Symposium

Mobilizing minions: Fan activism efficacy of Misha Collins fans in Supernatural fandom

Alex Xanthoudakis

Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, Canada

[0.1] Abstract—In 2009, Supernatural (CW, 2005–) actor Misha Collins tweeted to his followers in an effort to raise government funds for nonprofit initiatives, resulting in the fan-made website Minion Stimulus whose creator Collins later approached about growing the site into a private charity, Random Acts. The circumstances of Random Acts' inception paved the way for Collins's current philanthropic strategy, which operationalizes fan activism for social good. Collins's approach to fan mobilization takes place on social media, which he has used to effectively operationalize the potential of fan activism.

[0.2] Keywords—Celebrity studies; Charity; Civic engagement; Fan/celebrity relationships; Parasociality; Politics; Social Media

Xanthoudakis, Alex. 2020. "Mobilizing Minions: Fanactivism Efficacy of Misha Collins Fans in Supernatural Fandom." In "Fandom and Politics," edited by Ashley Hinck and Amber Davisson, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 32. https://doi.org/10.3983/twc.2020.1827.

1. Introduction

[1.1] Social media has changed the ways fans interact with celebrities, creating a perceived intimacy and sense of friendship on the part of fans (Marwick and boyd 2011; Bennett 2014a; Ballantine and Martin 2005). Though this kind of interaction can resemble a market relationship—characterized by its ability to swap parties out indiscriminately—the fan/celebrity rapport can, in some cases, also resemble friendship as defined by scholars and academics (Baym 2013). According to Nancy Baym's 2013 study on the relationship between musicians and their social media audiences, public figures "do not just affect audiences. Audiences affect them" (312). This is not a one-sided relationship; celebrities mediate, negotiate, and renegotiate their relationships to their audiences on a sliding scale from fan to friend (Baym 2013; Philips 2011). Depending where on this scale a public figure finds themselves, the use of social media can subvert and complicate the notion of parasociality—defined as a one-sided relationship characterized by the overacknowledgment of one party, and lack of acknowledgment of the other (Baym 2013; Ballantine and Martin 2005; Horton and Wohl 1956). Social media allows for celebrities previously thought of as untouchable to interact with their fan bases more directly and, in certain cases, cultivate a relationship that encourages fan mobilization for various forms of political and nonpolitical activism (Beer 2008; Marwick and boyd 2011).

[1.2] This is particularly true of Misha Collins. Best known for his role as the angel Castiel on the CW's Supernatural (CW, 2005–), Collins has distilled a formula to efficiently and effectively mobilize his fan base for various causes. He first joined Twitter in 2009 (with Facebook to follow a year later), where he asked followers for ideas regarding a "minion stimulus" project that would raise money for nonprofit initiatives (Random Acts 2019c). The tweet resulted in the fan-made website Minion Stimulus, whose creator, Lisa Walker, Collins later approached about growing into a charity. This eventually became the private charity Random Acts, whose cofounder and board president is Collins to this day (Random Acts 2019c).

[1.3] The circumstances of the inception of Random Acts paved the way for Misha Collins's current philanthropic strategy which operationalizes fan activism, here defined as the organizing of fans for civic and social engagement and to achieve both content- and non-content–related goals (Earl and Kimport 2009; Brough and Shresthova 2011; Hink 2011; Bennett 2014a; Jones 2011). Using a mix of audiovisual and text content, Collins has distilled a formula for effectively mobilizing his fan base, mostly achieved through a specific framing of fandom acknowledgment. Through the creation of his online persona, and specifically by referring to himself and the fandom as part of the Supernatural or SPN Family (a long-used moniker for the fandom, cast, and crew), Misha Collins firmly categorizes the relationship with his audience as friendly, and I argue that it is this, in light of the fandom's history with its own source material, that allows his mobilization efforts to be so successful (note 1).

