Experiencing fan activism: Understanding the power of fan activist organizations through members' narratives

Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, Joshua McVeigh-Schultz, Christine Weitbrecht, and Chris Tokuhama

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

[0.1] Abstract—Fan activism, forms of civic engagement and political participation growing out of experiences of fandom, is a powerful mode of mobilization, particularly for young people. Building on 40 interviews with members of two organizations representing different configurations of fan activism, this article discusses three emerging elements that are key to the experience of membership in such groups. We suggest that the strength of fan activist groups builds on successfully combining these elements: two that are common to fandom, shared media experiences and a sense of community, and one that is traditionally ascribed to volunteerism and activism, the wish to help.

[0.2] Keywords—Activism; Civic engagement; Fandom; Harry Potter; Invisible Children; Kony 2012; Politics; Youth

Kligler-Vilenchik, Neta, Joshua McVeigh-Schultz, Christine Weitbrecht, and Chris Tokuhama. 2012. "Experiencing Fan Activism: Understanding the Power of Fan Activist Organizations through Members' Narratives." In "Transformative Works and Fan Activism," edited by Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 10.

1. Introduction

[1.1] In both general and academic discourse, there is a concern about young people's apparent disconnection from public life. Young people, in this view, spend most of their time with media or on the Internet, rather than being involved in their communities, helping others, or creating political change (e.g., CIRCLE 2003; Galston 2001). Increasingly, however, scholars show that younger generations tend toward new forms of civic and political engagement, ones that are closely tied to their personal interests and social networks (Bennett 2008; Ito et al. 2009; Jenkins et al. 2006; Kahne, Lee, and Feezell 2011). According to this approach, popular culture and participatory culture, rather than being causes of disengagement, serve as resources around which young people come together and are mobilized to social action.

[1.2] Bringing together the worlds of entertainment and politics is a key venture of the work of Liesbet van Zoonen. In her book Entertaining the Citizen (2005), van Zoonen lays important ground in suggesting analogies between fandom and citizenship. She claims that many activities of fans—intensely investing in the text, discussing and deliberating about the quality of the text, and proposing and discussing alternatives to it—also underlie thriving democratic politics. How, then, she asks, could the emotional investment of fan communities be harnessed toward citizenship? What, in short, can politics learn from fandom?

[1.3] Fan activist groups present an excellent embodiment of van Zoonen's theorization. In the past, scholars have used the concept of fan activism as a response to the allegation that fans are merely the passive recipients of media. Indeed, fan studies literature shows numerous accounts of fans' collective action around their areas of passion, including elaborate campaigns to protest the cancellation of their shows or to fight for their right to participate in the shaping of their content worlds (Jenkins 2012). While these examples clearly show fans as active participants within their cultural worlds, we propose to take the concept of fan activism further, to include the way powerful investments in popular culture can mobilize explicit civic or political participation.

[1.4] Our understanding of fan activism is one that brings together elements from fandom with elements that have traditionally been attributed to volunteerism and activism. While van Zoonen theorizes what the marriage of fan communities and politics may look like and how this combination may fuel participation in civic life, we identify groups that embody this hybrid and ask, how are fan activist organizations uniquely positioned to recruit young people into civic life? How do they sustain members' participation and involvement? How do they create shared—and exclusive—identities for members? And what may account for their success in mobilizing young people to civic action?

[1.5] We answer these questions by focusing on the experiences of members in two organizations, each representing a different configuration of fan activism. On the basis of interviews and ethnographic research, we find three common elements of experience in members' narratives, and we suggest that they may be common to many manifestations of fan activism: shared media experiences, a sense of community, and a wish to help. Through these elements, we seek to show how fan activism successfully builds on two experiences that are at the heart of fandom, shared media experiences and a sense of community, and augments them with an element traditionally attributed to the worlds of volunteerism and activism, the wish to help.

2. Case studies and method

[2.1] Jenkins (2012) defines fan activism as "forms of civic engagement and political participation that emerge from within fan culture itself, often in response to the shared interests of fans, often conducted through the infrastructure of existing fan practices and relationships, and often framed through metaphors drawn from popular and participatory culture" (1.8). We present two case studies, one that clearly embodies this model, and another that questions its boundaries.

[2.2] The Harry Potter Alliance (HPA) was established in 2005 by activist Andrew Slack. Inspired by the student activist organization Dumbledore's Army in the Harry Potter narratives, the HPA uses parallels between the fictional content world and the real one as an impetus for civic action. It claims to mobilize over 100,000 young people across the United States—mostly, but not exclusively, Harry Potter fans—to work for diverse causes including literacy, equality, and human rights. Building mostly on volunteer staff members and a network of local chapters, the HPA has run a variety of campaigns, raising impressive amounts of money and achieving a number of civic and political goals. As the organization builds heavily on the preexisting community of Harry Potter fandom and uses the story world as an impetus for social action, its work clearly meets Jenkins's definition of fan activism.

