Fandom meets activism: Rethinking civic and political participation

Melissa M. Brough and Sangita Shresthova

University of Southern California, Los Angeles, California, United States

[0.1] Abstract—Fan activism lies at the intersection of cultural and political participation. The study of fan activism can inform our understanding of contemporary collective action more broadly. We suggest four key areas for analysis: the relationships between cultural and political participation; the tension between participation and resistance in the context of fan activism; affect and the role of content worlds in civic and political mobilization; and evaluation of the impacts of fan activism. By drawing on work across several disciplines including media studies and social movement literature, the analysis of fan activism through these lenses offers insights for theorizing contemporary cultures and modes of collective action.

[0.2] Keywords—Affect; Civic engagement; Consumer citizenship; Content worlds; Evaluation; Fandom; Narrative; Participatory culture; Social movements

Brough, Melissa M., and Sangita Shresthova. 2012. "Fandom Meets Activism: Rethinking Civic and Political Participation." In "Transformative Works and Fan Activism," edited by Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 10. doi:10.3983/twc.2012.0303.

[1.1] Fan and consumer activism are more visible than ever before, and the lines between these and traditional civic and political activities are blurring in today's increasingly "participatory" media and entertainment landscape. How might research on fandom and participatory cultures inform our understanding of contemporary forms of civic and political action? As we considered responses to this question across various disciplines, we confronted some recurrent themes and debates about how fandom and participatory entertainment cultures influence and at times reshape our understanding of civic and political mobilization.

[1.2] First, we explore the intersections of cultural and political participation; second, the tension between participation and resistance in the context of fan activism; third, the role of affect and of content worlds in mobilizing civic participation; and finally, how to assess the impact of fan activism or fanlike mobilizations. We argue that these four areas of analysis not only help us to further theorize fan activism, but also highlight several ways in which the study of fan activism can inform theorizing of contemporary civic and political action more broadly. Throughout, we emphasize the applicability of existing scholarship on contemporary social movements—a body of work that has been underutilized in fan studies—for the analysis of fan activism. Conversely, we urge social movement scholars to explore the fertile but understudied terrain of fan and fanlike forms of civic and political participation.

2. Setting the stage: Key concepts and definitions

[2.1] Fans are typically understood to be individuals who engage deeply with, and often assert their identity through, popular culture content. Fan activities commonly include writing or producing pop-culture related content such as fan fiction or remixed videos ("vids"), self-publishing analyses of media content, role-playing, and organizing conventions or other fan group activities (Hellekson and Busse 2006; Jenkins 1992). Groups of individuals constitute a fandom through interest-driven affiliations, forming a sense of collective or subcultural identity around shared tastes.

[2.2] Traditionally, activism is understood to be intentional action to challenge existing hegemonies and provoke political and/or social change. Fan activism, however, has most often been associated with active fans lobbying for a content-related outcome, such as a program staying on the air (Lichtenberg, Marshak, and Winston 1975; Scardaville 2005), the representation of racial or sexual minorities (Garber and Paleo 1983; Lopez 2011), or the promotion of social themes in program content (Ross 2008). Earl and Kimport (2009), for example, defined fan activism as being "not about the mix between political concerns and culture but rather action that looks like political activism but is used toward nonpolitical ends" (221). Such a definition seems increasingly problematic, given the porous boundaries between cultural and political concerns, as well as the overtly political orientation of many fan activist campaigns today.

[2.3] Fan groups may organize around real-world issues through extended engagement with and appropriation of popular culture content. Fan activism can thus also be understood as fan-driven efforts to address civic or political issues through engagement with and strategic deployment of popular culture content. Such efforts to change the status quo are "often conducted through the infrastructure of existing fan practices and relationships, and often framed through metaphors drawn from popular and participatory culture" (Jenkins 2012).

[2.4] This is not new; there have been several historical instances in which fans used fandom as a resource or springboard for civic and political action. In Uranian Worlds (1983), Eric Garber and Lin Paleo note that several of the early pioneers of the 1950s homophile movement met through fandom. Fan groups have also historically mobilized around charity causes, but very few of these efforts are well documented in the academic literature. A more recent example is fans of Joss Whedon and the canceled TV show Firefly (2002–3), who continue to gather every year to organize "Can't Stop the Serenity," a fund-raiser for the women's rights advocacy organization Equality Now. Contemporary fan activism is increasingly prolific and diverse in its forms and tactics, and a clear-cut distinction between fan activism and real-world activism remains elusive. We thus use the term fan activism broadly to incorporate the range of intentional actions by fans, or the use of fanlike strategies, to provoke change.

