Book review

By any media necessary: The new youth activism, by Henry Jenkins et al.

Allison McCracken

[0.1] Keywords—Civic engagement; Digital media; Fandom; Participatory culture; Politics; Youth media

McCracken, Allison. 2017. By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, by Henry Jenkins et al. [book review]. In "Queer Female Fandom," edited by Julie Levin Russo and Eve Ng, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 24.

Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, Liana Gamber-Thompson, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, and Arely M. Zimmerman. By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism. New York: NYU Press, 2016, hardcover, $29.95 (352p) ISBN 9781479899982; e-book $19.86 (58780 KB), ASIN B0171WAJAA. Full text available online:

[1] By Any Media Necessary is a major contribution to media and cultural studies scholarship, both for the significance of its subject matter and for those involved in the project. This foundational, timely volume argues that some kinds of youth participation in the digital media sphere represent a new and significant form of political activism that has been unrecognized or trivialized by the public at large. It is the product of 6 years of research by Henry Jenkins and his team at the MacArthur Foundation's Youth and Participatory Politics (MAPP) research network housed at USC. While there are many such digital projects around the country focused on youth Internet use (it seems that every research university has one), MAPP and the Connected Learning Research Network are the two most prominent of these, and both are well funded by the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning Initiative (DML). By Any Media Necessary is the second offering of the NYU book series "Connected Youth and Digital Learning," also supported by the DML.

[2] Jenkins is famous for his previous field-defining interventions in media studies, particularly Textual Poachers ([1992] 2013) and Convergence Culture (2006). Both of these works focus on the intersection of corporate mass media and fandom, with the latter specifically addressing the proliferation and changing nature of these meeting points in the Internet era. Jenkins was especially interested in the way in which the increasing accessibility of the Internet made the voices, critiques, and creative production of young fans more visible to each other, providing them with new opportunities for peer-to-peer education, mutual support, and civic engagement. The potential of this participatory culture has remained a central interest for Jenkins and the subject of much of his published work since (note 1). He and his team's mission here is to extend the idea of participatory culture into the political realm, examining how for many youth within the United States political change is being promoted "through social and cultural mechanisms rather than through established political institutions" (2).

[3] The volume is both introductory and foundational on this subject and offers both theory and praxis. In two substantial chapters, Jenkins and MAPP director Sangita Shresthova think through the larger questions posed by the project, such as how to conceive of and map the relationship between cultural and political youth media activities; they offer a variety of frames for analysis, many of which are applied and further developed by the authors of five fascinating, very different case study chapters. Elisabeth Soep, senior producer at Oakland's YouthRadio, provides an equally thoughtful afterword. Although By Any Media Necessary's various chapters are by individual authors, the volume's authors are collaborators, and they all use the term "we" to reflect their collective composition. However, given that the volume highlights media activities by demographically varied, multiply identified US-based youth, it does seem important to point out that Jenkins's collaborators are an equally heterogeneous group that includes people of color and immigrants. The resulting text is unusually cohesive because of rather than despite its collective nature; it is ideologically consistent across chapters, and the collective's attention to the realities of social difference is a structural component of the project. It's baked into the cake.

[4] Indeed, By Any Media Necessary is valuable not because it promotes one particular conclusion about the connection between culture and politics but because it does not. The collective's position—to borrow the title and argument of fellow scholar danah boyd's recent valuable study of youth social media use—is that "it's complicated" (boyd 2014). By Any Media Necessary's tremendous worth is in the depth and richness of the conversation, the establishment of the scholarly playing field, the detailed documentation of often ephemeral youth activity (products of years of research), and the often inspirational quality of much of that activity. Case study authors employ multiple methodologies in their research, combining in-depth interviews, ethnography, and textual and material analysis in a number of ways. They grapple with the social diversity of their youthful subjects (including the widely divergent personal stakes involved in their media use), the variety of their media activities, and the shifts in digital technologies, youth organizational structures, and national politics that constantly impact their studies.

