there-goes-the-webIt started, of course, with science fiction fans, especially longtime Trekkies who were happy to experience some kind of regular contact with Mr. Sulu.

I owe my career to these fans, and I have never understood actors who don’t take the time to acknowledge and thank them. On Twitter and Facebook, I soon learned I could go one step further and actually interact with fans everyday.

One of my earliest posts on Twitter garnered much attention and basically launched my online journey:

Fans seemed genuinely surprised and delighted that a man of my, let’s say, “maturity” would get himself a Twitter account and start putting it out there. I recall gaining thousands of fans in a single day and being at the top of the Twitter homepage for a few short but glorious hours.

Tweeting with a purpose

And I must say, for the first month it was all pretty much fun and games, with humorous posts about current events and my own odd take on them. That all changed one fateful day in March of 2011, when I was awakened by a friend who alerted me to the tragedy of the Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

That was the first time I learned the true value and power of the social network: an open channel of communication that can not only entertain but also unite us in a common cause, from responding to a disaster to — as the Arab Spring showed us — toppling a government.  That morning, as I witnessed the extent of the devastation in Japan, I put out the following tweet, in the hopes of raising money for disaster relief:

That simple plea, sent out to my modest fan-base of some 30,000 mostly Star Trek followers, echoed and reverberated beyond all expectation. Celebrities took up the call, retweeting it to their fans and thus around the world in a matter of minutes.

I don’t know how many people actually texted to donate, but I did hear that individual donations topped over $7 million in the first few days. And even more unexpectedly, my own Twitter account became a type of Ground Zero for information, where I could retweet information about missing persons, the nuclear crisis at the Fukushima reactor, and the grim casualty counts from outlying areas.

I was new to Twitter, so it came as a surprise that news outlets were following my tweets. CNN called that next day, asking for an interview. As the most prominent Japanese American actor and activist out there on the social media — not a hard spot to occupy, admittedly — it suddenly fell to me to spearhead the social media campaign.

The voyage to multiplatform

I followed up the Twitter work with a YouTube video, hastily assembled by my team of producers at my show Allegiance. The video took some of the most compelling pictures of the disaster, including amazing rescue and recovery efforts and examples of the selfless and stoic response of the Japanese people, and coupled them with another plea for assistance. Over 100,000 people watched that video within the first day of its release.

The disaster relief campaign taught me an early lesson in the power of social media, one that I have carried with me since. With just a few thousand fans, whose presence was amplified by the power of Twitter, I was able to make a real difference in the lives of millions, as well as alert traditional media to our efforts.

I soon thought to myself: “If I can make such an impact with just a few thousand fans, why not reach out and build a larger platform?” There was much work to be done, and causes near and dear to my heart that I wanted to speak out on.

The question of same-sex marriage, for example, was reaching a critical crossroads. I also wanted to fulfill what I consider one of my life’s missions: to ensure that the history and lessons of the Japanese American internment never be forgotten.

The power of engaging content

Fundamentally, I wanted to build a community that could laugh, share and discuss the pressing matters of society together. Already on my Facebook page, fans were beginning to post very funny science and science fiction-related images, which I learned were called “memes” by the digerati.

In the early days of my Facebook page, I would receive a dozen or so wall posts a day and sift through them, downloading the images I found particularly funny or inspiring. I never really knew at the time whether I would ever use them; I just enjoyed keeping them and laughing over them later.

Image via thedailybeast.com.

Image via thedailybeast.com.

But like my experience with the tsunami and Twitter, I soon found myself acting as a central gathering spot — a “node” if you will —for sharing some of the internet’s funniest memes. I say that knowing full well that I did not create any of these images; they were all sent to me by others. But there is real value in sharing, and real rewards.

The number of fans on my Facebook page leapt from 25,000 to over 100,000 in a matter of days as word spread that Sulu had started a page and had “some pretty funny shit” on it, as many a fan wrote on my wall.

I must admit, at first I was quite taken aback by the number of shares and likes on each post, and I had to limit myself to just a few a day so as not to get too sucked in. It also took me months to understand what all the fuss and appeal was about. Fans had to explain to it me: Having Sulu as a friend on Facebook was like “having a favorite gay uncle” — one with a somewhat naughty sense of humor.  “Okay, I get that,” I said. And with that, my internet career was born.

This excerpt, adapted for Sparksheet, is from OH MYYY! THERE GOES THE INTERNET by George Takei. Copyright © 2012 by Oh Myyy! LLC.