The day my life story went viral

by Jim Gilliam

This is the introduction to my book, The Internet is My Religion, which is available now in paperback, and can also be shared for free online because internet.

I’d just flown into New York. I was staying at a random stranger’s apartment near NYU that I’d found through Airbnb after Facebook informed me that we had three mutual friends. The wi-fi password was not on a sticky note in the kitchen like it was supposed to be. I texted the owner, but she didn’t know what the password was. Why was this not a big deal? If the water wasn’t working, that would be a crisis, but I could do without a shower before I could do without internet!

I was a little high strung. Crazy nervous, really. In two days I would be giving the most important speech of my life. Standing in front of 800 of the most influential political and technology professionals in the world, I was going to tell a deeply personal story about religion that I wasn’t even sure I could get through without crying. I had no idea how they would react, and I was terrified that I’d be booed off the stage.

The morning of the Personal Democracy Forum, I sat between Ben Rattray from and Jay Rosen from NYU in the first row as I waited for my turn to speak. It felt like I was the only person in the entire room not staring at a glowing screen. Instead, I was staring at the floor reciting the speech over and over again in my head. Then three friends — Lea, Ramin, and Jesse — walked in and sat behind me. They were the only ones who knew what I was about to do

Micah Sifry, the conference organizer and a great friend, called me to the stage. I repeated the first line of the speech in my head, Growing up I had two loves: Jesus and the internet. And then I started.

In the Christian faith, giving one’s testimony about how Jesus saved your life is the necessary rite of passage. It’s the personal story of transformation that spreads the Good News from person to person, one by one, to every corner of the earth. These stories of faith in Christ formed the basis for the infrastructure behind the most powerful movement in human history. So on that day, I shared my struggle with faith, my story of transformation, my testimony — with a twist.

Towards the end, people started clapping. I waited, but then everyone kept clapping and started standing up! It was the last thing I expected. I finally got my head together and motioned that I had one more thing to say, just one more thing.

When I finished, the place erupted again. I had managed not to cry, just barely. But, looking around the room, it seemed like others hadn’t. Completely exhausted, totally overwhelmed, and fully unable to process what was happening, I snuck out through the side entrance of the auditorium. A couple people from the audience ran after me. More people kept coming, but my friends finally found me and steered me away. Alone, we stared at each other in disbelief.

“What just happened?!”

“Um … I think you just started a religion.”

“Oh my God, I forgot this was being livestreamed.”

And then Ramin asked, “Did you see Twitter?” That got everyone’s attention.

There were thousands of tweets.

Within a couple days, the video had been seen 300,000 times and I had a major publisher offer me a $100,000 book deal. Agents were crawling all over me. They told me I could sell my story for a million dollars if I wanted and there would be a hundred copies in every bookstore.

But what no one knew was that Lea and I had been working on a book for over a year. It was through that process with her that I’d come to discover what I really believed, and why I knew — and knew I had to tell — my story.

I was an activist and a geek. I saw my strength as building technology infrastructure for leaders and had just started a new company, NationBuilder, to do exactly that. But I’d learned about the power of stories while producing documentaries. The stories we tell create our culture. They illuminate our worldviews. It took me a long time to accept that possibly the most important thing I could offer wasn’t something I would build, but was simply telling my story.

I believe that there is a new worldview. One based on internet values and the connectedness of all humanity — where instead of waiting for a savior, we create the future. And I now know that I’m not the only one who feels this way.

I turned down the book deals and told the agents to go away. We’re publishing this on the internet, for free. For this story, there really is no other way. I have faith that you will share it with your friends, family, and community — that’s the only way it will exist in the world. But most importantly, I hope that you will share your own story, your testimony, your faith in what’s possible when God just happens.