[2.5] Despite the growth of fan studies in recent years, few analyses have considered fan activism and its relationship to civic participation, with notable exceptions, such as van Zoonen (2005) and Burwell and Boler (2008). Here, we also use the term civic participation broadly to include activities including civic engagement, traditional political action, and various forms of activism in order to capture the range of manifestations of fan activism.

[2.6] As a form of participatory culture, fan activism is a rich site for exploring contemporary dynamics of civic participation. There are varied notions of what constitutes a participatory culture; that of Henry Jenkins—which emerged from work in fan studies—includes relatively low barriers to entry, artistic expression, informal mentorship, sharing of one's creations, and a sense of community (Jenkins et al. 2006). The behaviors and skill sets typical of popular media fan cultures—appropriating and remixing content, developing communication infrastructures and practices within fan communities, online networking among groups with shared interests, self-publication in dialogue with popular content worlds—are increasingly relevant to contemporary modes of collective identity formation (note 1).

[2.7] On the one hand, we have fans or audiences collectively mobilizing for political and social goals. Some of these mobilizations have been prompted by specific historical events, as in the case of fans of the Roswell television show using existing online fan forums and repertoires from the show to debate and collectively mourn the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and to organize charitable contributions (Stein 2002). Others are more sustained efforts to mobilize fans toward a variety of civic actions, as in the case of the Harry Potter Alliance (HPA). The HPA is a US-based nonprofit organization that works "for human rights, equality, and a better world just as Harry and his friends did" ( Inspired by Dumbledore's Army in the Harry Potter narratives, the HPA taps fan community practices to run advocacy and activist campaigns through a decentered network of paid and volunteer staff and local chapters. The HPA builds on active and creative engagement with the Harry Potter content world, connecting this content to social justice aims in the real world, such as fair trade and marriage equality. The HPA has also motivated some nonfans to join their collective actions. (For more on this case, see Jenkins 2012 and Kligler-Vilenchik et al. 2012.)

[2.8] On the other hand, we see activists (fan or other) reconfiguring pop culture content for specific political goals, as in the example of so-called Avatar activism. In these cases, indigenous and Palestinian rights groups draw on imagery from James Cameron's 2009 Hollywood sci-fi blockbuster about the Na'vi, an aboriginal population on the utopian moon of Pandora whose existence is threatened by exploitative colonizers from planet Earth. Real-life rights groups have used Avatar's imagery and tropes to attract mainstream media attention. For example, protesters in the West Bank village of Bil'in dressed as the Na'vi; covered with blue body paint, they approached an Israeli military barricade, where they were subjected to a tear gas attack. Photographs and video of the protest were then circulated online, catching the attention of news media outlets.

Video 1. "Bilin Reenacts Avatar Film 12-02-2010 By Haitham Al Katib."

[2.9] The cameras present at the protest reveal the mediated (and remediated) nature of this event. As Simon Faulkner describes, "Organisers of the Avatar demonstration in Bil'in aimed to produce strong images that would have an impact upon those who saw them and would attract the attention of a much wider audience" (2010). Such a deployment of popular culture helped draw mass media attention to a well-known and protracted campaign, combating media fatigue by offering new, visually striking imagery linked to a recent global entertainment media event. Mark Deuze describes a similar case from Orissa, India, where indigenous anti-mining advocates appealed to international support by relating their struggle to Avatar in an ad placed in Variety, a Hollywood entertainment magazine; a CNN reporter subsequently dubbed the campaign's success an "Avatar victory" (Deuze 2010, 7). Avatar activism is not an example of fans mobilizing as activists, but rather of activists using fanlike tactics, including appropriation and remixing of pop culture content, to provoke dialogue and mobilization. These fan and fanlike activities raise the decades-old debate about the politics of culture and what 'counts' as a political act.

3. Intersections of cultural and civic/political participation

[3.1] Although increasingly contested, political participation in modern democracies has traditionally referred to those actions and associations that seek to directly interact with institutions of the nation-state and its electoral processes. In political science, the concept of political participation is typically linked to government institutions, confining it to a narrow definition of citizenship and the ways individuals and groups may access or enact political agency. Verba, Schlozman, and Brady, for example, note that "political participation affords citizens in a democracy an opportunity to communicate information to government officials about their concerns and preferences and put pressure on them to respond" (1995, 37).

