Fan activism for social mobilization: A critical review of the literature

Lucy Bennett

Cardiff University, Cardiff, Wales

[0.1] Abstract—Social media allows fans a chance to know celebrities through the illusion of intimacy, and to effectively organize and mobilize fan activist groups.

[0.2] Keywords—Celebrity; Civic engagement; Fan activism; Fan networks; Fandom; Participatory culture; Social media

Bennett, Lucy. 2012. "Fan Activism for Social Mobilization: A Critical Review of the Literature." 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 an effort to foster rapid and widespread engagement with activism, it is now a common occurrence for advocacy groups to use the Internet to promote their cause and communicate with mass audiences (Bimber 2003; Thrall et al. 2008). In a similar fashion, the recent rise and widespread use of social media has resulted in celebrities also now using this medium, incorporating Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to mobilize their fans in various philanthropic and activist projects. For example, Lady Gaga with, at the time of writing, the highest number of followers, or fans, on Facebook, at over 33 million, and the highest number of followers on Twitter, at over 9 million, has skillfully and successfully used social media to mobilize her fans around various activist efforts (Bennett, forthcoming), most notably the repeal of the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy. Other users of social media as a platform to engage their fans in activism include The Vampire Diaries actor Ian Somerhalder, who promotes environmental activism and animal rights through Twitter, urging over 750,000 fans and followers to join him in signing and distributing petitions demanding change and raising funds. This is also supported by his foundation (, which uses social media to send updates and calls for action to fans, encouraging them to use this avenue further: "Connect with other change makers! Partner up, create teams and begin projects" ( Supernatural actor Misha Collins similarly engages fans in this manner (Stein 2011), inspiring them through Twitter to engage with Random Acts, a charity group dedicated to performing random acts of kindness within communities ( Civic engagement of fans was also targeted by musician Donnie Wahlberg, who drew on his Twitter following to find a kidney donor for a fan, urging others to help. After reading his tweet, many fans contacted the hospital, and a suitable donor was quickly found (Graceley 2011).

[1.2] Fans around the world are currently being increasingly reached and targeted through these online tools. In this article, I critically review the academic literature in this area. In doing so, I explore the processes and key themes surrounding this practice in terms of the complex relationship between celebrity and fans, and the community it can foster.

2. A direct connection? Celebrity and perceptions of proximity

[2.1] The use of social media by celebrities as a platform with which to communicate with fans and instigate activism raises considerations surrounding the seemingly direct connection this practice allows. Although an artist can have millions of followers reading their messages posted to these social platforms, a sense of intimacy is created whereby fans feel an exposure to, and possible interaction with, the authentic self of the star (Beer 2008; Muntean and Peterson 2009; Burns 2009; Ellcessor 2009). However, it has been argued that the practice of celebrity tweeting, instead of allowing fans to reach the "real" personality of the artist, involves a "performed intimacy" (Marwick and boyd 2011), where a star purposely and strategically uses their online presence to cultivate and maintain a fan base (Bennett 2010), through "creating the illusion of first-person glimpses into their lives" (Marwick and boyd 2011, 148). This "aura of 'realness,'" then, results in the star becoming, for some, "more accessible, more likable—[their] 'ordinary' traits…emphasized and juxtaposed with…[their] 'extraordinary' talent, beauty, or skill" (Peterson 2009).

[2.2] Kate Crawford, exploring the development of intimate connection through social and mobile media, describes how it is the "sharing of everyday actions, habits and experiences—everyday 'trivia'" through these platforms that "forges connections between individuals who are physically remote from each other" (2009, 252). She suggests that the "confidences relayed in these spaces create relationships with an audience of friends and strangers, irrespective of their veracity. They build camaraderie over distance through the dynamic and ongoing practice of disclosing the everyday" (2009, 254; see also Jenkins 2009a). Thus, celebrities can divulge to fans their everyday activities and experiences, post personal photos, reveal exclusive news, and express their opinions directly, forgoing the filters of news media. From Oprah Winfrey tweeting for advice about her dog (Johnson 2009) to Danny DeVito confessing his apparent inability to use the medium (Muntean and Peterson 2009), fans who choose to follow their favorite stars are being exposed to elements of their personality that may have previously seemed out of reach. James Bennett uses the examples of Stephen Fry and Ashton Kutcher to show how some celebrities do interact with fans through social media so that they are "no longer…separated in the media world, but as an everyday, ordinary and familiar persona" (2010, 174). It is this sense of closeness offered by social media, even if a simple illusion, that enables artists who use this tool to mobilize their fans so effectively. It is a glaring paradox that any fan is only one of potential millions of followers being spoken to through this platform, but the directness and dialogic nature of the communication can create a situation whereby fans feel spoken to personally, consequently instigating a powerful and active response when calls to action are generated by a celebrity to their fan base.

