Blog Post

DML 2011 liveblog: When Fans Become Activists

Sadly (especially since this is one of the panels closest to my own research interests) I arrived late and missed the intros and the first presentation. 

But this Youtube video: was just finishing as I walked in. I caught mentions of the EFF and possibly (?) the Zapatistas as well as telenovelas, and I definitely want to watch this in my own time.


Lee Gilmore from Cal State North Ridge talking about Burning Man--not so digital, a study of activists on the ground.

Burning Man Festival: begain 1986 in San Francisco, moved to Nevada 1990; 50,000 participants who bring all they need to survive in the desert. A pulsating cultural laboratory for experiments with art, community, spirituality, bonding, cultural renewal. A key progenitor of participatory culture.

Burners Without Borders, a kind of fan activism that began in response to Hurricane Katrina. Burning Man's ethos as an inspiration to activism that is also critiqued for not living up to its own promises. A powerful dialectic that mobilizes people into transformative civic action.

Fred Turner at Stanford: Burning Man <--> Silicon Valley connections. 

Festival attendees as participants not audiences. Individualism and communalism; "burners" often seek to live the festival's ethos beyond its borders.

Burners Without Borders: organized donations, used their skillsets in construction, demolition, survival and community maintenance, and communication with govt agencies. Through digital means and on the playa, raised $100,000 and worked with small southern communities who had not received much relief from govt means, demolishing and building, using Burning Man rituals.

Burning Man ethnography: most attendees said it was a transformative experience & referred to principles including self reliance, gifting. But also critqiue: organization called "the Borg", positioned as a space to resist commercialization yet $12m budget & framing as gift economy, raising questions about the role of commerce in participatory fan cultures.

Participatory ethos influencing digital media industry; annual summer vacation for "digerati" and compared to the internet; Fred Turner describes it as 'cultural infrastructure' for information workers. Suggesting that engineering can remake the world for the better? A backdrop for the creation of new mediahedonism and gift culture?


Ignacio Gallego from University of Madrid in Spain. Popfest as fan activism.

1995: tweefest, indiepop list [I feel nostalgic! Twee indiepop was a huge fandom for me in the 90s/00s]; authenticity as opposed to commercialized/commodified mainstream festivals (like Glastonbury), a festival as a party with friends. No rules, self management and self control. 

Defining twee pop: wimpy and twee with a punk rock spirit; self-defining as marginal, outside major label institutions; the UK indie scene's connections with left politics, riot grrrl, Ladyfest & a feminist, antiracist, revolutionary politics. [not linked in the presentation, but this is a good article about the history and politics of indiepop:]

Madrid Popfest: origins an online forum about indiepop. Ethnography: middle class, aged 22-47; the fest as fan reunion. Many are "pop activists" ie creating culture around pop.

Aesthetic and political activism: fans say "an essential component of left-handed and revolutionary:; subcultural style descended from punk but figured as "sensitive pop" vs cars and girls; "anticapitalism" noncommercial music vision; popfest doesn't have corporate sponsorship.

Is Popfest activism?? connecting fans, discourse of authenticity, self management, collaborative organizing.

[editorial comment: indiepop is also deeply nostalgic! Will bring this up in Q&A :) ]


Case studies central to studies of fandom and activism: across particular axes. Egs from USC Civic Paths Research Group, Sustainability and Fan Activism.

Neta Kligler Vilenchlik

Harry Potter Alliance case study. Est 2005, nonprofit using parallels from HP bppls to mobilize young people toward action in issues of literacy, equality, human rights. Accio Books, Wrock 4 Equality, Help Haiti Heal. Relies heavily but not exclusively on HP fans. Anxiety in the org: what will happen to the movement when the last HP movie comes out? To the movement, and to the fandom?

What happens to fandoms in general when media content ends? [comment: media fan communities refer to this as the difference between open and closed fandoms] Fandoms continue but closed fandoms have smaller 'cores', ready to 're-emerge'. Keeping the fandom "on hold" -- but fandom opens up from original content, more freedom for fan creativity.

HPA Deathly Hallows Campaign: 7 'real world horcruxes' also allowing entry points for people who are not fans. 'Body bind horcrux' on body image; bullying horcrux' inequality horcrux. A long term strategy to bring in other fans communities. 

The Imagine Better Coalition: "joining other fandoms to continue using the love of the story as impetus for activism." 

Sustainability of fandom/fan activism? A live core of participants, media visbility, loyalty to content. Activism needs more participants and more visibility than fandom alone does.


Lori Kido Lopez: on Racebending [this is anoth

Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon made into a film, an Asian story cast with only white actors. The livejournal group Racebending critiqued this whitewashing and linked it to longer histories in media and race.

States that discourse around race and fandom is rare [my comment: but it exists and has a long history! This roundtable shares a lot with the Racebending critiques & shows the connection of fan antiracism to radical antiracist discours and women of color feminism, context that often gets erased:]

Definitions of racebending: an urban dictionary def that deals with power, vs "any character cast with an actor of different race"

How are racial groups identified? "Asian themes" in Avatar as an appeal to authenticity that can't necessarily be confirmed. Other egs: Runaways,

Troubling critique of Grace Park cast in Hawaii 5-0--bc Korean rather than 

Racebending community also critiqued casting of a black character in Thor; the connection to a critique of white privilege, power and representation has been replaced by ideas of authenticity to the text, losing the original force of the group.

Lack of centralized discourse in Racebending group leading to this misunderstanding?


Ritesh Mehta

Bollywood films: Rang de Basanti 2006, got young people thinking about themes of nationhood and self sacrifice. No One Killed Jessica, JAn 2011 aboutr 7 year long murder trial.  Second film represents canonization of activism in the first film, re: events betwen 1999-2006.

Story: Jessica Lall, waitress and model in New Delhi, was shot dead by customers she refused to seve--the son of a famous politician. Not guilty verdict showing the corruption of govt; Rang de Basanti showed activism. Protests represented in the film: college friends organize a candlelight rally at India Gate in New Delhi; a real gathering  of 2500 people gathered, sharing info by text messages, at India Gate: replicating a key scene from the film. Upper middle class (reputation for indifference) came out to protest, the case was reopened and a guilty verdict brought back.

Protest as a case of "flash activism"--temporary temporal social mobilization around specific issue. (May or may not have clear cut goals and may or may not achieve them). In this case, brought together different factions of society--and catalyzed by a film of genre most often seen as escapist.

Not traditional fandom, issues of sustainability less relevant. "Flash Fandom"; latent engagement with cultural artifact, powerful enough to be a trigger; suddenness of self-organization, a stirring rather than a long term phenomenon. Critical mass and timing rather than sustainability. 

[comment: is this a fannish version of Walter Benjamin's "seizing hold of a memory at a moment of danger"?]

What's the relationship of one time protest to activism? Of one time inspiration to fandom? What if we are members of multiple different communities?


Moderator (who is Sangita Shrestova) summarizes: key questions: participation/resistance, difference and confluences? What key notions and concepts do we need to understand to think about fan activism?


I ask a really long question about radical intra-fandom activism that is connected to social justice movements and how that might be different from/connected to the kinds of fan activism the panel has been discussing...




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