Mar 13 2013
A few years ago, my friend Jeff Waldman told me he was going to hang up a swing in Golden Gate Park, just for fun. He grabbed a handful of cheap supplies (some rope, string, a board, and a tennis ball) then headed down to the park with his friend and a Flip camera. It was his first swing, of hundreds more to come…
Fast forward to late-2012: Jeff was running around Buenos Aires, being filmed by an Academy Award nominated director, while hanging up dozens of his swings throughout the city. Over 80 staff members and 200 extras were standing by on the shoot of Jeff’s global ad campaign:
I got to witness the entire plot of Jeff and his swings unfold (we were neighbors in San Francisco), and it was incredibly inspiring to see this small project transform into an international commercial, with the most recognized brand in the world. I asked him to share his story in this post. It’s a crazy ride, you don’t want to miss it…
Interview with Jeff Waldman
How did you originally come up with the idea to hang swings?
The actual details of the story are lost on me. I generally summarize that some friends and I had talked about it and the types of raw emotions it might invoke, but that I held onto it and finally pursued it sometime later. I’m generally that guy in the group, where we all might talk about rappelling off the town water tower, but I’m the only one who — weeks later — is still scheming on exactly how to do it.
What was it like to hang that first swing?
Surprising. I went out with my friend Jarrett and after we’d hung a few Bob joined up with his video camera. Jarrett and I expected it to be fun. We remembered what it was like to play on them as a kid. And we figured we’d get some looks.
We were not remotely prepared for just how pleasurable it would be; how the gentle arc and tug of gravity would be mesmerizing and meditative. We didn’t foresee just how many people would stop to watch and line up, asking to play. Really, we just didn’t know how fun it would be.
We were so far distanced from our childhood usage that the memory was a dull sensation. The actual experience instantly brought back much more vivid feelings and memories.
How long did it take you to realize there might be something more to this, and actually pursue it as a bigger project?
Once we hung the first few and saw the reactions I knew I’d hang more. Beyond that there was no real tipping point. It grew very organically in that I’d capitalize on the attention of one installation and try to use that attention to enable another. In that sense I was trying to grow it, but I was always surprised at the ever-increasing level of appeal.
What was the first big press piece you got? How did you get it?
The Wooster Collective is a street art blog. Probably the street art blog at the time of our first installation. I wrote a short synopsis that I knew was their style and appealed to their audience—something they could publish outright— and I sent that to them along with our first video:
“Inspired by Paris artist, Jerome G. Dermuth, we’ve taken on 7 (more to follow) swing installation in San Francisco as part of an ongoing Happiness Project aimed at loss of youth. The short video below shows the installation, scouting, and lots of footage of randoms using the swings with complete and utter joy as they relent to a push and some wind in their hair. Watch it through. The joy of an autistic kid’s father’s face as he gets on a swing for the first time in 40 years is our parting shot. It’s pure and simple bliss that’s sadly been long ignored and forgotten.”
This blurb mentioned an artist they were familiar with and linked to their original article where he installed a swing under a city bridge. It was packaged, quality content that was relevant to their interests and audience, so they ran it and those first few thousand views got the ball rolling.
How did you decide to hang up swings around Los Angeles?
That first video and article (as well as a few others which came later) were packed up and sent to The Awesome Foundation (TAF), who suggested that I would be favored for a grant and should apply. TAF chapters in various cities give a $1,000 grant each month to any artist, philanthropist, entrepreneur, etc., who wants to do something uniquely “awesome.”
The LA chapter selected my pitch and gave me the grant to hang 50 swings in their city, with the request that I also install a swing set at their award party.
I built the swing set in San Francisco, broke it down, and with the help of some friends, we assembled it on their roof in LA. Those same friends and I spent the weekend hanging the rest of the swings throughout the city.
How did you end up hitting the front page of Reddit? Was that somewhat orchestrated or did it happen on its own?
It was “orchestrated” in the sense that the goal was obviously to rank high on the front page, but Reddit is hard to game. Staying on the front page — and in the #1 spot — was as much about great content and luck as it was about orchestration.