3. Mobilization through fan networks

[3.1] Whereas some fan groups receive guidance and instigation from the objects of fandom, other fans are also using these social tools, without direct prompting or input from the celebrity, to organize and mobilize themselves in these acts. For example, fans of U2 lead singer and activist Bono formed their own street team, which posts calls for action on Twitter and Facebook, describing themselves as "advocates that support the work that Bono does for Africa. We bring exposure & actively promote the causes close to Bono's heart & ours" (!/bonostreetteam). The Harry Potter Alliance, "an army of fans, activists, nerdfighters, teenagers, wizards and muggles dedicated to fighting for social justice" also uses social media in this way, declaring how its collective "harnesses the power of new media to communicate with more than 100,000 people, including 60 HPA chapters across the world" ( For this collective, social media has been a vital tool in its development and coordination. As organizer Andrew Slack confesses, "without new media…I don't think we would exist… We would be a club at one or two high schools…we probably would have a hard time being an organization that has 50 clubs that are really active" (Jenkins 2009b). X-Files fans use a similar strategy in their charity endeavors (Jones 2012), as do Joss Whedon fans in their Can't Stop the Serenity fund-raising campaigns ( Thus, these groups are using the potentially worldwide and instantaneous reach of social media to foster their own organized civic engagement around relevant issues.

[3.2] Liesbet van Zoonen argues that these issues of activism and organization work so well within fandom because "fans have an intense individual investment in the text, they participate in strong communal discussions and deliberations about the qualities of the text, they propose and discuss alternatives which would be implemented as well if only the fans could have their way." As she observes, these are all specific "customs that have been laid out as essential for democratic politics: information, discussion and activism" (2004, 46). Building on this, Burwell and Bowler, in their study of online activism relating to The Colbert Report, conclude that these fan practices not only overlap with political action, but also "demonstrate a convergence of imaginative performance, cultural consumption and collective engagement that blurs the boundaries between affect and activism" (2008)—which, I would argue, starts to illustrate why the adoption of social media for fan activism is increasing.

[3.3] Earl and Kimport's study of online fan activism discovered that within this behavioral practice, highly organized e-mail and online letter-writing campaigns, and online petitions and boycotts in particular, were very much prevalent (2009, 16). Fans are using social media to publicize their campaigns, reaching extended networks—most significantly through hashtags and retweets, whereby one tweet is posted again by another user, in order to reach a larger audience. Facebook pages for campaigns are also frequently created, with fans "liking" a page and consequently alerting individuals within their larger networks that may share the same values and goals. Lady Gaga's instigation of fan activism toward repealing the Don't Ask, Don't Tell policy is an example of how social media is used to distribute messages through interlinked networks. Fans were requested to call their senators, asking them to vote against the policy then post videos of themselves on YouTube undertaking the act (Bennett, forthcoming) in an effort to encourage and mobilize others. In this instance, Gaga's call for action functioned as an instigator, relying on fans to draw upon their own networks to spread the message further to create a larger collective. As Henry Jenkins argues, "as a fan community disbands, its members may move in many different directions, seeking out new spaces to apply their skills and new openings for their speculations and in the process, those skills spread to new communities and get applied to new tasks" (2006, 57). As I have shown, despite this disparity, it is through the platform of social media that a fan culture, in all its interconnected networks and communities, can quite rapidly be drawn together, working to achieve a shared goal.

4. Conclusion

[4.1] In sum, the importance and increasing use of social media for fan activism raises some quite pressing areas for consideration. First, how do fans reconcile themselves to their placement as one individual within potentially millions of followers, yet at the same time continue to maintain perceptions of intimacy with a star? It may be argued that the directness with which celebrities appear to be speaking to their fans online and their engagement in acts of intimacy creates a novel platform for fostering engagement with activism. Second, are these relationships based on a one-way communication and an illusion of interaction, or does the platform of social media offer true personal interaction between fan and celebrity, thereby seeming to erode traditional forms of distance between the two parties? As advocacy facilitated by social media is being increasingly adopted within fan cultures and as more celebrities log on to connect with their audience through these platforms, the perception of the dynamics surrounding the traditional relationship between fan and object of fandom may need to be reexamined and reconfigured.

5. Acknowledgments

[5.1] I would like to thank Will Brooker for his very helpful comments on this article.

6. Works cited

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