[3.2] However, scholars across several disciplines have argued that informal, cultural engagement (or cultural citizenship) may also be usefully analyzed for forms of political participation (Burgess, Foth, and Klaebe 2006; Cohen 2010; Jenkins 2006; Levine 2007; Livingstone 2005; Pettingill 2007; Bennett, Freelon, and Wells 2010; Amadeo, Andolina, and Torney-Punta 2010; Higgins-D'Allessandro 2010). Over the last several decades, younger generations in particular have become civically and politically engaged in new and different ways, related less to electoral politics or government or civic organizations and more to personal interests, social networks, and cultural or commodity activism (a form of protest that is typically levied against private companies rather than governments). These modes of political participation are often enacted through informal, noninstitutionalized, nonhierarchical networks in and around the Internet (Bennett 2008; Ito et al. 2009; Jenkins et al. 2006; Kahne, Feezell, and Lee 2011). They are political insofar as they aim to influence or change existing power relations.

[3.3] Analyses of social movements in the last half century show a well-established trend toward culturally defined solidarity as opposed to traditional forms of politically defined solidarity through parties, trade unions, or interest associations, and largely characterized by more flexible forms of organization (Touraine 1985; Melucci 1996; Castells 1997). Alain Touraine (1985), who offered one of the first and most influential discussions of the changing characteristics of social movements in postindustrial society, articulated a shift from a sociopolitical form of collective action (that traditionally sought greater access to, and/or transformations of, the state in response to labor and economic problems) to more sociocultural movements. Touraine argued that the "new" social movements are struggles waged over—and through—"symbolic goods, that is, of information and images, of culture itself" (774).

[3.4] This shift toward culturally defined solidarity does not, however, represent a detachment from the political. Central examples of new social movements, such as the feminist and environmental movements of the late 20th century (Castells 1997), are political in nature and have entailed both formal and informal political participation, shifts in relations of power, and changes in public policy. Thus, defining political participation as explicitly linked to legislative processes or traditional political institutions alone obscures the role of culture in social and political change. What is the significance of social movements engaging with pop culture iconography to struggle for power and change? And how can we better understand why fandom may motivate fans—and sometimes even nonfans—to organize and take such action?

[3.5] In the political science of modern Western democracies, the public sphere is seen to provide the crucial space for political debate (Habermas 1989; Fraser 1990; McIntosh and Youniss 2010). From a different angle, media studies and analyses of fan cultures have considered whether participative audiences constitute publics. Lisbet van Zoonen (2005) argues that the positioning of "audiences and publics, fans and citizens" as fundamentally dissimilar is not "tenable" because it assumes that politics and culture exist in completely separate spheres (56). Daniel Dayan (2005, 44) has argued that too often the notion of publics is conflated with "the dominant model of political publics," but he observes that political publics are often intertwined with "identity-seeking" or "text-oriented" publics (note 2). Both of these latter forms of publics may describe fandom, which often engages actively, critically, and collectively with popular culture. Traditionally, audiences were conceived as passive receivers or consumers of content (a notion the field of fan studies has contested), while publics were construed as active citizenry. Although not all audiences are fans, Dayan argues that "even the crudest of quantitative audiences"—audiences understood as aggregates of individual viewers—"share at least two characteristics with publics":

[3.6] 1. Like that of publics, the experience of audiences involves a dimension of imagination, concerning the others who share with them a given participative frame…or whom they join in "audiencing."

[3.7] 2. Like that of publics, audiences embody a fundamental dimension of social experience: collective attention, "watching with." (2005, 55)

[3.8] As Dayan, Sonia Livingstone, and others have shown, audiences can and do turn into "'issue publics'…linked to the political" (Dayan 2005, 54; Livingstone 2005). In fact, "Publics must always have been audiences. In the political domain, they stop being audiences when their concern for an issue prevails over their engagement with the narrative that calls for it. It is this concern for—and focusing on—an issue that constitutes an audience into a public" (Dayan 2005, 57). Dayan observes, however, that for an audience to become a public, they must go public, announcing their relation to a particular issue and performing as a collective public. Thus, the HPA moves from audience to a public by going public with a collective identity formed not only around the Harry Potter content world but also—crucially—around real-world issues.

[3.9] Fans and fan activists, like other publics, may also offer a counterframe to narratives consumed by audiences (Lichtenberg, Marshak, and Winston 1975; Russ 1983; Jenkins 1992; Radway 1991; Bacon-Smith 1992; Hellekson and Busse 2006). The example of Avatar activism illustrates this dynamic; the film's depiction of the struggle to resist colonization on the fantastical moon Pandora is repurposed (and remixed as a YouTube video) to represent Palestinian activists' struggles in the West Bank. The coverage of this case, combined with other reports of indigenous rights campaigns using Avatar, fueled international public debate about the narrative merits, contradictions, and potential impacts of the film for indigenous rights and environmental activism (Wachman 2010; Barrionuevo 2010; Heath Justice 2010; Lee 2010). Dayan's analysis suggests that when fans publicly and collectively offer a counterframe to a narrative that is tied to a particular issue or problem, they are acting as a political public.

