Two thirds of the Russian netizens are apolitical and use the Internet for entertainment only. Neither the opposition, nor pro-government politicians have succeeded in provoking mass discussions on social change and getting the Russian youth interested. It was Mr. Freeman, a sarcastic, gloomy and enigmatic cartoon character, who touched their souls, sparking their imagination and sense of humor, making millions think about the way they live their lives. The future of this popular meme is uncertain, yet his role in the contemporary Russian Internet culture is beyond debate.
The Public Opinion Fund‘s research of young people's online behavior patterns says that only 29 percent of Internet users are active in using the Internet as an information source. The majority, however, focus on entertainment and instrumental tasks.
At the same time there are various political forces trying to engage the youth audience in politics. In 2009, the so-called “Thankless Bastards” social ad campaign [RUS], that was sponsored by the Youth Committee of the Russian Duma[RUS] called to the Russian youth: “The country is dying while you're wasting your time.” It suggested that patriotism should be transformed into activism in order to support the motherland. Another online movie [RUS], made by the pro-Kremlin youth organization “Nashi,” said that the West threatened Russia because it was “the land of resources for the 21st century” and the young Russian generation should defend the country.
The Russian opposition tried to engage the Russian youth online and distributed some protest messages through the social networks as well. Online music videos were used to spread the opposition's message. Rapper Dino MC47 published a “clip that will never be shown on TV” with a song about the lack of liberty [RUS] and called to avoid mistakes when choosing the country's leaders. Another “prohibited” video to the song “Mathematics” [RUS], by Katya Gordon, distributed online, was dedicated to the dispersal of the opposition rally on May 31, 2010.
Social networks, however, are not as effective a tool for political engagement as they might seem, many opposition activists say. “The problem of Vkontakte.ru is that the real-world engagement of its members is very low. Everyone joins groups and even writes something on the wall but it's very difficult for them psychologically to transform their online actions into something real,” Roman Dobrokhotov, an opposition activist, said [ENG] in a GV interview.
Some of the viral campaigns had caused an emergence of online discussions, but the effects were short-term. The wall of passivity remained.
There is one Internet campaign, however, that has succeeded in doing something that none other could. It attracted millions of views and sparked discussions about the necessity to change life and the degree of the required engagement in social, political, and existential issues. The online debates went far beyond common political discussions.
Mr. Freeman – an online cartoon character that deconstructs offline reality
Mr. Freeman is a character of a series of black-and-white cartoons. The first episode [RUS] of a “Grim Fandango” [EN]-like animation appeared on Sept. 21, 2009. Since then, 11 episodes have been published and the total number of views surpassed 6 million. Mr. Freeman has its own blog on LiveJournal, a website and numerous representations on various social networks. Despite many speculations, the names of Mr. Freeman’s creators still remain unknown. It’s clear, however, that it’s done by a very professional team of artists and animators. On April 15, 2010, Mr. Freeman received [EN] a Deutsche Welle “The Best of Blogs” award for the best video blog.
Mr. Freeman cartoons have no political messages. They focus on existential, philosophical issues of everyday life. Mr. Freeman appeals to the spectators, portraying the emptiness of their lives, which consist of consumerism, entertainment and laughing at others. The first part of the movie was entitled “Are you sure about who you are and whether you exist?” “Are you real? Are you unique? You are just a small screw in the system,” says Mr. Freeman. He gradually and consistently deconstructs the world of a typical RuNet user, mocking values, common knowledge, morality and social hierarchies.
“Треть жизни на сон, треть – на жрать и спать, треть – на ненависть к любимой работе. Ты мог бы заниматься чем-то настоящим, ты понимаешь? Но что стало с твоей мечтой? Мы все такие. Каждый сам по себе – человек с большой буквы. Но вот нас двое и каждый смотрит на другого, жадно выискивая недостатки. Вы ненавидите и презираете друг друга, и эта взаимная ненависть – единственное, что делает вас целым”.
Mr. Freeman triggers and supports recreation of his audiences through critical analysis of their identity and environment. In one of the episodes, he suggests building a monument to an anonymous prostitute; in another, he addresses masturbation as a fitting phenomenon for a generation that is focused on fast pleasure.
Despite his virtual nature, Mr. Freeman has been interviewed a few times. In an interview to his Vkontakte.ru fans, Mr. Freeman defined [RUS] himself as an “idea embedded in a digital entity.” The meaning of freedom, according to Mr. Freeman, is “being aware that you live in slavery.” In another interview, Mr. Freeman defined [RUS] his mission as a “revolution of consciousness for those who are capable of committing this heroic deed.” Mr. Freeman also explains [RUS] his relations with the Internet:
[…] это мой мир. Я им дышу, и он позволяет мне общаться со слушателем и зрителем. На бескрайних просторах этой загаженной от края до края сети можно встретить удивительных людей!
The Russian online encyclopedia Lurkmore defines [RUS] Mr. Freeman series as “a tool in the struggle between the cattle [a name for vulgar, poorly-educated people] and non-cattle” (“инструментом борьбы небыдла с быдлом”). Others consider Mr. Freeman as a viral marketing campaign for spirituality. Mr. Freeman has become something of a virtual prophet. Russian online users compare him to Neo from The Matrix, Tyler Durden from Fight Club, Che Guevara and Jesus, and even call him a modern Buddha.
Mr. Freeman has become a symbol. As Che Guevara, he might be found on t-shirts [RUS], graffiti [RUS] and even tattoos [RUS]. But his most important achievement are endless discussions of the meaning of the enigmatic Mr. Freeman and his messages.
