Politics for the love of fandom: Fan-based citizenship in a digital world, by Ashley Hinck

Maria Alberto

University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah, United States

[0.1] Keywords—Civics; Ethics; Online communities

Alberto, Maria. 2020. Politics for the Love of Fandom: Fan-Based Citizenship in a Digital World, by Ashley Hinck [book review]. In "Fandom and Politics," edited by Ashley Hinck and Amber Davisson, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 32.

Ashley Hinck. Politics for the love of fandom: Fan-based citizenship in a digital world. Baton Rouge, LA: LSU Press, 2019, hardcover, $45 (264p) ISBN 978-0807170342; e-book, $39.49 (2813KB) ASIN B07NWY5LMH.

[1] 2020 brings with it the United States' next presidential election, which means that a whole lot of presidential hopefuls, their campaigns, and a constellation of supporters and detractors are all ramping up their best rhetorical game, trying to convince voters that their particular person is the one most suited to lead America for the next four years. With all of this on the horizon, Ashley Hinck's excellent new book Politics for the Love of Fandom is a timely addition to our reading lists, as Hinck traces connections between fan ethos and activities on the one hand and rhetoric, civics, and social engagement on the other.

[2] In writing Politics, Hinck sets out to examine the phenomenon she terms "fan-based citizenship." Simultaneously related to and distinct from fan activism (which, Hinck contends, describes a narrower range of activity), fan-based citizenship is "public engagement that emerges from a commitment to a fan-object" (6). Or, in other words, this is civic action that stems from participants' fandom experience and fan values, rather than from traditional religious or social institutions such as a church or political party. Hinck maintains that this new mode of citizen activity is made possible through a "digital, fluid world" (20) in which ethos-defining texts and meanings can stem from any source—popular, political, religious, and/or cultural—and can then be communicated to others through a variety of media. To this end, Hinck's book focuses on the rhetorical strategies used to initiate, recruit for, and maintain fan-based citizenship performances, exploring how fans are "invited, encouraged, and persuaded to take civic action" (16) that touches upon the fan-objects they love.

[3] I was already interested in Politics prior to its publication, having seen intriguing blurbs on various fan studies blogs (…Tumblr. I first saw it on Tumblr) and caught glimpses of Hinck's larger project in Poaching Politics (2018), which she coauthored with Paul Booth, Amber L. Davisson, and Aaron Hess—and which is another read I would highly recommend, this one for its superb investigation of participatory culture's role in the 2016 US presidential election. Even so, Politics captured my attention with Hinck's early distinction between fan activism and fan-based citizenship, and then won me over completely with Hinck's sharp focus on rhetorical strategies. Scholarly interest in the rhetoric of nontraditional—and even nontextual—texts has certainly increased (Jean Bessette's fantastic 2017 Retroactivism in the Lesbian Archives also comes to mind), but for these kinds of subjects it can be difficult to distinguish specific rhetorical elements without isolating them from the whole.

[4] Hinck, however, succeeds in this kind of analysis splendidly. Even more admirably, she also takes care to make Politics accessible to professional but non-academic audiences who might be seeking to learn more about fan-based citizenship in order to incorporate that knowledge into their own work. The book's coda, for instance, reframes her research by distilling findings from Hinck's case studies into practical suggestions for practitioners who will be "creating, inventing, audiencing, and participating in fan-based citizenship performances" (172); Hinck also anticipates that these lessons will be equally valuable for "a fan, a staff member at a charity, a chief of staff on a political campaign, or a major media corporation" (172). I believe, though, that this wide-ranging audience named in Hinck's coda is also the audience of her entire book. Though the structure and theoretical grounding of Politics' main chapters will certainly be more familiar to academic audiences than lay ones, Hinck's concepts are approachable and applicable just the same.

[5] The exploratory but accessible nature of Politics is apparent from the start. Though it might seem like well-trodden ground, Hinck uses her introduction to lay out clear definitions of citizenship (3–4), fandom (9–10), and online community (13), and then examines how each one functions as a mode of participation. Readers soon see the payoff of revisiting these terms, since Hinck introduces her term fan-based citizenship (6–7) as an additional mode of participation—and one that draws important characteristics from those previously described.