[3.10] Ross (2008) and others have documented fan organizations and practices as spaces of political debate. In Convergence Culture (2006), Jenkins argues that when there are low barriers to entry, popular culture and its surrounding participatory cultures (including fandom) can function as spaces where civic skills may be cultivated. Of course, fan communities, like others, are also susceptible to the homogenizing of views that may preclude, or even at times silence, others. What is most relevant here, however, is that fan communities often form around content worlds that may not be explicitly political in nature, but that can offer resources or spaces for political engagement.

[3.11] Exploring the relationship between audiences and publics can thus help clarify how fan activism moves between the two. Fan or pop culture engagement can be productively analyzed as both a potential space for developing civic skills, and a catalyst for change. However, we may risk diluting our notion of the political to a point that makes it difficult to debate the merits of different strategies and tactics for civic participation, and difficult to focus on their material (not just cultural) outcomes. Framing all acts of engagement with popular entertainment as political acts can have a depoliticizing effect and limit analytical and tactical advancements. Yet privileging a purist view of politics over one that embraces people's dreams, desires, and consumption of popular culture may lead "to hypocrisy and self-deception and a politics obsessed with purity and authenticity" (Duncombe 2007, 76). The quality of civic participation is not inherently compromised by a critical engagement with commercial pop culture. Perhaps, as van Zoonen (2005), and J. K. Rowling (2008) herself suggest, such critical engagement can help us "imagine better."

4. (Fan) activism: Acts of participation and/or resistance?

[4.1] Activism is often understood to be a resistant practice, resisting or pushing back against a hegemony in order to provoke change. Thus, the recent discourse of participatory culture in the new media space and the longer history of fan participation in pop culture suggest a possible contradiction in the term fan activism. How is it that fans can both participate in a commercial pop culture space, and at the same time resist or attempt to change the status quo within or through the same hegemonic space? When and how does commercial consumption become civic or political participation?

[4.2] A large body of scholarship, particularly since the 1970s, has analyzed "culture that is used, consciously or unconsciously, effectively or not, to resist and/or change the dominant political, economic and/or social structure" (Duncombe 2002, 5; see also Hall and Jefferson 1990; Hebdidge 1979). Manifest in many forms (for example, remixing to produce a counternarrative), cultural resistance is positioned in opposition to the dominant culture but may draw on its resources in the formation of what Duncombe (2002) calls a creative free space where ideas, particularly political ideas, may be fleshed out and practices tested and implemented—and civic skills may be cultivated.

[4.3] In contrast, more recent scholarship (particularly in media and fan studies out of the United States and Europe) has emphasized the paradigm of participation. A participatory culture has been characterized as fostering collaborative processes enabled through horizontal modes of communication (Jenkins et al. 2006). In this line of thinking, horizontal collaboration can foster critical engagement with popular culture because it shifts subjects from passive consumers to active participants who make decisions that influence their fan communities, and in some cases the content worlds in which they are engaged.

[4.4] This body of work has been critiqued for underemphasizing structural inequalities in the political economy of the entertainment and telecommunications industries (Andrejevic 2007; Fuchs 2011) and obscuring forms of resistance aimed at shifting power relations more radically (note 3). Indeed, the recent literature on participatory culture in the United States has focused primarily on participation in mainstream entertainment spaces rather than alternative activist practices; this area merits further attention. However, binary thinking that positions participatory cultures in opposition to cultural resistance is problematic (Jenkins, Ford, and Green forthcoming). Decades of cultural studies have shown examples of resistant practices within or through commercial spaces; the commercial/noncommercial dichotomy is often too simplistic to be analytically useful.

[4.5] The field of fan studies has, since its inception, made important interventions at this junction. Studies of the genre of slash (Doty 2002; Busse 2006; Alexander and Harris 1998), which centers on homoeroticism between fictional characters, have argued that fan appropriation of content is itself a form of resistance to heteronormativity (not to mention copyright law). Lori Kido Lopez's (2001) study of ( offers a recent example of a fan-driven critique of hegemonic whitewashing casting practices and unequal racial representation in Hollywood cinema. is a fan effort to protest casting decisions for the film version of Avatar: The Last Airbender (2010), in which white actors were cast in several Asian character roles. Although the fans did not succeed in reversing the casting decisions, Lopez (2011) argues that their protests helped promote dialogue about whitewashing in Hollywood's casting practices and critically reframed public perception of the film beyond The Last Airbender fan base.

