Review Essay: On ‘Making European Cult Cinema: Fan Enterprise in an Alternative Economy’ by Oliver Carter (Part 1)


Today, I am sharing a review essay which Billy Proctor has written about a new book in the field of cult media studies. Proctor — an important cult media and fandom scholar in his own right — has been an invaluable help to me in supporting this blog this past year, including organizing the Cult Conversations series earlier this term. In this essay, he responds to some important but troubling critiques of the aca-fan tradition, clarifying some serious distortions in the work that has been done in the past and the arguments that have been made about why and how we study fans, including of course my own arguments about the nature of participatory culture. I certainly feel that there is room within any academic field for diverse perspectives, including very pointed critiques of the work which has come before. I have always welcomed critiques of my own work, since they often teach me to question assumptions, check my privilege, explore new directions, and nuance my language. Yet, I get frustrated when critiques over-simplify the arguments that were made in the past and in particular, treat the field (or for that matter, the thinking of individual scholars) as static and unchanging. So, I found Proctor’s essay as timely and provocative. I hope others will also find it so. in publishing this, I am not endorsing his position on this particular book which I have not read or its author who as far as I know I have not met, but I think it makes a useful contribution to the debates within and surrounding fandom studies. In the spirit of facilitating further conversation about these issues, let me formally offer Oliver Carter a similar opportunity to use this platform to respond to these critiques if he so wishes.


‘Fancademia?’: On the Continuing Perception of Fan Studies as Celebrating ‘Resistance’ and Cult Media Studies as ‘Valorizing’ Trash Cinema (Part 1)

 William Proctor, Bournemouth University (UK)

Oliver Carter. 2018. Making European Cult Cinema: Fan Enterprise in an Alternative Economy. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, pp. 226. ISBN: 978-90-8964-993-5

Undoubtedly, it is high time that more empirical work on cult fandom surfaced, and Oliver Carter’s new monograph is a welcome move into this area. Making European Cult Cinema: Fan Enterprise in an Alternative Economy aims to consider the way in which fan production should best be recognized as a form of entrepreneurship, an ‘alternative economy’ whereby fans create, write, produce, make, and sell ‘stuff,’ whether for profit or not, including “magazines, T-shirts, films or fan-produced DVDs” (62). This is unquestionably a valuable goal, but the mode by which Carter sets out his stall raises significant problems that I want to address extensively. I want to say, however, that there is certainly much value in approaching the concept of fan production as an alternative economic enterprise, with some practices shifting from ‘informal’ to ‘formal’ spheres, or skirting the imaginary boundaries between the two with some fluidity. I found it interesting that fans ‘resist’ legal parameters quite frequently, especially around copyright law, indicating that some activities would surely be deemed criminal by the copyright industries. Of course, many fans transgress, breach (or at the very least, test) the official borders of copyright legislation with associated practices (fan fiction, videoing, textiles, modding, filking, etc.); yet file-sharing activities are usually not as permissible as other kinds of transformative practices, and many people have been incarcerated for ‘pirating’ since the inception of home video. I shall return to the more valuable aspects of Carter’s book in the second part of this essay, but I firstly want to address the problems with the way in which the author sets out his stall at the beginning, which I read as highly charged, provocative and quite wrong. 

Beginning with a stern attack on fan studies and cult media studies—and it is without question, an attack—Carter sets out his stall with an acerbic polemic. As I’m sure is true of many scholars, I often enjoy heady critical stances, but on this occasion, I’m disappointed to say that Carter’s trenchant opening gambit is all gums and dentures, all bark and no bite. The main problem with Carter’s opening chapters is a puzzling non-engagement with recent academic literature from the past decade that would certainly force a strategic rethinking regarding the way in which the book’s opening argument is vigorously presented. Scrutinizing the bibliography, I was astonished that key literature in relation to fan labor and the commodification of fan production is not addressed in any meaningful way, literature that would in no uncertain terms take the wind out Carter’s sails, be that in fan studies, cult media studies, or across cogent disciplines. Naturally, we all miss literature and we can’t always read everything that is out there on whatever the topic may be. (I certainly have, much to my embarrassment.) But Carter does not simply miss an article here or a book there, but dozens upon dozens of pieces published since at least 2006. Ultimately, Carter’s central argument is a house of cards, a castle made of sand. As Carter does not mince his words, then neither shall I.

The opening chapter argues that fan studies and cult media studies are being held hostage by fans who are also academics, whereby the identity of the ‘scholar-fan’ has been reversed into ‘fan-scholar,’ which were never clear binaries in any case but complex composites as argued by Matt Hills in the seminal Fan Cultures (2002). In this way, Carter ultimately constructs a homogenous portrait of a discipline that is almost three decades old at this point (I am speaking to fan studies first and foremost here, but shall return to what Carter terms cult media studies later). Chapter One’s first line may have many scholars scratching their heads: ‘This book is an attempt to approach fandom from a perspective that has been surprisingly neglected: an economic perspective’ (17). Carter goes on to complain that fan studies ‘has been shaped by what I term “fancademia”, a product of the blurring of roles between fan and academic that has emerged out of a body of work that has sought to celebrate fandom’ (17). Rehashing old arguments— and stop me if you’ve heard this one before—the author roundly accuses Henry Jenkins, Camille Bacon-Smith and Constance Penley for championing and celebrating fandom as a cultural activity, as an act of symbolic resistance, their collective crime being that they did not recognize that fan productions are always economic activities, even if they do not come with an underlying profit principle. This is what Carter means by ‘a celebration of fandom’ (55), or the clunky ‘fancademia’; that is, the understanding of ‘fan production as an act of symbolic production’ is reductively a celebration and only that—although Carter also admits that he understands the reasons why foundational work in fan studies focused on rescuing the figure of the fan from pejorative ‘Get a Life’ stereotypes hinged on the asexual, anti-social fanboy, dwelling in his parent’s basement while sporting Spock ears, wearing superhero unitards and swinging replica lightsabers on a daily basis. But the discipline has surely moved on since then, although that foundational element certainly still remains (not that there’s anything wrong with it). Oddly, Carter sometimes accepts that more recent work is beginning to emerge that redresses this offence, but ‘more recent’ for the author includes publications from anywhere between 2001 and 2015. (I’m not sure if I’d say that almost two-decade old literature is ‘recent.’)

textual poachers.jpg

And therein lies the rub. Carter’s sweeping attack on fan studies might have made at least some sense in the nineties, or early noughties, in relation to what Jonathan Gray, Cornel Sandvoss and C. Lee Harrington labelled the ‘first wave of fan studies’ in the first edition of Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World (2007). Although Carter cites this book, it is telling that it is only the first edition, and not the (2017) second edition that contains new chapters and sections focused on ‘Fan Politics and Activism’ (255-332) as well as ‘Fan Labor and Fan-Producer Interactions’ (333-419), which amounts to well over 100 pages of literature not engaged with at all. In the revised introduction to the second edition, Gray et al make clear that the first wave of fan studies was indeed ‘the fandom is beautiful phase,’ which ‘was primarily concerned with questions of power and representation’ (2), whereas the second phase ‘moved beyond the “resistance/ incorporation paradigm”’ (5). Indeed, as recounted by Gray et al, fan studies has gone through second and third waves, and is now arguably entering a fourth wave that we might refer to as the ‘fans-behaving-badly’ phase, with work on ‘toxic geek masculinity’ (Bridgett and Blodgett 2017) and ‘toxic fan practices’ (Proctor and Kies 2018) gathering apace, although these are by no means the first academic work to consider sexist, racist and/ or homophobic fan and ‘anti-fan’ discourses (see for example Brooker 2001; Busse 2013; Click 2009; Gray 2003; Jones 2015). Yet, to be honest, I firmly believe that fan studies is not easily reduced to distinct ‘phases’ any longer, as the discipline now includes so many different objects of study, conceptual approaches and theoretical currents that multiple discursive threads are in operation simultaneously (although I have argued in the past that fan studies is largely dominated by ‘geek’ objects, thankfully this is also changing rapidly). And while it might seem that I am out to defend the honor of an embattled fan studies, this could not be further from the truth. The vast majority of scholars would surely agree that the first wave of the discipline tended towards optimistic analyses and appraisals of symbolic resistance, but that counter-argument has been well represented and documented since at least Matt Hills’ seminal Fan Cultures, which is approaching its twentieth anniversary. Cornel Sandvoss, for instance, devotes an entire chapter to criticizing fan studies’ ‘dominant discourse of resistance’ (2005, 11-43) in Fans: The Mirror of Consumption.  

the adoring audience.jpg

Henry Jenkins has become somewhat of an easy target for scholars who do not seem to have engaged with his significant oeuvre beyond the seminal Textual Poachers (1992) and Convergence Culture (2006). Interestingly, Carter accepts that Jenkins no longer sees fan activity as ‘a form of resistance’ (44) in Convergence Culture, but goes onto include multiple academic criticisms of that work without considering the various responses and clarifications that Jenkins has supplied in the thirteen years since its publication (see for example Jenkins 2014). Yet, to claim that Jenkins has not spoken to the economics of fan production in a non-celebratory way, or the asymmetrical tensions between production and consumption, is not only myopic, but incorrect. In the second edition of Convergence Culture:

Those of us who care about the future of participatory culture as a mechanism for promoting diversity and enabling democracy do the world no favor if we ignore the ways that our current culture falls short of these goals. Too often, there is a tendency to read all grassroots media as somehow ‘resistant’ to dominant institutions rather than acknowledging that citizens sometimes deploy bottom-up means to keep others down. Too often, we have fallen into the trap of seeing democracy as an ‘inevitable’ outcome of technology change rather than as something which we need to fight to achieve with every tool at our disposal. Too often, we have sought to deflect criticisms of grassroots culture rather than trying to identify and resolve conflicts and contradictions which might prevent it from achieving its full potential. Too often, we have celebrated those alternative voices which are being brought into the marketplace of ideas without considering which voices remain trapped outside (Jenkins 2008, 293-294, emphasis added).

enterprising women.jpg

And elsewhere:

Convergence Culture may place its emphasis on the growing influence of customers, audiences, fans, citizens, within this networked culture, but whatever ground they have gained has been in the face of new efforts by corporate producers to ‘manage’ and, yes, ‘manipulate’ these same groups (2014, 279).

It is possible, I think, that scholars may suggest that Jenkins sees the the blurred lines between producers and fans in the media convergence age as more symmetrical and less dialectical than they actually are, but he has emphasized the production/ consumption imbalance on several occasions. Jenkins does not promote the idea that the affordances of the new media landscape have led to a full democratization of the production/ consumption dialectic, but he is interested in how new tools and portals support a push towards that goal. In Spreadable Media (2013),for instance, Jenkins and his co-authors, Sam Ford and Joshua Green, discuss the moral economy in relation to online fan practices and productions being enveloped within ‘the corporate capitalization of free labor’ (87), but they also recognize that the

frictions, conflicts, and contestations in the negotiation of the moral economy surrounding such labor are ample evidence that audiences are often not blindly accepting the terms of Web 2.0…We feel it is crucial to acknowledge the concerns of corporate exploitation of fan labor while still believing that the emerging system places greater power in the hands of the audience when compared to the older broadcast paradigm (58).

Jenkins, Ford and Green are also

certain our focus on transformative case studies or “best practices” throughout may be dismissed by some readers as “purely celebratory” or “not critical enough,” we likewise challenge accounts that are “purely critical” and “non-celebratory enough,” that downplay where ground has been gained in reconfiguring the media ecology. We believe that media scholarship needs to be as clear as possible about what it is fighting for as well as what it is fighting against (xii).

‘We are nowhere near equality at the present time,’ argues Jenkins elsewhere, ‘but there have been shifts in the relationships between producers and consumers…No one can really control what happens to media content once it reaches the hands of the consumer, but consumers have had difficult influencing production decisions’ (in Chudoliński 2014). Indeed, ‘tapping free labor for economic profit can turn playful participation into alienated labor’ (Jenkins, Ford and Green 2013, 65).


I could go on, but the point has been made, I should think. What seems to have been Jenkins’ major crime—and I’m not only speaking about Carter on this point, but the general image of fan studies in the academy—is his embrace of a politics of hope, and an emphasis on the way in which fan cultures might well be able to enforce, or at least encourage, profound shifts in the media convergence era—shifts which have without doubt already occurred (although not symmetrically nor democratically). More recently, Jenkins has turned to consider fan activists and citizens through his conceptualization of the ‘civic imagination,’ whereby fans ‘geek out for democracy,’ examples of which include the Harry Potter Alliancet, and the Occupy Wall Street Movement, among others (see Jenkins et al 2016). This is not to imply that Jenkins isn’t optimistic—he is certainly that—but that shouldn’t necessarily be a terrible thing, especially when qualified transparently (which Jenkins has done time and time again). But I would argue that viewing his work as unabashedly celebratory and romantic is to do a disservice to his extensive oeuvre and, consequently, the entire discipline of fan studies. It is certainly no mean feat to criticize not only a single scholar but an entire field, especially when such claims are easily deflected.


To consider Carter’s sweeping claims about ‘fancademia’ as a utopian celebration of fan production as ‘resistance’ that has not yet convincingly approached the production/ consumption dialectic is not only wrong, but also disingenuous. And let me reiterate: it is the rhetorical force and confidence with which Carter communicates that is questionable, as well as his tendency to make multiple declarative and definitive statements that leave the author with no room for maneuver, not that I am suggesting that criticism should not be made (I’m making one now, after all). That should be par-for-the-course for scholarly debate and discussion (and academia is a discursive field built out of patterns of agreement, disagreement, revisions, conceptual shifts and empirical evidences, etc.) Yet again, the problems with Carter’s claims-making and rhetorical posturing is that they are so easily overturned, or at the least problematized, by extant literature.


Consider a series of edited issues in the journal Transformative Works and Cultures, such as Nancy Regin’s ‘Fan Works and Fan Communities in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (2011); Francesca Coppa, Muhlenberg College, and Julie Levin Russo’s ‘Fan/Remix Video’ (2012); Mel Stanfill and Megan Condis’ on ‘Fandom and/ as Labor’ (2014); and Bob Rehak’s ‘Materiality and Object-Related Fandom’ (2015). Even taking this single journal alone, many of the articles in these edited issues touch upon the political economy of fandom as well as continuing analyses in a cultural sense, an approach that Carter claims is his own. I would definitely expect much of this work to be drawn upon, discussed, deliberated, embraced, developed or rejected.

There is also Kristin Busse’s edited section in Cinema Journal, ‘Fandom and Feminism: Gender and the Politics of Fan Production,’ in which several scholars engage with female fans who ‘feel a deep sense of community and are engaged in a complex subcultural economy—using work time to write about copyrighted characters, teaching one another how to use complex technological equipment to create zines for free, and so on’ (2009, my italics). Although Carter’s understanding of a fannish ‘alternative economy’ is also not solely underpinned by the profit potential, to which he challenges John Fiske in the book’s Preface and elsewhere as a ‘problematic’ assertion (15), he sees ‘a far more complex economy where fans are involved in acts of enterprise, which includes the production, distribution and consumption of artefacts,’ and that ‘these artefacts are exchanged either as gifts or commodities’ (40). In other words, even fan productions that are distributed free-of-charge are not really free as they ‘can [be] exploited by others, for economic gain’ or as part of reciprocal exchanges (56). Busse also considers that ‘commercial interests become complicated as a gift economy questions capitalist models of labor and exchange while nonetheless participating in them in various ways’ (2009, 196) and ‘an unequivocal embrace of noncommodified work remains problematic within a world that requires paying the bills’ (107); while in the same issue, Karen Helleckson states that: ‘Online media fandom is a gift culture in the symbolic realm in which fan gift exchange is performed in complex, even exclusionary symbolic ways that creates a stable nexus of giving, receiving, and reciprocity’ (2009, 114). What is immediately striking is that we know that Carter is aware of this work as he cites Helleckson (2015) briefly, but fails to engage with the rest of the contents. The same could be said of Busse’s (2015) ‘Fan Labor and Feminism: Capitalizing on the Fannish Love of Labor,’ again for Cinema Journal, but no such luck. Jenkins, Ford and Green also repudiate the notion that the fannish ‘gift-economy’ is entirely free, but also, as Carter argues similarly, entangled in commodity culture whereby ‘their exchange is governed by social norms rather than contractual relations’ which ‘circulate through acts of generosity and reciprocity’ (2013, 67). Yet Carter maintains that ‘recent work tends to romanticize the concept of the gift economy’ (56) despite the fact that he largely says the same things.

Analyzing the complex interrelationship between production and consumption between fandom and e-commerce, Josh Stenger demonstrates the collision between the Fox Corporation and fans when Buffy The Vampire Slayer props, clothing etc., from the TV series were auctioned on E-Bay, compelling scholars to ‘reconsider the dimensions and boundaries of fan devotion, desire and consumption on the one hand, and of producer-fan relations on the other’ (2006, 40). More recently, Brigid Cherry’s monograph, Cult Media, Textiles, and Fandom (2014), clearly evidences the commodification of fan handicrafts for profit (knitwear and so forth), with fans converting symbolic capital into economic capital, thus forming what Cherry terms ‘a micro-economy’ through e-commerce transactions on websites, such as Etsy. I would certainly think that Busse’s ‘complex subcultural economy,’ and Cherry’s ‘micro-economy,’ should not only have been consulted, but would actually help support and refine Carter’s ‘alternative economy’ concept, as well as the litany of other work in fan studies over the past decade-and-a-half that unequivocally consider the production/ consumption dialectic as it pertains to fan labor and other factors (see also Bakioğlu, 2016; Ball 2017; Brooker 2014; Cherry 2011; Chin 2013; Chin 2014; Goodwin 2016; Helleckson 2015; Kozinets 2014; Lothian 2009; Lothian 2015; Milner 2009; Olds 2015; Sandvoss 2011; Scott 2009; Scott 2015; Stanfill 2015). To make the assertion that fan studies has not yet moved on from narratives of symbolic resistance nor considered labor and the commodification/ economics of fandom is not only specious, but patently ludicrous.

Furthermore, Carter argues that the fan studies turn, and the romanticized understanding of fans as ‘resistant’—which is always a symbolic resistance, not an economic one, which is of course what gets Carter’s goat—emerges out the Birmingham School’s CCCS and the shift towards studying popular culture as a site of struggle through the adoption of Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony. But even here, Carter misreads Gramsci and the CCCS’ applications of hegemony, which is emphatically not only about resistance, but also, in Gramsci’s terms, incorporation. To be sure, the CCCS aimed to move the conversation away from Frankfurt School pessimism—and rightly so—but drawing upon Gramsci to illustrate culture as a site of struggle and symbolic (and often subcultural) resistance worked not to celebrate popular culture as the expense of the economic, but to indicate the dialectical tension between forces of production and consumption, between resistance and incorporation. Carter’s criticism of Dick Hebdige stands out as a gross misreading, considering that Hebdige articulated very well that processes of subcultural symbolic resistance would invariably be incorporated and subsumed within capitalist processes—until the process starts all over again, naturally. In a section titled ‘Two Forms of Incorporation,’ Hebdige explores ‘the conversion of subcultural signs (dress, music, etc.) into mass-produced objects (i.e. the commodity form)’ (94).  Subcultures strike ‘their own eminently marketable pose’ (93), which will always eventually be converted and commodified into capitalist modes of production.

Indeed, the creation and diffusion of new styles is inextricably bound up with the process of production, publicity and packaging which must inevitably lead to the defusion of the subculture’s subversive power – both mod and punk innovations fed back directly into high fashion and mainstream fashion. Each new subculture establishes new trends, generates new looks and sounds which feed back into the appropriate industries (95).  Thus, as soon as the original innovations which signify ‘subculture’ are translated into commodities and made generally available, they become ‘frozen’. Once removed from their private contexts by the small entrepreneurs and big fashion interests who produce them on a mass scale, they become codified, made comprehensible, rendered at once public property and profitable merchandise […] This occurs irrespective of the subculture’s political orientation: the macrobiotic restaurants, craft shops and ‘antique markets’ of the hippie era were easily converted into punk boutiques and record shops. It also happens irrespective of the startling content of the style: punk clothing and insignia could be bought mail-order by the summer of 1977, and in September of that year Cosmopolitan ran a review of Zandra Rhodes’ latest collection of couture follies which consisted entirely of variations on the punk theme. Models smouldered beneath mountains of safety pins and plastic (the pins were jewelled, the ‘plastic’ wet-look satin) and the accompanying article ended with an aphorism – ‘To shock is chic’ – which presaged the subculture’s imminent demise (96).


Indeed, as the Birmingham School’s David Morley said during fan studies formative year: ‘The power of viewers to reinterpret meanings is hardly equivalent to the discursive power of centralized media institutions’ (1992, 341).  Of course, we could also add Stuart Hall’s encoding/ decoding model, a framework which understands audiences as reading media texts from three positions: dominant, negotiated or oppositional. (Although I would hope many fan and audience studies scholars note the limitations of Hall’s three reading positions as in no way a satisfactory model to capture the gamut of audience interpretation and evaluation).

What is more frustrating is that Carter fails to recognize the principle of Gramscian hegemony in the first instance, but then embraces it in a later chapter without query. Drawing on Peter Hutchings, Carter explains how

early fan production was an act of ‘resistance,’ such as the ‘grimy’ fanzines and bootleg videos that were distributed as a response to the video nasties panic…then identifies how this oppositional fan activity has been replaced with ‘handsomely’ produced books and special edition DVDs and Blu-Ray releases…This book furthers Hutchings’ discussion of these practices to investigate the cultural and economic processes that led to the development of a fan-produced alternative economy relating to European Cult Cinema (91).

Here, Carter effectively embraces an understanding of fan production as hegemonic in the Gramscian sense of the term; as a dialectical process of resistance and incorporation, much in the same manner of Hebdidge and other Birmingham School scholars. Hutchings may not use the term, but that is unquestionably an explanation of hegemonic processes writ large. As noted above, the second wave of fan studies has largely moved on from the resistance/ incorporation paradigm, and Gramsci may have been silenced in media and cultural studies generally, or at least quietened, perhaps because of the ‘bad smell’ associated with Marxist thought since the poststructural/ postmopdern turn, but I strongly believe that it is high-time we return to Gramsci once again, a sentiment that has in the past been proposed by others, such as Angela McRobbie calling for ‘an extension of Gramscian cultural analysis’ (1994, 39; see also Hills 2005). Fan studies scholars may not adopt the term any longer, but the dialectical tensions between production and consumption are all over the field. (I would even argue that Jenkins is a closet-Gramscian.) With that said, Dan Hassler-Forest’s Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Politics: Transmedia World-Building Beyond Capitalism (2016) convincingly illustrates the strength of dialectical approaches that do not romanticize the ‘power’ of fan audiences, which are ‘a seductive illusion’ in any case in Hassler-Forest’s account (17), whereby fannish ‘immaterial labor’ is easily ‘reterritorialized’ and co-opted back into the cash nexus of global capitalism, demonstrating ‘clearly that the relationship between producers and audiences is still a hugely asymmetrical one, and that the power of media conglomerates remain a massive obstacle for actual media democratization’ (15). For Gramsci, ‘a certain equilibrium’ is maintained between the contradictory and complex forces of resistance and incorporation as a dialectical struggle. However, that relationship is always asymmetrical, although ‘sacrifices of an economic-corporate kind’ are ‘such a compromise cannot touch the essential’ (Gramsci 1978, 161)”—the ‘essential’ being power (‘political-ethical’) and the underlying principles of the capitalist mode(s) of production (‘the cash-nexus’). 



