In 2008, Actor Rainn Wilson (NBC's The Office) wanted to create a space on the internet where people could discuss life's big questions with total strangers. You know, what Socrates and Plato would have done if they had access to adequate bandwidth and a YouTube deal. Knowing nothing about building websites (Wilson referred to the site for a while as a "flash page thingy"), he partnered with friends Joshua Homnick and Devon Gundry to create SoulPancake, an interactive website full of conversations, activities, photos and calls to action through which users could explore what it means to be human.
As it turned out, lots of other people also wanted a safe place to discuss these questions too. Within 3 months of the website's beta launch in 2009, they had more than 3 million page views and 20,000 active members. Within two years of launching, the SoulPancake founders published a New York Times bestselling book and began producing weekly Sunday morning short programs for the Oprah Winfrey Network.
This July, SoulPancake launched its YouTube channel, one of the 169 channels actually funded by YouTube as part of its effort to bring diverse, high quality programming to the site. They now boast 71,000 YouTube subscribers, 100,000 active members on the website, 3.3 million video views and 9 different web series, with more slated for 2013. Thanks to the advance from YouTube, SoulpPancake was able to rent its first real office in Atwater Village and bring its staff together from all over the country, where they had been working remotely.
The most recent new web series from SoulPancake is Stories from the Street by filmmaker Justin Baldoni. The show features short interviews with people who are homeless and living on the streets of L.A.
"We wanted to keep them really short: Boom this is who this person is," says Baldoni. "Our hope is, after watching an episode, the next time you walk by the homeless guy you walk by every day on the way to work, this time you'll stop and say hi. You might not have a dollar or fifty cents, but what you do have is the ability to make eye contact with them, to say hello and ask them how their day is."
Baldoni is not one to shy away from those big life questions. In fact, he attacked one of the biggest -- what happens when you die -- in his previous web series for the SoulPancake, My Last Days. Baldoni spends each ten-minute episode interviewing a person who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, about what it means to be alive and how they are spending their last days.
"People who have been told they're dying have a timeline," says Baldoni, "and it's within this timeline that we see a change in them and they start to truly live. If there was a tagline for the show I think it would be, 'You don't have to be told you're dying to start living.'" Both episodes in the series will leave you in tears, but will also leave you inspired to appreciate every moment of the strange, beautiful journey being human is.
Additional web series on the SoulPancake YouTube channel include Kid President (featured below), whose slogan is, "Don't be in a party, be a party," and filmmaker Ben Shelton's narrative series The FlipSide, which always ends with a big life question or call to action for viewers to discuss in the comments below.
When asked if SoulPancake's choice of topics meant they advocated certain policies or politics, Shabnam Mogharabi, executive producer and COO, explains, "We're proponents of being an active participant in your human experience, whatever that means for you."
Golriz Lucina, SoulPancake's executive producer and art director agreed. "Yes, you should have your beliefs and yes the political decisions you make are important, but let's not forget our humanity," she says. "Let's strive to be kind to each other, to have fun together. We're all in this together.