[5] It is impossible to read this book outside of our present dystopian context, which makes the work its authors are doing in drawing attention to youth media practices all the more vital. What this collective's compelling case studies make very clear is that it is through these nontraditional modes of communication and within these new media spaces that a great deal of youth civic participation and politicization is happening. The collective effectively refutes the critiques often leveled at clicktivist youth that paint them as apolitical and shallow. They make the excellent (and chillingly accurate) point that media activities such as shared popular culture material and informal peer-to-peer civic education across media have assumed a greater political weight because other forms of youth civic education (such as traditional educational institutions) have broken down. Participatory culture is what many young people have instead, and they use it to teach, support, and encourage each other in ways that adults dismiss at their peril. The urgency of the book's title, an adaptation of the phrase "by any means necessary" popularized by Malcolm X, seems especially appropriate in our current climate, and it is one of several ways in which the collective draws connections between the activities of today's youth and those of the 1960s. Previous politically active youth were likewise disappointed with consensus politics and were inspired by the counterculture; the two groups informed each other, and these authors suggest that similar kinds of cultural/political amalgamations are at work now but in new forms that must be understood, valued, and utilized by progressives. The collective provides examples of many youth activist organizations today that are successful because they offer young people multiple points of entry, including popular culture and participatory forms that have proved very successful in sparking civic engagement (64).

[6] Henry Jenkins provides the hefty and dense 60-page introduction to the subject in the book's first chapter. To his credit, Jenkins is self-aware of his position as a field-defining scholar and he takes full advantage of it, offering an exhaustive review and analysis of the scholarship and activism that has helped shape the collective's thinking. This is a distinctly interdisciplinary study that draws on the work of (among others) digital culture and media studies scholars, social and communication theorists, historians, and media and youth activists. Among the many ideas on offer, some clearly have had greater impact on this project than have others. In particular, the collective's concept of the civic imagination, introduced by Jenkins, frames a great deal of their work. The term was inspired in part by a 2008 talk given by author J. K. Rowling (2008) in which she called for her public to "imagine better" by linking imagination to empathy for persons "beyond the bounds of [one's] own experience." The phrase "imagine better" has inspired a great deal of fan activist engagement, and the authors here combine this ideal with communication studies scholar Peter Dahlgren's concept of the "civic" as "an engagement in public life…for the public good" (37). This definition works well for Jenkins because of its broader application to the motivations as well as the practices of youth who may or may not identify politically but who participate in cultural and educational activities within their communities. The authors employ the concept of the "civic imagination," then, to describe how youth are utilizing the language and symbols of popular media to envision alternatives to seemingly intractable social realities and therefore also begin to "imagine themselves as active political agents" (29). For example, notes Jenkins (citing Zimmerman's research), undocumented youth frequently adapt superhero images, such as illegal alien Superman, as figures of personal and collective empowerment.

[7] Sangita Shresthova's chapter, "'Watch 30 Minute Video, Become Social Activist'?: Kony 2012, Invisible Children, and the Paradox of Participatory Politics" foregrounds the activity of a single youth-focused organization. Invisible Children was founded by three US college students in 2003 to create awareness of civil unrest in Uganda and, in particular, the plight of child soldiers. Leaders frequently employed the language of popular culture and social media to get their message out, culminating in their phenomenally successful YouTube video Kony 2012, which was seen by more than 100 million people in its first week. However, the attention to this video—both supportive and critical—overwhelmed the group's leadership, and Shresthova examines this crisis to understand the kinds of challenges such youth networks face in "promoting change through participatory politics" (77). Her detailed analysis—the product of years spent working with IC organizers and the youth activists inspired by them—provides a useful model for future researchers. She identifies key points of paradox in the organization, such as the group's struggle to maintain control of its messages and initial goals while supporting a large, diffuse, intensely engaged youth population eager for ways to more fully participate.