That said, Carter does admit that a political economy approach on its own effectively imposes limits on the agency of fan activities—and of course he is not the first to do so by an enormous margin—but when the author suggests that a fusion of cultural and political economy theory is absent from the studies he excoriates, I found this claim astonishing, not least because the utilization of Gramsci’s hegemony theory by cultural studies pioneers is exactly that—an understanding of culture and economics as dialectically intertwined, entangled and impossible to isolate as separable factors (see also Johnson 2014). In fact, one of Carter’s frequently used sources, the seminal Fan Cultures (Hills 2002), absolutely made this explicit almost twenty-years ago, although for Carter, Hills did not go far enough (a fair assessment, I would say). Yet, Hills did propose a viewpoint that saw fans as engaged in a tug-of-war between the Scylla and Charybdis of the ‘resistance/ incorporation’ dialectic, and that fans are in many ways ‘ideal consumers’ that at the same time, often espouse anti-commercial rhetorics, suggesting that ‘cultural power cannot be located in any one group, nor can it be viewed as the product of a singular system’ (2002, 44). Indeed, it would certainly seem that Carter rightly shares this view, arguing that a political economy approach on its own would rob fan cultures of agency, a viewpoint that is precisely what the cultural studies project has argued since its inception.

As a result, Carter’s ‘reconceptualization of fandom’ as ‘a cultural and economic activity’ is less a reconceptualization than a reification and reaffirmation of what many scholars have been saying for years at this point, going back to the bedrock of cultural studies (and I would also add audience and reception studies to the mix given that borders between disciplines are not permeable but porous). But it is the force with which Carter states these things that is perhaps most disappointing, in sentences such as: ‘it is academic work on fan production that has become a minor activity’ (30). It is not that Carter’s approach is myopic—although it is certainly that by the manner with which it reductively constructs fan studies as a homogenous and unvarnished celebration of fan production—it is as if the author has ignored or cast aside any and all argumentation that would certainly encourage a thorough rearticulation of the way in which his rhetorical insistence on distinction and originality is enacted confidentially, authoritatively and, to be quite frank, bullishly and boorishly. To complicate matters further, Carter seemingly undermines his own argument several times by referring to ‘how this early period of research celebrated fandom’ (28); ‘that solely viewing fans as resistant is problematic’ (26); ‘new models for studying fandom’ were inaugurated by Matt Hills (2002) and Cornel Sandvoss (2005); and that an ‘area of academic research that is currently addressing the economy of fandom is that related to anime fandom’ (38)—'current’ in Carter’s account meaning literature between 2005 and 2011. I agree that ‘solely viewing fans as resistant is problematic,’ but that is neither a new insight nor an original intervention given that Carter’s book was published in late-2018. But the contradiction laid out bare for all to see is that Carter’s disgruntlement is attributed to an ‘early period of research,’ and as, a result, is an argument that is at least a decade too late, perhaps even longer.

(Full bibliography in part 2)


William Proctor is Senior Lecturer in Transmedia at Bournemouth University. He has published widely on matters pertaining to popular culture, franchising and fandom, including comic books, film and TV. William is the co-editor of Global Convergence Cultures: Transmedia Earth (with Matthew Freeman for Routledge), Disney’s Star Wars: Forces of Production, Promotion and Reception (with Richard McCulloch for University of Iowa Press), and the forthcoming edited collection Horror Franchise Cinema (with Mark McKenna for Routledge). At present, William is completing his debut single-authored monograph Reboot Culture: Comics, Film, Transmedia for publication in 2019/20 (for Palgrave).

Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Kishonna Gray & Lori Kido Lopez (Part II)



I am so glad you mentioned that wonderful text. I was deeply engaged with the narratives that By Any Media Necessary. I am recalling the powerful stories of the undocumented youth and how they employed digital technologies for this empowerment. Mobile media, YouTube, social media and other forms of social and tech media have been significant in illustrating new ways to politically participate especially in getting those often overlooked and marginalized stories into the larger body politic. But then I immediately thinking about the vulnerability of these youth and marginalized folk. Especially for undocumented folks, the DREAMers, Muslims, Black folk under constant police surveillance, and there is larger engagement with law enforcement agencies to track movement and actions of activists.

I think my scholarship being focused on gaming, benefits so much from this text. It gave us detailed documentation of the ephemeral activities of youth within digital culture. I often think about the hidden and often invisible experiences of gamers that are only becoming more visible now with the increasing streaming culture. But women of color continue to the be the most invisible population. But the level of participatory culture of private spaces within gaming illustrate the multiple modes of engaging within digital culture. I am thinking about these spaces more as intersectional counterpublics—where these women engage digitally and also physically with their communities IRL. I link this to Sangita Shresthova’s chapter on Storytelling and Surveillance where the term “precarious publics” is invoked, which illustrates the level of empowerment by youth but also more at risk in making their voices public. So that’s one of the most fascinating thing about this book and associated tech, is its acknowledgment of not only the ever changing landscape of participatory politics, but also how marginalized populations are sometimes never able to utilize it similar to their counterparts.


Yes that’s a great point, Kishonna.  That one of the difficult things about judging the impact of our contemporary moment on digital participatory cultures and political engagement is that so much is shielded from view.  Your work on Black women gamers brings to light a subculture that would otherwise be largely invisible, and is certainly not often examined within media studies research.  My current research deals with a similar phenomenon in the case of Hmong Americans and their development of what I call “micro media industries.”  Since there are so few Hmong in the US and they have no home country that might have developed its own media infrastructures, Hmong across the diaspora have been incredibly innovative in relying upon the affordances of digital and mobile media to produce their own communication networks. 

For instance, Hmong communities have developed a form of radio that relies on conference call software and is accessed through cell phone calls, which makes it easier for elderly refugee populations with less mobility and literacy to participate.  Hmong women have used this participatory platform to engage in community-wide conversations about serious concerns like international abusive marriage and other misogynistic practices.  Such conversations clearly fall within the category of counterpublic that Kishonna described earlier, as they are impenetrable to outsiders and allow participants to debate these issues as a community.  This can be helpful since many women who suffer from this practice are in extremely vulnerable positions, and the larger Hmong community often prefers to deal with this issue without interference or judgment from outsiders.  Yet it may also limit the potential for Hmong American activists to draw helpful attention when it is needed, or to use the strength of these participatory cultures to engage in political issues such as fighting against anti-Hmong racism and violence from white Americans.  So I guess another area I appreciate scholars looking into is how digital counterpublics can more effectively pivot from the protection of the enclaved counterpublic to being able to mobilize for more public and visible engagements, and how they can maintain their integrity and sovereignty even as they do so.



Lori, I am fascinated by the micro media industries that your work illuminates among the Hmong community. I often think about invisibility in disempowering terms—how not seeing leads to further marginalization and isolation within mediated frameworks. I’ve also examined questions of invisibility in relation to the systematic oppression that pervades the digital lives of women of color (similar to what occurs in physical spaces). For example, I investigate questions of invisible marginality through women of color’s continued absence as playable characters in video games, to their hyper-visibility as sexualized non-playable characters, and track gamers’ perception of these depictions. 


Using hypervisibility in body politics, women of color are represented in stereotyped and commodified ways throughout gaming and marginalized in online gaming spaces. But with this example that you highlight, I am think about the power of this invisibility, in that this example illustrates the power of this enclave. I want to begin exploring the possibility of there being a level of protection and solidarity within invisibility from larger hegemonic audiences and structures.

I think your work gives us a way to engage the dialectic: the process-oriented rather than result-oriented. For instance, in studying social media influencers in Ferguson during the aftermath of the death of Mike Brown, individuals often explored the utility of Twitter but more in terms of what the technology can offer to fulfill larger goals of police reform.

The focus was on how Twitter could be mobilized to lead to actions—a result-oriented focus. With the example from the Hmong community, it may be possible to see the nature of the process—from creation, to see how digital spaces and their associated communities and networked enclaves can provide protection. I see a level of protection with this level of containment if you will: protection of their intellectual contributions, protection from harassment, protection to create and sustain digital sovereignty, etc. From your work, and linking this back to women of color in gaming, I want to root some of their engagements as self-consciously eclectic, critical and deconstructive. Not really seeking paradigmatic status and most definitely not trying to obey established technocultural boundaries. In this way, they are the producers, consumers, creators, disruptors, resistors, etc.


Yes, I like the idea of considering the process in addition to (or perhaps instead of) focusing on results.  I really appreciate the work of Yarimar Bonilla and Jonathan Rosa in helping us to understand hashtags as field sites for doing ethnographic research, because in doing so, we can unearth the rich and complex ways that hashtags gain meaning.  Instead of just asking what #BlackLivesMatter has accomplished, it’s important to think about the ways that tweets can do so many different things—including allow diverse voices to participate in an aggregated conversation, call attention to what is being left out of mainstream discourse, learn about events as they are unfolding, mobilize on-the-ground actions but also allow for support from a distance, and so much more.

Of course it’s also the case that the framework of “participatory politics” has much to offer us in the case of considering Black Lives Matter, and I think that’s a nice place to end our conversation that has largely considered how race and racism have shaped our research on media and participatory cultures.  If we are thinking about how young people are using digital technologies to engage in the political issues that matter to them, Black youth who have used Twitter to address anti-Blackness and state violence should certainly be a key example of how these possibilities continue to grow and evolve alongside our changing technocultural landscape. 


In my own community, youth of color from an organization called Freedom, Inc. have been deeply engaged in the national Movement for Black Lives and are now using what they have learned to impact their own community.  Recently they have been mobilizing to remove police officers from Madison’s high schools and increase support for students of color.  It’s been incredible to see how the global development of a civic imagination around Black liberation and decolonization has been taken up in local communities, facilitated through digital technologies.  There’s plenty more to be said about this topic, but I think it’s about time to wrap up and I do like the idea of ending on a positive and expansive note—considering the ways that even in this bleak political moment we are still able to see many possibilities for transformative politics and increased civic engagement.


Kishonna L. Gray (@KishonnaGray) is an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois - Chicago with a joint appointment in Communication and Gender and Women’s Studies. She is also a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. She is the author of Race, Gender, & Deviance in Xbox Live (Routledge 2014), lead editor of Feminism in Play (Palgrave-Macmillan 2018), and co-editor of Woke Gaming (University of Washington Press, 2018).  She is currently completing a manuscript entitled Intersectional Tech: The transmediated praxis of Black users in digital gaming (LSU Press).

Lori Kido Lopez is an Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies in the Communication Arts Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is also affiliate faculty in the Asian American Studies Program and the Department of Gender and Women's Studies.  She is the author of Asian American Media Activism: Fighting for Cultural Citizenship (2016) and co-editor of The Routledge Companion to Asian American Media (2017).  She is currently a co-editor for the International Journal of Cultural Studies.


Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Kishonna Gray & Lori Kido Lopez (Part I)



I am excited to be blogging alongside Lori. She has produced some provocative scholarship within Asian American media studies that I look to in making sense of the experiences of women of color in digital gaming. I often utilize her scholarship to think conceptually about emotional labor and performativity online, illustrating the intersectional burdens placed upon certain bodies as well as their associated reactions and responses to these burdens that range from exploited labor, racism, sexism, harassment, and a host of other structural inequalities that manifest online. I am thinking specifically about her often-evoked dialectic of pain and pleasure. This is such a useful framework in how I make sense of Black women in gaming. Preview the following quote from her 2014 “Blogging while angry” piece published by Media, Culture, and Society:

If the existence of a thriving blogosphere is seen as beneficial for Asian American communities, it is important to understand the emotions that underlie its existence—the anger that initiates its existence, the camaraderie that sustains it, the potential for exhaustion and burnout (Lopez, 2014, p. 422).

This quote captures the essence of women in online gaming. But it is also important to add an additional emotion of rage to make sense of the holistic realities of the women who serve as co-producers of knowledge in my projects. This concept of rage is a core component of Black feminist engagements in understanding pain, pleasure, mobilization, and resistance.

 Similarly, bell hooks’ concept of radical Black subjectivity is useful to further explain this practice. Self-definition and commitment to liberatory and transformative praxis constitutes this Black subjectivity. These habits of being, as bell hooks outlines, explores how this practices of centering the intersectional self is a radical act is disrupting the confluence of the matrix of domination and intersecting oppressions. While significant attention is often placed on the controlling images that dominant Black women’s representation in mainstream media, Black women within gaming create narratives and experiences that are self-actualized, self-determined, oppositional, and engaged in Black women’s healing, understanding, and commitment to the struggle justice.

In media outlets dominated by privileged bodies, the narrative disseminated is limited given whom the primary producers [and assumed consumers] of digital content are.  In navigating this, Black women, as other marginalized communities do, isolate themselves from the larger gaming community. To continue participating, many women exist within the boundaries of hegemonic ideology, by forming their own communities operating counter to the dominant narrative. Despite the extreme discrimination, lack of inclusion in the gaming industry, misrepresentation, and a host of other concerns, Black women still take participate in a culture that continues to delegitimize their participation. Our/Their rage is often misread through a deficiency lens: she can’t play – she can’t take it – they can’t keep their cool. bell hooks rightfully asserts and disrupts the traditional approach to making sense of Black women’s rage:

“They named it pathological, explained it away. They did not urge the larger culture to see black rage as something other than sickness, to see it as a potentially healthy, potentially healing response to oppression and exploitation” (hooks, 1995, p. 12).

 In linking these transformative practices to Black women in gaming, I am illustrating the power that transmediated gaming has on connecting Black users across platforms. It would be premature to relegate Black women to the hostilities they experience online – focusing singularly on their rage. Lopez’ work urges us to engage not only the pain but also the associated pleasures. The anger and rage represents a small segment of their overall experiences in gaming. A more nuanced exploration into their everyday relationships with each other and with gaming is key to making sense of their testifying, oral narratives, and other forms of storytelling. By exploring Black women’s gaming practices, from playing to streaming, through a lens of digital storytelling, I explicate the relationship between White supremacy and Black feminist orality. Oral narratives and digital storytelling connect these contemporary practices to historical legacies of Black feminist thought.  This practice has led to Black women’s creation of intersectional counterpublics.

Catherine Squires illustrates that marginalized groups create “coexisting counterpublics in reaction to the exclusionary politics of dominant public spheres and the state.” While there is much academic debate on what and whom constitute a public and/or counterpublic, for the purposes of the current context, my understanding focuses on the spaces that women of color create in digital gaming directly due to White masculine supremacy, Black patriarchy, and White feminism.

The intersectional, transmediated practices in which women engage in gaming communities reflects the ways they create meaning out of different texts, cultures, and practices – bridging multiple to create a hybrid summation of experiences. Black folk have patched and pieced together multiple modes of culture and identity due to the discontinuous trajectory of the Black Atlantic – a practice that resonates significantly to the digital experience of the Black diaspora.  In applying this concept to the fragmented experiences of Black gamers online, I am able to continue making the connections between the visual arrangements of racial hierarchies and physical relations, to go beyond the discursive practices that render and regulate certain bodies to the margins.

While the practices of digital redlining within gaming are markedly hostile and violent, Black women’s responses have been to create nurturing spaces for healing and transformation. One significant feature of these intersectional counterpublics is digital storytelling, what I consider an expanded form of testifying, and what Amy Wilkins suggests is one process through which intersectional identities are achieved and managed.


I am also very excited to be engaged in a conversation about contemporary participatory politics with Kishonna, because her extensive body of research on racism in video game cultures has deeply shaped how I think about interactive media and its political limits/potentials.  I think that we both have taken on research subjects that explore traditionally racist media formations—Kishonna in looking at racism within video gaming communities, and my own work on how Asian Americans have been excluded from mainstream media representations—but in doing so, can call attention to the possibilities for resistance and nuanced engagements that might otherwise be overlooked.

This kind of work puts us in an interesting position to then consider the question of what all has changed since the publication of By Any Media Necessary in today’s political climate.  It is undeniable that people of color are under tremendous threat right now—facing rising anti-immigrant sentiment and policies, bans and deportations, an increase in white supremacy and organized hate, police brutality and state violence, and so much more. I frequently return to the question of what has really changed and what is the same, given how much we tend to deny or overlook the historical precedents for these problems.

But let me back up for a moment, and situate my opening statement within more of an introduction.  As an early member of the Civic Paths research group at Annenberg, I was part of the first conversations with Henry, Sangita, Liana, Neta, and Arely (and everyone else!) about how participatory culture constituted a site for increasing civic engagement.  In the beginning we focused a lot on fan communities, thinking about how love for a media franchise could be transformed into political participation.  I was so excited when By Any Media Necessary was published and I got to see how that thinking had significantly evolved since I graduated and left the group, focusing more squarely on the question of how youth activists are using participatory cultures for civic engagement—even without the explicit connection to fandom and popular culture texts.  I recently taught the book in my graduate seminar on Fan Studies, and it really forced my students to expand their thinking about how frameworks around fandom and participatory culture can be usefully expanded.

My own research has focused on Asian American activism of all kinds—including activism that centers on improving entertainment media representations, but also engagements with non-media targets like Asian Americans organizing alongside the Black Lives Matter movement or LGBTQ Asian Americans fighting for recognition and rights.  From my vantage point as someone who is deeply engaged with Asian American politics, I would say that we are actually in a very strange and exuberant period of seeing hard-fought struggles finally result in successes.  I’m thinking here of last year’s #AsianAugust that saw the overwhelming success of Crazy Rich Asians, Searching starring John Cho, and Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before starring Lana Condor.  Within the television realm we’ve also had an outpouring of Asian American stars and ensembles, with Fresh Off the Boat, Dr. Ken, Kim’s Convenience, Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, Killing Eve, and so many others.  These accomplishments then contribute to the continuation of this trend, with at least five Asian American-centered television projects for 2019 having been greenlit immediately following the box office reports from Crazy Rich Asians.  Digital participatory cultures have played a key role in supporting these advancements, serving in both promotional and critical capacities as a way of keeping Asian American representation relevant in mainstream discourse.

Yet it is also undeniable that Asian Americans are facing the same increase in threats as other people of color in the United States, with Muslim families being separated across national borders, increasing fears of China and North Korea as the threatening Yellow Peril, and Asian American women struggling to maintain reproductive rights and fight against sexual violence.  In my own community in Madison, Southeast Asian refugee communities have been targeted for detention and deportation by ICE Agents.  With these rapidly advancing threats to Asian America, I have been curious to see how we are again making this leap from activism focused on media representations to activism that is squarely within the civic realm.  Do the skills developed within newly engaged collectives of Asian Americans who came together to support John Cho and Constance Wu and Sandra Oh transfer to other forms of civic engagement?  What will that look like, and will it make a difference?  These are the kinds of questions I’m continuing to ask in looking forward to how Asian American activists respond to our changing cultural climate and all the good and bad that it may bring.


Kishonna L. Gray (@KishonnaGray) is an Assistant Professor at the University of Illinois - Chicago with a joint appointment in Communication and Gender and Women’s Studies. She is also a faculty associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. She is the author of Race, Gender, & Deviance in Xbox Live (Routledge 2014), lead editor of Feminism in Play (Palgrave-Macmillan 2018), and co-editor of Woke Gaming (University of Washington Press, 2018).  She is currently completing a manuscript entitled Intersectional Tech: The transmediated praxis of Black users in digital gaming (LSU Press).

Lori Kido Lopez is an Associate Professor of Media and Cultural Studies in the Communication Arts Department at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she is also affiliate faculty in the Asian American Studies Program and the Department of Gender and Women's Studies.  She is the author of Asian American Media Activism: Fighting for Cultural Citizenship (2016) and co-editor of The Routledge Companion to Asian American Media (2017).  She is currently a co-editor for the International Journal of Cultural Studies.


Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Stuart Cunningham, Eric Gordon, and David Craig (Part II)



As you describe, social media entertainment changes the power structure of media organizations and the ways in which civic conversations are forming in public life. The proliferation of voices from a heterogeneous group of people is bursting with potentiality. But to what extent is this massing of voices creating an accessible, equitable, and generative public? Or is it a proliferation of cloud-cukoo lands, each of which we can pay attention to, but collectively don’t add up to a legible public space? As dialogue is fragmented across technical market-based platforms, whose infrastructure is optimized for profit, what becomes of the social infrastructure on which all of our politics rely?  Arendt's notion of action is decidedly non-instrumental. It suggests new beginnings, where the actor sets something in motion without mind to objectives or conclusions. This only works if the civic infrastructure is in place to support such a thing.


What is the public space that SME occupies? It's an increasingly contested space because at the very time that it is becoming recognized as an emergent phenomenon, it is also been severely threatened by issues that constrain its potentiality.  So much of this activity occurs on major commercial platforms which have become the object very rapidly of societal and governmental suspicion and severe critique. Compare the bonhomie with which the Obama administration and the platforms got on and compare that to now.  We have a dramatically shifted situation where the potentiality of new voices, voices from the grassroots, people who by and large have never had a voice before across a range of multicultural touchpoints as well as geographical touchpoints are under direct assault. The potential is for this to be threatened by the baby being thrown out with the bath water as regulatory concern grows around the world. It's an existential threat to this creator culture.  People may ask why do these creators for good have to work on these noxious platforms? Why can't it take place on some alternative space? This is one of the key questions that comes back to your discussion of "inefficiency" and of different potential realities. Alternative infrastructures is a really key question. We're very open to that. But the reality is that many of those alternative infrastructures carry far fewer network effects. In other words, the globality, the sheer pervasiveness of the big platforms also creates the potential for the kinds of peer to peer potentiality that we have tried to map. There is of course always the possibility of new means of communication. The platforms stand in a roiling, competitive landscape where the ones that are here today may not be here tomorrow, but we're still dealing with the infrastructural realities of network effects based on pervasiveness and we map their use by these creators for progressive potential.


Where is platform governance at the moment and to what extent is this relying on a public to come into being through market logics?


Governance is very important and the terrible lapses of internal governance within the platforms quite rightly have given rise to all the concerns that are now being articulated through the political system, within the scholarly community as well as in the industry and the policy community.  Platforms have let a massive genie out of the bottle by creating huge scale and light touch self-governance mechanisms which have clearly failed. So it’s up to the state to intervene. To be concrete, the GDPR was seen initially as outrageously interventionist in the US. It's now being seen as the way forward. With major questions of democratic deficit, Facebook is now on notice to manage foreign influence in every election cycle. To be clear, we don't take a pollyannaish attitude to these things. What we are concerned about that creators don't become collateral damage in these absolutely justified concerns raised at the citizenship level. There is a serious question here about the relation between citizenship concerns and these particular concerns around the creative potential of this new communication industry. You've quoted Arendt on "cloud cuckoo land". Let's be Arendtian about this. It's the most self-indulgent gesture to say public institutions are corrupt. This is the voice of right wing populism. But where is the emerging potential of infrastructure to seed journalism?