Figure 1. The home page of the HPA Web site. [View larger image.]

[2.3] Invisible Children (IC) describes itself as a movement built around a movie. Invisible Children: Rough Cut documents the long-running civil war in Uganda, particularly focusing on the hardships of child soldiers conscripted into the Lord's Resistance Army. The movie is told through the viewpoints of three young Southern California film students, Laren Poole, Jason Russell, and Bobby Bailey, who produced the film themselves. In response to its success, the three filmmakers established Invisible Children (IC), dedicated to "us[ing] the power of media to inspire young people to help end the longest running war in Africa" ( IC's campaigns have recently focused on raising awareness of the war in Uganda and urging the US government to pass the Lord's Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act, which was achieved in May 2010. IC now focuses on long-term development in Uganda as well as creating infrastructure in the Congo. Relying extensively on innovative media to promote its goals, IC claims to reach hundreds of thousands of young Americans through screenings and local clubs, encouraging them to become politically aware and to take political action, as well as mobilizing them to raise money for the movement.

[2.4] IC requires us to stretch our understanding of fan activism farther than the HPA. Rather than building on popular culture texts and an existing fan community, this organization was created with an activist goal and has, almost inadvertently, built a fanlike public around its self-produced documentary media. Yet IC members, as the organization acknowledges, in many ways resemble fans: they share an enthusiasm for the media, an avid knowledge of its narratives, and a wide range of practices of collective consumption and production around IC media products. Rooted more integrally in the world of nonprofits, IC offers an intriguing comparison to the HPA, as the two organizations represent different interrelations of fandom and activism.

Figure 2. The home page of the Invisible Children Web site. [View larger image.]

[2.5] We have acquainted ourselves with these organizations in several ways. In addition to following their media, conversing with their leadership, and conducting participant observation at some of their public events, we conducted 40 semistructured interviews in 2010–11 with members of the two organizations. The interview protocol and process have been approved by the institutional review board at the University of Southern California. Interviewees were given an information sheet explaining the goals of the study and gave verbal consent to be interviewed and recorded. Interviews were conducted both in person and through audio and video conferences, and lasted between 45 and 90 minutes. Interviewees were asked how they came to be involved with the organization and what role they played in it, as well as how they perceived it. Interviewees were initially suggested by the organizations, with additional interviewees recruited through snowballing. They include rank-and-file members, but our sample skews toward members with higher levels of involvement: volunteer staff members (for the HPA), roadies and interns (for IC), and local chapter organizers and club presidents.

[2.6] The remainder of this article is structured around the three emergent elements of experience: shared media experiences, a sense of community, and the wish to help. These elements help us to understand the power of fan activism in recruiting members, sustaining their involvement, and creating shared identities.

3. Connecting around shared media experiences

[3.1] Kathy (note 1), 24, grew up as a "theater kid and a bookworm." She had read the Harry Potter novels as a young adult and was drawn in by the realness of the characters. After college, she became an active "spectator" of the online fandom: "I was basically just an online lurker who was obsessively checking." She encountered the HPA on Harry Potter fan sites, "but it took a very long time before I actually volunteered." Volunteering for the HPA was her first step into any form of civic engagement: "I didn't know social activism. I didn't care about social activism. I came to it from Harry Potter fandom." For her, joining the HPA was a way to keep her investment in the content world alive: "I was so invested in these characters…when the books were finally over, there was nothing to do. I couldn't give that up yet. I wasn't ready. So I joined this community that was also just as invested and wanted to really use that investment towards good things. I was like, good, I can be a part of this at least. It was still Harry Potter." Today, Kathy is a full-time member of the HPA, holding a key position in envisioning its current activities and future directions.

[3.2] As Kathy's narrative exemplifies, fan activist groups recruit through the power of the media experience that their members share. This is true of both IC and the HPA, though they rely on different forms and genres of media.

[3.3] For the HPA, the media experience is one emanating from mainstream culture. The Harry Potter franchise is an extraordinarily successful transmedia phenomenon. HPA members, like members of the fandom, often pride themselves on being "original" fans of the series, tracing their involvement to the release of the first book, or having bought British editions prior to their US release. While the movie series has brought a significant increase in the Harry Potter fandom, involvement with the narrative is tiered, with book readers deemed by many members of the HPA to be the more "authentic" fans. Despite these subtle demarcations of status within fandom, a shared acquaintance with and, generally, passion for the world of Harry Potter builds significant common ground between members of the HPA. This world offers them a language, one that may mark off those who do not share the same acquaintance with the text (the word "Muggle" is already common knowledge, but acquaintance with "S.P.E.W." may be more limited) (note 2), an elaborate set of metaphors, and a common worldview.