2. A fandom primed for mobilization

[2.1] The Supernatural fandom's potential for mobilization has been present since the show's conception. Its genre subject matter and narrative structure made Supernatural a fantastic candidate for a dedicated cult following from the outset, despite the fact that the show's modest original marketing strategy pointed to the expectation by its producers of an equally modest audience reception (Felschow 2010). This expectation is painfully obvious when considering the lack of marketing initiatives used to encourage Supernatural fan engagement. Unlike Lost (ABC, 2004–2010), which courted fans through podcasts, hidden Easter eggs, and the creation of an official message board, there were no sanctioned power structures in place to curate and control the ways in which Supernatural fans engaged with their source material. The fandom had free rein to encounter and celebrate the text without being invited or told how to do so by the network or creators, which generated a sense of intense ownership that is shared with show producers, and in turn has cultivated a very vocal and engaged fan base—one that remains so to this day (Felschow 2010; Lowe 2017).

[2.2] The best and most recent example of this engagement occurred with the death of the hacker fangirl character Charlie Bradbury, who was regarded as the fandom's representation and was the only sustained queer representation on the show. Outraged by her death, especially because its apparent only purpose was to supply the male protagonist Dean Winchester with further "man pain," fans' anger toward creators remained prominent on social media until San Diego Comic Con in 2015, when, in response to a pointed fan question about sexism and the death of a female character, then-showrunner Jeremy Carver explained that "[the writers] have to go where the story takes us" (Flicks and the City 2015). This statement did not go over well; showcasing what happens when Supernatural fans are upset, the following season had a 240,000 decline in average live viewership ("Supernatural TV Ratings" 2019). It should be noted that while many fans left the fandom after Carver's faux pas, many others remained and simply refused to watch future seasons as an act of protest.

[2.3] Thus, the sense of ownership Supernatural fans have over their source material moves them to action—whether that means speaking out directly against The Powers That Be, or depriving them viewership. It also makes fans particularly responsive to the equalizing fandom-as-friends framing that Misha Collins employs. Baym's 2013 study uses Jeffrey A. Hall's four dimensions of friendship to prove friendliness between musicians and their social media audience, and the same can be applied to television actors and their fans. By fulfilling Hall's dimensions through the creation of his social media persona, Collins distances himself from the Supernatural producers, allowing for a relationship that greatly resembles regular friendship (Hall 2011). This makes mobilization an act of support, unification, and allyship, which Supernatural fans are primed to value. How Misha Collins's fans exhibit Hall's dimensions goes beyond the scope of this short study, though scholarship on parasociality has established fans' friendly framing of public figures (Ballantine and Martin 2005; Marwick and boyd 2011).

3. Friends and friends as family

[3.1] Hall's first dimension of friendship is symmetrical reciprocity: an expectation of mutual "loyalty, authenticity, trustworthiness, and support" (2011). This is demonstrated through the sharing of Misha Collins's family life (figure 1), giving fans a look "behind the curtain" which in turn establishes his persona's authenticity (Schulzke 2011). Support is demonstrated through the interaction with and acknowledgment of individual fans online. Figure 2, for example, illustrates his tweeting his support to a single fan in the hospital as well as support of the fandom at large. The latter also can be seen in figure 3, where Collins shares that he bought a star for the fandom to combat feelings of loneliness.

Color screenshot of Misha Collins Facebook image post from account officialmisha dated June 30, 2016, detailing a color photo of Misha Collins and daughter Maison with a comb. Text of post reads: I've been kind of burning the candle at both ends lately and so finally, yesterday I sent everyone an email saying, "I'm unplugging for a few days. Don't expect me to get back to you until after the 4th."
Now I am sitting in my relatively new car on the side of the road waiting for a tow truck. Two hours ago, when the car died with a violent shaking in plumes of smoke, I got out to inspect it. So did my son. I popped the hood. Looked at the undercarriage. Then my son suggested I check behind the little door to the gas cap (where you pump in the gas). I asked him with suspicious concern, "What makes you think that might be the problem?" He responded with a tellingly wooden, "I don't know."
"Westy," I said, "Did you put something in the gas tank?" "Just water." He told me.
Apparently he had noticed last night that the fuel gauge was low, so being the problem solver that he is, he removed the gas cap and filled the tank with the garden hose this morning while I was inside combing lice out of his feverish sister's hair.
My wife is currently walking a couple miles home from the doctor's office with my daughter, Maison. (When the car broke down we were on our way to pick them up). We were getting her checked out because she has a bad headache and a high temperature. Luckily, the doctor assured us that Maison will be as good as new in a couple of weeks, she just has "foot and mouth disease." I don't care what people say, being a parent is basically a permanent vacation from stress.
This photo is of me and Maison modeling a designer lice comb.