[4.6] Recent cultural studies on commodity activism also offer some important insights. Roopali Mukherjee (2011), for example, analyzed Kanye West's music video indicting human rights abuses in the international diamond trade, tracing the tensions of this activist stance coming from a hip-hop celebrity whose very success and artistic style is enmeshed in a culture of bling. She discusses the troubled history of the African American community's relationship to consumer citizenship, from exclusion from the market to strategic attempts to access power through market-based practices, including boycotts and buycotts. As the closing caption of West's music video implies ("Please purchase conflict-free diamonds"), this form of commodity activism is squarely situated within a notion of consumer citizenship, in which political agency is seemingly enacted through consumption choices.

Video 2. Kanye West's "Diamonds Are from Sierra Leone."

[4.7] Critics have argued that consumer citizenship is emblematic of neoliberal political culture, characterized largely by the privatization of government services and shrinking of the liberal welfare state. Consumer citizenship may be increasingly normalized as the primary mode of access to political agency while obfuscating traditional civic responsibilities and structural issues of inequality (Mukherjee 2011; Cohen 2003; Cronin 2000; García Canclini 2001). Rather than dismissing commodity-based forms of activism, however, Mukherjee argues that such cases "allow us to trace how neoliberal citizens actualize their political subjectivities, not through rejections of commodity culture, but rather, from within circuits of consumption and exchange" (2011, 7). Commodity activism thus complicates our understanding of resistance, forcing us to consider "civic politics in the neoliberal era" as possibly "enabled by, and nurtured within, modes of consumer citizenship" (ibid. 9, 16).

[4.8] Fan activism makes sense in such a context; social movement scholarship has shown that the form a collective action takes often reflects the culture and structure that are its target of change (Della Porta and Diani 2006; Juris 2004). Put another way, "In a world where the importance of corporations is increasingly prominent in daily life, studying fan activism offers one window into the private power dynamics of corporate-civil contests" (Earl and Kimport 2009, 239).

[4.9] Fan participation in and through commercial entertainment spaces is not predetermined to be resistant or complicit—in fact, it is often both—but its political significance lies in part in the changes in relations of power that may occur through such participation. In industrialized democracies of the Global North, we can understand power as circulating primarily through discourses and networks (Castells 2009; Foucault 1980). In that case, the political potential of participatory entertainment cultures lies in the ways cultural codes and discourses are contested and remixed, as well as the ways in which the resulting content is consumed and reconfigured as a resource for mobilization. In other words, we need to pay attention to how particular actors construct, use, and circulate their voices through the production or reproduction of cultural content, as well as whether and by whom content is consumed and engaged. Fandom has historically grappled with the problem of voice as consumers asserted agency over media content in an attempt to be heard by other fans and by the content producers. How to move from having a voice within a subculture to being heard more broadly in civic and political spaces is a central challenge for all activists, and examples like Avatar activism and the HPA offer strategies emerging from fan and fanlike practices.

[4.10] In a fragmented cultural and political context, where politics is no longer played out primarily through institutional affiliations, we thus arrive at an expanded understanding of participatory entertainment cultures as spaces that may support, and at times even encourage, grassroots activism and civic participation. The HPA exemplifies this possibility. It was mobilized by drawing on the Harry Potter narratives: the best-selling book series and films released by Warner Bros., a subsidiary of Time Warner—the world's largest media conglomerate. Yet in their fight against media consolidation, which they describe as "fighting for what Harry, the Order of the Phoenix, and Potterwatch did not have: the right to a free press" (note 4), the HPA has confronted the very system that has so successfully produced and distributed the Harry Potter content worlds. This example illustrates the fluidity—and potential contradictions—of fan activism, in which networked activists strategically draw resources from and at the same time fight against structures of commercial pop culture. HPA's work may point to a deep-rooted allegiance to narratives rather than to the commercial structures that circulate them; it certainly illustrates the complex relationship between resistance and participation in contemporary forms of fan activism. The content worlds created, maintained, and contested through the telling and retelling of narratives play a key role in this complex relationship.

5. Content worlds: Questions of affect, collective identity, and authenticity

[5.1] Is buying a conflict-free diamond because of a hip-hop video really activism? Is protesting whitewashing casting decisions activism? What is authentic activism? Does it need to look like the high-risk, disciplined actions of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Greensboro Four's civil rights struggles to be taken seriously, as Malcolm Gladwell (2010) has suggested?

