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Wednesday, Jan 19, 2011

Online intimacy

John Styn's Hug Nation is building a small army of 'Love Warriors' who just want to connect

By Kinsee Morlan
health-hugs John Styn (left) hosts a weekly Hug Nation broadcast and hugs some of his listeners in person at his monthly Help the Homeless events.
John Styn is fiddling with his video camera and talking to an audience of 13 who’ve already tuned in, 15 minutes before the 1 p.m. broadcast of Hug Nation, his weekly online video series.

Music plays in the background as he slides back and forth between two computers, welcoming newcomers to his Ustream channel on one and sending out Twitter and Facebook updates on the other. By the time the broadcast begins, more than 40 people are watching and communicating with him via live chat stream.

Styn, who sometimes goes by his middle name, Halcyon, usually has bright pink hair, but this week it’s shaved to the brown roots. His pink pants are on, though, and atop his coffee table are two hot-pink stag figurines with glittery pink horns standing aside a pretty, light-pink peace lily. Pink accents are all over the house, in fact, and so are healthy-looking plants. Styn has a thing for pink and a ridiculously green thumb.

“I’ve got to warn you,” he says to his viewers, whom he calls “love warriors.” “I’m excited. It’s the first Hug of the year.” He takes a deep breath, then tells everyone to join him in a spontaneous chair dance.

“Let’s take a moment to get present, be mindful,” he says, slowing things down. “Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Become aware of your body.”

A fish tank trickles in the background. Cars drive by and the computer fans whir. Styn tells his viewers to listen to their surroundings. He tells them to breathe and to feel the connectedness of being online in one place with so many other people.

“Let go of the day behind and the day ahead and just be,” he says in a calm voice. He lets people meditate for a few moments, then snaps into action. “The topic for today is patience, which is awesome.”

Styn’s biographical timeline is best told through some of his history on the web. In 1996, he bought his first domain, Prehensile.com, and put the satire ’zine online. By 2000, he was accepting a Webby award at the South by Southwest festival for Cockybastard.com, his personal website. From 1999 to 2000, his day job was at Collegeclub.com, a Facebook-like site where he was the community manager of millions of users. Then, for more than two years starting in 2001, he lived in a house that broadcasted, via webcam, 24 hours a day (Therealhouse.com). He and a friend started CitizenX.com, a webcam community, in 2002. After that, he spent some time as a webmaster for porn sites and became pretty well-known in the adult industry. By 2008, he was invited to be the host of nbc.com/fears_regrets_desires, a confessional video-blog series that started in 2008 and lasted just under a year. These days, he works two days a week as a consultant for MySpace.

Hug Nation is Styn’s latest web project (hugnation.com), and it’s probably his favorite so far. He says a lot of his work has been an experiment in what he calls “digital intimacy.” He believes people can build meaningful connections through online communities. In the Hug Nation broadcasts, he says it’s not uncommon for people to cry or share very personal stories. He’s able to open viewers up, partly by divulging intimate details of his own life.

“Yes, my vasectomy is healing quite nicely,” answers Styn during the broadcast, as a barrage of questions roll down the chat log. “I have finally removed the corrective jock strap and am wearing normal underwear.”

For many viewers, Hug Nation has become a weekly dose of spiritual recalibration and healing—an alternative to church or sessions spent on a therapist’s couch. Many consider Styn a friend, even if they’ve never met him in person.

“When I first saw him,” John Sweeney says, “I was like, Who is this guy with pink hair, and what could he possibly be talking about?” Sweeney is standing near an intersection in North Park, just feet away from Styn’s Hug Mobile, a 24-foot RV painted pink with white wings on either side. It’s “1st Saturday Help the Homeless,” a supply drive Styn and one of his buddies organized. Sweeney says he went from being a Hug Nation listener to a regular at the 1st Saturday events.

“When I watched Hug Nation,” Sweeney says, “I really like that philosophy where he doesn’t force anything…. The way he told it to me, all religions are a piece of the same pie, and it’s all about love. I went through a phase of my life where I became agoraphobic and I couldn’t leave the house and go out in public and stuff like that, and watching Hug Nation and then coming here last month was actually my first big experience going out by myself and giving back.”

Styn unofficially launched his hug-centered broadcast while living at the webcam house. His grandpa, Caleb, came over for Thanksgiving and led a prayer, which viewers really seemed to like. That’s when Styn got the idea.

“I just wanted to do something that would remind people that the world would rather hug you than hurt you,” he says.

Hug Nation didn’t really get its legs until after Caleb’s wife died. Styn started visiting his grandpa’s retirement home, and it wasn’t too long before he brought over a webcam and started the weekly Tuesday broadcasts from his room. Caleb died in 2007, but rather than put an end to Hug Nation, Styn bought an RV and took the show on the road. He painted the RV pink and had a friend paint Caleb’s ashes into the white wings.

Styn’s bookshelf is piled high with everything from an X- men book to The Road Less Traveled and his own collection of self-help essays, Love More, Fear Less: Float More, Steer Less. In his book, Styn calls himself a “lifestyle artist” and says that how he lives, the things he does and the way he views the world is his art.

When he speaks, you can tell he’s constantly working. If he says something negative, he immediately backtracks and replaces it with a positive. He tries to pass along his positive nature in his broadcasts, whether it’s through his segment where he has people literally hug themselves or by sharing one of his memories of Caleb.

“My grandpa lived in an intense state of gratitude,” Styn says. “He made a point of noticing everything that was amazing. In the beginning, that’s what Hug Nation was about, but now it’s evolved and changed and shifted and is more about deeper connection and oneness.”


*This story has been edited from its original version to include more information about John Styn's online history. Write to kinseem@sdcitybeat.com and editor@sdcitybeat.com with comments.





 
 
 
 
 
 
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