Figure 1. "I've kind of been burning the candle at both ends..." Facebook post by Misha Collins (officialmisha) sharing the details of a bad day (June 30, 2016, https://www.facebook.com/officialmisha/photos/a.129194833769199/1150479008307438/).

Color screenshot of tweet by Misha Collins from account @mishacollins dated May 4, 2018. Text reads: "The #SPNFamily is pulling for you, Monica!" over a retweet from user Kristen Kress (@KristenKress) with text "Attention #SPNFamily: One of our own and my dearest friend, @Monica952, is in critical condition and needs your help. Please read her story and spread the word" (with two clickable images of text).

Figure 2. "The #SPNFamily is pulling for you, Monica!" Misha Collins tweets his support to a fan in the hospital (@mishacollins, Twitter, May 4, 2018; https://twitter.com/mishacollins/status/992463644699971584).

Color screenshot of tweet by Misha Collins from account @mishacollins dated September 7, 2018. Text reads: "If you ever doubt you have a place in the universe, it's at Pegasus RA 21h 36m 27.82s D 13°7' (RA 21h 36m 27.82s D 13°6' 34.06", to be exact). I had a star named for the #SPNFamily just in case you forget—& so whenever you look up at the night sky, you'll know you're not alone." Below are two smaller, clickable images of star registration information.

Figure 3. "If you ever doubt you have a place in the universe..." Misha Collins tweets that he has bought a star for the Supernatural fandom (@mishacollins, Twitter, September 7, 2018; https://twitter.com/mishacollins/status/1038267774039019520).

[3.2] Figure 4 includes a graphic created by costar Kathryn Newton in reference to the supremely popular relationship "Destiel," which pairs Collins's character Castiel and Dean Winchester, the character of costar Jensen Ackles. Misha Collins's tweet of this graphic demonstrates that he actively encourages and acknowledges fans' shipping activities. His nod to Tumblr here is especially telling in that regard—the microblogging platform was home to many Supernatural fans in 2015. Although Newton posted her graphic to Twitter, the fact that Collins claims to have seen it in an important fannish space implies an acceptance, enthusiasm, and participation in fannish behavior. This creates trust and loyalty, especially in a fandom where references to shipping were, at one point, forbidden during convention question periods and fans asking them were antagonized by producers (Wilkinson 2010; Felschow 2010).

Color screenshot of tweet by Misha Collins from account @mishacollins dated April 30, 2015. Text reads: "The spinoff has been announced… on tumblr (where i gather all my breaking news updates)." Attached is a color photograph of actor Kathryn Newton in center of group hug by Misha Collins, Jensen Ackles, and Jared Padalecki, with label: "Starring Kathryn Newton as Claire Novak, 'My Two Dads (and uncle Moose) too!' in bright, cheesy text above the group"

Figure 4. "The spinoff has been announced..." Misha Collins tweets a reference to shipping (@mishacollins, Twitter, April 30, 2015; https://twitter.com/mishacollins/status/593831931948568577).

[3.3] The second friendship dimension is communion: an expectation of "emotional availability and empathic understanding" (Hall 2011). This can be observed in figure 5, where Collins mentions the You Are Not Alone T-shirt campaign (Twitter hashtag: #YANA). YANA's goal was to create a text-based online hotline for fans in crisis (Random Acts 2019a), born of the desire to, in Collins's words, "make a material difference" in the lives of fans struggling with mental illness—of which "literally dozens" share their stories with him and his costars at every convention (Prudom 2016). This type of communion is further observed in the instances illustrated by figure 6, which presents an image of Misha Collins becoming emotional at a convention while a fan shares the same kind of story just mentioned. Collins displays empathy at the fan's display of vulnerability, making himself emotionally vulnerable in return. But not all moments of sharing are as intense and emotionally charged as this.