[5.2] Duncombe (2007) argues that taking activism too seriously can be a pitfall; the tendency of progressives in particular to insist on the logical and rational as the most legitimate mode of persuasion overlooks the ways play, performance, spectacle, and affect motivate civic action. Alberto Melucci argues that individuals mobilize for social change only when their affective and communicative needs, as well as their needs for solidarity, coincide with the collective's goals; these are fundamental to the development of collective identity and subsequent collective action (1996). Engaging affect is thus central to the process of changing society's values, beliefs, and cultural patterns (Melucci 1996; Castells 2009). Melucci further argues that social change entails struggles over the cultural codes through which social meaning is produced, maintained, or changed. Social movements challenge dominant codes and discourses (and ultimately the legitimacy of existing social configurations of power) by producing and diffusing alternative codes, such as new ways of living and new forms of language.

[5.3] Even as the opportunities to challenge codes through user-generated content networks grow, the inability to achieve visibility in the mass media can still obscure a group's cause, even—and especially—in today's fragmented mediascape (Thompson 2005; Castells 2009). Recent examples of activism mobilized in large part through user-generated content platforms and social networks illustrate the ongoing importance of the interplay between social and broadcast media to attain mass visibility and influence public opinion. In the Arab Spring and the Occupy Wall Street movements, for example, user-generated material provided crucial content for national and international broadcasters, which in turn was vital to the visibility and spread of the movements as well as subsequent shifts in public discourse. Content produced by members of the Occupy movement has frequently remixed pop culture tropes (Trope and Swartz 2011). Although pop culture codes may not always play a role in such mobilizations, they can help draw attention to the campaigns or movements and fuel collective identity formation around shared social meanings. Fan culture offers a history of appropriation and critical engagement with pop culture that could inform broader activist strategies toward increased visibility and collective identity formation.

[5.4] Most important, perhaps, is what might be learned from fan cultures about storytelling and the use of content worlds to prompt participation. Dayan writes, "Fiction turns into a political force by providing scripts for action" (2005, 53); he sees dramaturgy and performance as key components in the conversion of an audience into a public. Other contributions from media and cultural studies have debated the role of fantasy and cultural engagement in helping to inspire civic participation (Fiske 1989; Hartley 2008; Radway 1991; Jenkins 2006; Duncombe 2007). John Street articulates the connection between entertainment, content worlds, and politics thus: "Politics, like popular culture, is about creating an 'audience,' a people who will laugh at their jokes, understand their fears and share their hopes. Both the popular media and politicians are engaged in creating works of popular fiction which portray credible worlds that resonate with people's experiences" (in van Zoonen 2005, 59). Fan-driven civic participation, fueled by affective engagement in content worlds, offers overt examples of such linkages and how storytelling and other fan practices may scaffold mobilization for real-world action.

[5.5] Fan culture also asks us to consider not just storytelling but transmedia storytelling as a catalyst for collective identity formation and mobilization. Transmedia storytelling is "a process where integral elements of a fiction get dispersed systematically across multiple delivery channels to create a unified and coordinated entertainment experience" (Jenkins 2007). Transmedia storytelling has proliferated throughout the entertainment industry, but it has also been taken up as an activist strategy. Lina Srivastava has defined transmedia activism as creating "social impact by using storytelling by a number of decentralized authors who share assets and create content for distribution across multiple forms of media to raise awareness and influence action" (2009) (note 5). Avatar activism is an obvious example where transmedia storytelling is taken up by activists to strategically borrow, remix, and gain visibility across media platforms; in such cases, it is both activists using social media platforms and the mainstream media that move the story content across platforms. Future research on fandom and fan cultures could help further elaborate the possibilities (as well as the challenges) of transmedia activism.

[5.6] Although this focus on storytelling is by no means new and has been addressed in the social movement literature (Poletta 2006), the centrality of content worlds to fan cultures pushes us to rethink storytelling as a collective activity in which individuals and groups contribute to the telling, retelling, and remixing of stories through various media platforms. In doing so, they help shape the contours of content worlds that may serve as affective resources and organizing structures for the mobilizing of collective action. At the same time, this focus on narrative reminds us to remain watchful of the ideological and structural hegemonies that these content worlds may perpetuate. What, for example, do we make of Palestinian activists dressed as blue Na'vi drawing international press coverage by engaging iconography from a film critiqued for its problematic treatment of colonialism (Žižek 2010; Heath Justice 2010)? A noncritical romanticizing of appropriation ignores the complexity of the cultural politics and histories of pop culture imagery in relation to real-world injustices.