[3.4] We're all bonded by our weirdness. It's kind of unspoken. We like different things than the public, we talk about different things on Saturday nights. Different from what you might say is "normal." We don't really need to talk about it, because we all understand. (Kristina, HPA staff member)

[3.5] These shared experiences and shared perspectives, common to experiences of fandom, are mobilized by the HPA in connecting stories from the content world to real-world issues. Andrew Slack, founder of the HPA, sees the world of Harry Potter as a deeply political one, where questions of social justice, equality, and freedom are key. He claims that any real-world problem can be "mapped onto it" in a process he calls "cultural acupuncture" (see Jenkins 2012), channeling passion for the text toward passion for social issues. The links between the content world and the real-world issues the HPA engages with are not limited to the rhetoric of the founder. HPA members take on the metaphor, creating their own connections between the social issues they engage with and characters, terms, and themes from the magical world:

[3.6] We like to link everything back to Harry Potter. We have to get a little creative sometimes, but we can still link. We were trying to get involved in some environmental issues so we called it herbology, and with animal things we call it "care of magical things." (Davia, HPA chapter organizer)

[3.7] Unlike the HPA, Invisible Children is itself the creator of its members' media experience. The organization describes its mission as inspiring young people to end the war in Africa by using film and media storytelling. As an organization centered around media production, and building on the founders' strong identification as filmmakers, IC focuses on artistic values. Attention to production is very evident in IC's media products, which include documentary movies, trailers and short films, music mixes, podcasts, and apparel (while the HPA produces its own media as well, they generally do not involve very elaborate production). These media are key tools for recruiting members and raising awareness of the IC movement.

Figure 3. IC roadies, as depicted on the IC Web site. [View larger image.]

[3.8] One way IC distributes its media and, through it, raises awareness is through screenings. IC screenings are 1.5–2-hour events, led by IC roadies: volunteer staff members who spend 3 months on the road, holding up to three screenings a day in different venues. In screenings, roadies supplement the media with their own experiences, but it is usually the IC-produced movies that most resonate with IC members over time. Members speak of these movies—particularly the first one, Invisible Children: Rough Cut—as having an almost magical effect on their worldview:

[3.9] They showed me the film and I remember being so floored, like, "I cannot believe that this is going on" and "why have I never heard about this." I remember something in me shifted that night. (Ruth, IC intern)

[3.10] Most IC members consider the main strength of the movie to be the feeling of identification it allows with its protagonists—the three filmmakers and future IC founders, young people not much older than themselves, who go out to Uganda, encounter a social issue, and launch a movement:

[3.11] The movie is just very raw, and it's—even though they were older than me they were kids, and you see these kids just go, they see something, they run into a problem and they're like, OK, now we have to fix this problem. (Beth, IC intern)

[3.12] IC media play an important role in creating IC members' shared identity. This is evident in the way members ritually ask each other to tell their "IC story"—meaning how they first came to see Rough Cut:

[3.13] We've all heard people's IC story on how they first watched the documentary. "What's your IC story?" And then you tell how you got involved. (Jade, IC intern)

[3.14] By connecting members through the content world of its media, IC—while not a preexisting fandom—creates fanlike affiliations between its members. IC media are key not only as entry points into civic engagement, but also because they sustain action by creating shared collective identities. The organization's "media savvy," which members identify as unique, has an important role in creating IC's self-perceived image as a young, hip nonprofit:

[3.15] It has a lot of a younger feel to it. Last spring I interned at [a traditional nonprofit], and you can definitely tell that the people who work here are a lot younger, they are a lot more media-savvy than a lot of the orgs. They draw in a different crowd than a lot of organizations; other orgs draw large donors and we are staffed by young people, we focus on young people and we realize that young people can make a difference if they're really passionate about it. (Jade, IC intern)

[3.16] For both IC and the HPA, then, shared media experiences play significant roles, both in recruiting young people into the organizations and in sustaining membership by creating shared (and exclusive) identities for participants. For the HPA, it is a fictional story world that creates strong bonds between members, a shared worldview from which to launch social action. Using metaphors from the story world further helps channel passion toward real-world issues. IC, on the other hand, recruits members to social action through the power of its independently created films, as well as sustaining members' perception of the organization as cool through the hipness of its media.

4. Building on existing communities and creating new community experiences

[4.1] Dave is an intern at IC, creating short videos in the production department. He first saw Rough Cut in high school, at a screening organized by a friend. He and his friends "just didn't know what to do, because before that we were never really exposed to anything like that." While attending a private, Christian-oriented college, he encountered IC again: "Somebody at our college was interested in Invisible Children, so they got a copy of the film and showed it, and then it kind of pushed the Global Night Commute (note 3) at our school." Through IC events at his college, Dave met good friends who became his roommates. After college, he contemplated his opportunities. He had applied for an IC internship before and hadn't been accepted, but he was encouraged by a friend on Facebook to apply again—this time successfully. Dave enjoys attending the same church as several IC members, and he sees his faith as underlying his social action. He feels that his sense of community has broadened through IC. It includes not only fellow IC members, but also the Ugandans whom they are helping. "Even though I haven't met anyone from Uganda, I feel like they're kind of my extended friends now. I care about them—not just a far-off 'Oh, I want everybody to be okay,' but I really feel somewhat connected."