Color screenshot of tweet by Misha Collins from account @mishacollins dated February 12, 2016. Text reads: "This campaign will fund the new #SPNfamily Crisis Support Network. Join us to help save SPNfamily members in crisis." Link to campaign attached: creationstands.com/products/jensen-misha-you-are-not-alone-campaign

Figure 5. "This campaign will fund the new #SPNfamily Crisis Support Network." Misha Collins tweets to his followers about a new campaign to benefit the Supernatural fandom (@mishacollins, Twitter, February 12, 2016; https://twitter.com/mishacollins/status/698206170931068928).

Color photograph of Misha Collins on a stage, seated and bent over, with a microphone in his right hand and his forehead resting on the back of his left hand.

Figure 6. Misha Collins gets emotional hearing a fan story at a 2015 convention, image sourced from Tumblr (casthewise 2015).

[3.4] Through livestreamed videos, Collins has shared details of his sporadic homelessness as a child, showcasing further emotional vulnerability (figure 7). Livestream as a medium is also particularly effective in establishing a friendship between himself and his audience, in part due to its vividness as a video—its ability to stimulate as many of the senses as possible, encouraging audience engagement—and in part because this vividness extends to its real-time aspect, creating a further sense of intimacy (de Vries, Gensler, and Leeflang 2012). The fact that Collins uses livestreaming and video so regularly (fifty-seven videos on Facebook from January to July 2019), often filming on selfie mode, combats the feeling of this content being staged or overly performative—which, again, lends an even further sense of authenticity and intimacy to his persona.

Color screenshot of a livestream video posted to Facebook by Misha Collins from account officialmisha dated September 18, 2018. Still frame shows Misha Collins, shirtless and wearing earbuds, standing in the yard behind a three-story white house by a small road. Text reads: "There's nothing quite like a sweaty run down memory lane." Charity campaign link attached: bit.ly/TheBadIdeaTour

Figure 7. "Memory Lane." Screenshot taken of a livestream posted September 18, 2018, to Facebook (officialmisha), in which Misha Collins divulges personal details (https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1091037047717552).

[3.5] Solidarity is the third dimension of friendship, characterized by an expectation of companionship and engaging in activities together (Hall 2011). This manifests primarily as Collins live-tweeting Supernatural episodes with fans when they air (figure 8).

Color screenshot of tweet by Misha Collins from account @mishacollins dated October 27, 2016. Text reads: "After all these years, you'd think Sam & Dean would have learned that their mom should avoid nurseries. #Supernatural"

Figure 8. Misha Collins live-tweets the third episode of season 12, "The Foundry" (@mishacollins, October 27, 2016; https://twitter.com/mishacollins/status/791855719679008768).

[3.6] The last dimension is agency, an expectation that the relationship will be mutually beneficial by providing things such as assistance to success, access to resources, and popularity (Hall 2011). This is demonstrated most obviously through fans providing Misha Collins with information as in figure 9, where a fan shares important information about voting in the US presidential election.

Color screenshot of tweet by Misha Collins from account @mishacollins dated October 9, 2018. Text reads: "Thank you! Registration is not the only thing that matters, everyone. Make sure your registration in your state is up-to-date. Final day to register to vote in many states! Get on it! http://vote.gov." Tweet is in reference to previous commentary by user Northern Sparrow whose account is @NorthernSprw. Text reads: "@mishacollins Switching gears. I'm a poll worker in AZ. #1 reason we turned ppl away in primary was: address on id didn't match address in voter reg database. No way around this. Prov. ballot won't count. Pls remind ppl, in states that require id: If have moved, update license."

Figure 9. "Thank you! Registration is not the only thing that matters, everyone." Fan Northern Sparrow (@NorthernSprw) provides Collins with voting information via Twitter (@mishacollins, October 9, 2018; https://twitter.com/mishacollins/status/1049743901127467008).

