By Any Media Necessary: Mapping Youth and Participatory Politics

“Decreasing World Suck”: How Fan Activists Tap Content Worlds

The Harry Potter Alliance (HPA), a non-profit organization established in 2005, encourages civic and political engagement amongst Harry Potter fans by using metaphors from J. K. Rowling’s best-selling fantasy series. When the HPA was established, Harry Potter fandom was at its peak: two of the books had not yet come out, the movie series was just gaining steam, and the fan community was thriving. Yet even a 7-book, 8-movie series that has become a world phenomenon ends at some point. In terms of release of original content, that end came in July 2011, with the release of the last movie in the Harry Potter series. At that time, many feared that the fandom was also dissolving . At Leakycon 2011, a grassroots fan convention, young fans were talking about “the end of an era”, linking the series’ conclusion to their own ending childhood. As one HPA member puts it, with some degree of overstatement, “so obviously Harry Potter is over, sadly” (Daniela, 23). What happens to a civic organization that grounds itself in the connection to a prominent content world, when that content world increasingly loses its traction? The HPA tried to pre-empt this question by launching the “Imagine Better” Project in July 2011. The idea: applying the approach that has proven successful for the HPA—connecting fans around story worlds they love to create real world change -- to collaborations with other fandoms. 
The HPA can be seen as a prime example of fan activism—harnessing fan enthusiasm toward real world change. Yet to what extent is the example of the HPA a singular one? The Harry Potter phenomenon, after all, has been a remarkable success, with a generation of children “growing up with Harry”. This fan community was recognized as a particularly active and creative one -- among the first major fandoms to emerge alongside the internet and employed its increasing affordances. Moreover, many of the themes of the books seem particularly resonant with real-world issues, complemented by J.K. Rowling’s own history working for Amnesty International.

In our discussion of HPA and Imagine Better, we distinguish between two modes of fan activism: fannish civics and cultural acupuncture. Unlike the HPA’s earlier work, Imagine Better moved from focusing on pre-existing fan communities (fannish civics) to an emphasis on reaching a broader public by experimenting with cultural acupuncture. We examine the difference between the two modes through two large-scale national campaigns that Imagine Better launched around the release of the first two movies in The Hunger Games series.Whereas the first campaign (Hunger is Not a Game) employs fannish civics, the second campaign (The Hunger Games are Real) moves further on the continuum towards cultural acupuncture, with its accompanying video reaching over 450,000 views.

Yet this model is not the only possible approach to fan activism. Consider the example of the Nerdfighters. Nerdfighters are an informal online community that took shape around the YouTube channel of the Vlogbrothers, John and Hank Green. The two brothers upload two videos a week, about “nothing in particular”, though always with their unique look and feel, including a fast pace of speech, multiple jump cuts, and elaborate use of inside jokes and jargon. Nerdfighters are not connected around a fictional content world, but rather around their affiliation with the Vlogbrothers and a broader “nerd” identity, yet the group has developed a shared social agenda, broadly characterized as "decreasing world suck". Beyond the Vlogbrothers’ own videos discussing current affairs (e.g. “Revolution in Egypt: a 4 minute introduction”), the young participants also are creating and posting their own videos in support of diverse charities and non-profits. The Nerdfighters have shown a capacity to mobilize rapidly around short-term, high impact civic goals: for example, the Foundation to Decrease World Suck raised $483, 296 in two days in 2012. 

This chapter considers several approaches to connecting popular culture and civic engagement, looking across the Harry Potter Alliance, Nerdfighters and Imagine Better. All these groups, while unconventional in their language and civic style, have been successful in deploying popular culture engagement toward participatory politics. In this chapter, we identify different mechanisms through which this deployment works, and what forms of activism it enables, describing the intersections and interactions between fan communities, content worlds, and participatory politics.


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Media Referenced in Chapter 3

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