I announced the project on the Los Angeles subreddit, solicited input, and gave updates on our progress. I then vetted the final video we created on there and in a few other smaller, more relevant subreddits to garner some support and validation:
Once that was done I waited until Tuesday, at a time when at least some schools were still in session, and submitted it to the main Videos subreddit around 7am PST. Then I went back to those original subreddits and showed them the x-post link to drag over some positive votes and attention.
After that I parked myself at the computer to answer any and all questions. Those first few dialogues on Reddit are important for two reasons:
- Hive mind and group think mean that if the conversation starts positive it will more likely stay that way. Just the same, if the cynics show up and post only drivel and snark, readers will derive their opinions (and their votes) from that negativity. I wanted to steer that discourse as much as possible.
- The “New” section of Reddit is awash in new posts, most of them bad. For that reason even good links have a hard time finding their way to the top. Posts with high upvote numbers move up and get noticed, but so do posts with lots of comments… especially because most of the news posts have zero comments. When people see a lone thread that has a dozen comments in a sea of zero discussion, they are likely to check it out. Get them to do that and upvotes and further dialogue are not too far behind. And while Reddit has a lot of features to prevent you from gaming their system with upvotes, it has none to stop you from having a conversation with yourself. 99.9% of the comments and my answering questions were with real people, but I may have helped fluff the first dozen or two with some friend’s accounts or some extras I keep around.
Then I kept the dialogue going. I continued to answer questions as long as the post was doing well. In doing so I made it legitimately more interesting, but also effectively doubled the number of comments and attracted readers who might have passed over a video with 300 comments, but were curious about the 1,000+ comment discussion going on with mine.
That attention, plus the quality content, equaled enough upvotes to keep it as the #1 post for about 11 hours, resulting in more than 200,000 Youtube views in 48 hours.
What was the reception like on Reddit?
There were a lot more emails than usual from fans. People who dug the project and wanted to get involved. The biggest advantage was being able to use small press pieces on blogs, along with a video that had “gone viral” and was validated on Reddit, and package all that up for larger press entities to see. I was trying to get as much attention as possible with this LA video to secure funding for Bolivia, and Reddit’s video views and attention was the biggest asset in that effort.
What made you want to continue hanging up swings, and take the project to another country?
My friend Drew had helped me in LA and we knew the video of that install would do well. We wondered what we could do with that attention and came around to the idea of exploring the project in a whole different culture and location. I’d been touting how primal an emotional vehicle these swings were, and how they cut through every social barrier, but I’d never put that to the test in a global sense. We considered a few places… the favelas of Brazil, Cuba… but eventually settled on Bolivia.
Why did you decide to use Kickstarter instead of asking for another grant?
We were about to release a video which we knew would be seen by a lot of people, so using it as a gateway to crowdfunding seemed like a perfect fit. We put the Kickstarter page at the end of the LA video, included it on the Reddit post and in all of the press. It was a natural match. About half or a third of our donations came from Reddit readers and the rest came from people who found out about the project in other articles and news peices. We made sure that all the fundraising stuff was in place before the LA video went live and then wasted no attention or time in getting it seen by as many people as possible. We hit our goal in two days, and raised 233% in donations by the end of the run.
I knew that Kickstarter’s featured projects– their “Picks” and “Popular” on their front page– were generated by an algorithm that took into account momentum, traffic, and popularity on the web. I wanted to hit that front page (who’s more likely to fund a project than a Kickstarter reader?) and that meant the push for views and press had to be urgent.
It worked. We released a fair amount of press, and combined with the Reddit post, we created a big push on social media that happened all at once. The spike in our Kickstarter page’s traffic and funding put it on the front page of the site within a couple days and it stayed there for some time. This is the reason you see more than 20% of our funding coming from people on Kickstarter (it’s not because they were searching for “swings”).
How did you prepare for your trip to Bolivia?
Drew moved up to San Francisco for the month prior so that he and I could spend time together filming to work out the kinks of our new equipment and our interpersonal workflow. We would go out and do things like film a little movie about a neighborhood (e.g. Russian Hill, Treasure Island, Forrest Day), just to practice camera work and filming with a purpose. It proved to be very valuable.
