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Rainn Wilson: "The Internet is the future of spirituality"

Brandon Griggs, CNN
Actor Rainn Wilson spoke before thousands of fans Saturday at SXSW in Austin, Texas. He wasn't usually this silly.
Actor Rainn Wilson spoke before thousands of fans Saturday at SXSW in Austin, Texas. He wasn't usually this silly.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Actor Rainn Wilson ("The Office") spoke Saturday at South By Southwest
  • Wilson has a website, Soul Pancake, that attempts to connect users around spiritual questions
  • Wilson: "It's a spiritual act to share a beautiful photo on Instagram"

Austin, Texas (CNN) -- When you consider (1) that he's a comic actor known for playing dysfunctional characters, and (2) the photo above, you might expect Rainn Wilson's presentation at SXSW Interactive to have been full of laughs.

And you would be right. For the first 20 minutes.

Wilson, best known for his role as the aggressively clueless Dwight Schrute on TV's "The Office," began his talk with random slides ("Here's a baby monkey riding a boar"), gags about the early days of the Internet and jokes about his postings on Twitter, where he has almost 3 million followers.

"Friendster still exists," he said while reminiscing about his dial-up Web history. "It's like an Internet ghost town ... where all the people are preserved in amber, circa 2003."

An audience of several thousand people, who packed a cavernous hall for a talk billed as "The View from Inside Rainn Wilson's Brainstem," laughed along. But then Wilson shifted gears, turned earnest and devoted the rest of his session to Soul Pancake, the website he co-founded to help people explore life's big questions.

"Soul Pancake is really an expression of who I am as a human being," said the actor, a member of the Baha'i faith. "It's very important to me. It's very personal."

Launched in 2009, the site encourages users to post thought-provoking musings about spirituality, philosophy, creativity and other meaty topics. Users can read original content while posing questions, engaging in discussions and undertaking creative activities such as writing exercises. It attracts a modest following -- about a million page views a month -- and is still not profitable, Wilson said.

He said he launched the site to "de-lamilfy spirituality," to promote conversations and to bring people together about metaphysical topics.

Also? "Spirit Taco was taken."

Wilson argued the Web has a unique power to inspire users -- he cited his own past as an awkward, lonely teen-ager who was looking to connect with like-minded people -- by helping them make sense of things and find their place in the world.

"I believe the Internet is the future of spirituality," he said. "It's a spiritual act to share a beautiful photo on Instagram. It's a spiritual act to sell something beautiful you've crafted on Etsy."

Wilson said Soul Pancake has evolved into a media-production company that is launching a YouTube channel and creating programming for Oprah Winfrey's TV network. He showed a brief original clip of a "Heart Attack" -- cheerful dancers in cartoon-heart costumes, making people smile by engulfing them on a California boardwalk.

"That's why I'm sharing this," said Wilson, a 46-year-old husband and father. "We need connection. We need compassion. We need nurturing."

Wilson's heartfelt tone and proselytizing may have caught audience members off guard. Some trickled out midway through his talk.

But he still found time for a few comedic riffs.

On audience interaction: "Any questions? I don't care. Shut up."

On the Buddha: "He's a chubby guy. He's like the Andy Richter of religious icons."

On his ill-fated (and made-up) attempt to launch Twatter, a social-media service in which messages must be a minimum of 140,000 characters: "I lost millions of dollars. Terrible idea."

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