Institutions provide infrastructure. Distinct from organizations, institutions are comprised of any codified moral framework that organizes social interaction. This often takes organizational form, but not always. To your question about journalism, I think we need to look at organizations and their role in providing the infrastructure necessary to build trust and legitimacy. As small, local newspapers continue to fold because of a crisis of business models, larger national or global news outlets are being challenged because of a crisis in value models. Consumers of news are questioning the ability of large organizations to filter and editorialize content because the values behind the editorial scrim are opaque, non-existent or counter to existing, strongly held beliefs. Anchor institutions like the New York Times or the BBC, even as their audiences have surged in the last few years, are having to contend with their resilience amidst a range of new social and political shocks. They are at once doubling down on discourses of truth and objectivity and creating new mechanisms to interface with publics. For the latter, they are creating engagement desks, and actively seeking conversations with communities as a form of what we call “relational journalism.” This is an investment in infrastructure -- not a speech act, but the cultivation of the context in which speech happens. On a practical level, anchor institutions are seeking ways to build trust and relatability, as a means of maintaining legitimacy and relevance. Sometimes this looks cheap, like a social media marketing campaign. And other times, it can mean entire positions or even offices devoted to questioning and understanding how news impacts people’s lives and then being responsive to those conditions. This, like all relational work, can be highly inefficient. Large organizations tend to be bad at prioritizing these meaningful inefficiencies as they run counter to established values and business models. Popular YouTubers, on the other hand, are already doing this work, as they tend to understand their role as community organizers as much as content creators. The flow of influence is clear. Legacy organizations are starting to transform, and new institutions are growing up around those transformations.


This is an important point that connects us. Platforms' understanding of governance is all about hyper efficiency. The problems arise because of hyper efficiency. The ability to scale is one of the absolutely core beliefs in Silicon Valley. There will be the continuing search for AI, for tech solutions to this. But the reality so far has been the need to hire tens of thousands of humans to deal with the very subtle questions of hate speech. These points correlate with your questions about hyper efficiency and the problems of the transactional versus the relational. One of the fundamental reasons we identify in our book for the growth of creator culture is the search for authenticity and relatability amongst young people in a digitally-saturated world. To take another German philosopher from the period, Adorno railed against authenticity, against bogus claims to authenticity in Heideggerian German philosophy. Adorno claimed it was one of the root causes of the rise of Nazism. We've got to be very careful about what he called the jargon of authenticity. But it doesn't change the fact that there is a deep search in this hyper-mediated world for what is now cliched as relatability. This is what differentiates at a level of fundamental discourse social media entertainment from mainstream media.


Turning one’s back on the possibility of authenticity is what Arendt would call dark times. Donald Trump can speak through Twitter directly to his constituents and cultivate his appearance of authenticity. If we reject the very notion of authenticity because of its corrupt and increasingly cheap manufacturing, then we reject the public all together. It is more important now than ever to support existing civic institutions or build new ones that embrace authenticity as the result of values forward practice. In the emerging practice of engagement journalism, for example, a hybrid form between community organizing and journalism, newsrooms are seeking to understand the communities on which they report in a way that can both factor into the stories that they tell, but also into the ways in which those stories get told. This is happening in public radio stations throughout the United States. The BBC has an engagement desk. Now the New York Times has an engagement desk. Large and small media organizations are opening up in this way. Certainly, in some cases, it is a cheap simulacrum of authenticity. In other cases, it's good-intentioned actors trying to understand what relationships look like and then trying to educate and transform the organization to maintain those relationships.


This raises the question of how much do we put energy into supporting the persistence of mainstream journalism as well as alternative forms of journalism. I'm thinking of Deuze and Witschger on start up journalism. I think that you would find a lot in common with that, but what about mainstream journalism? What about the fact that most people who call themselves professional journalists are employed by Murdoch?  In Australia, the shadow of Rupert Murdoch looms very large. He's the biggest employer of journalists in the country. He's the biggest single employer of journalists in the world.


There's no necessary progressive quality to civic action, right?


David and I have focused attention on the progressive side, but there's no question that the alt-right has weaponized social media affordances. Our most immediate concern is that we introduce some balance into what has now become a tsunami of focus on the downsides of the weaponization of social media affordances. I'm thinking of all the excellent work that's done by Alice Marwick in the Data and Society Institute tracking the sophisticated right wing weaponization of social media. Being steadfast in identifying progressive potentiality and advocating for it is to our mind just as important as analysing the potential for so many social and political harms. If you think about Arendt in this context, you can't help but be buoyed by her ability to call forward in the darkest of times the potential for something good to come out of it. We name it, lock it down and map it. We instantiate it, we enumerate it, we analyze it. But that doesn't mean that we're not also very aware of future contingency: where is SME going to be in 10 years time? The future of creator governance is what we are working on now.


I agree that it is important to highlight and celebrate emerging practices that bolster progressive goals. This is precisely what we do in our upcoming book. But it is equally important to highlight those that have “weaponized” those practices for political harms. Using words like weaponization drops us squarely into a claim on authenticity. Progressive practices are authentic, and right wing practices are weapons. While I might personally agree with this, I’m advocating for a deeper look, for an understanding of how authenticity is produced across ideological divides. Even in its weaponized form, the fundamentals are the same - Breitbart, for example, has successfully cultivated its followers by building relationships with audiences and seemingly responding to interests and needs. Its foundational narrative is that you can't trust mainstream news. “But you can trust us. We're going to respond to you and respect you. We're going to make you feel important.” This approach is present in all civic institutions - from government to media. Authenticity is not a perspective, it is the sociability of perspective. It is the space between people.


Where do we go with that? Go back to Arendt for a moment. At the time she wrote Eichmann in Jerusalem, it was inconceivable that she could have adopted the position she did. The position that everyone expected was that these people were monsters. Her insistence on the banality of evil was so unacceptable. Where do we go with the idea of creating a planar similarity between Breitbart and the Vlogbrothers? We would need an Arendt to work that one out.


I don't think it's an accident that Arendt is gaining in popularity at the moment. We do need Arendt and that’s why she’s resonating so deeply at the moment. She was attacked from all sides of the political spectrum after writing Eichmann in Jerusalem. But she was right -- evil is in the everyday turning away from the world, not in any particular act. She was interested in the underlying infrastructure that motivated people to do what they did. But even in dark times, she retained a resounding hope in the possibilities of public life.

I have really enjoyed this conversation. It has pushed my thinking about institutionalization, about how social media entertainers are influencing and influenced by legacy civic organizations. It has made me think about the relationship between the frontend - the individual social media celebrities and the discourse they produce, and the backend, the institutions (both in the form of organizations and social norms that structure that discourse). My work is focused on these backend shifts, and yours primarily on the frontend. But where we come together in middleware is a really important line of inquiry.


I think one of the biggest things that's come out of this for me is your point about efficiency and a way of thinking about the backend. In other words, for us, platform infrastructures that are more civic-minded have had to take account these questions about what they've put in motion - extraordinarily high levels of connectivity but not high enough levels of societal normativity that can keep us together. How do you do that in a silicon valley culture that is predicated on efficiency and scale?  It's only been 10 or 12 years, but what's it going to be like 10 years from now?

Stuart Cunningham is Distinguished Professor of Media and Communications, Queensland University of Technology.  In addition to Social Media Entertainment, which he co-authored with David Craig, Cunningham has authored over a dozen academic titles including Media Economics (Terry Flew, Adam Swift), Screen Distribution and the New King Kongs of the Online World (Jon Silver), Hidden innovation: Policy, industry and the creative sector.

Eric Gordon is professor of civic media and the director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College in Boston. His research focuses on the transformation of public life and governance in digital culture. He has served as an expert advisor for local and national governments, as well as NGOs around the world, designing responsive processes that encourage play, delight, and deliberation. He is the author of two books about media and cities and, most recently, is the editor of Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice (MIT Press, 2016). His book Meaningful Inefficiencies: How Designers are Transforming Civic Life by Creating Opportunities to Care is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

David Craig is a Clinical Associate Professor at USC Annenberg and a Fellow in the Peabody Media Center.  Along with Stuart Cunningham, Craig co-authored Social Media Entertainment along with over a dozen journal articles and book chapters.  Craig is a veteran Hollywood producer responsible for over 30 projects that garnered over 75 Emmy, Peabody, and Golden Globe nominations and awards.

Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Stuart Cunningham, Eric Gordon, and David Craig (Part I)


Eric Gordon:  Public Life in Dark Times

Hannah Arendt characterized a moment after World War II, when much of Europe and the world were reeling from unfathomable destruction and the discovery of the moral depths to which humans could stoop, as dark times. These dark times were not just the result of the remarkable acts of evil doers, but the culminating impact of the banal ways people encountered the world. As Arendt put it, “nothing in our time is more dubious than our attitude toward the world” (2013: p. 3). The world is not a set of physical conditions, or even some lofty abstraction of society; the world is what sits between individuals as a precondition for interaction. It’s the composition of everyday life, or what Arendt would call “public space.” Public space is not a grouping of people, or even some unified interest towards which to strive. It is the possibility space between people, where ideas can emerge, encounters can be had, and beginnings can be set into motion. Arendt’s deepest concern in that mid-twentieth century moment was not the realization that extraordinary evil exists, but rather that public space was being squeezed out by greater connectivity, responsiveness, rationality and efficiency.  

Today, with the rise of nationalist politics, and the widespread questioning of the institutions that have historically governed public life, Arendt’s ominous warning of dark times feels deeply prescient. Big data and smart tech are transforming urban landscapes and compelling public sector institutions to place efficiency above all else; and media organizations are proliferating and pumping out content at unprecedented speeds, all while struggling to maintain their legitimacy as they contend with parallel attacks of fake news and social exclusion. Government and the media are the mediators of public space, but in their renewed promise to connect people and things, people and ideas, and people and people, ever faster and more efficiently, they are designing away potentiality and emergent possibilities that thrive in public. This leads to a deeply important question: when institutions are invested in perpetuating an ethos of radical autonomy and endless individual choices to be shared in networks of others with like minds, what becomes of the public? Networks, particularly those aided by artificial intelligence, that force likeness over difference, connection over proximity, answers over questions, can lead to distrust of the institutions that organize them. Arendt warns that distrust leads the individual to ”shift from the world and its public space to an interior life, or else simply to ignore that world in favor of an imaginary world ‘as it ought to be’ or as it once upon a time had been” (1995: p. 19). No doubt there are good reasons for turning one’s back on publics and the institutions that mediate them, not least of which is the historical misrepresentation or exclusion seen in media companies, governments, and NGOs. And while this turning away may be justified and even necessary, the implications are profound. “Those who reject [public life] as part of a hostile world,” warns Arendt, “may feel wonderfully superior to the world, but their superiority is then truly no longer of this world; it is the superiority of a more or less well-equipped cloud-cuckoo land” (1995: p. 18).

As networked life proliferates through disaffected groups who reject the institutions and by extension the public life they mediate, the result is not necessarily a more robust public discourse, but a bunching of cloud-cuckoo lands that find satisfaction in spaces of overlap. Participation in a digital culture is not the same as public life. And it’s important that scholars, activists and practitioners are able to separate the two. Participation is the accumulation of individuals or groups in shared real or virtual space;  public life are the conditions that enable those individuals and groups to create new beginnings that have the potential to persist Choosing to turn towards public life as opposed to retreating from it, requires trust, a resource that is growing increasingly scarce.

A recent study from Pew has shown that trust in the United States federal government is at an all time low. The marketing firm Edelman releases a “trust index” every year. Their 2018 report shows trust in a range of institutions globally (from local government to media) stabilizing after a rapid downturn in 2017 (Edelman, 2018). The main exception is in the United States, where trust dropped 23% - the biggest drop in the 17 years they have conducted the survey. Individuals do not trust in institutions as much as they once did. As Ethan Zuckerman points out, the reasons vary from individual bad actors to corrupt institutions. With Russian hacking into political process in the US and elsewhere and a rise in strongman politicians around the globe regularly questioning the legitimacy of the press when it disagrees with them, there is good reason for active citizens to question the intentions of the faceless institutions that mediate public life.

Beyond global politics, trust in institutions is negotiated everyday in small, seemingly insignificant ways. When an underperforming organization adopts technology to enhance its output, people begin to trust in that organization’s ability to do its job (Harding, et. al. 2015). When a city updates its website to enhance usability, or when online payments are streamlined, better user experience typically results in higher trust (Porembescu, 2016). But, when a city installs kiosks that capture IP addresses of passers by without any input from residents, or when black box algorithms determine what news content you see on your browser, the absence of process can have the opposite impact. As organizations adopt efficient processes to “win” back trust of their constituents, the opposite effect can be triggered. Efficiency, in the sense of charting a path to a goal with the least amount of friction, can be at odds with the goal of building trust in the institutions that mediate public life. In general, civic organizations seek a balance between transactional and relational models of getting things done. And when these get thrown off balance, the organization is challenged. But as new digital tools compel organizations towards the transactional, and as publics grow increasingly distrustful of the role of civic institutions broadly, there is need now more than ever to address this lopsidedness.

I am interested in those practices that challenge the normative applications of “smart technologies” in order to build or repair trust with publics. In my upcoming book with Gabriel Mugar (to be published by Oxford University Press), we take a close look at a growing group of practitioners that are typically working for civic organizations and actively questioning the assumptions presented by new and emerging technologies. These people range from journalists, to community organizers, to public servants. They embrace a practice we call “meaningful inefficiencies,” or the deliberate design of less efficient over more efficient means of achieving some ends, in order to structure and support public life. My recently published white paper in collaboration with the University of Oregon documents how “engagement journalists” are pushing up against journalistic conventions by spending time on relationship building, even if it challenges traditional notions of truth and objectivity. In the book, we look well beyond journalists to a range of civic organizations that are employing these often unrecognized “civic designers.” They are technologists, communication specialists, producers, and organizers, all of whom are doing the work of thoughtfully, and often quietly, innovating the shape of public life.

For the last ten years, those of us interested in the emerging digital culture and its progressive implications have celebrated novelty, creativity and participation, but have given short shrift to matters of infrastructure. It is my hope that in this conversation, we can explore the relationship between the front end and back end of public space, acknowledge the complexity of dark times, and question how to support the building and maintenance of public life.  


Arendt, H. (1995). Men in Dark Times. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Arendt, H. (2013). The Human Condition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Edelman (2018). Trust Barometer - 2018 Annual Global Study.  Retrieved from

Harding, M., Knowles, B., Davies, N., & Rouncefield, M. (2015). HCI, Civic Engagement

& Trust. Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in

Computing  Systems - CHI ’15, 2833–2842.

Porumbescu, G. (2016). Linking public sector social media and e-government website

use to trust in government. Government Information Quarterly, 33(2), 291–304.

Zuckerman, E. (2018). “Four Problems for News and Democracy.” Trust, Media and




Stuart Cunningham and David Craig: The cultural progressivity of civic-minded creators

In Social Media Entertainment (NYUP 2019), we mapped the contours and dimensions of this new cultural industry as operating with distinction from established media industries globally, whether Hollywood, Bollywood, or Nollywood.  In addition to the vital differences between the features and affordances of digital and social media platforms, we focus on the rise of vast array of powerful cultural producers in this industry, which we refer to as creators, although alternatively described as vloggers, influencers, youtubers, gameplayers, or livestreamers.  While sharing some practices comparable to media talent, creators are also social media entrepreneurs who harness social media platforms to aggregate and engage their online communities for cultural and commercial value. Creators have emerged globally, including China where creators, known as wang hong, KOLs, and zhubo, using Chinese-owned and state-protected platforms have become central to the accelerated rise of their digital economy.

As cultural producers, creators are helping to surface new forms of media culture (Kellner 2011) that “shape our view of the world and our deepest values”; however, creators may not be simply analogized to traditional celebrities - byproducts of a larger structurally-determined media system comprised of media studios and networks, agencies and talent managers, marketers and publicists.  Rather, the creative labor, management, and entrepreneurialism of creators are framed by their discursive appeals to community and authenticity within what Banet Weiser calls “brand culture” (2012).  Creators blur the boundaries between the authentic and the commodity self that offers the “possibility for individual resistance and corporate hegemony simultaneously” (p. 12).   While creators navigate the global scale and iterative evolution of social media platforms and manage a portfolio of business models and revenue streams on, across, and off platforms, they are also engaging in what Baym (2015) refers to a forms of “relational labor” through a suite of strategic and iteratively-evolving social media practices across diverse platforms in which claims to authenticity are tested continuously in a call-and-response rhetorical field.

In advancing our understanding of this new screen ecology across platforms, creators, and intermediary firms and organizations, we also evidenced new forms and practices of mediated civic engagement.  Contrasted against legacy media, we found vastly more diverse and multicultural representational practices. In the first wave of creators who helped vitally shape creator content, commercialization, and community practices, we found Asian-Americans over-indexed relative to their presence in established Western media.  While we are celebrating the “ground-breaking” success of Crazy Rich Asians in 2018, for over a decade, creators like Liza Koshy, Wong Fu Productions, the Fung Brothers, Ryan Higa, Michelle Phan, Markiplier, Zach King, David Choi, Natalie Tran, and more have been the category leaders across diverse verticals (personality, DIY, gameplay, comedy, music) and platforms (YouTube, Twitter, Facebook Instagram, Vine, and Snapchat).  Deemed the most successful creator in the world by Forbes in 2017, Lilly Singh, aka Superwoman II, a Canadian-Indian bisexual woman has not only secured a massive global fan communities through her self-representative content and interactivity, but converted her appeals to these communities into diverse and lucrative revenue streams, including host of an NBC late night talk show. While these creators may not deliver “explicit appeals to social realities: (Lopez, 2016), they nonetheless represent more diverse representational practices than witnessed previously, practices that border on cultural diplomacy and declare the arrival of a more diverse mediated cultural politics.  In our interview with Philip Wang, one of the creators in Wong Fu Productions, he affirmed that while Asian American representation was not their core purpose, “we take our responsibility seriously.”

In addition to multicultural representation, we also witnessed what we call an “activist trajectory” by creators who have built their SME brand through appeals to other marginalized, subcultural, and alternative online communities.  Like Asians and Asian-Americans, queer creators over-indexed in the first wave of creators including Hannah Hart, Tyler Oakley, Ingrid Nilsen, Gigi Gorgeous, Kat Blaque, and more. These creators more often represented far greater diversity and intersectionality than witnessed in legacy media. Moreover, depending on when creators came out, whether upon arrival online or mid-career to millions of fan members and with an established commercial brand at stake, these creators have often progressed towards more explicit appeals to civic-minded politics and activism.  These appeals and the representational power of these queer creators have been recognized by the various organizations and outlets within the LGBTQ social movement. See the recognition of LGBTQ creators by the Human Rights Campaign, GLAAD Media, the Trevor Project, and The Advocate which describes the “YouTube Revolution”.

Evidence of a civic-minded creator practice dates back to the earliest years of SME.  For over a decade, Hank and John Green, aka Vlogbrothers, have partnered with their self-named fan community, Nerdfighters, to launch Project for Awesome, an annual online fundraiser in support of progressive and social causes that have raised millions.  Similarly, Let’s Play gameplayer Markiplier has engaged his communities in support of cause-based advocacy around LGBTQ rights, homeless youth, and more.  With the launch of #LoveArmy, prominent Snapchat creator Jerome Jarre has partnered with other creators and traditional media celebrities to conduct interventions dedicated to addressing some of most dire global humanitarian crises from Somalian famine sufferers to Rohingyan refugees.  If admittedly a form of corporate diplomacy, YouTube has framed, funded, and promoted the work of civic-minded creators in their Creators for Change program.

For years, civic-minded creators have engaged in explicit political, partisan, if more often, progressive practices.  In 2014, President Obama met with creators to encourage them to convince 20-somethings to sign up for the Affordable Care Act that proved vital to meeting legislative quotas.  The 2016 U.S. Presidential elections featured a wave of creator-driven political activity, as we described in this op-ed.  Compared to MTV’s Rock the Vote campaign, the Vlogbrothers launched a 54-video “How to Vote” series that tapped their Nerdfighter community over 10 million strong.  Queer beauty vlogger and Clairol glambassador, Ingrid Nilson, broadcast interviews with President Obama and the candidates while airing livestreamed YouTube videos from both political conventions.  Casey Neistat’s appealed for creators to come out against Trump and for Clinton, which the BBC deemed “YouTube suicide”.  Along with numerous other creators, Neistat would encourage his community to attend the Women’s March and airport protests in response to President Trump’s immigration policies.  Civic-minded creators like Philip DeFranco have been cited by the Parkland teenagers who have proven remarkable skilled at harnessing social media to advocate for gun control.

Through their discursive appeals to authenticity and community, creators have been able to aggregate and engage massive online communities who share their interests, ideology, identity, values, and affinities.  These practices have, first and foremost, created the means for creators to engage in both traditional and social entrepreneurialism for profit. The global scale and access of these platforms have contributed to a vastly more diverse and multicultural creator class of cultural producers.  While the scale of these platforms evidence every conceivable form of civic-oriented practice by creators across the political spectrum, we have been encouraged these progressive creators.  If the results from the U.S. midterms are any indication, these creators may be fueling the rise of the most progressive generation in decades.


Stuart Cunningham is Distinguished Professor of Media and Communications, Queensland University of Technology.  In addition to Social Media Entertainment, which he co-authored with David Craig, Cunningham has authored over a dozen academic titles including Media Economics (Terry Flew, Adam Swift), Screen Distribution and the New King Kongs of the Online World (Jon Silver), Hidden innovation: Policy, industry and the creative sector.

Eric Gordon is professor of civic media and the director of the Engagement Lab at Emerson College in Boston. His research focuses on the transformation of public life and governance in digital culture. He has served as an expert advisor for local and national governments, as well as NGOs around the world, designing responsive processes that encourage play, delight, and deliberation. He is the author of two books about media and cities and, most recently, is the editor of Civic Media: Technology, Design, Practice (MIT Press, 2016). His book Meaningful Inefficiencies: How Designers are Transforming Civic Life by Creating Opportunities to Care is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

David Craig is a Clinical Associate Professor at USC Annenberg and a Fellow in the Peabody Media Center.  Along with Stuart Cunningham, Craig co-authored Social Media Entertainment along with over a dozen journal articles and book chapters.  Craig is a veteran Hollywood producer responsible for over 30 projects that garnered over 75 Emmy, Peabody, and Golden Globe nominations and awards.

Anime For Humanity: Interview with Aman Dhawan and Jessica Yang


We will continuing our conversations about Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis next week but today we are sharing the first of a series of interviews students from our Civic Paths research group are doing with activist groups who are creatively deploying participatory politics tactics via their work. Today’s interview was conducted by Jessica Yang with Aman Dhawan, the Media Relations Strategist at Anime For Humanity.

Anime for Humanity is a charity non-profit organization that aims to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness through the media of anime and video games. The organization primarily attends anime and game conventions to reach out the communities there and provide a safe and open space for talking about mental health. Their projects range from game streaming to raise awareness to giving out therapy kits with various anime goodies and information on mental health resources. Anime for Humanity aligns closely to the concept of participatory politics (as defined by Joe Kahne) in their emphasis on fellow fans helping out each other. Their use of pop culture and media content as a medium for inciting change is a prime example of the civic imagination, allowing anime and video games to drive the vision of a better tomorrow.



What is Anime for Humanity’s mission statement and major projects?


Anime for Humanity’s mission statement is to spread awareness for mental health and mental illness through the use of anime, manga, video games, and cosplay. We go to Anime Expo and all the other big anime and gaming conventions to provide a space where people can talk about  what they’re going through and to maybe try to find a way to help them find help. It might be easier for them to open up in that kind of environment where they’re more comfortable. We want to be able to say, “Hey, we can relate to you. We can use anime to connect.”