[3.7] Popularity is gained through voting to ensure Collins wins awards such as Celebmix's Philanthropist of the Year 2018 (figure 10). The tweet attached to the Celebmix announcement implies that Collins really only sees himself as a mobilizer and an organizer. He builds the infrastructure for do-gooding, and the fans flock to it—he operationalizes a potential that is already there. This sentiment has been echoed at conventions where Collins has admitted to seeing large potential to do good with a group of passionate people who have a common interest—in this case, the Supernatural Family (Zrana 2015).

Color screenshot of tweet by Misha Collins from account @mishacollins dated October 27, 2018. Text reads: "I actually didn't win this. I just happened to have lucked into a fandom full of philanthropic misfits. But I'm happy to take credit for their good deeds." This is in response to tweet from actor Rachel Miner whose account is @RachelMiner1. Text reads: "Beautiful news, congratulations @mishacollins on winning @CelebMix Philanthropist of the year!! So well deserved, and so much love to the @RandomActsOrg @GISH families, and #SPNFamily who're making beautiful things happen all over the world every day!!" with a blue heart emoji.

Figure 10. "I actually didn't win this." Misha Collins replies to costar Rachel Miner's tweet regarding his Celebmix award for 2018 Philanthropist of the Year (@mishacollins, December 22, 2018; https://twitter.com/mishacollins/status/1076541254282985473).

[3.8] The SPN Family is the most compelling piece of evidence to prove celebrity friendliness in this context. The use of familial and community language like "ours," "we," and "us" in reference to the cast, crew, and fandom minimizes the distance between audience and public figure. This can be observed in figures 11 and 12, where two different groups are termed members of the Supernatural Family. The familial relationship frames all individual actions as equal and part of a greater whole, no matter who a person is and how famous they are (figure 13).

Color screenshot of tweet by Misha Collins from account @mishacollins dated January 6, 2015. Text reads: "RIP Matt Riley. Love to your family. You will be missed by your #SPNFamily."

Figure 11. "You will be missed by your #SPNFamily." Misha Collins refers to the #SPNFamily as comprising the cast and crew (@mishacollins, January 6, 2015; https://twitter.com/mishacollins/status/552643669467992064).

Color screenshot of tweet by Misha Collins from account @mishacollins dated August 29, 2017. Text reads: "The trouble with the #SPNFamily is that we can't take you guys anywhere without making headlines! (Thanks.)" Below text is a link to an "Entertainment Weekly" article. Text reads: "'Supernatural' Stars Raise More Than 200K for Hurricane Harvey Relief. The Supernatural fandom has come together to help those in Texas" with color photo of Misha Collins, Jared Padalecki, and Jensen Ackles standing together and smiling.

Figure 12. "The trouble with the #SPNFamily…" Misha Collins thanks the Supernatural Family on Twitter for their hurricane Harvey relief fundraising efforts, here addressing the #SPNFamily as comprising the fandom (@mishacollins, August 29, 2017; https://twitter.com/mishacollins/status/902679578820280320).

Color screenshot of tweet by Misha Collins from account @mishacollins dated March 22, 2019. Text reads: "It's been a hell of a run, and we couldn't be more grateful for all of it. No matter what, we'll always all be #SPNFamily." Below text is embedded color video showing Misha Collins, Jensen Ackles, and Jared Padalecki in casual clothing. Video time is 1:23 minutes with 747K views at the time of the screenshot.

Figure 13. Screenshot of a 1:23-minute video embedded in a tweet, with Misha Collins noting that Supernatural's fifteenth season will be its last (@mishacollins, March 22, 2019; https://twitter.com/mishacollins/status/1109192901416775680).

[3.9] After telling the rest of the cast and crew, Supernatural's three leads recorded a video for the fans to inform them that season fifteen will be the show's last, showcasing just how seriously family is taken as a community identity. Supernatural fans didn't have to wait for an official statement from the network; the cast spoke to them directly, apparently immediately after all producers were made aware. During the video, Collins even makes the point of assuring fans: "we love you guys and this family is not going anywhere" (see figure 13).