[6] Hinck follows this introduction with an initial chapter—possibly my favorite section of the book—theorizing what citizenship and citizenship performances look like in a digital and fluid world that "enables citizens to choose popular texts to authorize civic actions" (23) after rhetors, creators, and others already "encourage fans to adopt a particular interpretation of a media object" (37). In doing this, Hinck demonstrates that there are at least two levels of rhetoric involved in fan-based citizenship and its performances—the first when a fan-object is presented to its audience with "a particular interpretation" (37) and the second when fans base their own rhetoric upon that fan-object, whether or not this fannish rhetoric is based on the interpretation originally handed down to them. Specifically, Hinck suggests that we pay attention to "which textual interpretations are invoked when, how, by whom, and with what implications" (37) since there is definite possibility for a mismatch between creators' and fans' rhetorics—let alone politicians', campaigns', and so on. For Hinck, then, digitality and fluidity are central to fan-based citizenship because they enable these communications and choices; however, they are also key to her contention that both academics and practitioners should be paying more attention to fan-based citizenship as an emerging and evolving mode of civic participation. Then, on a more actionable level, Hinck also identifies three rhetorical strategies that observers might notice at play in fan-based citizenship performances: "connecting" certain aspects of the fan-object with a real-world social issue (18), "expanding" fannish value frameworks to include civic activities as well as fan ones (18), and "retelling" important fan-object narratives in order to mobilize fans to civic action (19).

[7] In tandem with the important concepts discussed above, I also appreciated how Hinck acknowledges that the presence of popular culture, new media fandoms, and online fan communities won't necessarily translate into fan-based global citizenship practices (37). Instead, she observes, a mode of fan-based citizenship requires ongoing rhetorical work from those pushing it. This realization is so crucial to Hinck that it becomes one of three theoretical assumptions guiding the analysis of the entire book: "that texts have multiple meanings, that the political use of popular culture is not automatic, and that access to popular culture texts varies with social location and power" (39). This grounding, along with her structured discussion of frameworks and modalities (30–33), is one of the many instances where Hinck works hard to ensure that field-specific concepts and terminology remain accessible to readers both across disciplines and beyond the academy.

[8] Following this introduction and initial theoretical chapter, Hinck draws on four years of fieldwork to present four case studies of fan-based citizenship, each one looking at a specific example in which a fannish framework has been paired with a civic cause. Chapter 2 looks at the Husker Football Coaches Challenge, which involves "connecting" (18) the values of University of Nebraska–Lincoln's Cornhusker football team fandom with a program for mentoring for at-risk youth. Here, fan ethics of supporting the team and being neighborly can translate into giving time, support, and expertise to local at-risk youth and racing to recruit more volunteer mentors than other states. Chapter 3 explores the Project for Awesome, a donation drive that entails "expanding" (18) the ethos of Nerdfighter fandom (fans of John and Hank Green's YouTube channel) to public causes by raising money for charity. Here, fandom values of support, collaboration, and community are transported beyond fannish spaces in order to serve nonfan communities. Chapter 4 then looks at the Greenpeace campaign #SavetheArctic #BlockShell, which involved "retelling" (18–19) the ending of the highly popular 2014 Lego Movie. By depicting this fictional world being destroyed by an oil spill, Greenpeace tried to appeal to fans' sense of play and creativity to mobilize action against the oil company Shell. And finally, in another excellent move that I would add to the list of Politics' strengths, Hinck's fourth case study looks at an example where the pairing of fan framework and civic modality failed. Disney's Star Wars-based Force for Change campaign asked fans to donate in support of UNICEF in exchange for chances to win merchandise, not by appealing to Star Wars-driven values such as standing up to evil forces or rallying for a greater social good. Thus, although the Force for Change campaign drew enough funds to be considered a financial success, its focus on material goods that fans might collect instead of values that fans might emulate means that this campaign did not truly draw acts of fan-based citizenship.

[9] In addition to the aforementioned coda that reframes Hinck's findings into five workable takeaways for practitioners, Politics wraps up with a conclusion where Hinck continues to make excellent points in approachable ways. After recapping the main themes and ideas of her book, Hinck proposes three implications of her work on fan-based citizenship and names two possible futures stemming from this new mode of affective political engagement. The implications include her argument that "to ignore fan-based citizenship would be to ignore a central part of contemporary public culture" (165) and the realization that "online communities are increasingly serving as a source of community, public values, and ultimately, citizenship performances" (166). However, she also notes the very pressing reality that many fan communities are predominantly white, or presume a default whiteness, and so cannot adequately address certain civic issues or meet the social needs of non-white communities (167–69). Hinck thus joins an array of scholars—including Rukmini Pande, Abigail De Kosnik, and andré carrington among others—in bringing these concerns to popular attention and noting that fans, and fan studies, can do better at being truly inclusive. Finally, Hinck closes by predicting that fan-based citizenship could lead either to fuller integration with electoral politics (169–70) or to corporate appropriation (170–71), and that fans' own awareness of their power as citizens will likely play a large part in determining which future we see more of.

[10] Looking back, I wish I still had that Tumblr post where I first saw the blurb for Politics for the Love of Fandom, because I'd really love to reach out to that blogger—on a couple of counts. First of all, I'd definitely tell them: you were right, this book was great, keep up the awesome fan studies work! And second, I'd probably go through their blog to see what fandom(s) they're a part of, and ponder whether those fandoms' ethical frameworks pair well with ethical modalities like promoting curiosity and encouraging learning. Just because.