Could you describe the inception of the organization?


The way Anime for Humanity started was through Ben*, who was already used to getting people involved in groups. He thought, “Hey, why don’t I try to do something to bring awareness to a bunch of different people?” We started off small-scale, but then we had so many people get involved, hundreds and hundreds of people showing up because they all said, “This is a great thing. There’s nothing like this for us in the community.” Since that day, Ben made it his mission to try to push the idea of Anime for Humanity to as many places as he could, and he did so by going to more Cons. There were small cons, then we went to bigger cons like TwitchCon, QuakeCon where we can have a much more of an influence. We also try to switch things up, such as try different events, AniMay, and QuickSave. We try to partner with different organizations like with Microsoft: we did a little Fortnite competition in Florida, we will be doing one at New York soon, by the end of the year. These partnerships provide a platform to spread awareness from. We create a fun experience but also help people understand that if they’re ever going through a hard time, there are a lot of people here who would be happy to assist them and who could relate to them because they share the same interests. [*Ben Amara is a Licensed Counselor, a Holistic Health Coach, and full a time anime fan. In 2015, he founded an Anime Club in Little Tokyo LA. His ambition to use anime as a tool to help others and advocate for mental health gave birth to a charity non-profit organization called Anime For Humanity.]



What motivates the organization to go to anime and game conventions? What are some activities you do at the conventions to raise awareness? What are the names of some of the conventions you attend?


In my work, I am trying to increase the number of Cons we go to on the East Coast, since we already have a decent presence on the West and the South. In the East, there is Anime West-Con, PAX East, New York Comic Con. I know, as a New Yorker, that there are plenty of people who would be more than happy to have this kind of opportunity.

The conference is probably the best way to reach out to as many people as possible at one time. However, we are trying to incorporate new things like a kit giveaway. One of our initiatives is creating a mental health anime kit. It contains some funny anime goodies and a few resources and services people can call if they need to talk to someone. The kits are currently undergoing some changes, we are adding more stuff to it, since we have been working with Funimation. I’m not 100% sure what will be in the new kits, but there are things like a fortune cookie with an anime quote inside to get people’s hopes up. There are a bunch of different anime stickers, keychains, et cetera. Then, of course, we have some information on Anime for Humanity. On the back of that, we have information for different hotlines for people who are going through some struggles and who want to talk to somebody.


Usually, we bring the kits to a Con but with the new giveaway, we’re going to give away 1,000 free kits to people who signed up. And maybe the kit is not just for them, maybe it’s for somebody they care about because sometimes it’s harder for the person who’s going through the depression and anxiety to reach out. A loved one can say, “Hey, let me get this for you and hopefully that helps you out.” So, it’s not just reaching out to people who are going through mental health issues but it’s to their family and friends too. In terms of responses, people would come back saying, “Hey, your kit helped my friend out a lot, can I get another one for another friend of mine?” At every Con we go to, we have pretty much run out of kits each time. Even if somebody is taking the kit for a friend or because they think it’s something cool, that’s still another person who can spread the word. It means a lot to the team when people remember or recognize Anime for Humanity. Word of mouth is always going to be the most powerful form of marketing and spreading awareness. So far, we’ve given out more than 10,000 kits and mental health resources. That’s over 10,000 people, which is pretty awesome. And I love being part of this process. I’m an otaku, an anime fan, myself and I love being able to use my passion to try to help people.

We tried to include things in the kit that would be inspiring and helpful. The fortune cookie with the anime quote inside of it was something that I thought we should try to do and now we are doing it. Being able to relate to someone, seeing them go through something difficult, even if they’re not real and is a character, means something. They could just be an anime character, but if they were able to persevere and overcome obstacles, then we thought their quotes would resonate with everyone a lot more than a regular fortune cookie with a random fortune in it. We want to make sure that the kit is targeted to the anime community because we saw that nobody was targeting this community.


I noticed that on the organization’s website that you reach out to both the anime and gaming communities. Do you see these communities as the same or different?


While we do conceptualize these two communities differently, we believe that there is also a decent amount of overlap between the groups. At Cons, for example, there are a lot of games there as well as anime. We do have people on the team more focused on gaming. We do have events like QuickSave and the Fornite competition where we partnered with Microsoft. A lot of the people who volunteer with us are also Twitch gamers, and we are planning to add more content to the Twitch for the Twitch gamers who are more comfortable on that platform. They get to play games together with their viewers and spread awareness that way. Being able to reach out on Twitch is much more interactive. You can talk directly with everybody at the same time.


For anime watchers, on the other hand, our outreach is based on the content of the anime. Understanding the different aspects of anime that works and doesn’t work, the industry, the genres, these are more valuable than being able to stream about anime or using a podcast format, which is something we are working on as well though. With the podcast format, you can’t talk about mental health in real-time like in games, but you can bring up those concerns and also announce the Cons we will be attending. For me, however, I feel like fans are much more open to talking and interacting for a longer period of time when they meet someone else who watches anime too. For gamers too, this is a similar concept. As long as you have a common point of interest, that is all you need for either community to open up.


I understand that sometimes anime and video games will come under critique for showing explicit material and exploring dark themes. How does Anime for Humanity feel about exposing people to that type of content?


When using games and anime as common ground, however, we do understand that video games and anime can contain dark themes as well. There are many anime that show mental illness, suicide, and a lot more, and there are people who still like those anime. I, personally appreciate it when those anime are brought up because it does present the issue right in the viewer’s face. They can’t just ignore it, it’s there. The characters might be going through these tough times and they are contemplating difficult situations. I do understand that in the West, we are used to a different context of media consumption and we might be uncertain about whether we want to incorporate these themes into our media. We realize, for example, that there is a lot of censorship on videogames that come from overseas to America. As an organization as well, it’s not a one size fits all situation. I, for one, am perfectly fine with talking to someone about darker anime if they bring it up, but I can’t say that for everyone.


How do you conceptualize civic duty in your work?


In the end, I think that any non-profit charity organization will have as their basis a sense of civic duty and a desire to help people out. We are here to try to further our civic duty of helping our fellow person, someone that could remind you very closely of yourself. We want to create an open and safe environment where people feel comfortable to talk about whatever they think could be harming them or could be a problem for them.


Where would you like Anime for Humanity to be in 20 years? What would you want to accomplish?


Idealistically, 20 years from now, there would be no more need for Anime for Humanity. I hope that we will have solved the problem and that mental health is something that everyone is knowledgeable of. If that does not happen, then, realistically, I would want us to be able to spread awareness worldwide. There are anime fans everywhere, not just in America. Our goals are to reach out to as many people as we can and help them find healing, to create new projects that can incorporate many different kinds of people, people who may not have ever met each other before. It does not have to be someone working or volunteering with Anime for Humanity, but someone who is a fan of our mission and wants to help. Just creating that kind of open environment, I’d say, would be my personal goal for the organization.


Is there anything else you would like to say to those seeing this interview and wanting to learn more about Anime for Humanity?


If you do go to a Con or you see us anywhere, feel free to reach out and talk to us. It doesn’t have to be about mental health and mental illness; if you want to help, we’d be happy to find a way for you to get involved, such as be an ambassador or something like that. It’s also okay to reach out to your fellow fans. We’re just like you. Everybody’s just like you. We’re all just anime fans and gamers, so please reach out.


Aman Dhawan is the Media Relations Strategist at Anime For Humanity.

Jessica Yang is a Masters of Arts student in the Cinema and Media Studies department at the University of Southern California.


Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Winifred R. Poster & Gabriel Peter-Lazaro (Part II)



I’m so thrilled to learn about the civic imagination project!  This is such an important foundation for social change.  People need to have a vision of an alternative, as well as a confidence that another society is possible, before they can act towards it.  I’ve encountered this in my activism, when I meet people who are so disillusioned by the current situation that they feel there is no way out.  When we go out canvassing and ask “what issues do you care about most?” they don’t even want to talk about it.  They just shut down.  A major question among my action group is how to talk to young adults especially, and convey a sense of hope.  Seems like there is one segment in this generation which is super-energized, and in so many ways, pushing the agenda of change much more radically than my gen-x cohort.  But in parallel, another segment is mentally drained by the compounding inequalities of class, race, sexuality, gender, citizenship, physical ability, etc., that our national leaders have failed to address.

It’s also been a part of my scholarly trajectory, and what drew me to sociology as a discipline.  I loved the big questions that “grand theory” was asking, in terms of why societies are organized the way they are (especially in their political economies), and what would it take to move to an alternative organization.  In my teaching, I assign books like Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, so that students can see an example of a feminist utopia, and then craft their own through critique and comparison to their own ideals.  In my global human rights course, I spend the first day showing them what the United Nations defines as human rights, and then deconstructing it – contrasting it to models by legal scholar Martha Nussbaum and environmental activist Vandana Shiva, and significantly, to what they think it should be.  But these are very structured exercises, and it sounds like what you are doing in your workshops is much more organic, free-flowing and open-ended.


It’s extremely helpful and gratifying to hear your enthusiastic impressions of the civic imagination work. Your perspective about ‘issue fatigue’ is especially resonate and something we’ve encountered in our work from the beginning. In our very first iterations of the creative workshop approach - even before we had honed in on the civic imagination nomenclature - we felt that we had to justify the creative work by framing it in political or activist terms. We thought that we would have to put issues first, and then make baby steps towards the world building work and visioning activities. One of our first community partners though shared a perspective at the outset that became core to our whole approach. Susu Attar - an LA-based artist and activist - was helping to run a summer youth leadership academy at the Islamic Center of Southern California where we were slated to run a weeklong workshop. Her feedback on our workshop plans was that the youth participants spent their whole lives with their identities already politicized, and what they needed most was a break from that where creativity could come first. We took the note and put imagination first. What we discovered was that the issues, values and real world challenges faced by those participants in their communities emerged organically through the activities of future visioning and narrative building. This led to sustained dialog about complicated issues, but having arrived at that point through the lens of fantasy and imagination brought a new kind of energy and understanding to the problems that might have been elusive if they had simply been dredged up head-on.

Over the next several years as we developed these workshops and brought them to diverse communities, we encountered consistently similar results. We sometimes experienced skepticism and resistance from groups that we worked with, but in each case, those feelings melted away and we received feedback that the civic imagination framework was meaningful, productive and a great way to see the world in new ways and potentially build empathy and bridges across previous divisions. All that being said, I think that our team still struggles with questions about how these positive aspects feedback into more action-oriented outcomes and activities. How could groups, communities or institutions practice civic imagination together and then harness that creative practice in an ongoing, sustainable way? In what contexts or communities would that be feasible and make sense? One of the ideas we have been playing with for a while but have yet to implement effectively, is to create a mechanism of collaboration and interaction between groups and across geographic distances, whereby folks running a civic imagination in one place could produce an outcome that includes a creative challenge or inspirational jumping off point to be taken up, explored and built upon by another group somewhere else. The idea would be to support emergent network structures between groups and individuals who are looking for new kinds of imaginative civic structures and visions that might lead to productive alliances and actions in the future.  This is the point where the question of technology comes back, as we imagine that the mechanisms for these interactions would be mediated through online tools.


Yes, I was struck by the similarity of experiences we’ve had, in terms of with ambivalences of technology.  Your students are expressing the same tensions that I feel in using these devices as tool of activism.  On one hand, it seems like your students have a remarkable self-awareness.  I’m impressed how they recognize the lack of choice in technologies they use, and the totality that it can encompass in their lives.

On other hand, I’m also glad you mentioned the problem of technology giving people a false sense of taking action.  It reminds me of what some call “clicktivism,” and the assumption that pressing a few buttons, to sign a petition or email a political message, will create substantive change in itself.  Such transformation takes effort both off and online, as well as endurance and persistence.  (Just in the past year, I’ve seen how our herculean efforts to achieve progressive policies through popular vote in Missouri – anti-gerrymandering initiatives, minimum wage increases, etc. – are now being derailed in the state legislature.  Activism is continuing process.)


I was really intrigued by all the examples you gave in your opening statement about the tools that have become so widespread and useful across various examples of organizing and activism. There is such a spectrum from the mundane to the profound in terms of how these networked actions facilitate both novel and familiar forms of collective action. It sets me to musing about what tech might be useful for this civic imagination work. Our approach so far has been decidedly low-tech; it’s very much based on face-to-face interactions, writing notes on whiteboards, building low-res constructions out of paper and glue, getting up on our feet and performing for the people in the room. Yet the other hat I wear as an instructor and practitioner in a school of cinematic arts, I am deeply interested in all kinds of emerging media technologies and the impacts they have on the ways that we represent and ultimately conceive of our realities. I explore things like giant screen cinema, virtual reality and aerial photography with my students at USC. As with all tech innovations there seem to be both emancipatory and cautionary aspects to each new wave of development; opportunities for new voices and visions to emerge, or else for the same structures of power and influence to reaffirm exclusionary boundaries. I think what I’m trying to get at is that I see a need for civic imagination to get a handle on tech, and for tech to get a dose of civic imagination.

Many of the future-world stories that come out of our workshops include ambivalent visions of a kind of techno-authoritarian-corporatism; governments have faded away and power is wielded by corporate monoliths who deliver amazing technologies but with the price control and domination. We certainly see the value of this ‘dark side’ of the civic imagination; lots of the stories that come up aren’t utopian at all, but rather are ways of working through anxieties and fears with a fanciful spin and narrative distance. And maybe these sorts of stories help galvanize our recognition of current authoritarian threats and create new spaces for exploring those feelings of dread so that they might be channeled into grand acts of imaginative resistance.


Winifred R. Poster teaches in International Affairs at Washington University, St. Louis.  Her interests are in digital globalization, feminist labor theory, and technologies of activism. With a regional focus on South Asia, she follows the outsourcing of high tech and call center labor.  Her research explores ethnographic transformations in service work through automation, artificial intelligence, crowdsourcing, and virtual assistants.  She also has projects on surveillance, national borders, and cybersecurity.  She is a co-author of Invisible Labor (UC Press) and Borders in Service (University of Toronto Press).  She has contributions in forthcoming books Captivating Technology (Duke University Press) and DigitalSTS (Princeton University Press).

Gabriel Peters-Lazaro, M.F.A., Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts where he researches, designs and produces digital media for innovative learning. His current research interests include Civic Imagination and Hypercinemas and he is a practicing documentary filmmaker. His courses deal with critical media making and theory.





Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Winifred R. Poster & Gabriel Peter-Lazaro (Part I)


Gabriel Peters-Lazaro

I joined the Media Activism and Participatory Politics (MAPP) project six years ago. At that point the team had mainly completed the case studies for By Any Media Necessary and were heading to production on the book. There was a strong desire to create online resources that would complement the launch of the book, collecting media rich examples that were referenced in the case studies. At the time, I was involved with research at the University of Southern California (where I am a faculty member in the School of Cinematic Arts) that was focused on media rich learning in K-12 contexts and was active in the Digital Media and Learning (DML) community. As I got more involved with MAPP and Civic Paths, we expanded our ideas for the online companion to include resources for teaching and learning along with the media archive.

The sense was that there were so many unique skills and approaches that had been detailed in the case studies that leveraged creative storytelling and smart use of digital media and popular culture, that there would be a real benefit to trying to make those skills teachable and accessible to wider audiences. With this in mind we began developing and running a series of creative workshops. I had recently been working with USC professor and Hollywood production designer Alex McDowell via his Worldbuilding Institute and found that the worldbuilding methodology was an apt model for the kinds of goals we had with the MAPP workshops. We built our approach around big group brainstorms wherein participants imagine the world in a future where anything is possible and then create stories and performances about that world. This eventually leads to reflections and discussions about the kinds of values, hopes, desires and concerns that invariably arise within these stories.


We piloted these workshops in 2013 with several groups including the Muslim Youth Group of the Islamic Center of Southern California, the Children’s Defense Fund’s Freedom Schools program, and with educators and practitioners at the DML Conference in Boston in early 2014. In each case we were blown away by the enthusiastic responses of participants. We found that people in vastly different community contexts had similar desires for new kinds of group-based creative interactions that surfaced shared values and facilitated productive thinking about the future.

As the MAPP project wrapped up and the By Any Media book and online resources were launched into the world, we reflected more about what we had seen happening in the workshops. What was at the heart of the enthusiasm? How could we refine and enhance that experience and make it available and productive for more communities? This line of thinking led us to develop and ultimate turn our focus to the idea of Civic Imagination. Working with Henry Jenkins, Sangita Shresthova, and the rest of the Civic Paths team, we have come to define civic imagination as “an active practice envisioning social change that leads to a better world. Civic imagination supports the creation and strengthening of imagined/imagining communities, one’s own civic agency, respect and understanding for the perspectives of others, and opportunities for freedom and equality that have not yet been experienced” (Peters-Lazaro and Shresthova, forthcoming). In addition to developing more workshops by running them all over the world (from Kentucky and Arkansas to Salzburg and Beirut) we have an online presence where you can learn about our work (, a forthcoming book with contributions from dozens of authors, Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination: Case Studies of Creative Social Change (Jenkins, Peters-Lazaro and Shresthova, editors, NYU Press, 2019) and a book that focuses on how to bring civic imagination into your own communities, Practicing Futures: a Civic Imagination Action Handbook (Peters-Lazaro and Shresthova, Peter Lang NY, 2020). You can also learn more about civic imagination through this video of a great conversation that Henry Jenkins had with Clare Shine in 2016 at the Salzburg Global Seminar: [embed video here? There is an embed code on the Vimeo page]

Our shift to the focus on civic imagination was just ahead of a wave of changes in the global political environment illustrated by the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign, the Brexit referendum in the U.K., the global refugee crisis and the global rise of right wing populism. Certainly none of the trends arose in a vacuum and were connected to long simmering developments, but they certainly reached a crisis point around this time. Along with them came a wide ranging sense of frustration approaching despair about the divided state of political rhetoric that made it so hard to discuss differences across ideological lines.

Within this new reality the sense amongst our team and from the communities we continued to engage was that the need for a new civic language was paramount. We see civic imagination as a set off tools to help people escape the semantic cages of partisanship that have seeped so deeply into our public discourse. When we ran a workshop in Kentucky in 2017 with a diverse set of people concerned with the future of work in the state, there were folk representing progressive and conservative viewpoints. Any talk of healthcare was already a deeply loaded subject. But when the whole group engaged in a freewheeling vision of the future there was resounding consensus that high quality universal healthcare would be a good thing.

In the course that I teach with Sangita Shresthova at USC, New Media for Social Change, we've also seen an attitudinal change amongst our students. There's a heightened sense of urgency and a greater incidence of student participation in political action and discourse. In the course, we focus on media practice not just from a production perspective, but with an emphasis on process and participation. Students engage with literature on participatory politics and learn basic research methods to carry out their own case studies into activist and social change organizations that use new, social and traditional media in interesting and innovative ways. Students generally come to the course already having experienced at least some participatory political practices in their own lives. Most had at least seen and shared some activist campaigns and information. Many had also taken more active roles in organizations or networks including the Harry Potter Alliance, Nerdfighters and ExtraLife, in addition to various campus-based student organizations.

Our students have tended to have ambivalent feelings about technology as it relates to political participation in a way that reflects a similar ambivalence about the role of technology in their lives more generally. In their daily lives, they feel that technology is all pervasive, deeply entwined in their social lives as well as all sorts of practical necessities from shopping to studying. Yet they also feel a sense of resentment or lack of choice; that technology invades their lives sometimes and gives them a sense that they’re missing out on some other way, some realer reality less full of stress and anxiety. But they also see the positive sides of tech and in the case of political action have a sense of great potential and possibility. They think that smart uses of media technologies can facilitate real change for the better. But that those same avenues of participation can also reinforce division or give people a false sense that they’ve taken action when really their energies could be better spent in other, less obvious ways.

In the classroom, we find that our civic imagination workshops provide a useful step towards getting past these general feelings of unease and skepticism and to help students pivot to more focused, affirmational visions for collective action. We usually run one workshop ourselves as the instructors with the whole class near the start of the semester. Sometimes we use a worldbuilding workshop wherein students create a collective vision of a future world where anything is possible, and then work in smaller groups to create detailed narratives taking place in that world. This leads to a reflection and discussion about the values undergirding these fanciful aspirations and the real values and concerns that they express about the real world facing us today. We also run a workshop about remixing inspiring stories. In this case, students surface and share stories that have made lasting impressions or played important roles in their own lives and which they believe contain seeds that might inspire other people or communities. These stories can come from their own lives and family biographies, from folk tales, popular fiction, history or religion. Once students have shared the stories amongst themselves, they work in small teams to remix their stories, combining themes, characters or other elements from each of their individual stories in order to create completely new and often surprising narratives.

In both of these cases the importance of narrative as a means of connecting with others and articulating shared values is centered. We then train students in workshop facilitation and have them run workshops for themselves. Some semesters they have run workshops with outside partners, working with elementary aged students visiting USC as part of a leadership academy. In other semesters they have prepared and run workshops with their fellow classmates. In both cases, students have found the process to be productive, challenging and fun. Many of them have told us that it helped them to assert themselves in new ways as they took on leadership roles in these action-based face to face experiences. Moreover, they have told us that the structured creative activities of the workshops have given them opportunities to connect with their classmates and get to know each other in ways that have been largely elusive in their previous classroom experiences but which they all seemed to crave.

After engaging with civic imagination workshops, students go on to plan their own media-based social action campaigns. We focus on blue-sky possibilities so that students don’t have to be bound by what they think is practical to achieve within the scope of the course, but they do have to create detailed blueprints, time lines, theories of change and goals for their campaign visions, including media prototypes and design strategies, so that they would be ready to take their proposals before potential partners or funders. A common aspect of many campaign proposals is the emphasis on creative media narratives designed to facilitate meaningful face to face interactions. Examples of these include performances, protests, guerilla libraries, art walks and communal dinners. We hope that the activities and skills in the classroom help equip students to be more engaged citizens and even to facilitate careers or extended engagements with social action organizations in and beyond their college careers.

Part of what I hope to learn from this blog series is about what those opportunities for careers and service look like both in terms of grassroots organizing and within larger institutional and organizational structures. Are young people considering careers in public service? In social action? What do those career paths look like, what skills are needed? How do the creative practitioners of media arts fit in? It is exciting to see a new generation of young leaders taking such visible roles in the national and global context: the student activist leaders of Parkland; the young people participating in global protests against inaction on climate change; representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her prominence in the national spotlight. All of these strike me as positive examples of a generational shift in political participation. I look forward to learning more examples from the conversations in this series and hearing about the thoughts and experiences of others in this field.

 Winifred Poster

Recent events in far-right politics and threats to democracy around the world have been shocking and demoralizing for me personally.  But at the same time, I know that these very same events have mobilized me for long-term organizing.  I had only been involved grassroots politics sporadically over the years, even though I write about activism as a sociologist, feminist labor ethnographer, and critical science and technology studies scholar.  The 2016 elections lead to an awakening and new sense of purpose.  So in this blog, I’ll take the opportunity to talk about what the current crisis has meant in my small world of neighborhood organizing.  I’ll also reflect on what has become a trend in social movements – the rapid diffusion of technologies into our daily routines -- and how they have been both an asset and a burden to our participatory politics.