What was the hardest part about that trip? What would you have done differently?
Filming a full length documentary was a challenge that, in hindsight, I wouldn’t have undertaken. I went with Drew and our dedicated camera woman, Stacy, and a documentary wasn’t anything any of us had done. For some reason we thought that because we could film pretty pictures and set them to music, this would somehow translate to being able to create a full length movie with a coherent narrative. We had swung for the fences and in retrospect that was a mistake. I wish we’d just hung the swings and filmed it more casually so that we could piece together a highlight reel from the trip; something well within our wheelhouse.
How was it giving the TEDx Brisbane talk on the swings?
For me, it was prestigious. I’d never had a speaking engagement before. I’d been invited to one TEDx prior, for the same project, but couldn’t make it. So this was my first TEDx and as a huge fan of TED there was a fanboy component.
The talk itself was pretty easy. I’d just returned from Bolivia 5 days before. So I spoke about the previous installations for context, and then focused mostly on our recent trip. I wrapped it up by showing 5-minutes of brand new Bolivia footage, which we’d edited on our way home.
How did Coca-Cola find and approach you?
An ad guy in Brazil who does work for Coke was inspired, after seeing videos of my project, to create a whole campaign around “random acts of kindness.” It would feature other people and their projects from around the world.
Coke bought the idea and sometime later the producers and director called me. They worked at selling me on why this wasn’t “just some commercial” — they genuinely believed it could inspire some good. Their biggest selling points:
- The director had created the Oscar-nominated documentary Murderball,
- Six months of shooting (most commercials are shot in a few days) with real, passionate people in several countries around the world,
- $1.5 million budget (most commercials are $200-500k)
Finally, they asked me to sign on and come down to Argentina to film, which I agreed to. They had spent the past six months traveling through Europe, Africa, and the United States, filming the other people and their stories for the commercial. In May 2012, I met them in Buenos Aires for a week to film my part. I hung swings around the city with a 2nd unit camera crew, then we shot big, set-like scenes with the main crew in various plazas and parks of the city. The spots started airing in early 2013.
What is it like to have your own Coca-Cola commercial?
“Surreal” is probably the best way to describe it. The whole ordeal: Having this multi-country, multi-million dollar venture created from my project… Being on a 200-person film set, where everything there exists to get a shot of me throwing rope over a tree branch… Knowing that people watching TV in Algeria or Afghanistan have seen me hang a swing… Yeah. “Surreal” is the best way to describe it.
Also, I got paid for the commercial. As of March 2013, I’ve made over $100,000 ($6K to film the commercial, $85K in global residuals, $10K in Coca Cola’s speaking engagements). I never in a million years expected to get paid for anything related to this project, or any other passion project, for that matter. And I didn’t expect the first batch of checks (about $55K) to show up at my door. I thought I was going to be paid about $500, to be honest. I was very wrong.
It’s both shocking and incredibly wonderful. The unexpected income could not have come at a better time for me, as I was basically broke when I went down to film it. Well, “broke” is putting it lightly. “Tragically in debt from a lifetime of error and personal malfeasance” is probably a more precise description. So yeah, it was a fortunate turn of events.
What’s your favorite swing that you’ve hung up?
A year after Bolivia, living back in SF, I hadn’t hung a swing in months. I was burned out on it.
One day I called for some friends and we met at this giant tree I knew, with a lofty canopy that stretched way out. In Bolivia we’d found that if you had a branch that extended far enough away from the trunk, you could hang a single rope and put a triangle at the end to hold the seat. And with this setup, you could swing in giant circles and spins (or like a Foucault Pendulum in big, drifting arcs).
About 20 of us met out there, and we hung up this 50-foot tall single rope swing on that giant tree and spent the afternoon playing on it. There was picnic food and some people brought out beer and wine. We took turns pushing each other on this giant swing—the biggest and best I’ve ever hung—with no cameras or agenda. It was a really fun day and it got back to those core feelings that I always talked about in most of the interviews I’ve given on the project.
I remember you mentioning that you were torn, because a part of you felt that “at the end of the day, they’re just swings.” Do you still feel that way?