[4.2] Dave's story introduces some of the means by which fan activist groups use existing community structures as a recruitment base. Dave's involvement in IC relied on repeated exposure to it through friends. He did not become instantly hooked; instead, it took several rounds of involvement with others in his community, and their continual encouragement and support, for him to become a committed member. While the HPA and IC build on different kinds of preexisting communities, both create a new sense of community for their members, one that is broader and more inclusive of those outside of previous community configurations.

[4.3] IC's main recruitment and awareness-raising structure—roadie tours—significantly builds on preexisting communities, networks, and institutional affiliations. Roadies hold screenings mostly at high schools, colleges, and churches, with most recruitment relying on local members. IC's recruitment efforts benefit from this format in several ways: institutions provide physical structures in which to hold screenings, harness the networks of their members to promote the event, and also ensure that attendees at a screening share a common ground (e.g., high school students, or members of a certain church). Within this structure, most members hear about screenings through personal networks and arrive at them with friends. Sharing the powerful experience of watching Rough Cut or other IC movies with friends can inspire groups toward further action, while building on strong preexisting relationships:

[4.4] A ton of people from my school wanted to do something after they saw the documentary, and [the Global Night Commute] was a perfect action step, so we all did that. Afterwards we wanted to do something more. We formed a club around that at our school. I went to a Christian college, so it was a really good community, we all knew each other really well, and it wasn't like we'd only meet and talk about what to do. We prayed for Uganda and we prayed for each other. (Don, IC roadie)

[4.5] In Don's retelling, there is a form of collective action: "we" participated in the event, "we" wanted to do more. This "we," however, is still a rather limited one, denoting a group of close friends at a Christian college. Those who get more deeply involved with IC often come to see their community as defined more broadly, to include the Ugandan people. Janelle, an IC intern, is one of the few IC members who have visited Uganda. She says of her trip,

[4.6] It was such an eye-opening experience. You put faces to the people you're helping; it's not just helping others but building friendships and exchanging. It was definitely what [the Ugandans] were giving, they were giving to us as well, [we were] learning from their culture. (Janelle, IC intern)

[4.7] IC leadership repeatedly declares that the organization's relationship with the Ugandans is one of friendship and mutual learning, not only one-directional aid. This view is strongly echoed by members, who repeatedly express affiliations with the people of Uganda, whom they have never met.

[4.8] The existing community on which the HPA builds is mostly that of Harry Potter fandom. This immense fandom is a relatively young one, both because the books are aimed at young people and because youth are more able than ever before to participate in fandom online, from their own bedrooms. Furthermore, it is an extraordinarily creative fandom, with a wide range of activities (note 4). Throughout our research, we have witnessed fans producing fan fiction, fan art, musical theater, a play, and an opera, as well as a new sport (Quidditch). As in these other outlets for fan creativity, HPA members' sense of community is closely tied to their shared identity as Harry Potter fans. Previous works on fan communities have shown how cultural references create affiliations among people who are otherwise strangers (Hellekson and Busse 2006), or, in Bury's terms (2005, 215), how they enable connections with "like-minded others":

[4.9] Being there [at a fandom event] and getting involved in HPA was this bizarre, almost homecoming, feeling. All were there because all are excited and passionate about the same thing. Just to be able to cut loose and not worry about anything, knowing you're among a group of friends. (Jessie, HPA staff member)

Figure 4. HPA members at LeakyCon 2011, a fan-organized Harry Potter convention. [View larger image.]

[4.10] By building on Harry Potter fandom, the HPA thrives on a preexisting shared identity and sense of community among many of its members, due to their passion for and engagement around a shared text. The HPA goes further, in utilizing the institutional structures of the fandom. Harry Potter fandom has a strong online base, centering on established online sites like the Leaky Cauldron and MuggleNet (see Anelli 2008), as well as various off-line sites. For the HPA, these sites serve as a recruiting base. Ashley and Millie, who opened a new HPA chapter, posted a message on their Leaky Cauldron page, reaching potential HPA members in their area. Joanne, who works at a Harry Potter theme store, hands out HPA flyers to interested customers. Wizard rock musicians, who play Harry Potter–themed music they have written themselves, are a long-standing ally of the HPA, offering their nationwide tours as venues for HPA recruitment.