I’ve wondered for a while what would ignite a serious uprising in the US, especially among women.  My first published article, based on my undergraduate thesis at UC Berkeley, was about activism in the California Bay Area and its divisions of race and class (Poster 1995).  The women’s movement had peaked in years prior, but it was ebbing.  I asked organizers what would it take for a relaunch.  One said it would have to be a single, galvanizing issue – something that could mobilize women widely.  When I asked “like what?,” she didn’t know.  Neither did I.

Decades later I find that the issue, for me and many others, is authoritarianism.  Without a second’s thought at the start of 2017, I hopped on a flight to DC to the Women’s March.  And heeding their call, I returned home to form a “huddle” in my community of St. Louis, Missouri.  For over two years I have been facilitating this local action group, which meets most weekends, and more frequently during elections.  Missouri politics are a challenge for us.  It is a heavily red-state with some of the most regressive policies in the country (especially on healthcare, guns, reproductive rights).  But my small tribe – comprised of many who had never before participated in politics – is committed to doing whatever we can.

Technology has played a role from the start.  I initially recruited members by posting an announcement on national websites for the Women’s March and Indivisible, finding my living room filled with pissed-off but eager new and seasoned activists.  Keeping the group going on a long-term basis has been aided by technology.  Social media is how we know what’s happening in our area – what other local activist groups are doing, what our elected officials are about to vote on, etc.  It’s how we organized a solidarity-with-Charlottesville rally after the racist attacks of August, 2017 – within less than twelve hours.  It’s how my former state representative Stacey Newman lead a successful boycott against a local extremist radio host (Jamie Allman, who threatened a “hot poker up the ass” of Parkland shooting survivor and gun control activist David Hogg).  Her well-crafted social media posts (including a list of the show’s advertisers, and instructions on how to contact them) had him out of work in a matter of weeks.

Technology is a part of our routine when we go out in the community.  We use platforms like Turbovote to register voters on college and high school campuses.  Resistbot helps us to send out faxes and emails to our officials, just with a few clicks.  5Calls enables us to see a list of the five key policy-makers who have special influence on a given issue, and then connect with them in quick succession.

I’m especially impressed with what technology has done for widespread labor campaigns – like the teachers’ strikes that swept the nation in 2018.  In my scholarly life, I had been writing about how technology can be demobilizing for worker struggles.  My book Invisible Labor (2016) with Marion Crain and Miriam Cherry documents how technology can hide the labor we are doing – by masking work that is sent abroad, by monetizing our online activities and data profiles, by reframing the narrative of economic activity to that of “sharing” (in which many are no longer classified as workers).  This creates new challenges for unions in organizing workers.


Along these lines, labor unions had been struggling to organize teachers in conservative states with deep cuts to education and teacher salaries.  Yet last year, teachers themselves used technology to spark a movement.  Spokesperson Kelley Fisher recounts how a tweet from a teacher about what to do initiated a chain of events in Arizona.  First a plan for wearing red shirts on Wednesdays (#redfored), then a Facebook page, and the founding of Arizona Educators United.  In two days, 1,000 people signed on; after seven weeks later, they had almost 50,000.  This lead to the first ever state-wide teacher walkout in Arizona, and ultimately a 20% pay raise.  To be sure, collective action on this scale happens from egregious conditions on one hand, and brave people working together on the other.  But in this case, technology provided a helpful jumpstart at a time when labor unions needed it.

Much of these technologies I’ve mentioned so far are internet-based (social media sites, specialized organizing apps, etc.).  My friend Tom Boellstorff reminded me how important hardware can be too.  He told me the story of his early days as a queer activist, going to Russia with an Apple computer in hand.  This ended up being one of the first computers for the gay newspaper he worked with in Moscow, and a crucial asset at a hotbed political moment.  The 1991 coup broke out, and his device was one of the only sources for printing flyers (especially when the presses refused to do business with them).  Their gay newspaper became the “printing plant for the Russian resistance” and pro-democracy activists.  Technology for organizing can encompass many things.

But technology can make us, as activists, frustrated.  Take the practical issues.  My group has tried multiple channels for our daily communications, and all of them have problems.  There’s no single platform that we all use.  People have varying skills with technology, and varying mobile devices.  Messages sometimes have to go out four times – on email, text, GroupMe, and other kinds of social media.

There are bigger issues too.  We’re becoming concerned about the subtle encroachments of big data on our activities.  An eye-opening moment was when we got a glimpse into the “VAN” – the voter database that national parties use to coordinate outreach activities.  To be sure, the VAN makes it easier for organizers to identify progressive-leaning houses when we go canvassing door to door.  But in the process, it shows how the political parties are collecting quite an extensive amount of data on us as voters.  When my group learned about it, we started to look up our own names.  We were stunned to see how much information the party had on each of us – our voting patterns, what causes we favor, if we donated money, what kinds of political activities we engage in, etc. – all of which was collated into a single number between 1 and 100 signifying how democratic-leaning we are overall.

I’ve also been observing how “social movement technology” is a thing of its own now.  Third party organizations are emailing us with advertisements for their apps, software packages, platforms – all designed especially for grassroots activists.  The organizations may be nonprofit, but some of the methods resemble corporate models.  An example is how they offer advice and tools on “CRMs.”  From my research on the digital economy, I’m familiar with this acronym as consumer relationship management (Poster 2011).  This is software and data for managing the production process in interactive service, along with its customers and workers.  Transferred to the political sphere now, I’m seeing how CRM has become constituent resource management.  It “broadly means a way to track the behavior and patterns of the people involved with your organization so you can communicate better with them.” 

My question is whether (or when?) this trend will become monetized, using our local action groups as a source of profit.  However well-intentioned the goals, and however effective the strategies, what are the costs?  Some of these organizations are asking to access the contact lists on our phones, in order to send out political messages to our social circles (see Outvote.) I’m seeing blurred lines of surveillance.

Protecting ourselves and our community members from big data collection will be an important task for grassroots organizers.  I’m just off the heels of a workshop at University of California at Irvine on Datafication and Collection Action, where “data self-defense” was a prominent theme.  It also makes me wonder:  how much are we as activists part of the system of surveillance, as we ask people to hand over personal details (e.g., in the process of actions like registering them to vote)?


My group is committed to direct action and face-to-face contact with people in our community.  Piven and Cloward (1979) showed us that street activism is critical for social change among marginalized groups.  This will always be central.  Whether we like or not though, it seems like grassroots politics is moving at a full gallop towards increasing datafication.  This became clear in the 2018 midterm elections, when I saw how campaigning has turned a sharp corner.  Forget volunteer activities centered on print mailers or phone calls.  The future of outreach is texting and social media.  Just a few months before the election, my group had spent hours and hours making phone calls around the state for local issues (only to be hung up on, or thankful if we could get one live person to talk to).  In contrast, what we found in the tech-oriented campaigns is how texting is a flurry of direct contact.  With Slack (as a communication hub) and Relay (a peer to peer texting platform), we now press one button to send a text out to 200 people at once (on a hidden list of numbers we never see), and immediately get replies from 50 of them.  Apparently, many people love to receive – and instantaneously reply to – text messages from strangers.  How long will it be before all or most political campaigns are run this way?

Grassroots activism has always relied on an integration of on-the-ground activism with various kinds of technology (old and new, material and immaterial, networked and free-standing, etc.).  But given the speed of how these technologies are changing, we need to pay better attention on how to manage them.  Moreover, my curiosity (both activist and scholarly) is how we can take control of them, and create our own.


Crain, Marion G., Winifred R. Poster, and Miriam A. Cherry, eds. 2016. Invisible Labor. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

 Piven, Francis Fox, and Richard Cloward. 1979. Poor Peoples’ Movements. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Poster, Winifred R. 1995. “The Challenges and Promises of Race and Class Diversity in the Women’s Movement.” Gender & Society 9 (6): 653–73.

———. 2011. “Emotion Detectors, Answering Machines and E-Unions:  Multisurveillances in the Global Interactive Services Industry.” American Behavioral Scientist 55 (7): 868–901.


 Winifred R. Poster teaches in International Affairs at Washington University, St. Louis.  Her interests are in digital globalization, feminist labor theory, and technologies of activism. With a regional focus on South Asia, she follows the outsourcing of high tech and call center labor.  Her research explores ethnographic transformations in service work through automation, artificial intelligence, crowdsourcing, and virtual assistants.  She also has projects on surveillance, national borders, and cybersecurity.  She is a co-author of Invisible Labor (UC Press) and Borders in Service (University of Toronto Press).  She has contributions in forthcoming books Captivating Technology (Duke University Press) and DigitalSTS (Princeton University Press).

Gabriel Peters-Lazaro, M.F.A., Ph.D., is an assistant professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts where he researches, designs and produces digital media for innovative learning. His current research interests include Civic Imagination and Hypercinemas and he is a practicing documentary filmmaker. His courses deal with critical media making and theory.

Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Arely Zimmerman & Andres Lombana (Part II)



I am fascinated by your discussion of Latin American politics. We just witnessed Bolsorano commemorate the 55th anniversary of the military coup that ushered in a devastating anti-democratic period for the country. I would like to know more about the following:

In the Colombian case, that is the one I am more familiar with, the new government and far right party have used these tools and networks to undermine the implementation of a peace deal that was signed in 2016, the transitional justice process, and the construction of an inclusive and plural historical memory of the armed conflict (the oldest in the Americas with more than 60 years).

Can you speak to HOW they’re doing this? Can you provide an example?


Sure, I am happy to talk a bit about the Colombian case. It is full of contradictions, a mixture of tragedy and hope. This January I moved back to Bogota, my hometown, after spending more than a decade in the U.S., and although I frequently visited the country, and followed the news regularly, being back and experiencing the everyday life here has reminded me of the quite paradoxical and explosive nature of Colombian politics. Such paradoxes have been amplified in recent years with the transition to a networked media ecosystem that integrates both old and new media.

The country entered the 21st century with an unresolved armed conflict that extended for more than five decades, high levels of socioeconomic inequality, and a humanitarian crisis with millions of internally displaced people. Despite its multiple violences, including guerrilla and narco wars, Colombia has been a relatively stable democracy in the region, with only a brief period of military dictatorship between 1953 to 1958.

Political polarization has scaled up in the last seven years as a result of the peace process (2012-2106) developed between the Colombian government of Juan Manuel Santos and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC–EP). Regardless of having a multi-party political system, Colombians have been radicalized into the ones that support the peace process and agreement, and the ones that oppose to it. It has been precisely the context of sociocultural change opened up by the peace building process, including the creation of several laws pro-victims (e.g. Law of Victims and Land Restitution of 2011), the deployment of progressive policies for minorities, and the design of inclusive historical memory public institutions what triggered an increased radicalization in the political spectrum.

The Colombian far-right has systematically opposed to peace building and worked hard to undermine the peace negotiations and agreement, bringing together several conservative sectors like wealthy landowners, conservatives, and christian churches. Leveraging old and new media, the far-right attacked the government that led the peace negotiations and its policies, using "any media necessary" to erode the consensus around peace. Tweets, radio ads, billboards, television spots, and memes circulated fast through all the platforms available in the media ecosystem, disseminating critiques, rumors, and falsehoods about the peace negotiations and agreement. The far-right communication strategy turned out to be quite successful for winning elections. Proof of that are the results of the peace referendum in 2016, where Colombian citizens had the chance of ratifying the peace deal by answering the question: Do you support the final agreement to end the conflict and build a stable and lasting peace? The No won with 6,431,000 votes (50,22%) over 6,377,000 votes of the Yes (49,78%).

Two days after the referendum, the director of the far-right “No campaign” explained in an interview that their communication strategy consisted in exploiting the fears and anxieties towards social change of many Colombians, as well as the hate towards the FARC guerrilla. In the words of the campaign director, the strategy consisted in “making people go to vote with anger.”  Inciting that anger, in a country with a long lasting armed conflict, and with strong conservative and traditional catholic family values was not a difficult task. Emotions trumps reason and fear trumps hope. The wounds opened by war do not close fast, and even when they are healing, they can easily be reopened with a simple touch.

Peace is fragile in contexts where there is no consensus about the responsibility of the different actors that have participated in the armed conflict. During the referendum campaign, the far-right crafted and spreaded falsehoods in different formats that said, for instance, that the peace agreement would destroy the traditional Colombian family with a gender ideology that promoted gay and transgender rights; that FARC rebels were going to get paid greater salaries (once they were reintegrated to civil life) than honest working class citizens; and that the country would transform into Venezuela.   

The success of the “No campaign” in 2016 strengthened the far-right and helped to consolidate a repertoire of narratives that could easily be recycled and spreaded in order to promote anger, fear, and political polarization. Those narratives, with some variations, were used again two years later during the 2018 presidential election, and helped to build a political climate in where Ivan Duque, the candidate backed up by the far-right, won. As we have seen during the few months of the new presidency, some of the elements of these narratives, such as the fear of becoming Venezuela, is actively being used by the new government in order to gain popular support, to delay the implementation of the peace deal with the FARC, and also to strengthening ties with other far-right governments such as the one of Bolsonaro in Brazil, and Trump in the U.S.


I’ve learned so much from your discussion of Colombian politics. There is so much overlap in anti-democratic and fascist right-wing politics across various nations and political contexts. It is definitely worth exploring, however, how progressive communities are responding. The example of Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez is illuminating in this regard. It isn’t that other candidates haven’t attempted to harness the power of digital and social media. The current Democratic presidential hopefuls, however, show that authenticity is important amongst young people. When Kamala Harris went on a New York hip hop station and declared that she listened to Tupac in the 80’s, Twitter was ablaze with memes and gifts questioning her authenticity. I think that young people, especially, use social media platforms as “checks” on power.m Moreover, Black twitter has been especially important in this regard.

I recently have learned of my colleague Matt Barretto’s research on the  2016 and 2018 elections  He finds that Democrats and progressives are more readily seeing, understanding, and deciphering racial and racist whistleblowing (or cues) and denouncing them. In public opinion research, Tami Mendelberg’s research in the early 1990’s showed that when the public became aware of how Bush  was trying to use race to attack the Democratic nominee in 1988, many Democrats disapproved. Her conclusion was that while racist cues are used often, it is less effective when their content is exposed.

It seems that more than two decades later, Black Twitter and other forms of social media  has created a “rapid response” that “calls out” these types of racialized ads used by the far right & even by companies. [For example, H&M and Snapchat have been targets of this social media call out for using racist images in their ads]. I think millenials are much more attuned to and sensitive to these racial frames and have access to counternarratives that allow them to decipher and decode blatant attempts at race baiting. Unfortunately, Fox News and its audience wield disproportionate institutional power (electoral college, Senate, etc). However, I am heartened by how progressives and black/Latino youth engage in these alternative public spheres, using these platforms to contest, reframe and create new democratic visions. I guess the question comes down to how we can actualize these networked forms of communication to build robust  public spheres that can hold institutions and government accountable.


Yes, progressive communities, young politicians, and young activists in democratic countries are adapting fast to the new political climate and finding ways to participate in a networked communication environment that, although it has become more toxic in its abundance of disinformation and hate, it is still open. I totally agree with you that many young people is leveraging social media platforms as “checks” on power, and engaging in alternative public spheres to verify information, call out extremists, and ultimately, continue to push forward a progressive agenda. I have seen these media practices emerge in the Colombian context, particularly on the Twitter, Facebook, and Whatsapp platforms with the circulation of news verification reports in various formats (videos, infographics, text), visual memes, emoji compositions, and text messages. The use of humor in visual memes, particularly, has turned quite effective debunking some of the falsehoods spreaded by the far-right, and the smokescreens created by the new right wing government.

At the beginning of the year, for instance, and perhaps in preparation for a possible military intervention in Venezuela that could involve the help of the U.S. troops, the Colombian president gave a public speech in Cartagena welcoming U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in where he claimed that the United States founding fathers had been “crucial” for the Colombian independence. After his speech, and the publication of a tweet in the president official account, dozens of visual memes circulated on Twitter and were accompanied with an intense debate about the historical inaccuracy of the president’s claim. These memes included multimodal compositions that combined classic paintings of the founding fathers, photographies of American superheroes, collages of Simon Bolivar, and captions in text mentioning specific geographic locations and important historical moments of Colombian history. All these memes and other messages that mocked, debated, and questioned the accuracy of the president’s claim were aggregated under the hashtag #LeccionesDeHistoriaDeDuque (DuqueHistoryLessons in English).

I am hopeful that as more young people develop tactics for navigating a polarized political climate,  and leverage networked media ecosystems for checking on power and limiting the spread of disinformation, we would be able to overcome the current global crisis of democracies.


Arely Zimmerman is Assistant Professor of Chicano/a Latino/a Studies at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

Andres Lombana-Bermudez (@vVvA) is an assistant professor of communication at the Universidad Javeriana in Bogota, Colombia. He is also an associate researcher at the Centro ISUR at the Universidad del Rosario, and a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.  

Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Arely Zimmerman & Andres Lombana (Part I)



My interest in participatory politics is connected to my work in immigrants’ rights movements in the United States, and more specifically, the activism of undocumented youth from the 2007- to the present. This activism was initially focused on achieving immigration reform and passing the DREAM Act, but has now shifted its focus on challenging U.S. immigration enforcement and detention policies.  When I initially began my research with MAPP (Media Activism and Participatory Politics), I focused on the liberatory potential of youth’s engagement with digital and social media. I argued that by mastering these new technologies, youth were able to shape the immigrants’ rights agenda for a decade.

However, with the rise of Trumpism, the initial optimism about new media has waned. For youth, the hard-won victory of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), which granted a limited protection from deportation, was followed by the election of Trump, the rescinding of DACA, and the attacks on Sanctuary cities and campuses across the country. New media technologies, which were once presumed to be emancipatory (for better or worst), have become the primary tools of authoritarian white supremacist rule. Trump uses twitter extensively to set and frame his agenda, to degrade members of minority groups, to circulate false ‘news’, and to shape mass public opinion on immigration. On the other hand, the “coming out” stories that young people used to humanize the immigration issue have become obsolete. Young people realize that immigrants are surveilled and activists are monitored under the watchful eye of Big Brother. Under this new regime, many activists abandoned more public sites like DreamActivist. They went “underground”. Civil disobedience actions- while still in use- have also waned. What does this say about participatory politics? Well, what it shows us is we have to seriously consider how these new technologies are being used in anti-democratic ways. We also have to consider that participation is a privilege of citizens- primarily white citizens- in this context. While communities of color and immigrants still use social media to document harassment, hate crimes, etc., the risks of “coming out” using social media are too high a price to pay. Like a colleague of mine writes, undocumented youth’s activism is now defined by the refusal to speak.



Hola Arely! Your research on immigrants’ rights movements in the U.S. and youth activism sounds fascinating. It is a crucial theme that is at the center of political debates in several countries, particularly in the U.S. with the context of a demographic shift that touches all social dimensions. The educational dimension is perhaps the one I am more familiar in this space, since I had the opportunity of studying and working with Latinx immigrant youth for several years while doing my PhD and living in Austin, Texas. Through several ethnographic and action research projects in public schools, community organizations, and creative collectives, I experienced, first hand, the current transformation of the U.S. population and the challenges that many Latinx youth confront as they try to actively participate in the culture, economy, and politics of a rapidly changing society. Studying how this youth population leverages digital tools and networks for learning and developing career trajectories allowed me to better understand how digital inequalities have evolved, and how beyond access to technology and gaining digital skills, it is critical that minority and non-privileged youth also have access to social and cultural capital. First and second generation Latinx immigrant youth that grow up in working class home environments, poverty contexts, and attend low-income public high schools usually have limited access to networks of support that are rich and diverse in social and cultural capital. That fact creates barriers of participation (in culture, politics, economy) that are more difficult to overcome than the ones of material access to technology and skills. That was one of the findings from the ethnographic work I conducted with the Connected Learning Research Network’s Digital Edge team led by Craig Watkins at a public high school and one of the central themes I explored in my dissertation. (see the Doing Innovation website here).

Innovation Hubs.JPG

The optimism on the liberatory potential of new media technologies has decreased in recent years as the political climate has changed not only in the U.S. but also in several countries around the world. The world wide web just turned 30 years old last month and, although we have seen it as a generative space of innovation, democratization, and activism, we have also become more aware of its transformation into a space of surveillance, harassment, data exploitation, market concentration, and disinformation. Moreover, as you point out, what used to be considered emancipatory tools for marginalized and oppressed populations have also turned out to be the tools for radical, supremacist, far right movements and governments. In Latin America, for instance, we have seen how a powerful radical right movement successfully has leveraged social media such as Facebook, Whatsapp, and Twitter, for spreading disinformation and misinformation, creating political polarization, and ultimately, winning elections (e.g. 2018 presidential elections of Colombia and Brasil). In the Colombian case, that is the one I am more familiar with, the new right-wing government and its far-right party have used these tools and networks to undermine the implementation of a peace deal that was signed in 2016, the transitional justice process, and the construction of an inclusive and plural historical memory of the armed conflict (the oldest in the Americas with more than 60 years). Such memory building process was at the core of the peace process that took place between 2012-16, and helped to empower several minority groups victims of war (e.g. women, youth, afro-colombians, and indigenous populations) with digital tools for telling their stories with their own voices, documenting their territories, and advocating for their rights. Memory is a contested space in a country where there is no consensus about peace, justice, and the transition to a post-conflict scenario. Digital tools and networks, in such context, can also be leveraged to exacerbate the polarization and construct a historical memory that is exclusionary.

As we confront a moment of crisis in participatory politics and democratic processes, both conservative and progressive movements are leveraging "any media necessary" for getting into power and pushing their agendas. Their communication strategies involve using both old and new media, and both public and private platforms. Private messaging tools like Whatsapp, for instance, have become one of the most effective media in Latin America and other parts of the so called Global South for spreading news, photos, videos, music, and any kind of digital content. The private and encrypted quality of Whatsapp has made this platform a productive spaces for both far-right radicalization, and progressive and social justice organizing. I wonder to what extent the youth activists in the U.S. that "have gone underground" after the 2016 elections are leveraging encrypted communication tools in order to avoid being tracked. What kind of technology infrastructure is supporting their move to the underground? How has this move changed their communication tactics?


Thank you Andres for your response. I would like to clarify what I mean by “going underground” and be more specific about the kind of media they are leveraging in response to your query.

I will answer your question by recalling the 2016 elections and its aftermath. The day after the election, I met with students to reflect and strategize about how to move forward. At the time, the college where I was teaching was trying to implement a set of institutional responses to mediate the harmful effects of any policy changes ushered in by the new administration. I served as an advocate for undocumented and DACAmented students. DACAmented students were particularly afraid that by applying for DACA they had put their parents in harm’s way essentially handing over information on their addresses, etc. While my college wanted to do the “right thing”, they failed miserably to make students feel safe. They rejected appeals to declare their campus a sanctuary campus, they failed to commit to not working with federal agents if they came on campus, and they also were slow in finding ways to fund students when their DACA work permits expired. All of this uncertainty mobilized students to action. Rather than hide, they staged a direct action on campus. Yet, they also made a conscious decision to use SIGNAL instead of SMS to communicate with me and each other. Students felt a new sense of vulnerability and fear of surveillance, even from their would-be allies.