Some people get very caught up in the romance of the project. They get this idea that hanging swings is somehow revolutionary. I kind of laugh at that and at the idea that I’ve done so much and so well from this thing that is far from my own. But generally I’m just happy that I’m inspiring people to be a little less serious. In that sense, yeah, it is just a swing, but if putting one in a public space and getting adults on it convinces people to entertain their creative notions and get a little weird, then I guess the swing is not just a swing — it’s a gateway to artistic expression and youthful joy.
If someone wanted to start hanging swings around their city, what steps should they take? Advice they should heed?
Just do it. It’s fun, it’s easy, and it’s cheap (the cost of hanging up a single swing is $8.18 after taxes). But be aware that you’re essentially a vandal. No public or private land owner wants that liability, so either do it at home or accept that fact that while it seems like fun and games (and it is), some suit or a badge is going to tell you to cut it down.
Is there more to come for the swing project?
Maybe. I don’t think so at the moment, but then, I’ve thought the same thing along most stages of this and I’ve been wrong every time.
What projects are you working on now?
I’m still doing Coca-Cola work. I’ve been down to Mexico twice to give talks, consult, and most recently for an event where they had a few hundred people come and hang swings in the park for an afternoon.
Aside from that, I have little projects and personal creative endeavors that occupy my time (e.g. I created a free book exchange not long ago which is still going strong, and I’m still installing miniature doors around San Francisco). I have yet to find that next big thing though.
Which artists (or sites) do you get your inspiration from?
Too many to count, but here are a few who come to mind:
- Dan Witz
What’s next for Sir Waldman?
I’m going to eat some lunch. Today is left over carne asada, rice and some veggies. Beyond that, work on the documentary is still ongoing and astoundingly arduous.
What would you like me to plug?
Watch my Coke Commercial. If you like it, tell a friend to watch it. My hope is that if it plays well enough online it may actually air in the US someday. Right now it’s global, but not in the US, which for me personally, isn’t quite as helpful.
It highlights real people who have real, interesting projects, which I think is pretty cool. (It also shows fake people, with fake projects who buy people Cokes, which they added in — despite the director fighting against it — but hey, that’s capitalism.)
Aside from that, no plugs, no agenda. I haven’t done a press piece or an interview without one in a really long time and it’s been making me feel a little encumbered and dirty, so this is a pleasant change. Going over all this gave some good perspective. Australia, Bolivia, Mexico, Argentina… I went to all those places for free because of this thing. The travel, the opportunity, the money… it was really cool to revisit. It’s been good talking with you, Charlie Hoehn.
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Charlie: I love Jeff’s story because it beautifully illustrates how much leverage and momentum one person can get with an idea these days. Jeff started with a single swing and a Flip camera in Golden Gate Park. Then he did it again, with several swings and a better camera. He posted a video on Youtube, promoted it to art blogs, and built up some awareness of his project. He got a $1,000 grant, hung up 50 picturesque swings throughout LA, created a great video, and hit the front page of Reddit. That resulted in $11,000 raised on Kickstarter, a month of hanging swings in Bolivia, a TEDx talk in Australia, then his own Coca-Cola commercial and a $100,000 payday.
I watched Jeff go through every step of this journey, and I couldn’t be more thrilled that he hit it big. He’s a very smart guy, web- and tech-savvy, and a natural MacGyver, but that doesn’t mean he’s the only one capable of pulling something like this off…
Anyone with passion and the ability to execute can follow the same blueprint as Jeff. But you can’t get started until you take that first step (or in Jeff’s case, hang that first swing). You don’t need a ton of time or a huge budget — Jeff had full-time jobs while he was pursuing this project, and he was in debt.
If you’ve resolved to a life of hating your job or being unemployed, there’s a very simple fix… Do something fun and interesting in your free time, then share it with like-minded people online! Take that first step towards building your idea, creating your art, writing your book, shooting your film, recording your song… Whatever it is, GIVE something you love to the world. Stop waiting around, expecting to be rewarded just for being here. You have every tool you need at your disposal. What are you waiting for?
The starting gun goes off everyday, the moment you open your eyes.