4. Collaborative results

[4.1] The unification of an engaged, enthusiastic fandom with a public figure who establishes himself and his fan base as friends cultivates a culture of intense engagement, support, and loyalty, which is then wielded for various activist endeavors (Bennett 2014a) such as raising funds through Random Acts to buy a bus and build a campus and school for a rural Nicaraguan community (Random Acts 2019b). Through Dreams2Acts Nicaragua, fans were encouraged to fundraise and had the opportunity to be part of a team that met Collins and helped build the school (Random Acts 2019b). Another activist endeavor, YANA, is now a fully functional online hotline with trained volunteers, of which there were almost 10,000 at the end of the T-shirt campaign during which over 10,000 T-shirts were sold (cocklestfw 2016; miss-devonaire 2016).

[4.2] Fans were also mobilized to campaign and participate in the political process during the 2016 US presidential election. Though Collins's robust efforts go beyond my scope here, figure 14 lends some insight as to how this mobilization manifested.

Color screenshot of tweet by Misha Collins from account @mishacollins dated October 10, 2016. Text reads: "My fellow citizens & I had a great talk about the importance of voting. Now I'm off to Cedar Rapids. Meet me at 11:15 @ the Blue Strawberry!" Below the text is a color selfie of Misha Collins wearing sunglasses and smiling with a large group of women and several men clustered behind him.

Figure 14. "My fellow citizens & I…" Misha Collins tweets his followers to meet him on a short, informal campaign trail in Iowa (@mishacollins, October 10, 2016; https://twitter.com/mishacollins/status/785514275653562368).

[4.3] Collins also raised money via a GoFundMe campaign to buy Congress's data after they voted to pass a law that allowed internet service providers to collect and sell users' information without their consent (Collins 2017). Though the campaign did not attain the $500 million required to buy the data, all the funds that were raised were donated to the American Civil Liberties Union (Highfill 2016).

[4.4] The Greatest International Scavenger Hunt The World Has Ever Seen (previously known as GISHWHES and now as GISH) is an international scavenger hunt initiated by Collins with the goal of "wak[ing] up the world and chang[ing] it for the weirder and better" (GISH 2019). Since 2011, the hunt has moved its participants to volunteer at over 3,000 food pantries, to clean up thousands of beaches, to volunteer at women's shelters and senior centers, and to make cancer patient care bags (GISH 2019).

[4.5] These are only a handful of the projects Collins and his fan base have accomplished, proving that the unity between fans and celebrities can move people to action that has a huge impact (Bennett 2014a, 138–52).

5. Conclusion

[5.1] As more of our lives and our activism begin to play out online (Kahne and Bowyer 2018; Kligler-Vilenchik et al. 2011; Earl, Maher, and Elliott 2017), it is important to know why certain groups are particularly effective at mobilizing. This can help us to understand other online activist movements that partner with public figures, and how social media can be used to mobilize people to social and civic engagement. It also reaffirms the idea that fandom can be used as a way to move people to these ends (Jenkins 2012; Kligler-Vilenchik et al. 2011).

[5.2] Still, we need to acknowledge the problematic aspects of complicating the parasocial relationship. When a celebrity refers to a fandom as a family and works to treat that fandom as a friend, it can be very easy for the audience to labor in excess and endanger their mental health for what will still be a relationship with a very large imbalance of power. This is something scholarship has established, which in my view needs to be further explored going forward. My study additionally does not address the fact that Misha Collins is an upper-class, white, cis-man with a primarily white and middle-class fandom—factors that most definitely contribute to the fandom's efficacy and the kinds of charity-based activism they often partake in. This aspect would be well worth exploring in the future.

[5.3] In 2014, Lucy Bennett noted that the limits of fan activism and celebrity studies were just starting to be pushed (2014b, 5–20). As this case study of Misha Collins's fandom has shown, five years later there is still much to explore.

6. Note

1. It should be noted that I am both a Supernatural and Misha Collins fan, and though this is not an autoethnography, parts of this research have been informed by my own experiences.

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