[4.11] HPA members and staff are widely nationally dispersed. Staff members, almost all of whom are volunteers, do the majority of their communication online, through e-mails, video conferences, social networking sites, and shared documents. The HPA's physical headquarters amount to the founder's living room, and many staff members and chapter organizers know each other only online. Carrying on most of their communications from their homes, with little face-to-face contact, confronts members with challenges:

[4.12] It's really hard being online. I didn't realize how hard it would be. You don't see any people a lot of the time, and things can be lost in translation, like tone, and sarcasm cannot come through. (Kristina, HPA staff member)

[4.13] In such an environment, creating a sense of community takes on increased importance. The HPA deals with this on two levels: through extensive online communication and through off-line chapters. Chapters embody the local component of the HPA. Organized around schools, colleges, and local communities, chapters start with the initiative of a local chapter organizer and are sustained through the ongoing efforts of chapter members, and particularly of chapter organizers. The HPA offers chapter organizers various online resources, as well as sending them a weekly e-mail newsletter (called Galleon Day, after the currency in the magical world), updating them on news, ideas for activities, and upcoming campaigns. This online support system is designed to compensate for the lack of physical contact, as well as take into account that most chapter organizers are young people who have never before started a civic-minded group:

[4.14] There is a lot of support through phone conferences and online systems…First of all, this is new and it can be hard for people to come into a new leadership position and [be] trying to get things organized, and also because what we do is so different. (Carrie, HPA staff member in charge of chapters)

[4.15] Like IC's local club structure, the HPA's chapters enable locally based action, while providing the support of a national network. Relations between the local and national organizations, however, are not always seamless. At times, chapter organizers may feel pressed by "national HPA" to maintain high levels of engagement. Chapter organizers may also feel tensions between the national campaigns and those that their local members initiate. In spite of these challenges, however, chapters are an invaluable component of the HPA's structure and, for many members, they are the key point of identification:

[4.16] HPA for me is definitely the local one that I'm part of. [National HPA is] basically an email for me. But the local chapter is a lot more than that because I [can put] faces to it and it's people that I know, and two of my closest friends are the organizers. (Maya, HPA member)

[4.17] Maya's involvement serves as an example of local chapters widening the HPA's scope beyond the fandom. While she read the Harry Potter books and liked them, she does not consider herself a fan, and her main reason for joining the HPA was her friendships. Still, she finds that the HPA gives her the opportunity to engage with issues that are important to her, with people she feels close to, and under the facilitating umbrella of a national organization. Through local chapters and personal networks, the HPA broadens its community beyond fans.

5. Wanting to help: Narratives of altruistic desire and self-transformation

[5.1] Beth, an IC intern, is an international relations major. Her role at IC includes updating the organization's Web site with news on the war in Uganda: "I write a peace and conflict update every week…the latest info that we can find on where the LRA is, attacks, legislative news." Retelling her experiences with social justice work, Beth describes herself as originally an apathetic, selfish kid (though her family had always been involved in aid in Africa). In high school, she went with a friend to a Christian youth group, where Rough Cut was shown by a youth pastor. She describes watching the movie as a formative moment, an embarking on a journey of engagement in activism: "I guess it affects everybody differently. For me there was no way I could do anything else. I couldn't go get a white-collar job…I don't even remember what other selfish tracks I was on." The movie opened her eyes to the world of nonprofits, and she began researching them online. She became engaged with the student antigenocide organization STAND and is now the president of its local chapter. Through her work with STAND she reconnected with IC. Today, she sees no other option for herself but being involved in activism: "That life to me just seems like the kind of life everyone should live, a life where you're not doing something only for yourself; whatever you're doing is putting something back into the world."

[5.2] The two elements of experience that we have so far described, shared media experiences and a sense of community, are ones that are at the root of fandom. The broad wish to help, on the other hand, may be seen more specifically driving volunteerism and activism. Fandoms have unquestionably always involved a significant component of helping others: teaching other members about resources and tools, giving feedback on others' fan fiction, offering personal support and even charitable donations. In our case studies, however, we see a different discourse about helping others, one that is often expressed in terms of social justice or equality. The key difference in this discourse is its outward focus, its concern for those who aren't part of the narrowly defined community, as well as some participants' desire to create structural social change. The motivations for this wish to help are also distinctive, many times involving perceptions of one's own good fortune versus the hardships of others, or a feeling of obligation to do good in the world, whether due to upbringing, political views, or faith. While the wish to help has been found in members of both groups, it is expressed very differently.

[5.3] As Beth's story shows, IC members' wish to help is often expressed within a narrative of self-transformation. In this narrative structure, IC members often describe their "former selves"—who they were before joining IC, in contrast to who they are today. Beth describes her former self as apathetic and selfish, in many ways echoing prevalent stereotypes about disengaged youth. In her narrative, watching the IC movie represents a life-changing turning point. Her wish to help, then, seems to have been created at that moment of, in her words, "understanding that there's more to life than the mall."

