us on with what we created and syndicated.
On the outside were these three groups influencing us, and on the inside were team members with their own motivations and drivers.
Here we had a situation where, from the inside, we were driven to grow and increase visitors. We were jumping up and down doing what we could to get the attention of the top tier influences. At the same time we were partnering with peers to help climb the ladder together. All the while, we were creating content to satisfy our vocal readers. Over time, we began to get momentum, and this force created a culture of polarization. We wanted to get more traction, so we needed to take it to the next level. We needed to be more intense, more extreme. Over time, we ended up on the outer fringes not realizing our motivations and reflective actions had drifted from our original mission.
In reflection, we realized we were setting aside some of our values as we justified our actions. We were posting content which was out of character for me. Being a fairly anonymous on-line news outlet, it made it really easy to do this. Those we were attacking were responding with hate and anger. We had an extreme focus on "truth" with no love. Our lack of care for people with differing perspectives drove combative behavior. We elevated making a point, being right or having an argument above people and relationships. They were casualties in a war we knew had to be fought and won. To us, winning mattered more than reality.
We had a lack of respect for people and words. We sought those we could blame for our country's problems and launched campaigns to "expose" them. Those that we believed deserved accountability were judged mercilessly. They were attacked instead of shown grace and mercy. We attempted to cast the stones to their political death.
We were more interested in broadcasting our opinion, making a point or getting noticed than we were in bringing other people along. We could have shared what we knew with others and allowed them to conclude for themselves what they believe. But instead, we cherry picked information that aligned with what our focus was. We made broad stroke comments using information from their own extremists. We were labeling large groups of people or applying attributes to the group. (All liberals are stupid, for example)
We did it to establish an intent to paint them a certain way so we could separate ourselves from them. We had a sense of self-righteousness. We were here to judge because we believed we were better than them. We didn't see ourselves accurately. Jesus Christ said it best.
1“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. 2 For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.
I believe what I have shared is nothing new or unique. In fact, it is part of the brokeness that comes with being human. While in this case it played out in a conservative community, I believe when extrapolated this can play out in any community. We have the tendency to leave one community that has hurt us in order to go to another we don't believe can or will.
I have come to realize people hurt people, and there is no place where this does not happen. All communities, no matter how great, will experience this pain. In the midst of this reality, there are types of community where there is redemption and reconciliation.
Now, as you are reading this, you may be thinking about a person or group you want to send it to. You see it as an arrow to shoot at someone. I ask you to pause for a moment and reflect on the following. I believe in being careful not to take this story as an arrow to shoot at those who label themselves conservatives or republican. I still am both. It is not my intent to make this about labels. The root of the problem is us and our own sin. Our depravity.
Sending this off as an arrow to someone you believe needs to hear this, may not generate the result you want. Instead, I encourage us to take it as an arrow and aim it towards ourselves by asking the difficult issues it raises.
Again, Jesus Christ said it best.
3 “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? 5 You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
Our reflection on this story has been a process where we have worked to take the plank out of our own eye. We encourage you to do the same.
I believe I should not have launched this project. I believe we should support our troops and that there are many noble causes that do this, but it was not mine. I learned, from SaveAnElf.com about how to leverage media for my own benefit. My motivation was to use what I learned with a larger platform to grow my own network and build my business. While I love our soldiers, my heart drifted from supporting them. At the end of the day, I believe our heart will ultimately go to whatever is most important to us.
There were instances where I believe we broadcasted information that was important or helpful, but if we alienated people who disagreed, what were we really accomplishing? At this point, the only people reading it were people that likely think how we think. What value were we adding at that point?
When we are just speaking to ourselves and others that agree, how much impact are we really having? Do we really just like hearing our ideas justified and substantiated?
In this journey, there were many moments where soldiers were uplifted, but it seems it became second fiddle to the main theme of what we were doing. We said it was about them, but they really just became a political football for us to use for our own purposes as it suited us. We were doing the very thing we were criticizing others for doing. We just looked more noble in our efforts. While the pursuit of truth would have a been a noble cause, I don't believe we truly sought it. Where we did, I think we used it against others instead of for them.
There were times, people and events that should have made me stop and reflect on why I was doing what I was doing, but we didn't. It bothers me to this day.
Well, I wish I could tell you I realized all of this and intentionally walked away. I can't. The fact is I have not realized most of this until recently. It took me years to realize all of this, and I'm still learning. Many years later, even after it was abandoned. I am thankful we did not make money doing what we were doing as it would have continued to fuel these efforts onto a larger scale.
The true hero in this story is my wife. When it came time to ending the project, I was reminded about my desire to build a film company, and how SaveTheSoldiers.com had become a distraction from pursuing this dream. As part of this reminder, she encourage me to build the company since I was spending too much time with the site. In other words, she gave me an ultimatum ;)
What Are You Going To Do?
I hope this story has inspired you, and I hope you take some time to look at the work you are doing and ask yourself the following questions as you reflect on your own journey and dreams.
- Why am I doing it?
- Where do I believe it will take me?
- Within what guidelines/values will I go on this journey?
If you want to dig deeper, I encourage you to visit my personal blog where you will find more questions, insights and stories.
For all of you who are active and veterans in the military, THANK YOU!
We love and support what you do for us and who you are!
Thank you former readers and web partners!
A special shout out to to CJ Grisham, the US Marine Corps, Black Belt Mama, Francoise Saliba, Bobby Guy, Kat Orr Smith, Ms Underestimated, Paulette Nelson, Howie (Via Jawa), Kelly Sirois (Formerly Gilbert) and Donald Shafer.
While we made a lot of mistakes, there was a lot of good done too. We could not of done it by ourselves :)
January 29th 2014