Many of my students had been active in the national immigrants’ rights movement and the public campaigns for the DREAM Act. Going “underground” also meant being more strategic about sharing their stories on public platforms to wider audiences. Even though my students engaged in one direct action on campus, they were less willing to engage in forms of civil disobedience off campus. They were also less willing to use blogging/vlogging to reveal their status online, as had been the repertoire of contention from about 2007-2015 (and that I write about in an article in IJOC).

dream act.jpg

Another departure from the past was students’ hesitation to speak in front of cameras. On the day of the direct action on my campus, reporters asked for interviews with participants and they nominated a U.S. citizen to speak for them. This was a departure from the past when undocumented youth were adamant about speaking for themselves.This signaled that the political context (as well as the political opportunities) had changed under Trump. Activists navigated these contexts in different ways. I don’t necessary think that their refusal to speak publicly meant that their activism also stopped. It simply meant that it would be channeled in different ways, and that the risks of using social media outweighed the benefits.

Now I’d like to circle back to some of the insights you provided in your post. I am very intrigued by your findings that:

First and second generation Latinx immigrant youth that grow up in working class home environments, and attend low-income public high schools, usually have limited access to networks of support that are rich and diverse in social and cultural capital. That fact creates barriers of participation (in culture, politics, economy) that are more difficult to overcome than the ones of material access to technology and skills.

This makes me think of the students/youth we interviewed for the MAPP (Media, Activism and Participatory Politics) project with Henry Jenkins. Those activists were first gen Latinx students from very low income high schools but had overcome some of these barriers to participation. I speculated that it was their access to “other” forms of capital- for example, the presence of student groups/organizations on their campuses, mentors/teachers who were connected to immigrants’ rights groups, and “contextual” capital in their local neighborhoods (mainly in Los Angeles) with a history of activism that propelled these students to movement participation. Undocumented student activism is particularly rich to study given that social capital is so important for political participation and all indicators would point to it being low for these students. What do you think?


Yes, I totally agree that accessing "other" forms of capital is critical for overcoming barriers to participation. I do believe that has been the case for many of the first gen Latinx students that have moved up in the socioeconomic and educational ladder in the U.S. Moreover, being able to connect to organizations that support immigrant and Latinx communities, and that keep the longer histories of immigrant rights alive in a local context can be super empowering for youth. Geography and local context matter for all kinds of participation. Although it is true that the Internet and the networked communication environment have made physical distance irrelevant for several processes and allowed people from any part of the world to connect and collaborate, geographic proximity is still relevant. Particularly for accessing certain forms of capital such as social and cultural one, it is crucial.

In contrast to the first gen Latinx students you interviewed in L.A., none of the Latinx students (all of them Mexican-Americans) I encountered at Freeway High School in Austin, TX, connected to local community groups such as immigrant rights movements or to ethnic organizations that could help them to expand their social and cultural capital and to diversify their networks. Their school and households were located in a suburban area of Austin, far away from the inner city and disconnected from the neighborhoods of vibrant cultural and economic activity.

Surrounded by food deserts, with limited recreational areas, and with precarious public transportation, this area had experienced a process of povertization in the last decades similar to the one of other American cities. Growing up in working class Mexican immigrant families, attending a low-performing school, and living in a suburban poverty context, made access to social, cultural,  educational, and other resources difficult for this youth.


Despite having access to mobile phones and networked computers at home, and developing a range of new media literacy skills, many of the Latinx students I met at Freeway High remained disconnected from opportunity. Paradoxically, although they were proud about living in Austin, identified with the creative and high-tech ethos of the city, and wanted to follow careers as filmmakers, fashionistas, and game designers, most of them could not follow the pathways they dreamed, partly because their lack of access to diverse networks of support, mentors, and cultural and social capital.


Arely Zimmerman is Assistant Professor of Chicano/a Latino/a Studies at Pomona College in Claremont, California.

Andres Lombana-Bermudez (@vVvA) is an assistant professor of communication at the Universidad Javeriana in Bogota, Colombia. He is also an associate researcher at the Centro ISUR at the Universidad del Rosario, and a fellow at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University.  

Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Andrew Scrock & Moritz Fink (Part II)



I appreciate how you and Marilyn are reviving culture jamming! It is a valuable concept that helps us understand how using cultural symbols originating in corporations can be wielded for expressly political purposes. I’ve been slowly collecting zines and guides, like The Art and Science of Billboard Improvement and Advertising Shits in Your Head that describe ways to reclaim public space. Being post-“cyberspace” has (thankfully) returned us to question how urban infrastructures can be hacked and repurposed. The Simpsons also brings us back to Henry’s foundation in thinking about how popular culture can provide the vocabulary for political self-expression and identity work. Many of the civically-minded geeks I’m following sometimes refer to themselves as “civic technologists” – and I simply call “techies” – do both of these things. They work on civic infrastructure and try to organize by using symbols drawn from popular culture. For example, they are organizing to build and encourage adoption of services that improve the way low-income families get food assistance and enable residents to buy lots of land in their neighborhood for a dollar and develop them for their community. Because their work is arcane and difficult, they will never be a social movement like Black Lives Matter. Rather than their mobilization, techies face different challenges, like how to create and share a collective political identity for infrastructural politics that resists absorption into bureaucracy.

Jake Brewer Imagined as a Rebel Pilot

Jake Brewer Imagined as a Rebel Pilot

Popular culture is part of the ways techies shape and share a political identity, such as borrowing from transmedia franchises like Star Wars. One of the first techies to use symbols drawn from popular media was Jake Brewer, a political insider I write about in my book “Civic Tech.” Jake rose to prominence through the Sunlight Foundation and joined the White House as a Senior Technology Advisor, before working on immigrant rights. He frequently referred to techies as the “rebel alliance,” a concept that allowed them to think of themselves as outsiders even as they worked inside government to improve it. To Brewer, the Empire symbolized everything that government should not become: an authoritarian state that ignored the will of the people. Tragically, he was killed in a charity bike ride. After his death, pins were made that showed Brewer in the cockpit of an X-Wing fighter. “He saw the American revolution as unfinished,” wrote Micah Sifry, “and believed that techies and open democracy activists were indeed part of the continuing #RebelAlliance fighting the Empire.” Brewer still serves a touchstone for the identity of techies because he was an astute political maneuverer who managed to both keep his deeply-held convictions and build collaborations inside of government. You also can see Star Wars imagery in the unofficial US Digital Services mascot, Mollie the crab, and tweets by their cousin department, 18F.


Applying a lens of media activism and culture jamming can also help us understand the current backlash against tech companies that surveil, classify, and sell the data of users. The video “Dear Tech” appeared as an advertisement during the Superbowl, bankrolled by IBM and viewed by over a hundred million people. In it, celebrities like Janelle Monae (the Electric Lady herself!) call for “AI that helps us see the bias in ourselves” and “Blockchain to help reduce poverty.” Watching this video, I was sympathetic to the ideas of reducing poverty and bias. The problem I and others saw was that the video read like a plea from individuals for more tech to solve the very problems that technology corporations produced. In response, a group of critics led by Joy Buolamwini of the MIT Media Lab (including friends of Civic Paths like Ethan Zuckerman, Safiya Noble, and Sasha Costanza-Chock) made a video that parodied this ad. Instead of “Dear Tech,” it was titled “Dear Tech Company.” It used the same facing-the-camera format and dramatic swells, while putting the pressure on tech companies to reform the way it collects data, listens to employees, and listens to the public.

In flipping the script, they added a new critique: technology companies, not just users, should change the way they operate and act politically, such as through lobbying and non-engagement with local communities. For an example of how these conflicts are playing out on the ground, see Molly Sauter’s sharp pieces about Sidewalk Labs/Google’s bid for Toronto’s Quayside. The original video encouraged us to think about technological problems as being solved by individuals clamoring for more but better technology. The remix encouraged us to recognize that unjust technologies mirror the organizational practices and corporate desires of their creators. I would go even further. Our obsession with reforming “big tech” says quite a bit about our collective inability to imagine a publicly-owned alternative. The techies I’m working alongside are involved in this very effort by reforming government services to be more equitable and just. There is a certain strain of “tech bros” out there that naively believe complex social problems can be alleviated with simple technological solutions. However, the idea that every geek is a “tech bro,” or that one drop of technology in a comprehensive reform strategy makes it “technocratic,” is incredibly dangerous. Our shared future civic life will probably involve technology. We need politically-aware, ethical, and organized political actors – most importantly, the builders and institutional boundary-crossers.


Your example of techies appropriating Star Wars’ iconography is intriguing. Indeed, commercial culture – including pop culture products such as Star Wars or The Simpsons as well as brands such as Coca-Cola – has offered a wealth of imaginary worlds shaping popular mythologies, which are shared by millions of people all round the world. In this regard, the power of the symbolic must not be underestimated in political terms. By appropriating narrative storyworlds (e.g., Star Wars, The Simpsons) or corporate identities (e.g., Coca-Cola), activists equip themselves with a widely understood and appealing visual vocabulary to raise awareness for their causes, and to align with sisters and brothers in spirit.

Consider Barack Obama’s 2009 election campaign, which was effectively propelled through pop art imagery – an important factor in creating the overwhelming Obama-hype as well as in fostering voter mobilization. One of the images circulating at that time, by the L.A.-based artist Mr. Brainwash, presented Obama in Superman getup in front of the American flag.


It’s a very patriotic motif and, at the same time, a great example of what the Civic Paths group has conceptualized as “civic imagination.” For many supporters, Obama was not so much a presidential candidate bound to political realities, as he was a symbol for a better, more just America. This messianic connotation was expressed by associating the Senator from Illinois with the utopian character of Superman. A similar desire for this messianic quality is visible in the iconic “HOPE” poster designed by street artist Shepard Fairey. Strikingly, the image’s visual style is not only reminiscent of a certain socialist “hero-aesthetic” in the vein of the famous Ché Guevara poster; moreover, “HOPE” exhibits an ironic twist achieved through a graphic sensibility that recalls Fairey’s portfolio as a professional graphic designer who previously conceived ads for companies such as Hasbro, Nike, and Pepsi.


This is to say, it seems insufficient to classify contemporary cultural productions into those originating from some kind of “bad” capitalist bloc à la the Frankfurt School’s culture industry and those emerging from some kind of “authentic” folk culture. The bulk of materialized culture will carry elements of both commercial and grassroots culture. To comprehend and decipher the ambiguities and particularities at work in a given cultural artifact is certainly one of the great challenges of the cultural experience today.  

In that sense, the entrepreneurship of street artists like Shepard Fairey or Banksy may be viewed in contradiction to the political outlook conveyed in their works. Why? Because the cultural critic in us considers branding strategies, which have become somewhat intrinsic to our culture at large, to reinforce the capitalist ideology. But would Fairey’s or Banksy’s artworks have the same effect and impact without their propagandistic qualities? Certainly not. Culture jamming has typically adopted Madison Avenue’s strategies and repurposed the persuasive power of advertisements, especially since many culture jammers (like Fairey) have been professionally trained graphic designers themselves, many of which moonlighting at Madison Avenue. Conversely, the ad industry has imported culture jamming into its toolbox as forms of guerilla marketing, which doesn’t necessarily mean cooptation in the negative sense of the word. Take, for example, Crispin Porter + Bogusky’s anti-tobacco Truth campaign at the millennial turn – which was quite similar in style to Adbusters’ earlier anti-tobacco ads, as discussed by Michael Serazio in his contribution to our edited volume.


Repurposing elements of power – whether cultural, financial, or institutional – in a collaborative attempt to make this planet a “better world” suggests a link to the techie-activists you were talking about. Their affiliation with institutions may provide potentials of conflict with their political points of view. But, as I understand it, they’re looking for ways to execute a bread-and-butter job with an alternative work ethic. That is, whether they are critical of their employers’ institutional politics or not, they try to take liberties in favor of what they consider important in moral terms of the “common good.” This emancipatory approach in relation to the dominant capitalist culture by carving out micro-level “real utopias” – contexts where the “little man” is able to perform acts understood as bolstering change and resistance – reminds me of Michel de Certeau’s example of practices he calls la perruque (the wig). The term refers to employees carrying out work for themselves instead of doing work they’re assigned to by the employer. (Needless to say, tasks meant to promote the common good may ultimately be more valuable in a civic context than to aimlessly surf the web.)


Technology has certainly been another significant domain where power is executed and can be repurposed. I completely agree that it’s one of the big problems of our age that technological development is mostly in the hands of corporations. But, as your example of the techies demonstrates, there exists a considerable group working at pivotal places in the tech business that identifies with the history of nerd culture and its anarchic conduct. To them, the internet is a public space in the utopian sense of not being controlled or monitored. What they see and want to change, however, is a dystopian space controlled by capitalist interest groups and authoritarian government branches.


This has been a wonderful conversation. I appreciate your invoking of De Certeau… and Obama is an apt model for techies! Those who were young adults in the late 2000’s were mobilized by the messages of hope in his first campaign and helped get the vote out for him. Obama also was bullish about trying to institutionalize technology design at the federal level through the US Digital Service, appointing CTOs, and so on. He forever will inform the way they think about moderate democratic politics. The question I return to is if techies’ infrastructural politics can change larger political and technical systems (that often move at a glacial pace, or are yoked to capitalist impulses)? Or if they are ways to – like De Certeau’s vison of tactics as taking shortcuts through the city – carve new routes and spaces that form sites of organizing outside of institutions. I admit, this discussion of institutional reform opens up far more questions, some of which lie outside of mediated politics, than it provides easy answers.

We’ve also managed to put into fruitful conversation two traditions in communication that are often kept distinct: media and technology. Many techies struggle with gaining widespread recognition for their predominantly administrative work. They try to employ memes and imagine themselves as a social movement proper. But, simply put, often their work is quite boring. (who Who really gets excited about fixing the department of motor vehicles (DMV)?) As a result, non-profit tech design organizations that are good at media, like Code for America, use social justice storytelling and patriotic imagery to make powerful arguments about the “public good.” This is what lets them tap into multiple funding streams from private tech companies and non-profit foundations. Clearly, one lesson is that we need to keep both media and technology traditions in the room to understand political organizing.

I feel like I have taken up space benefitting from applying your concepts about media activism and culture jamming to techies, while not asking enough questions that might help us think about the inverse question: how has technology changed the work of media activists and culture jammers? While not all media-oriented activists and culture jammers use social media platforms, it is clear in an age of unbridled populism and white nationalism that these are often the conduits for radicalization and resistance. Do they see hacking and reconfiguring digital platforms as a form of “billboard banditry,” as you put it, to reach a mass audience? Has this changed in the last ten years? Where are the valuable opportunities for this political work?



Great to hear that our take on culture jamming adds to your research, Andrew. Certainly, the new media environment of “social” media (or whatever we want to call communication platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter) has shaped media culture to great degrees, and thus provided new instruments for media activists and culture jammers. While “hackers” have comprised a subculture of technology geeks, which has partly informed the concept of culture jamming as laid out by cultural critic Mark Dery, I don’t see hacking per se as culture jamming. Creative as the sabotage of digital infrastructures may be, it doesn’t necessarily share culture jamming’s impulse of raising public awareness, of sparking up the civic consciousness, of “exposing institutional or corporate wrongdoing,” as Dery put it in his 1993 manifesto, Culture Jamming, which is also reprinted in our collection.


But, sure, the digital world constitutes a public space for our networked society that invites for media activism and acts of culture jamming. An early example here is the Yes Men’s launch of a faux WTO website,, in the year of 2000 (which is no longer active but still accessible through the Internet Archive). Notably, the two activists didn’t hack the WTO’s internet presence, but rather used the web’s surface to adopt the organization’s identity. Surprisingly, perhaps, many fell for the Yes Men’s coup, believing the website was authentic. As a consequence, the Yes Men were officially invited as WTO representatives to conferences and other public events, which enabled the duo to proceed with their hoax, and to circulate subversive messages in the name of the WTO.


On the other hand, I’m afraid that the mediasphere is much more complex today than in earlier days. Digital platforms may offer new venues for activists, but echo chambers and filter bubbles make it increasingly difficult to reach people’s attention and promote social change. Also, creative forms of protest – what we defined as culture jamming – has long since ceased to be solely a phenomenon associated with a liberal or leftist political position.

I’m shocked again and again that the meaning of what we call the “public good” seems to be as disputed as ever: The visual culture around Obama that we saw during his landmark electoral campaign also influenced Trump’s campaign. Thanks to its power as forms of guerilla communication, which aims to go “viral,” culture jamming has been coopted not only by the ad industry but also by political movements – both on the left and on the right. Occupy Wall Street and its artistic sensibility is still fresh in our minds, but neo-Nazi groups and right-wing populists such as the AfD, Germany’s far right party mentioned earlier, have also tapped into brandjacking, the civic imagination, and internet memes to popularize their campaigns.

So, I think you’re absolutely right. Intervention and reconfiguration within the technology sector – e.g., by techies acting as media activists – is an important way to reclaim not just the datasphere itself as a democratic space, but also the civic imagination as a form of democratic expression rather than of vulgar populism and hate speech.


Andrew Schrock earned his Ph.D from the Anneberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. He is currently a researcher at Chapan University and an instructor at UCLA and USC. His research considers how grassroots groups and governments can ethically use technology to improve life for residents. He is particularly interested in taking an organizational perspective on public sector technology design, and how organizing can lead to institutional change. Andrew’s research has appeared in New Media & Society; The International Journal of Communication; and Big Data & Society. For more on Andrew’s work and teaching, please visit his website at

Moritz Fink is an independent media scholar based in the Munich area, Germany. He has published on contemporary media culture and popular satire. Mo’s latest book, a cultural history of the veteran TV show The Simpsons, will be released by Rowman & Littlefield in June. He contributed to this blog in the past with posts about remix culture and media pranks, and is the coeditor of Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Cultural Resistance (NYU Press, 2017

Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Andrew Schrock & Moritz Fink (Part I)


Opening Statements


I’m quite excited for this discussion! Like quite a few participants, I started in Civic Paths after Henry started at USC. Our research group was a vibrant, exciting free trade zone of ideas. It drew my attention to ideas about participation and organizing, themes that inspired me and I explored more deeply in my post-doctoral fellowship. These days, after writing a book on the nascent “Civic Tech” movement, I research and write about organizing around technology design in the public sector. The groups I’m working with are either non-profits, work within government, or collaborate with the local community. Often, they participate in improving government or providing new paths for collective action through technology design and development. In the process, they have to do all the usual organizational things: mobilize participation, build partnerships, and lead collaborative projects around social problems. To me, the crucial question is how they might bolster existing civic institutions using infrastructural politics, and result in better outcomes for people in need.


To me, the biggest recent development is the increased role of media technologies in politics. Like many communication scholars, the platforms that captivated me during my early career (particularly Facebook) have been dubious stewards of the public good. For example, Siva Vaidhyanathan has written about how Facebook exacerbates inequality, and Safiya Noble critiques the way online search engines represent Black women. These critiques are well-founded and necessary, revealing a close alignment between platforms and politics. However, I also worry that the reason technology companies hold so much power is we have failed as a society to create alternatives in the public sector. The response when I mention “public sector technology design” to my friends is often utter confusion. There is no collective idea of democratic institutions for technology, in the same sense that there is for media (e.g. “public broadcasting”). Trump also takes up so much political attention that I worry we might miss the extremely mundane and less sensationalist stories about organizing and slow, deliberate institutional change that is happening on a different timeline.

Personally speaking, several questions from Civic Paths, as filtered through the last few years, still inform my own work. First, we are in an era defined by “#resistance.” This should draw our attention to the question: how do we think about resistance? Many of the geeks I research are working inside government to make services more equitable for low-income Americans, and improve the alignment between policy-making and technology design. Their “resistance” takes the form of collaboration within institutions, rather than adversarial efforts to change them from the outside. They are what Debra Meyerson refers to as “tempered radicals” – people with deeply-held social values who use communication strategies to slowly shift organizations to be more equitable and inclusive. For me, tempered radicalism is a helpful way to think about resistance: as an organizational process led by people with deep personal convictions.

Finally, Civic Paths’ ongoing research on the civic imagination draws attention to how participation is driven by hopes for a better world. To add a bit to this idea, since the sad recent passing of Erik Olin Wright, I’ve been returning to his writing on “real utopias.” Technology has an admittedly fraught relationship with utopianism. Critical scholars are right to point out how promises about technology are often made by hucksters with something to gain. Still, I enjoy Wright’s scholarship because it positions change as a progressive effort achieved through conscious work on tangible projects that slowly change institutions to be less capitalist, rather than a purely Marxist position of radical upheaval. Our attention should still be placed about how hope circulates through ideas that give shape to possible worlds.


Thanks, Andrew! It’s exciting to learn about your trajectory as both a scholar and an advocate of civic media usage, as we’re taking part in this virtual conversation series. As for myself, I’ve got a German academic background. I studied American Studies at the University of Munich, where I also completed my PhD, with a strong emphasis on cultural and media studies. I got to know Henry Jenkins’s work, as well as himself in person, roughly 10 years ago, when I was working on my dissertation about the cultural meaning of the TV series and media phenomenon The Simpsons. What still fascinates me is Henry’s way of viewing alternative cultural traditions not necessarily in opposition to mainstream culture – completely unlike the dichotomous model that used to dominate the scholarly discourse about popular culture as I had known it.

That subcultural elements and what we associate with mainstream culture can coexist, and even converge, is what I find perfectly reflected in The Simpsons’ legacy of 30+ years of popular satire. This can be said for the show itself in that the political and aesthetic properties of a multibillion-dollar entity might originally have been understood as critical in relation to the dominant capitalist culture. However, it is even more true that The Simpsons has entered the realm of participatory culture, providing a yellow utopia that so many people can relate to.

Sarah Banet-Weiser has argued that the cultural ambiguity inherent to media brands such as The Simpsons reflects a neoliberal logic that is neither purely oppositional nor purely conformist. Often enough, both dimensions will characterize a certain pop culture product. And it would be way too easy to simply equate this with “cooptation” or “incorporation” in a post-Marxist sense. Notoriously, The Simpsons envisioned a female President of the United States of America named Lisa Simpson following a profligate President Trump (weirdly enough, in an episode aired years before Trump ran for office). That way the show’s political humor fueled the imagination of millions of viewers, many of whom speak out against Trump (actually I wonder if there are any Trump supporters among Simpsons fans).


That Trump is not The Simpsons’ president was corroborated by a series of promo-clips ridiculing the presidential figure by showing him in his nightdress and exposing Trump’s signature head of hair as a toupee. The Simpsons, in other words, has become a shared point of reference for the anti-Trump camp, while at the same time, the show’s ties to Fox television and, ultimately, to the Trump-supporting Fox News channel seems totally irritating. Needless to say such contradictions have characterized The Simpsons since the series’ inception, it’s striking how satire TV and other pop culture venues increasingly participate in the real-world political discourse.

If there ever has been a firm division between “resistance” and “the system” – subordinate vs. dominant cultural forces – this line has gotten increasingly difficult to draw in the digital age. In fact, most of us align with “the system” by subscribing to media conglomerates such as Facebook or Twitter. But at the same time, these commercial communication platforms offer new possibilities of amplifying voices of criticism and dissent.