[5.4] These narratives by members are extremely powerful. Yet certain elements raise doubt about whether seeing Rough Cut created an altruistic drive where none previously existed. Digging down deeper reveals that many IC members (though not all) had been previously socialized to social justice–oriented values and practices. For example, while Beth understates the significance of her parents' involvement in aid in Africa to her own activist desire, research shows that parental modeling is a key variable predicting youth civic engagement (Andolina et al. 2003). Other members say that their wish to help predated their exposure to IC. For Dave, for example, it is rooted in religious belief:

[5.5] Jesus said true religion is looking after orphans and widows in the time of their distress, and so I think that's, like, kind of the foundation. (Dave, IC intern)

[5.6] However, even when altruistic desire exists, many members say that finding ways to get meaningfully involved is a challenge. Many traditional activist organizations, like the Peace Corps, offer limited possibilities for youth under 18 and often require extensive volunteer commitments. Other organizations may offer young people ways to become involved, but are perceived by them as old-fashioned and outdated, "charities run by middle-aged women" (Edie, IC intern). A key strength of fan activist organizations, then, is offering young people actionable steps, concrete channels through which to express a preexisting activist desire, while doing this in a young, hip environment:

[5.7] I had been trying to find ways that I could get into volunteering or working to become part of a more global community. I saw the screening and they were in the process of trying to get the bill passed and they were encouraging us to talk to senators to hold a meeting, a cool way that you guys can make a big change, and so I got really involved from there. (Tina, IC roadie)

[5.8] [IC] still has a youthful, hip vibe; everyone in the boardroom is 30 years and younger. I guess it does have that work and fun, complete great intertwining of it. One example is my supervisor, one of the most brilliant men ever, but so young—works until he goes to sleep, but also brings in Nerf guns. (Janelle, IC intern)

[5.9] Wanting to become involved, but not knowing how, was a prevalent theme among HPA members as well. At a wizard rock concert, for example, a young woman enthusiastically signed the contact list of the local HPA chapter, explaining, "I always wanted to volunteer, but I never knew how." Narratives of self-transformation from apathy to engagement, however, are less common among HPA members. Instead, they express their wish to help in terms that are much less dramatic. Darlene, for example, explains that the mission of the HPA for her is

[5.10] um..."to decrease world suck"...that's pretty much what every single thing we do comes down to. (Darlene, HPA member)

[5.11] "Decreasing world suck" is a phrase that derives from a close ally of the HPA, the Nerdfighters. This online group describes itself as made up of nerds who "fight to increase awesome and decrease suck" ( While "decreasing world suck" is not the formal mission statement of the HPA, its flexibility fits nicely with the HPA's involvement with a variety of issues. HPA members build on founder Andrew Slack's mapping of the story world onto real-world dynamics, but they do so in a way that is flexible enough to mobilize action around various causes. In this way, HPA members derive solidarity from a shared media experience, but they also creatively map this shared experience onto a multiplicity of problem spaces. For many members, this flexibility is a point of attraction:

[5.12] We don't have a specific set of goals, we're not a green org, we're not specifically political, we don't have one cause other than a general one: to help people and become better people ourselves. That's what I like about it, we're not locked into one thing. (Maya, HPA member)

[5.13] The HPA's wide range of issues also offers multiple points of entry for members, who can bring causes they feel strongly about into the scope of collective action. This may happen nationally, but more often locally. Joanne, for example, is strongly connected to soldiers' and veterans' causes, as both her father and grandfather were in the military. In addition to her chapter's key areas of action, she initiated a project of sending packages of supplies and gifts to soldiers: "With HPA, anybody can propose an idea and we put it out there."

[5.14] The empirical debate on whether today's youth are engaged in or disengaged from public life is widespread (see Bennett 2008). Whether connected or disconnected to empirical reality, young people too are aware of prevalent stereotypes of apathetic youth, and react to them in their narratives. Countering these stereotypes, however, members of both the HPA and IC manifest a wish to help, whether it was triggered by exposure to the organizations or predated it. Part of these organizations' strength is in giving young people with a wish to help actionable steps to do so. To comprehensively understand how this mobilization succeeds, we will now examine how the three elements of experience intersect.

6. The power of fan activism

[6.1] The three elements of experience we have discussed—shared media experiences, a sense of community, and the wish to help—emerged as we talked with members of IC and the HPA about their experiences. We did not begin by assuming that they were either defining characteristics of fan activism or a formula explaining why it may succeed. Yet, in their interrelations, they may show how fan activism successfully brings together elements of fandom with elements traditionally ascribed to activism.