6. Evaluating the impact of fan activism

[6.1] How do we understand the effects of contemporary fan and fanlike activism? Do we value change at the individual level, or change at the community or societal level? In reality, the lines between these are often blurry, and change occurs in complex, nonlinear ways. To complicate matters further, social change is sometimes measured as an aggregate of the individual, as in the case of Robert Putnam's much-debated Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000). That is, change may be viewed from a more distributed perspective, in which individual-level change aggregates to broader society-level change (that is, the sum of individual parts), or from a more communitarian perspective, in which the social change occurs through the interaction of a group, as in Pierre Levy's (1997) collective intelligence model. Although political participation as it was traditionally conceived can be relatively easily documented through statistics such as voting trends (an aggregate of individual actions), this broader, more nuanced understanding of political participation requires different approaches to evaluating impact.

[6.2] Fandom is characterized by what Ito et al. (2009) would label as interest-driven participation, where participation is prompted and structured by specialized interests and activities. The quantitative study by Kahne, Feezell, and Lee (2011) makes an important link in measuring the potential correlation between youths' participation in online, interest-driven cultural activities and their civic engagement; they argue that such interest-driven activities can "serve as a gateway to participation in important aspects of civic and, at times, political life, including volunteering, engagement in community problem-solving, protest activities, and political voice" (20). Although the study of Kahne, Feezell, and Lee includes traditional measures of civic and political activity, the findings suggest that in order to capture the range of modes of youth civic engagement, we need to look at spaces and forms of participatory culture.

[6.3] We thus suggest that fan activism necessitates an exploratory move away from traditional frameworks of assessment. The broader understanding of civic participation allows researchers the space to identify modes of engagement that are more organically based on actual practices, rather than grafting a traditional model onto them (Pettingill 2007). We must also consider where groups and their members place value in terms of their impacts; a participatory culture should not be evaluated solely through nonparticipatory means (see Bennett 2008). For example, in asking how HPA encourages civic participation, we must also take seriously the organizing that happens within the practices that define the broader Harry Potter fandom; these may include the discussions, creative production, and collaborative efforts around sites like MuggleNet ( and The Leaky Cauldron (, the Wizard Rock scene, the Quiddich tournaments, and annual fan conventions. We may consider these modes of participation as possible spaces of collective identity formation and mobilization that are supported by fan cultures, and seek out the insights that these social and cultural formations offer to analyses of contemporary civic participation.

[6.4] Wellman (2001) has introduced the term networked individualism to "describe the hybrid quality that combines the communitarian nature of community with the 'strength of weak ties' which [are] found in social networks" (Burgess, Foth, and Klaebe 2006, 6). Networked individualism may be used to characterize both fan cultures that organize around a shared interest (increasingly online) and contemporary activist mobilization (Castells 2007). In this sense, some forms of contemporary civic participation may increasingly exhibit characteristics common to fan culture; both are adapting in similar ways to new capacities offered by digital media. It is ever more common for collective identities of fan groups to emerge through online interactions with strangers, sharing, remixing, and debating content worlds (Hellekson and Busse 2006); the same may increasingly be said about contemporary mobilizations. Although some (like Gladwell) bemoan "weak(er)-tie" activism (note 6), we might instead consider whether fandom and online participatory cultures facilitate a flow between networked individualism and collective action—that is, from individuated participation to a collectivity or a public.

[6.5] Fan activists may have no other social tie but their shared interest in a particular content world, around and through which they come together, interact, and develop a sense of collective identity that may then be mobilized toward collective action. Melucci's (1996) analysis of collective identity formation in social movements suggests that preexisting affective communities (for example, fan networks) can play an important role in provoking participation in a movement, particularly when dealing with networks of loose affiliations.

[6.6] But how sustainable is activism that relies on the appeal of ever-changing pop culture content, trends, and online networks? As Jenkins (2012) explains, HPA is working toward the longer-term sustainability of the organization through cross-fandom alliances in preparation for the decreased visibility of Harry Potter now that the last film in the series has been released. In this case, longer-term, real-world campaigns are driving alliances between different fandoms and linkages across different content worlds; an area for future study is to explore how and to what effect fan activists traverse distinct content worlds. In contrast, the case of Avatar activism raises the question of how to think about continuity in a context where immediate visibility was the primary objective of the use of pop culture (note 7). Together, these cases illustrate that pop culture may be utilized to provoke short-term or immediate actions, while at other times, content worlds are engaged in extensive and multifaceted ways to move toward ongoing civic engagement. The intended life span of fan or pop culture activist campaigns must be taken into account when evaluating their effectiveness.