[8] Both Neta Kligler-Vilenchik's chapter "'Decreasing World Suck': Harnessing Popular Culture for Fan Activism" and Liana Gamber-Thompson's chapter "Bypassing the Ballot Box: How Libertarian Youth Are Reimagining the Political" focus, like Shresthova, on the participatory activities of largely white, privileged youth. Kligler-Vilenchik's chapter foregrounds the charity and human rights organization The Harry Potter Alliance (about which Jenkins has also written) and the Nerdfighters, a subcultural community advocating charity, education, and positive values that is led by self-described "Vlog brothers" and multimedia producers John and Hank Green (Jenkins 2012). Kligler-Vilenchik's is the only chapter that focuses specifically on the complexities of "fan activism," a term that the collective uses to refer to both fan political participation and civic engagement (such as charity work). She again invokes the concept of civic imagination to describe how fans use fantasy to both envision social change and to feel empowered themselves. She notes that fans are well positioned for politicization because they already have communities built around the kinds of intense affective investments that often drive political action, which has greatly facilitated the organization of HPA and the Nerdfighters. HPA is the most prominent of these civic-minded fan groups, with chapters in 300 community institutions nationwide and abroad; its members engage in a wide variety of cultural, educational, philanthropic, and more traditional political activities that often overlap and converge. Perhaps surprisingly, Liana Gamber-Thompson's study of libertarian youth (the Student Liberty Movement) demonstrates how their media activism also incorporates fannish affective behaviors (centered around favorite philosophers). Unlike fan activists, however, they reject conventional political practices entirely and focus on making change through informal educational activities, especially online learning. Gamber-Thompson provides a useful discussion of the generational shift represented by this self-named "second-generation" of libertarians, who, paradoxically, do receive the financial support of some traditional libertarian think tanks.

[9] The largely white, middle-class privilege of both the libertarians and the fan activists gives them the advantage of social power and reach, but, as the authors observe, their demographic homogeneity has unintended consequences of exclusivity. In regard to fans, for example, Kligler-Vilenchik observes that the taste cultures uniting Nerdfighters (and HPA) are classed and raced in particular ways that inhibit more diverse membership. She develops this important point by drawing from Pierre Bourdieu's (1984) and Daniel Dayan's (2005) work on the formation of "taste publics" and "identity publics" to suggest how common experiences, backgrounds, and references connect these overwhelmingly female, white, and middle-class fans in ways that can make others (especially people of color) feel unwelcome. Surprisingly, however, Kligler-Vilenchik does not discuss the way in which these young fans' often intense feminist and LGBTQ affiliations and commitments—often actualized and developed within these communities—have prompted them to engage in a variety of forms of civic engagement, as scholars of youth media fandom such as Louisa Stein (2015) have detailed. Making feminist politics a larger part of the conversation here would certainly enrich Kligler-Vilenchik's analysis, as shared feminist and LGBTQ identifications often help fans to make connections across class and racial lines.

[10] The next two chapters, Sangita Shresthova's "Between Storytelling and Surveillance: The Precarious Public of American Muslim Youth" and Liana Gamber-Thompson and Arely M. Zimmerman's "DREAMing Ctizienship: Undocumented Youth, Coming Out, and Pathways to Participation," shift away from voluntary political engagements by young people to groups of youth whose bodies are always already politicized in the United States: American Muslims and undocumented DREAMers. They represent "precarious publics," youth more in need of empowerment but also more at risk in making their voices public. Shresthova describes how culture and politics are always conflated for American Muslims, a fact that, she argues, has both advantages and disadvantages. Although she makes clear that there are plenty of intracommunity differences, the fact that youth are already situated within an organized, politicized community means that their cultural work is legitimized (and often supported) by more established, traditional advocacy groups. At the same time, however, young people's desire to express themselves and to correct public misperceptions of Muslims—primarily through sharing their stories and critique via videos—is threatened by their constant surveillance and is always tied to the changing national political climate toward Muslims. Like American Muslims, DREAMers are also balancing the risks and benefits of public participation, and they have also found that video confessionals (coming out as undocumented online) have been a powerful way of feeling heard and creating community. The authors argue that this group is "enacting citizenship" in new ways by making "creative use of new media to put a new face on civil rights activism in the 21st century" (187). They demonstrate how this group's moving videos united the community and led directly to the establishment of a national civil rights movement on the ground, making the point that "affective and tactical elements" operated together and were "mutually reinforcing" (187). Under the new administration, however, DREAMer activity is particularly precarious, as DREAMers have become subject to abrupt shifts in legislation, policing, and internment or deportation.