For example, when Trump came into office and ordered government officials to belittle mention of climate change issues, some National Parks Service staff demonstrated dissent through Twitter. It connects to what you, Andrew, just referred to as “tempered radicalism” when NPS Twitter accounts went rogue, exposing the President’s reactionary worldview, while anonymous NPS workers created alt-Twitter accounts such as @AltUSNatParkService to add a corrective voice. In a similar vein, Trump’s favorite PA tool, Twitter, has produced a number of counter-Trump accounts such as the handle @MatureTrumpTwts, whose mission is to “translate” the U.S. President’s imprudent tweets into “mature,” presidential language, or otherwise comment on Trump’s political style and rhetoric.

With my coeditor, Marilyn DeLaure, I’ve discussed creative acts of resistance under the rubric “culture jamming” in what became the anthology Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Cultural Resistance. The concept “culture jamming” might have a reactionary connotation to those who view it wedded to the Adbusting movement of the late 1980s and early 1990s. But as our book has shown, the concept still has merit. Culture jamming has evolved into a palette of tactics essential to protest culture in the contemporary media environment. Steeped in the tradition of alternative media practices, acts of culture jamming – people appropriating the symbols, the performative style, and the communication channels provided by corporate culture to smuggle subversive messages into everyday life experiences – seem to be the weapon of choice in societies that are fundamentally shaped by, and hardly can escape, that very corporate culture.


Rather than to radically reject the “system” in a revolutionary sense, as did its Marxist forerunners, today’s culture jamming tries to take advantage of the tools commercial culture has to offer, to use them rather than to demonize them. Consider the recent acts of billboard banditry in Germany where jammers have modified Coca-Cola Christmas billboards to read “For a peaceful time: Say no to AfD,” referring to the German far-right party that has gained alarming popularity in the last few years. The activists made use of what is also called “brandjacking” -- assuming the corporate identity of a certain brand to insinuate voices of cultural criticism into the mainstream discourse. Surprisingly enough, Coca-Cola did not condemn the remade ads.  “Not every fake must be false,” Patrick Kammerer, a Coca-Cola Germany executive, commented via Twitter, accompanied by a picture of the reworked billboard. Kammerer’s message was later retweeted by Coca-Cola Germany itself.

Andrew Schrock earned his Ph.D from the Anneberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. He is currently a researcher at Chapan University and an instructor at UCLA and USC. His research considers how grassroots groups and governments can ethically use technology to improve life for residents. He is particularly interested in taking an organizational perspective on public sector technology design, and how organizing can lead to institutional change. Andrew’s research has appeared in New Media & Society; The International Journal of Communication; and Big Data & Society. For more on Andrew’s work and teaching, please visit his website at

Moritz Fink is an independent media scholar based in the Munich area, Germany. He has published on contemporary media culture and popular satire. Mo’s latest book, a cultural history of the veteran TV show The Simpsons, will be released by Rowman & Littlefield in June. He contributed to this blog in the past with posts about remix culture and media pranks, and is the coeditor of Culture Jamming: Activism and the Art of Cultural Resistance (NYU Press, 2017)

Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Rox Samer and Raffi Sarkissian (Part II)


So, totally unplanned, we both chose to turn to humor, together inadvertently arguing for its pervasiveness and endurance across feminist and queer activism and culture. Also, what we’re both noting is finding it in unusual places. Gay marriage activism circa 2008 and lesbian feminism in 1970s make for strange bedfellows, as they say. In a way, though, they are both historical periods affiliated with sober or somber figureheads (or at least who we picture as not having the greatest senses of humor). They’re thought to be unfunny. How much of that is stereotype? How much of that is the most well-known media of these times and these topics? Why are we both digging into these archives and finding humor?


For me, it is that it just keeps coming up in a lot of the things that I’m researching. I agree to an extent when you say it shows up in unusual places, but I feel for both of us, the more we find them the less these places seem unusual.


Yes, it gets less surprising.


And the more it makes sense that these are the spaces where you would find this kind of humorous and irreverent politics because, as you started to point out, we are certainly not seeing anything like that in the movement leaders, through the major figureheads, especially in hierarchical organizations where there is more pressure (whether from outside or within) to be “on message,” to abide by the politics of respectability. For example, drawing on my work on Proposition 8, an alliance of major LGBT organizations essentially came together to form the committee that would front the No on Prop 8 campaign back in 2008. The campaign relied on a marketing firm to construct the messaging, including all the TV ads. Not only were these ads what you would expect from typical campaign spots—serious, alarmist, attacking, defensive—but they also lacked any explicit LGBT representation and outreach to communities of color. So the grassroots video-based campaigns we saw spreading on YouTube (a couple of which I linked to in my opening statement) were implicitly responding to the rigidity of the “official” campaign by playing around with content (the type of arguments against the proposition), representation (the people and communities voicing their stances), and genre (challenging what campaign ads or PSAs look like). Even the ones not using comedy outright were still playing with genre and formats, and I think that is more broadly what we are both seeing in our archives: play and performance.

And this is coming from communities on the ground, those who are affected, those whose daily lives are most impacted by the homophobia we see informing the practices and ideologies on the right. Whether self-described activists or simply affected and ally constituents, they took to the emerging-at-the-time affordances of digital video distribution—remember, this is the first presidential election cycle since YouTube came on the scene in 2005. These participants were not just responding to the conservative Yes on 8 campaign, but to the conservative and mismanaged politics of our own No on 8 campaign, run by those figureheads of the mainstream LGBT movement. It became an outlet and an invitation to use creativity and collaboration. Humor becomes one of the mechanisms that activists and participants without as much power use to cope with the barrage of negativity and to (re)commit themselves to their battles, personal and collective. When I interviewed some of the creators of the “Gathering Storm” parodies (a couple overlapping as prior No on Prop 8 activists too), some upon reflection pointed out the function of these playful and parody breaks as a release valve for the tensions and feelings from the more intensive work of political organizing. Others pointed out how the creative process, which included comedy and collaboration, was their form of organization and activism.


I like these connections between our two archives and the balancing of serious and the silly (which is central to Susan Sontag’s theorization of camp). I’m not sure mine is camp. Part of me wishes I could claim it was. But looking at feminist fanzines of 70s there is a similar simultaneity of very serious discussion speaking to gendered lives and experiences but often by way of genre, either through science fiction or fantasy novels or other media dealing with alternative worlds or futures or looking to developing technologies but through a more speculative mindset learned through such close fannish engagement with concepts of futurity. One case in point is the subject of cloning, which mid-century was developing and which a number of these feminist science fiction authors and fans were paying attention to. For many, the interest stemmed from the possibility that cloning could be wielded for freedom, namely freedom from cis hetero patriarchy and the position assigned to people born into certain bodies and people born into others (an early theorization of which many of them had also encountered in Shulamith Firestone’s 1970 The Dialectic of Sex).

These discussions of topics such as cloning and alternative reproductive futurity would happen in feminist fanzines in letters of comments, structured symposia, or even through reviews of recent science fiction publications or other media. Often humor comes in and contributes to such discussions through the editorial work of fanzine editors, who choose, among other things, when to solicit fan art and where to place it in relation to these more textual contributions. In the case of Janus, Jeanne Gomoll, one of the fanzine’s editors worked professionally as an illustrator and included many of her own illustrations across the pages of Janus. Often quite cute, this art brings a levity to these heavy topics, providing a kind of sideline commentary that is endearing, witty or both. For example, in one of these articles on cloning, titled “If the Sons of All Men Were Mothers,” the author Ctein worries, having read Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, that when women are “freed” from reproduction, they’ll nonetheless retain the “chains” of patriarchy. The article includes a header of a cartoon of a giant sperm—a very friendly, smiley sperm—who is saying, “Let one who is without kin cast the first clone.”[1] So while the author of the article is pessimistic, the sperm stands in for those who would like to hold open the possibility of freedom with (if not through) cloning and is slyly naming for whom the stakes are highest, i.e. queer and trans people, those denied support and access to normative forms of reproduction. To me this “silly” or playful image reads as a queer/trans pushback to what could often be a super straight and cis discourse around reproductive freedom. And I think this relates to what you’re researching, as in both cases the most serious of conversations are being done through humor that doesn’t simply counterbalance but paradoxically underscores their very stakes.


This notion of stakes also informs a great deal of my approach and analysis of these grassroots and ordinary video campaigns to both Prop 8 and “A Gathering Storm,” being as the two cases are explicitly about same-sex marriage. I think it is easy for many, especially those of us whose politics are quite left of assimilationist moves, to dismiss the work of these videos and their participants as not high-stakes. Yet, as I mentioned in my opening statement, the rhetoric and strategy animating the arguments by Yes on 8 organizers and the National Organization for Marriage are plainly rooted in tried and true homophobia. And that is what many of these videos are responding to. They were also attuned to the exploitative racial politics of the original ad and how so much of the right’s fear-mongering is tied to an exploitative appeal to communities of color. This was one of the ways several “Storm” parodies used humor and satire to mount this critique. My favorite line, for instance, is when one of the subjects in “Response to NOM’s Gathering Storm” claims the gays “are taking away my Asianinity.” There is much more to mine here, but I also want to turn to considering some more recent activism beyond marriage.

A complementary example is the more recent direct action group Gays Against Guns (GAG), which formed following the Orlando massacre at the Pulse nightclub in 2016 (and has since opened up multiple chapters). GAG follows more directly in the footsteps of ACT UP/AIDS demonstrations and street theater. GAG is not part of my formal research, but I have been following their actions on social media. Given the gravity and urgency of gun violence, their events expectedly confront this seriousness head on. A staple of their protests is the inclusion of striking white figures:

“Our Human Beings usually make an appearance—silent, veiled, dressed all in white, they bring a somber, memorial energy to our actions. They’re not vague performance art—each one represents a particular victim of gun violence. Most of us have been a Human Being at least once—it’s very moving.”[2]

 At the same time, they are unapologetically irreverent (and fabulous) in their tactics, language, and iconography, particularly their protest signs and street paraphernalia. A witty sense of play and creativity drives many of their activities—showing up in drag at rural gun shows, staging a mock funeral to mourn the presidency, and “My Bloody Valentine,” a February 14 event personifying the union of deadly moneyed politics and the NRA. They have also recently started a podcast where they combine reporting on the gun violence epidemic with contributions from Sing Out, Louise! —"a resistance singing queertet performing in and around New York City.” While most of their activism seems directed toward street protests, as opposed to the video productions I cover, much of their work spreads across different media and networked platforms. (See here for trailer on documentary about GAG).


You gesture to what I know you write about at greater length elsewhere about connections between these materials and queer activism from the seventies and on. This time what I was also reminded of when watching these videos was the activism of the Lesbian Avengers. These intersectional or multivalent points you’re discussing, whereby these videos are not exclusively or even arguably mainly about gay marriage itself but the sexism and particular forms of homophobia undergirding the vitriol of anti-gay marriage activism, are reminiscent of the points made the Lesbian Avengers in some of their earliest actions. The Lesbian Avengers started out as a New York City activist group coming out of ACT UP in the early 90s. They were very much informed by the practices of ACT UP but wanted to extend zap actions and the like to address issues outside of AIDS, including hate crimes and various pieces of anti-gay legislation and policy being initiated around the US. At one of their first actions (and it may have been their very first) they addressed changes in the New York City public school curriculum. This was the era of multiculturalism and there was much discussion as to what was going to be included if curriculum was going to become more diverse. Some folks opposed the inclusion of gay and lesbian history in particular, so on the first day of school the Lesbian Avengers showed up outside an elementary school in the district where such opposition was strongest and handed out purple balloons to children that said, “Ask About Lesbian Lives.” The five and six-year-old kids loved it. They were like, “BALLOONS!” But many of their parents wouldn’t let them keep the balloons, and the kids cried.

I was reminded of this action (and it’s documentation by Su Friedrich and Janet Baus in the video documentary Lesbian Avengers Eat Fire Too) in the”Darkness” parody video you shared where one of the subjects worries that her kids will go to school and learn that “gay marriage exists.” Both actions/texts call attention to the banality of what is being opposed by the right—kids are going to learn—namely, that lesbians and gay men, that queer people, exist, that’s all. That’s the threat. And arguably what handing out those balloons to children thus reveals is the deep wells of hate and fear feeding the protesting of such banality. In showing up outside school grounds and handing out balloons that say, “Ask About Lesbian Lives,” the Lesbian Avengers revealed that it wasn’t just about school curriculum or queer history or the existence of queer history but the persistent belief that children and queer people should not mix. Many Americans could not (and still cannot) think of queerness and kids together outside of the stereotype of queer people as pedophiles. Another way of putting this, which is made ever the more evident in your parody videos, is the threat queerness poses to heteronormativity. Many queer scholars would like to hold open a gap between gay marriage activism or gay rights and queer politics, but the responses gay marriage inspires reveals that, for those on the right, even something so basic and normative as gay marriage threatens to throw the whole system into a state of chaos. Marriage becomes redefined and heteropatriarchy that much more unstable, revealing its fragility in the face of repetition with a difference once again.


Yeah, in fact I decided to look up to see if National Organization for Marriage was still around, and sure enough they are recycling the same arguments, most recently against the recent iteration of the Equality Act in Congress. In high contrast, LGBT rights and discourses in the decade since Prop 8 and “A Gathering Storm” have made impactful strides and moved onto more intersectional movements. Here, I am thinking about campaigns like Undocuqueer, #FreeCece, and the aforementioned GAG, not to mention queer visibility and representation in broader movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo. What has changed the most since 2009 is the wider palette of digital platforms that individuals and communities are using and adapting to their needs and desires. Consequently, how and where we see, experience, curate, and interact with these flows of engagement is also constantly changing. And I think this is still tied to the idea of play, with both content and genre, that we have been discussing. Twitter, for instance, has become the go-to platform when it comes to the spread of memes and generally playing with the formatting boundaries of its platform. This also brings me back to the part of your opening statement where you bring up the archival Instagram accounts you follow and the way they serve as a prophylactic of sorts to the constant stream of “new” content. I follow some of those and similar accounts (like @lgbt_history) and I too enjoy the temporal interruptions they provide. Instagram seems to be making more inroads into the ways we use video as well. And I know you’ve been working on a project along those lines.


Yes! I’m currently developing a project on “Trans Instagram.” I study how trans celebrities, artists, and activists and their followers create a counterpublic through their circulation of selfmade images and media of trans life. Obviously, in many ways trans celebrities are using the platform as cis celebrities do—to promote their TV series and shows and create a “brand.” But there’s also so much to what they photograph and share and how that exceeds such frameworks too. One of my favorite examples is Trace Lysette’s Instagram stories about her plants. That Lysette names her plants and interacts with them in the ways that she does has nearly nothing to do with her appearances on Transparent or Pose, but it does provide a window in to the life and mind (and sense of humor) of one fabulous trans person, which in and of itself provides a much needed silly and banal supplement to the few (and quite often tragic, fetishizing, isolating or otherwise melodramatic) representations of trans people on TV. Depending on one’s own curation of one’s Instagram, such a “story” might flow (ala Raymond Williams) into another, if very different, trans “story” and that one into yet another. I like to joke that, as a trans person, Instagram is my trans TV.


That’s a great example not just of the functions of particular content people are posting, but also how we configure it into spaces and narratives of both political and personal value. Whether through content, aesthetics, or genre, all these examples attest to the sustaining practice of humor and play in the politics of queer cultural production. And I think you’re really onto something by conjuring Williams’ flow in this new context. Dare I say, queer/trans/feminist activism is ordinary?


Rox Samer is an Assistant Professor of Screen Studies in Clark University’s Department of Visual and Performing Arts. Rox is currently working on a book manuscript, Lesbian Potentiality and Feminist Media in the 1970s, as well as a documentary film, Tip/Alli, on the work, life, and influence of feminist science fiction author James Tiptree, Jr. (aka Alice B. Sheldon, 1915-87).

Raffi Sarkissian is a lecturer in media studies at Christopher Newport University. He earned his PhD from the Annenberg School of Communication at USC. His research analyzes LGBTQ representation in popular culture and digital video activism, queer film festivals, and the politics of award shows. He has published articles in Spectator journal and an edited volume on Queer Youth Media Cultures.



[1] Ctein, “Future Insulation: If the Sons of All Men Were Mothers,” Janus 12-13 (Summer/Autumn 1978), 44-6.

[2] Gays Against Guns, “GAG: A Primer.” (accessed March 29, 2019)


Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Rox Samer and Raffi Sarkissian (Part I)


In the bulk of my research, including my book manuscript, Lesbian Potentiality and Feminist Media in the 1970s, I write about participatory cultures of the past. If not networked in the same way cultures are today, I have found feminist media cultures of the 1970s to work not totally dissimilarly, the circulation of feminist film and video and the fanzines of feminist science fiction fandom connecting women of disparate locations and identities around a shared interest in particular genres or forms and/or women’s cultural production more broadly. Feminist film and video and feminist science fiction literature have largely been written about in disparate disciplines (cinema and media studies and literature) but from relatively synonymous perspectives that look to particular texts as contributions of authors (such as Barbara Hammer or Joanna Russ) that advance their theorizing of gender and sexuality at the height of lesbian feminism. In my interdisciplinary project, I instead turn to the cultures through which these films, videos, novels, and short stories circulated and the meaning made of them by disparate audiences. As a result, an alternative model for feminist historiography, one which frees us from feminist genealogical commitments to self-survival in favor of regeneration, emerges.

Drawing on correspondence, videos, records, and ephemera now located in the collections of feminist media workers, I explore how the distribution and exhibition of feminist film and video recrafted feminist relationality both between and among women located in the women’s movement’s metropolitan and college town hubs and those of suburban, rural, and imprisoned women’s communities. In 1975, feminist media workers gathered at two conferences—the Conference of Feminist Film and Video Organizations in New York City and the Feminist Eye Conference in Los Angeles—in order to begin building a feminist media network through which they might reduce excess labor in programming and distribution and generate ideas between feminist communities. At the New York conference they drafted and signed an “Ongoing Manifesto” (sometimes cited as a “Womanifesto”) in which they wrote, “We do not accept the existing power structure and we are committed to changing it by the content and structure of our images and by the ways we relate to each other in our work and with our audience.” They saw this politicized media practice as “part of the larger movement of women dedicated to changing society by struggling against oppression as it manifests itself in sexism, heterosexism, classism, racism, ageism, and imperialism.”[1] I offer a history of two projects emerged from these conferences with the goal of continuing this ongoing work of changing society by way of media and feminist media worker/audience relations: the National Women’s Film Circuit (NWFC, 1975-80), a distribution system that circulated preconstituted packages of multigeneric feminist films through as wide a non-theatrical feminist US market as possible, and International Videoletters (1975-77), a monthly exchange of documentary video between US feminist communities with international aspirations. As NWFC packages and International Videoletters traveled to not just New York City, LA, Tucson, Rochester, and dozens of other locations, they initiated a series of intimate intellectual exchanges between US feminist communities largely impossible through other forms of political organization. In watching feminist films and videos together, often pursuant to lively discussion, audiences participated in nothing less than the temporary construction of an alternative reality. For two hours at a time feminist spectators perceived differently together and were moved to think and feel more expansively. This labor of reception was done with those on the screen and those behind the screen image’s cameras (who, in the case of the videoletters, might the following month be the ones in the audience themselves). Both intellectual and embodied, this affectivity put what I term “lesbian potentiality” in movement. Individuals’ felt sense that society could someday be substantially different gained force and momentum through the virtual creation of such a world among and between local feminist communities.

I also study how, unable to find a home in either the broader feminist culture or fandom proper, feminist science fiction authors and their early readers created their own counterpublic: feminist science fiction (SF) fandom. I examine the unique form of feminist consciousness raising that materialized across and between the letters of comment, book reviews, and fan art that appeared in Khatru, The Witch and the Chameleon, and Janus fanzines of the 1970s and in the programming of the feminist SF convention WisCon (1977-present) before arguing feminist SF fandom’s openness to accountability and vulnerability when thinking through differences and its self-reflexive and citational sense of humor are responsible for the rare endurance of this 1970s feminist counterpublic. Across the early feminist fanzines and WisCon programming parody, irony, satire, and what I can only describe as profound silliness were used to illustrate key points, demonstrate acquiescence, and poke fun at one’s own feminist zealousness (or, as fandom included men, even one’s failed attempts at feminist allyship). After being chastised for handing his colleagues in a Khatru symposium on “Women and Science fiction” what Russ called “the Baboon Theory of Human Behavior,” James Tiptree, Jr. (who two years later would be outed as Alice B. Sheldon) took on the part of the deferring male, exclaiming, “I feel about as relevant as a cuckoo-clock in eternity.”[2]

Often jokes reference recent events in more mainstream fandom and/or the “mundane” world. Hank Luttrell’s review of Star Wars, published in Janus 9, declared itself the “last Star Wars review,” calling attention to the obscene amount of attention the film was receiving in both mainstream fandom and the culture at large. For Luttrell, Star Wars is but one entry a growing body of pulpy comic book SF films that actual bear greater resemblance to Westerns, which helps them “get away with a general lack of social or political meaning” as well as its “casual attitude toward scientific accuracy.”[3] And while Luttrell finds Princess Leia to be a “surprising departure from the movie-serial mold” in that she is smart and adept, he muses, “You can’t help but wonder why [otherwise] it was that only white, blue-eyed, male Flash Gordons ventured into space.”[4] Janus editor Jeanne Gomoll made a collage to accompany the review, in which the characters of the film echo the reviews’ sentiments. Obi Wan Kanobi is pictured saying, “But it’s so redundant!” Luke Skywalker declares, “I’m gonna be sick,” and Chewbacca perhaps putting it best, “Grrrrrrr!” On its own, this collage would hold little meaning. However, in the context of this review and from the perspective of those who share Luttrell’s reservations about the film, it offers a hilarious critique. While anti-feminist mainstream fandom and the sexist “mundane” world might be no fun—both of which loved Star Wars—that need not be the case, these feminist fans insisted, for their fan world.

Like most social movement historians, I write this history hoping it will be of use to younger generations. It hopefully gives a sense of the ongoing and enduring work of feminist participatory cultures. Just as today’s participatory cultures are far from homogenous and can often be a challenge to navigate, Lesbian Potentiality and Feminist Media in the 1970s reveals that the politics of participatory cultures past were far from as simple themselves. The stakes of doing this work only grow as the speed of digital cultures accelerates. The internet thrives on the new. Every week we learn of a new “first” achievement or hear of an unprecedented atrocity being committed. It’s not that such achievements should not be celebrated, nor such atrocities critiqued and resisted, but the temporality of digital culture is so fast that it’s as if the clock of history is constantly being re-set. It’s for these reasons that I enjoy following Instagram accounts like @lesbianherstoryarchives, @onearchives, and @digitaltransarc (or as I recently learned about in SCMS presentations by Marika Cifor and China Medel, @theaidsmemorial and @veteranas_and_ rucas), which disrupt the constant present of my feed (#TBTs notwithstanding).