[6.7] The importance of incorporating participatory approaches to understanding and evaluating fan activism, the complexity and nonlinearity of social change, the proliferation of new modes of organizing through online platforms, and the particularities of different fan cultures all suggest the need for case-based studies to enhance our understanding of how fan cultures may inform, influence, and help to mobilize around political and civic action. The four areas of analysis presented here may be productively applied to future studies to further theorize fan activism and other forms of contemporary civic action. Such studies may also want to consider Dayan's (2005, 52–53) framework for analysis of six key features of public action: performance (broadly defined, and connecting the public to the public sphere); styles of interaction (or "manners" of performing as publics); reflexivity (self-awareness needed to define the community); commitment (definition of what it means to be a member); issues (addressing defined problems); and stability (a certain sense of continuity). There is clearly much work to be done.

7. Conclusion

[7.1] Work across several scholarly fields permits us to identify productive points of tension and debate that may inform future research on civic participation through fan and fanlike pop culture engagement. We organized these points into four thematic areas: intersections of cultural and political participation; the relationship between participation and resistance in the context of fan activism; the role of affect and content worlds in mobilizing civic participation; and issues of evaluating impact. These are key areas for future analysis of fan activism and civic participation.

[7.2] We have noted some increasing similarities between fan cultures and contemporary mobilizations; the modes and structures particular to fan cultures may inform our analyses of contemporary civic action more broadly. The study of social movements, a body of work that has rarely been taken up in fan studies, can help us to think about visibility and the relationship between affect, cultural codes, and collective identities in the mobilization process. Across the literatures and cases reviewed, we saw the significance of content worlds and storytelling (including transmedia storytelling) in the development of collective identity and the formation and mobilization of publics. We problematized the false dichotomies of commercial versus political (or activist), and participation versus resistance. At the same time, we cautioned against framing all acts of engagement with popular entertainment as political acts; not only could this have a depoliticizing effect, but it also limits analytical advancements based on the specificities of particular pop culture and fan activist tactics. We thus call for further case-based studies as a next step toward more nuanced understandings of how fan cultures may mobilize around political and civic goals. Finally, we challenged the shortcomings of conventional measures of civic and political participation and emphasized the need to situate impact studies of fan activism within a participatory framework more appropriate to the participatory cultures that support it.

[7.3] Future research should consider emergent (as well as existing) modes and structures of engagement in fan activism, such as how content worlds may serve to bridge networked individualism and collective action. There is a critical need for transnational analyses of fan activism. Although our examples here contain transnational elements, we have not considered the specific dynamics of transnationalism in relation to fan and pop culture activism. There is also a clear bias toward Western popular entertainment in our examples, which could be greatly improved—and perhaps called into question—through comparison with cases of non-Western fan activism. Finally, in our review of the literature, we found little in the way of direct critiques of fan activism, perhaps because it is a relatively new topic of study and has yet to be seriously engaged by scholars outside of the field of fan studies.

[7.4] We close with a provocation about the analytical boundaries of fan activism: At what point does the concept of fandom become too diluted to be analytically useful? Just as we may risk diluting the notion of the political, so too we risk diluting the notion of a particular cultural formation—fandom—that fans have long struggled to have valued on its own terms.

8. Acknowledgments

[8.1] We thank Henry Jenkins, Zhan Li, Nina O'Brien, Liana Thompson, Neta Kligler Vilenchik, and Arely Zimmerman for their feedback on previous drafts of this article. We also gratefully acknowledge support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics (YPP).

9. Notes

1. We define content worlds as the narratives and practices shared by the members of a particular audience or community. In the case of fandom, content worlds refer to both the popular culture content and to the individual and collaborative creative expressions produced by the fan community.

2. Dayan defines taste publics as "generally focused on works, texts, or programmes; the performance of these publics is generally 'verdictive' (evaluative)." He contends that "'identity publics' (such as those of music, games or sports fans) display their response to games or performances in order to endow themselves with a visible identity" (2005, 54–55).

3. In other literatures, such as the field of participatory communication in Latin America, participation is often understood as a counterhegemonic practice through which marginalized communities become agents of change in their communities. This field has not, however, considered participatory culture in commercial contexts in the ways discussed here. For a historical review of the participatory paradigm as a resistant practice in Latin America, see Dagron and Tufte (2006).

4. For more information about these campaigns, see and

5. See also "Transmedia Activism: Basic Framework" at; for further discussion of some of the potentials and risks of transmedia mobilization, see Constanza-Chock (2010).

6. In a widely debated article published in the New Yorker, Malcolm Gladwell (2010) argued that social media, as platforms built around weak ties, "seldom lead to high-risk activism," which he implies is more valuable.

7. Faulkner (2010) discusses the opportunities and objectives of instant visibility in Avatar activism. For a further discussion of the notion of flash fandom and its primary objectives of visibility, see Mehta (2010).

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