[11] Indeed, these two chapters are especially poignant and troubling after the 2016 presidential election. Our current national emergency makes both what this book does and what it does not do seem even more significant. As is Jenkins's wont, By Any Media Necessary gives short shrift to the limits of youth media activism in corporate-controlled media (the recent death of Vine, an app widely used by youth of color, provides an object lesson in such precarity). The book's most glaring absence, however, is a complete lack of attention to right-wing/alt-right youth media activities. While Jenkins admits in his introduction (following scholar James Hay) that participatory politics can be employed for either progressive or reactionary ends, there are no examples or citations regarding the latter, which promotes the impression that such activity is fairly minimal. Yet the fact that the presidential vote was so clearly divided among American millennials suggests that there is a great deal of political activity by reactionary youth (fueled by young media activists such as those at Breitbart News). Humanities-based, qualitative media scholars (myself included) have long neglected the close study of current right-wing media activity because it is inevitably very difficult, depressing, and increasingly dangerous. Although individual feminist media scholars have done some brave and important work addressing public media attacks on women (such as in gamergate), it is unclear to me whether research into the media use of reactionary youth in particular is being funded institutionally to the degree that this study has been. If it isn't, it should be.

[12] This absence, however, does not make By Any Media Necessary any less of a gift for scholars and students across disciplines (and, I hope, beyond the academy). It will be enormously valuable for scholars in media and popular culture studies, cultural studies, critical race/ethnic studies, and American studies. While the introduction seems addressed to graduate students and above, the individual case studies are very accessible for undergraduates, and each stands on its own. I am looking forward to teaching these chapters, and I am particularly appreciative of the fact that the entire book is available for digital access, as are all the books in this series. I am hopeful that this book will do much to ensure our greater attention to and understanding of youth media practices—and sooner rather than later.


1. Jenkins coauthored the volume Participatory Culture in a Networked Era in 2016, an extended conversation with fellow digital media scholars Mizuko Ito and danah boyd, that functions well as a companion to this book. See also Jenkins et al. (2009).

Works cited

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1984. Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

boyd, danah. 2014. It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Dayan, Daniel. 2005. "Mothers, Midwives and Abortionists: Genealogy, Obstetrics, Audiences and Publics." In Audiences and Publics: When Cultural Engagement Matters for the Public Sphere, edited by Sonia Livingstone, 43–76. London: Intellect.

Jenkins, Henry. (1992) 2013. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. Updated twentieth anniversary edition. New York: Routledge.

Jenkins, Henry. 2006. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press.

Jenkins, Henry. 2012. "'Cultural Acupuncture': Fan Activism and the Harry Potter Alliance." In "Transformative Works and Fan Activism," edited by Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 10.

Jenkins, Henry, Mizuko Ito, and danah boyd. 2016. Participatory Culture in a Networked Era. Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.

Jenkins, Henry, Ravi Purushotma, Margaret Weigel, Kate Clinton, and Alice J. Robinson. 2009. Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Rowling, J. K. 2008. "The Fringe Benefits of Failure, and the Importance of Imagination." Harvard Gazette, June 5.

Stein, Louisa L. 2015. Millennial Fandom: Television Audiences in the Transmedia Age. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.