Mr. Freeman: impact and credibility
The main question that is raised by bloggers is how the young generation should react to the messages of the online meme. Another question is the credibility of his messages.
Viktor Chetvertakov writes [RUS] at Mr. Freeman's Vkontakte.ru fan page:
Ролики не самоцель, ребята. Того, что было – уже достаточно. Нас тронули и мы начали просыпаться. Мы еще в полудреме, но уже можем выйти из этого состояния сами. Пора вставать – хватит ждать, пока нас потрясут еще.
Some users explain Mr. Freeman’s success by his ability to approach the young audience, speaking in their own language with clear, even simplified, messages. Roman Nastenko suggests [RUS] why Mr. Freeman is successful in influencing his audience:
Сила Фримена в том, что он — массовый продукт. Люди, которые хотят что-то радикальное изменить своей жизни часто этого бояться, бояться что никто их не поймет. А Фримен, выступая в роли популярного образа, через эту популярность говорит: ты не один хочешь. То что я говорю — называют банальностью. Ну так раз это банальность — нечего бояться, действуй! :)
Many bloggers doubt that Mr. Freeman has any effect on the society and say his importance, as well as his role in fostering online activism, is an illusion. The “Mr. Freeman” chapter at Lurkmore suggests [RUS]:
Фримен не предлагает ничего нового, не предлагает решение проблем, которые он критикует [...] Создание образа таинственного гуру, еще не говорит о его смысловой нагрузке.
Some users suggest that Mr. Freeman uses the same visual methods that he himself criticizes. A Vkontakte.ru-user dali writes:
Странно призывать людей к индивидуализму, кося всех под одну гребенку и пользуясь при этом чужими образами, старыми шутками и идейными штампами.
Another Vkontakte.ru user, pitbull, argues [RUS]:
Крутой манипулятор. Вирус, которым очень удобно рулить стадо отупевшей общественности… Да, мечта кукловода!
Some users say that Mr. Freeman doesn't fight with but contributes to the modern hedonistic culture. S.Victoria writes [RUS]:
Когда его будут высмеивать и сравнивать с безмозглым стадом, он будет тупо пялится в этот мульт и думать почесываю свою давно не работающую голову, «что это? В чем смысл? …а да это просто кто-то решил поржать» и тоже будет сидеть и смеяться над собой и своей тупостью.
Another question is, what are the real intentions of Mr. Freeman? The fact that it’s a highly professional project, probably requiring a significant budget, makes bloggers suspicious of the credibility of Mr. Freeman’s messages. Some users suggest that the only goal of the Mr. Freeman series is promotion of its anonymous creators. Other versions consider it a commercial or political campaign. Adme.ru user Darwin writes:
В итоге выяснится, что это реклама Данон или Единой России.
Indeed, Mr. Freeman's message is very similar to the pro-Kremlin “Thankless bastards” campaign. At the same time, some experts suggest that most likely this is a campaign sponsored by the Russian opposition, whose goal is to make young people more proactive.
Despite the controversy and lack of agreement on Mr. Freeman's role in promoting youth activism, there is one effect of Mr. Freeman that is beyond debate. As Alomanik writes [RUS]:
Так интересно читать ваше коментари…кажется фримен добился чего хотел !!!!
The fact that an unprecedented discussion is taking place is the major effect of Mr. Freeman's campaign.
The future of Mr. Freeman
Mr. Freeman continues to appear in new cartoons almost every month. The most probable number of the future series is 64. This version is supported by the numeration of series and the 25th frame with a 64-piece puzzle that is embedded in every new clip. Some of Mr. Freeman’s messages allegedly include hints that his strategic goal is the end of the famous Maya calendar on 21.12.2012, the date considered by some as the “end of the world day.”
Mr. Freeman himself doesn’t mention a specific date for the end of his project, but says in one of his interviews that he will continue to appear “until the general picture changes, and this won’t happen soon.” In another interview, Mr. Freeman says the date is well-known to many people, but he doesn’t want to mention it.
2012, however, is not only the “end of the world” year, but also the year of the Russian presidential election. One may ask if Mr. Freeman is a political time bomb and even play with an idea that the new hero of the Russian youth will run for president. Obviously, it's impossible. Not only because the Russian Constitution won’t allow it. But mainly because Mr. Freeman has no agenda – his mission is to deconstruct the current reality, not to offer any alternative solutions. But we shouldn't be surprised if Mr. Freeman exposes his political nature and plays a role in creating a different electoral climate among the Russian youth on the eve of the presidential election.
Mr. Freeman has far-going ambitions to make an impact beyond the virtual space. On May 31, 2010, for the first time in history, Mr. Freeman left the virtual space to present a new clip on the embankment of the Moscow River. It was considered by many as a message that online space is too small for the virtual hero.
Despite hundreds of comments following the newest episodes of Mr. Freeman, the interest to the enigmatic meme is gradually decreasing. Maksim Stativko writes at Mediaport:
Увы, человечку с овальной головой не стать ни народным героем, ни борцом против апокалипсиса. У него романтичная жизнь, но прозаичная судьба. Припомните пожалуйста, куда делась приставка «Денди»? А игрушка «Йо-Йо» с надписью «Coca-Cola»? Куда делось Тамагочи? Куда делся Влад Сташевский в конце концов? А никуда. Растворились в конъюнктуре и остались в головах, только как приятные воспоминания ушедшей эпохи
Indeed, it looks like Mr. Freeman will need to work hard to maintain his popularity. But even if Mr. Freeman fails, his story offers an interesting question for political scientists: if country has a problem with real leaders (both in the government and the opposition), can they be replaced with virtual heroes?