[6.2] Building on numerous works of fan studies scholars, we argue for a view of fandom as a social, active experience. In the conclusion to Textual Poachers, Jenkins (1992) offers a framework for reconsidering fandom, seeing it as a mode of reception, a set of interpretive practices, a base for consumer activism, a form of cultural production, and an alternative social community. Two decades later, the experiences of members of the HPA and IC reflect these possibilities. Of the three elements of experience presented in this article, shared media experiences and a sense of community have been shown to be particularly rooted in broader worlds of fandom. Within fan studies, these elements of experience have been found to bring people together, create shared identities, and often encourage collective action and production around shared areas of passion.

[6.3] Activism is traditionally understood as action geared toward social change. Within the elements of experience described here, an activist desire is mostly reflected in the wish to help. In members' narratives we witness a strong commitment to working for social justice through social action. Both organizations perceive themselves as activist groups, though their activist stance often takes the form of a somewhat broad notion of "changing the world in small ways that hopefully will spread like ripples" (Maya, HPA member). For many members, this reflects how their generation believes change can be achieved, though they are aware this belief is often perceived as naive by members of their parents' generation, whom they see as more skeptical or cynical.

[6.4] Taken together, these three elements of experience help us understand some of the shapes of fan activism, as well as highlight its strengths. Fan activism can be understood as embodied in a community, created and maintained around shared media experiences, that channels members' wish to help toward social action (and sometimes even creates it). In doing so, fan activist groups bring together the power of fandom to connect, engage, and mobilize its members and an explicit civic goal toward which this energy and enthusiasm are channeled. They thus answer the question posed by van Zoonen (2005, 66) of "whether and how politics can borrow from the elements of popular culture that produce these intense audience investments, so that citizenship becomes entertaining." The answer to the "whether" question, we claim, is yes. One possible answer to the "how" question is through the interrelation of the three elements of experience described here. These can help to explain fan activist groups' success in mobilizing young people through different configurations of experiences from fandom and activism.

[6.5] The HPA, a classic case of fan activism, builds on an existing fandom, one that already thrives on media experiences and a sense of community that its members share around a common text. The organization channels these powerful experiences in inspiring its members to social action around a variety of different causes. Members' wish to help may come from different sources, but it may also be created through their involvement with the organization.

[6.6] IC stretches our definitions of fan activism, as it developed not from a fan community but from a specific activist cause. The organization's self-created media create powerful experiences that members come to share. For some members, these media inspire a wish to help; for others, this wish may be rooted in previous experiences. A sense of community is then built around these media and the organization itself, allowing IC to successfully mobilize young people to action.

[6.7] Through these elements, as well as through their use of preexisting structures and offering of actionable steps, these organizations successfully merge the worlds of fandom and activism, creating a space for young people to become involved in social action, in an environment that feels inherently theirs. In the context of prevalent discourses about youth disengagement, organizations like the HPA and IC provide encouraging contrasts, pointing to the ways in which many young people in fact devote significant amounts of their time, money, and energy to social causes they strongly believe in, while doing so within environments of passion and belonging. Further research will help us understand how the elements we identified may translate to other contexts in young people's lives, including, but not limited to, explicit political participation.

[6.8] A key question that may arise regarding fan activism is to what extent participation in such groups represents members' first experience of civic action, or whether these are the same participants who would be active in other civic groups. In their quantitative research, Kahne, Lee, and Feezell (2011) found that interest-driven online participation was a significant predictor of civic participation, even when controlling for parental civic participation. While we cannot generalize from our limited data, we found that for about a third to half of our interviewees in both organizations, their involvement was their first experience of civic participation. These are significant numbers. The literature on young people's civic engagement often raises concerns that participation is determined largely by parental or school socialization (e.g., Andolina et al. 2003). Those who do not benefit from this socialization may remain outside of the loop of political life. Through its elements of experience, fan activism enables new and multiple points of entry into political life, by linking civic engagement to fandom and other forms of participatory culture.

[6.9] Some caveats need to be added to this optimistic picture. Although IC and the HPA work for social justice, the lack of ethnic and socioeconomic diversity among their members is troublesome. Like other nonprofit organizations, these groups rely on members' volunteering of their time and efforts in ways that may exclude youth coming from less affluent environments, and increasing member diversity is one of the challenges these organizations face. A second challenge is that of sustainability. Presently, both organizations are facing situations that drive them to evolve. As IC matures and institutionalizes, there is concern about how to maintain young people's sense of identification with the organization, which for many was based on the representation of the founders as young, inexperienced students who set out to reach a goal. As IC plans future action in central Africa, as well as increasingly promoting American youth engagement in general, the organization aspires to maintain the enthusiasm of its members. For the HPA, the release of the last Harry Potter movie in July 2011 brings with it questions about the future of the fandom, and, by inference, the future of the organization. In an attempt to remain relevant, the HPA has partnered with over 20 other fandoms to launch a new movement called Imagine Better. This movement will face the challenge of continuing social action while broadening the scope of the community and the variety of content worlds inspiring it. We continue to follow these organizations as they face these challenges, which will impact not only IC and the HPA but also the shapes of fan activism.

7. Addendum: Prefiguring Kony 2012

[7.1] Since this article was completed, Invisible Children has come to the foreground of attention with the release of its half-hour documentary video, Kony 2012, through YouTube on March 5, 2012. This video was astonishingly successful in the scale and speed of its spread-it received 800,000 hits online in the first 24 hours of its release and then reached an unbelievable 112 million views in 6 days, becoming the fastest-spreading video of all time ( Along with its astounding spread, the video received harsh criticism for both its content and the nature of Invisible Children as an organization (see a key critique by Ethan Zuckerman: A more extensive overview of the debate over the campaign was compiled by Zhan Li and Rhea Vichot (

Vid 1. Kony 2012.

[7.2] We argue that at least one of the key themes of the debate around this video-the role of young people as civic actors-is prefigured in the analysis of experiences of IC members found in this article. Much of the debate around young people's involvement with Kony 2012 revolved around issues of slacktivism (that is, easy and thus meaningless forms of social action). However, approaching it from the context we describe in this article sheds a different light on the debate.

[7.3] For most of its viewers, Kony 2012 was their first encounter with Invisible Children. Academics and nonprofit practitioners who reacted to it online were perplexed by the organization's use of storytelling and film to portray human rights abuses in Africa, but most of all, they were amazed by the attention the video received, most of all by American youth. In its first days after its release, the video was most popular with 13- to 17-year-old Americans ( These young viewers were not only the most active in spreading the video to their own social networks, but they were also the ones signing up to participate in action on the ground, joining Facebook group pages for IC's Cover the Night event planned for April 20, 2012. Gilad Lotan's analysis of the spread of the video online highlights the importance of preexisting networks that actively shared the video ( These are the members of Invisible Children who have been active with the organization for years, just like the members interviewed in this article, who felt part of the Invisible Children community and were committed to its cause. The role of these active preexisting members was largely overlooked in the debate around the video. The reactions of new young viewers, however, were key to bringing the video beyond its existing supporters. Many commentators tried to understand what it was about Kony 2012 that propelled young people to action, but we can learn from the interviewees in this article who talk about identifying with the young protagonists and about the trendy feel of the movies. The members we interviewed describe watching previous IC movies as a life-changing moment that may start a trajectory of civic involvement-though we call to read these statements within more complex narratives of increasing engagement over time.

[7.4] Although we end our article with optimism about the potential of fan activist groups to mobilize and engage young people, Kony 2012 also presented some of the challenges that this genre of activism may face. From interviews we held with several youths in the weeks after Kony 2012, we learned that the harsh critiques launched against Invisible Children quickly dampened the enthusiasm of many of its new supporters. Young people who saw the movie and who were moved and felt propelled to action, just like the interviewees in this article, were quickly called to question their own excitement and even criticize it as premature. For some young people, this may have led to engaging with the war in Africa or with other social issues through other means; however, many others preferred to disconnect themselves from the cause altogether, thus obstructing the potential mobilization process we describe.

[7.5] At least some of the critique around Kony 2012, we argue, can be read as a policing of the boundaries of social action, and what it should look and feel like. Many of these critiques claimed that social advocacy should be left to experts-to politicians, to "serious" NGOs, to erudites. Although some of the criticism was undoubtedly unique to Invisible Children, fan activism, which calls for a different genre of activism that is playful, imaginative, social, and fun, may encounter similar critiques in the future. Kony 2012 thus powerfully exemplifies the power of fan activism while presenting a cautionary tale about some of the harsh reactions with which it may be met.

[7.6] For a more thorough linkage of Kony 2012 to the themes raised in this article, see

8. Acknowledgments

[8.1] Research for this article was supported by the Spencer Foundation and the Annenberg Project for Online Communities. The authors thank members of the Civic Paths team at the University of Southern California, and particularly Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova, for their role in the research and helpful comments on previous versions of this article.

9. Notes

1. All interviewee names, except the names of founders, are pseudonyms.

2. Muggles are nonmagical people; the term is widely used in all Harry Potter media. S.P.E.W. is the Society for the Promotion of Elfish Welfare, an organization mentioned in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire that did not appear in the movie series.

3. The Global Night Commute, held on April 25, 2006, was an event in which youth spent the night in city center parks to show support for the "night commuters"–Ugandan children who congregated in town centers to avoid being conscripted into the Lord's Resistance Army.

4. As one of our reviewers helpfully pointed out, fans' artistic creativity often engages with issues of social justice. For example, slash fan fiction may be used to articulate sexuality and address queer representation in mainstream texts. See, e.g., Tosenberger (2008).

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