This persistent emphasis on newness risks escalating the generational divisions of queer feminist historiographies. This is one of the reasons I write about feminist SF fandom. It has managed to adapt over the years, its tradition of humor facilitating difficult discussions of difference oftentimes seemingly impossible in other spaces. In 2013, one of WisCon 37’s most popular panels was “Cousin of Return of Sibling of Revenge of Not Another F*cking Race Panel,” the annual iteration of a game show format panel, complete with a giant dice, in which six science fiction and fantasy authors of color got “their geek on about any number of pop culture topics—none of them related to race.”[5] The first of such panels was organized years before as a response to the experience of SF&F authors of color at WisCon, who found they were always expected to talk about race and race alone, a pattern that prevented them from interacting at the convention fully as people with additional experiences, passions, and interests related to the subjects at hand. There are many elements that factor into the longevity of feminist institutions, but, as Michfest has sorely demonstrated, intergenerational collaboration (or the lackthereof) is one of them. In Convergence Culture, Jenkins writes, “Collective intelligence can be seen as an alternative source of media power.”[6] Such collective intelligence, I argue, should be generated not only within extant participatory cultures (including those, like feminist SF fandom, which are constantly regenerating) but between nonextant and current participatory cultures as well.

Raffi Sarkissian

It’s a funny thing. The more I work on researching the participatory cultures of LGBTQ activism, the more I find how integral humor, parody, and play are—and have been—in sustaining the civic and political engagement of these movements, their networks, and individual contributors. I am currently working on a manuscript, It Gets Popular: LGBTQ Video Activism in the Digital Age, in which I make a studied analysis of three particular cases of grassroots LGBTQ video activism that sprung up and spread in the late 2000s on YouTube an social media. Each of these cases—centered around California’s Proposition 8, the anti-gay “Gathering Storm” ad, and the It Gets Better Project—is actually a constellation of different grassroots campaigns, group organizing, and movement participation that cohere around their inciting objects of critique. Together these cases, I argue, present an important inflection point—in terms of representational, organizational, and institutional politics—for LGBT video activism in the emerging networked and digital era. What I’d like to tease out for this conversation is one of the threads that stood out in my research, analysis, and interviews conducted on these videos: a parody and play approach to their activism.

The memetic response to “A Gathering Storm,” a 2009 anti-gay marriage ad airing in a few states and posted online, illustrates such a move. The original ad, made by the National Organization for Marriage, features hired actors against a stormy green-screen backdrop, warning audiences that the advance of gay marriage will take away their rights and freedoms. The video engendered a swift response, inspiring not just widespread ridicule and condemnation online, but immediately annotated, remixed, and mashed-up renditions of the ad. These first reactions were individually edited, animated, or vlog-style videos, what we typically see in response to viral content. Within a few days, though, organized parody productions—written, assembled, and shot—also started appearing on YouTube as well (a couple sampled below).

What struck me about these group efforts in particular was the seeming simultaneity of their response and similarity to their approach. They all dove headfirst to reveal and revel in the campy excess of the original ad, zeroing in on its artifice (bad acting, bad special effects), transparent baiting (particularly around race and fear tactics), and an overall lack of self-awareness of the ad’s use of gay iconography. It was “low-hanging fruit” as one of my interviewees would describe. The creators and participants I talked to during my research also revealed the relative ease and speed with which they organized their parody productions. Common in their descriptions was an organic, spontaneous, and mostly DIY assembly: scripts developing over phone calls or single coffee sessions, getting a crew of friends together on short notice, editing and uploading it online ASAP.

The collaborative process described above, I argue, added an affective valence to these videos. What further emerged from my interviews was the intentional use of comedy and parody by the creators as a way to process and respond to the homophobic ad and its preposterous rhetoric. This kneejerk turn to comedy and satire called upon a legacy of humor and play in histories of LGBTQ activism. In my research on the various movements from the sixties and on, for instance, I came across the prevalent use of zaps as part of an artillery of tactics activists used in street spectacles and public demonstrations. Per Sara Warner,

The term refers to playful methods of social activism and mirthful modes of political performance that inspire and sustain deadly serious struggles for revolutionary change […] zaps combine physical comedy, symbolic costumes, expressive gestures, and farcical timing in brief, improvised skits that are designed to shock and awe people, jolting them out of their complacency and fixed frames of reference.[1]

Though the freedom to marriage on the surface does not seem as high-stakes, the participants recognize the violence in the arguments and strategies that animate many of these contemporary anti-gay campaigns. Their response through the organizing, production, and release of these videos online, then, operate as digital incarnations of zaps. They translate currencies of queer activism—camp humor and theatrical performance—to participate in the new economies of networked video activism.

This kind of grassroots video production was also on display in LGBT activism during the 2008 election when California had Proposition 8, a measure to ban same-sex marriage, on the ballot. Not all the independently-produced online video campaigns here incorporated comedy or a play on traditional campaign ads, but several did go the route of parody, like the Mac v. PC style “No on 8” ads, or satire (like the video below), preceding “A Gathering Storm” in negotiating the spreadable potential of video activism in the still emerging economies of networked publics.

A couple related impulses motivate my post here (and my research overall on digital video activism moving forward). First, paying more attention to the function that play and humor serve and the social effect they produce and provoke in political activism at large and participatory politics in the digital era in particular. One of the key questions I hope to explore further in this conversation and blog series is where we see this kind of work today, how it has evolved in the decade since Prop 8 and “A Gathering Storm.” The cases I cover telegraph something about a particular time and focus—by and about certain interests, priorities, communities—when it comes to both LGBTQ activism and the uses of digital platforms for political organizing. LGBTQ issues and representation mushroomed both in national politics and media industries since. What happens to the type of tactics detailed in this post within an environment of hypervisibility and profitability of (some) queer content today? I have some answers but I am hoping others join in the discussion and help broaden the picture.

The second impulse, shared among many media studies scholars, is the importance of taking stock and documenting these digital artifacts and their structures of feeling. I was drawn to these videos as the object of my scholarship because of the role they played in my engagement with LGBTQ organizing and activism during that time period. Yet, when I started my research on these videos and campaigns in earnest many years after they were first uploaded, I often had to rely on my own memory of the content, webpages, and online discourse to track some of them down. Given the rate at which we are producing content and the ease with which we move from one form or style to another, either as consumers or creators, it is imperative to analyze our political engagement with media, its historical antecedents, and the affective shape it takes today. This is then not just about preservation, but to better understand the context and emergence of these participatory moves—if not fully movements—to trace how they developed, evolved, and continue to inform the genres, practices, and politics of queer digital publics.

Rox Samer is an Assistant Professor of Screen Studies in Clark University’s Department of Visual and Performing Arts. Rox is currently working on a book manuscript, Lesbian Potentiality and Feminist Media in the 1970s, as well as a documentary film, Tip/Alli, on the work, life, and influence of feminist science fiction author James Tiptree, Jr. (aka Alice B. Sheldon, 1915-87).

Raffi Sarkissian is a lecturer in media studies at Christopher Newport University. He earned his PhD from the Annenberg School of Communication at USC. His research analyzes LGBTQ representation in popular culture and digital video activism, queer film festivals, and the politics of award shows. He has published articles in Spectator journal and an edited volume on Queer Youth Media Cultures.


[1] “An Ongoing Manifesto,” February 2, 1975, Box 15, Ariel Dougherty Papers, Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts; and Box 64, Joan E. Biren Papers, Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts.

[2] James Tiptree, Jr., “Women in Science Fiction: A Symposium,” Khatru 3 & 4, ed. Jeffrey D. Smith (November 1975), 101.

[3] Hank Luttrell, “The Last Star Wars Review,” Janus 9 (1977): 17-18.

[4] Luttrell, “The Last Star Wars Review,” 18.

[5] WisCon 37 Pocket Program Book, 55.

[6] Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide (New York and London: NYU Press, 2006).

Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Ashley Hinck & Liana Gamber-Thompson (Part II)


Liana, thanks for that opening statement. One thing that I particularly love about our opening statements is the way in which they point to the wide variation inherent in the intersections between fandom, politics, and participatory politics. Combined, you and I cover a lot of ground. Sometimes I worry that people see fandom, politics, and participatory politics as one-off case studies or a flukes. I worry that they wonder, “Yeah the Harry Potter Alliance is doing interesting stuff, but surely they must be the only one combining fandom and politics in this way. This is just too weird--too unusual.” And yet if we combine your work with mine, wow, there are a lot of examples of fandom intersecting with politics. And those examples are wide-ranging. It’s not just the Harry Potter Alliance and the nerdfighters. It ranges across political ideologies (progressive vs. conservative), across sexuality (nerdfighters), race (DREAMERs), fan cultures (geek culture like Star Wars and sport culture like Husker football), age (youth like the Harry Potter Alliance as well as adults like Adult LEGO fans), and tactics (electoral politics, activism, and creative expression). And I think that illustrates how important the intersection between fandom, politics, and participatory politics is. It’s not something we can ignore if we want to understand the contemporary landscape of citizenship, civic engagement, and politics.


Yes, I love your point about how these combined case studies show the breadth of examples we have of politics and fandom intersecting at many points along the political spectrum. The other cases you list here (sports fandoms for instance) also illustrate the varied nature of fandom itself. I think “fandom” often becomes shorthand for science fiction fandom or “geek culture,” but as someone who is invested in the intersection of music fandom and politics, I’m quick to point out how important it is to explore fan culture outside of the canon. I love cultural anthropologist Maureen Mahon’s work, for example, which illustrates this point well and shows that the demographic contours of fandoms can often turn stereotypes on their heads (she’s written about black girls’ and women’s involvement in/centrality to rock n’ roll). Henry’s recent three-part interview with Nancy Baym on music fans and relational labor is also a must read. I could talk all day about how there are so many corners of fandom that need to be further explored, but maybe this would be a good time to talk more about how we define politics. I’d be really interested to know more about how you gauge what “counts” as political or as participatory politics in your own work. What are your lodestars for thinking about how fandom gets translated into civic action?


Those are really useful points about how we define, conceptualize, and shorthand fandom. I just added Maureen Mahon’s book to my reading list! Thanks for the suggestion. =) As for how I define and conceptualize politics, I find Rob Asen’s conceptualization of citizenship really useful for me. It defines citizenship as a process of public engagement--a particular mode. This emphasizes the communication aspects of any intersection between fandom and politics (important for rhetoric scholars like me). I leave questions of trends, correlations, and demographics to the political scientists and other social scientists. My own disciplinary and methodological tools are tied to viewing communication as public texts in a very humanities way. What about you? How do you conceptualize politics in your own work? And I wonder if that’s tied to your discipline at all?


That’s a fascinating touchstone for thinking about politics; coming from Sociology, Asen’s work isn’t something I’ve engaged with much, but it’s nevertheless really useful to think of citizenship through the lens of discourse theory and to frame it as something that’s dynamic, unruly, and even playful (and, of course, that’s shaped by communication). In Sociology, I think we often get caught up in “base/superstructure” or “politics/culture” binaries which I think often miss the iterative, ever-shifting nature of citizenship.

In terms of how my disciplinary background influences my overall approach to politics, I would say that I’m always thinking about how social structures bump up against our everyday lived experiences; this includes facets of our lives that often feel like individual choices, such as taste cultures and even how and why we take up political action.

Positionality is also always on my mind. That is, how does my perspective as a white, cisgender, middle-class woman impact how I conduct research and the suppositions I have about what counts as political? When I was in grad school, that notion was widely accepted in my progressive bubble, but I quickly realized that any effort not to remain “objective” in social science research more broadly was often maligned as some kind of relic of ‘70s-style consciousness-raising. I think that notion has really shifted again, though (and for the better!), with more persistent narratives around identity coming into public discourse, academic and otherwise.

One area where I think sociologists have been especially useful in picking up where more humanistic readings of politics leave off is in its interpretations of how the enactment of citizenship can reflect and reify social inequality (Evelyn Nakano Glenn, for instance, has an incredibly vast body of work that grapples with the tension between the American Creed of everyone being “equal” under the eyes of the law and our simultaneous obsession with excluding whole groups of people--now more relevant than ever!).

Something I know we can agree on, too, is that politics has many faces beyond “traditional” mechanisms of change, such as voting (interestingly, I found that the young libertarians in my By Any Media Necessary case study identified as categorical non-voters but were hugely engaged in/knowledgeable about politics). In the social sciences, there is actually a lot of rich scholarship on varying forms of political action, despite my earlier griping about binarism (James C. Scott’s ethnographic work from the ‘70’s on “everyday forms of resistance” in Weapons of the Weak still totally holds up, IMO), yet this idea that participatory forms of politics or fan-based citizenship, for instance--or even just engaging in civics online--is somehow not as legitimate as voting or street protests still persists in both academic circles and popular culture.

When we were working on By Any Media Necessary, we were trying to challenge Malcolm Gladwell’s assertion that digital activism (way back when we were first encountering the notion of Twitter revolutions; it seems like eons ago!) was less risky (and less valuable) than tradition forms of protest like lunch counter sit-ins. One good example that subverts Gladwell’s narrative is from my work with Arely Zimmerman on DREAMer activists, who often “came out” as undocumented online in videos uploaded to Youtube--who weren’t, in many cases, putting their physical bodies on the line--but who were actually putting themselves at tremendous risk, with one possible outcome being deportation. 

It seems like I’m reflecting on disciplinary boundaries here as much as on definitions of politics. While you get at this some in your introductory statement, I’d be interested to hear more about how your training as a rhetorician informs your interpretations of citizenship, political engagement, or even inequality.


Oooh! I love thinking of citizenship as iterative! That’s so interesting!

You mentioned that sometimes “participatory forms of politics or fan-based citizenship, for instance--or even just engaging in civics online--is somehow not as legitimate as voting or street protests still persists in both academic circles and popular culture.” I feel that in communication too. It seems to be connected to two assumptions (or maybe perceptions). One assumption is that fans are not serious (the titles of my papers sometimes elicit nervous laughter at communication conferences). The other assumption is that political actions online are only surface level--despite the great work of folks in our field (Ethan Zuckeman’s lecture comes to mind here and certainly, like you just mentioned, your book with Henry categorically disproves any concerns about surface level activism). And yet, in the broader communication discipline, I sometimes encounter a weird kind of burden of proof--there’s an assumption that political action online is surface level unless otherwise demonstrated.

Sometimes, it’s hard to simultaneously argue that we should take politics that is blended with fandom seriously, while also admitting that it might support inequality or that some cases might be ineffective. I tried to do that a little bit in my own work, but that mostly fell on the “cases that were ineffective side. In my book, I looked at one case that could have tapped into fans as an audience but failed to do so. They had everything set up, but ended up directing the critique at the fan object, which, as you can expect, turned fans away. I looked at another case that anchored their appeals completely in fandom at the expense of any connection to public culture. I think these cases are useful in showing the places where politics blended with fandom may fall short (or if we’re feeling gutsy, we might say “fail”).

I’m really interested in hearing your thoughts on the relationship between participatory culture/fannish politics and inequality. I try to think about the ways in which some fan-citizens get to be read as citizens or fans and how that might affect their enactment of fan-based citizenship or participatory politics. And I try to think about the implications of fan-based citizenship enacted by predominantly white fandoms. But it’s a tough question that I’d need to figure out how to dive in deeper into.

Amy Brandzel’s 2016 book Against Citizenship: The Violence of the Normative asks some of those questions. She argues that citizenship is a mechanism of inequality and dehumanization. She calls for a shift away from it. I think your question about how we conceptualize citizenship and its relationship to inequality is a really smart one. In rhetoric, we tend to see citizenship as good and productive--it’s part of our disciplinary story going back to Aristotle. Work like Brandzel’s calls us to reconsider those questions.


I haven’t read Brandzel’s book, but while we’re trading reading list recommendations, I’ll certainly be putting it on mine! It seems especially timely as I still process the news about the terrorist attack (rooted in white supremacy) on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which 50 people were killed. The growing number of these attacks brings into relief the fact that, for many immigrants and native groups alike, the “protection” of citizenship is anything but.

And I hear you about being mindful of inequality both within fan communities and with regard to who gets to be read as a fan citizen and why, and that’s certainly something I will continue to wrestle with. I think shining a spotlight on non-white fandoms and looking for how narratives of all sorts can be meaningful across a wide range of communities can be a useful start. For instance, Henry and others members of our team have written about how superhero narratives, from Wonder Woman to Black Panther have inspired fans and activists to both imagine a better world and act to smash injustice (sorry, I just feel like smash is the right word when we’re talking about superheroes!). To bring in another example related to participatory politics and immigration/citizenship/belonging, I love how immigration rights activists have leveraged the mythology of Superman toward civic ends by celebrating the fact that “Superman was an Undocumented Immigrant.”

The fact that pop culture representations like these can spark the Civic Imagination--the idea that our collective vision for what a better future could look like can help bridge perceived cultural gaps between diverse communities--should give us hope for fandom and its capacity to enable us, not only to engage politically, but to address inequality as well.

On an even more meta level, I’m also reminded of political philosopher Danielle Allen’s work here; Allen who, as a foil to Brandzel, I think certainly finds hope and value in the political ideals laid out by the founding fathers, makes an interesting argument in her 2014 book, Our Declaration, that it was the founders’ intent for freedom and equality to be mutually reinforcing in the Declaration of Independence (and yeah, she does address the boundaries of these white slave owners’ definitions of equality). Instead, in America, we’ve become so obsessed with the notion of [individual] freedom, that freedom’s reliance on equality for revolution has become obscured. Only by dignifying groups who do not wield power can we elevate these ideals, and perhaps, as scholars, we should make a commitment to do just that.


I love your turn to thinking about how popular culture narratives can be used to address inequality. I think what is implied there is that popular culture narratives can also be marshalled to enhance inequality. That’s troubling to think about, but also essential. As we were getting ready to start this conversation, one question you suggested we might explore was, “What does an “ethical” participatory politics look like? Is there such a thing?” I love the way your question orients us as scholars, critics, and fans. It calls us to think carefully about when participatory politics and intersections between fandom and political action are ethical, emancipatory, and progressive, and even more importantly, in what ways. Not all participatory politics (or fannish politics, fan activism, or fan-based citizenship) will be praiseworthy just because they it sit at the intersection of fandom and politics.

Dan Brower and Rob Asen I think model this kind of orientation really nicely in their book on public modalities. They say, “The critical character of this project does not arise from an inherent quality of a modality per se, since processes of public engagement may advance praiseworthy or censurable ends. Rather the critical character of public modalities arises from the intervention and judgment of the scholar, who discerns the values implicated in particular engagements and judges their progressive or regressive qualities” (p. 21).

Some cases of fandom intersecting with politics might be successful, some might be emancipatory, and some might ethical. I think part of what we, as scholars, can do is work through those complexities. In other words, our work isn’t done when we name something a case of participatory politics or fan-based citizenship or other intersection of participatory politics. Indeed, that is just the beginning of our work as scholars.


I feel like that’s a perfect point to wrap up this discussion, which has been such a pleasure. You so eloquently remind scholars that it’s possible to be rigorous yet not impartial, cautious yet hopeful. And importantly, we can use our own passions and interests to explore the crossroads of fandom and politics while retaining a critical lens.

And though it’s so necessary to leave room for conversations about how participatory politics may, too, reproduce structures of inequality, require more self-reflexivity, and play out in unethical ways, I’m still an optimist. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel the weight of what’s happening on the national stage in my everyday lived experiences in a way I never have before; the state of civil discourse (or lack thereof) takes a mental and physical toll. But even--especially--when I leave my academic hat at the door, I’m confident in saying that we, as fans and activists (and fan activists!), can use the texts we love to change the world. Because if what we love can help us imagine a better future, we can use the language of fandom to make it a reality.  


What a beautiful sentiment to end on: exciting and invigorating. Thanks so much for the conversation. This was great! I’m walking away with lots of ideas to chew on and new books to add to my shelf. I’m excited to continue our conversation with folks online through the comments or on Twitter. =)


Ashley Hinck is Assistant Professor, Communication Department, Xavier University

Liana Gamber-Thompson is Digital Project and Operations Manager at EdSurge. 

Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Liana Gamber-Thompson & Ashley Hink (Part I)

Politics for the love of fandom.jpg

Opening Statements


In 2007, when I was a senior in college, one of my best friends told me about a podcast created by a group called the Harry Potter Alliance. At the time, I remember listening to it, loving it, and wondering why nothing in my persuasion class seemed to reflect either the Harry Potter Alliance’s use of the internet to do organizing or their use of fandom to do politics. From there, I fell down a rabbit hole, assisted by many friends in many fandoms. I went to graduate school and ended up writing a MA thesis and a PhD dissertation about how fandom, politics, and the internet intersect.

Now, I’m an Assistant Professor at Xavier University and I’ve published two books: Politics for the Love of Fandom: Fan-Based Citizenship in a Digital World (LSU Press, March 2019) and Poaching Politics: Online Communication in the 2016 US Presidential Election co-authored with Paul Booth, Amber Davisson, and Aaron Hess (Peter Lang, November 2018), along with a handful of other articles and book chapters (which you can find here). Across my research, my goal is examine the ways in which fan cultures, identities, and practices contribute to, transform, or contest political cultures, identities, and practices. I’m a rhetorician by training, which means my questions center around how we use fandom to construct, deploy, and perform communication in order to do politics.

As a rhetorician, my starting point is public culture and rhetorical texts. From John Dewey to G. Thomas Goodnight, communities and social interaction have been seen essential for the functioning of democracy. In many ways, social ties are at the very center of public culture and civic action. From that point of view, we shouldn’t be surprised that we are increasingly seeing intersections between fandom and politics. Fan studies scholars have long pointed out that fans form rich communities around fan-objects (for example, see Baym, Hellekson & Busse, and Jenkins). This is becoming even more common as the internet makes it easier than ever to form communities across great geographic distance. Fandom is an important source of social ties and communities. In my book chapter in Theorizing Digital Rhetoric, I argue that it’s no wonder then that those social ties translate to political ones as well.

And indeed the social ties of fandom have translated into all sorts of publics, civic action, and political cultures.

In some cases, fandom has served as the foundation for political action—what I call fan-based citizenship. In these cases, public engagement emerges from a commitment to a fan-object. In my book, Politics for the Love of Fandom: Fan-Based Citizenship in a Digital World, I examine cases like Star Wars, Nerdfighters on YouTube, adult fans of LEGO, Husker Football, and Harry Potter. For example, the TeamMates nonprofit invited Husker football fans to volunteer to mentor school-aged children during their Coaches Challenge campaigns. Nerdfighters deliberated about public issues and charities during the annual Project for Awesome. Across each case study, I argue that fans anchor their civic appeals in the ethical frameworks emerging from their fan objects (particular interpretations of values operating at a general and abstract level). Thus, popular culture fandom becomes a source of public values that can be used to guide civic action through public communication.

The cases I examine in my book demonstrate that fan-based citizenship doesn’t just occur in activism, but also as volunteerism, charity donations, and electoral politics, including the most recent US presidential election. Indeed, I think scholars, pundits, and citizens will have trouble understanding the 2016 US presidential election if we don’t also understand fandom and how it intersects with politics. 

One way in which we see fandom operating in the 2016 election is as an identity/group membership that had bearing on one’s presidential vote. In 2016, Paul DeGeorge (co-founder of the Harry Potter Alliance and co-founder of Harry and the Potters) launched the Nerds for Her website and online store, selling buttons and tshirts that displayed “Hufflepuffs w/Her” in Hufflepuff colors, “Choose Her” slogans next to Pokemon balls, and “the only logical choice” next to the Vulcan salute. The store was an extension of a project DeGeorge started in 2008 and refined in 2012 when Obama was running. In 2016, DeGeorge transformed the “Wizards for Obama” slogans to “Wizards w/Her.” The buttons, t-shirts, and digital downloads invited fans to vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016 based on their fan identity and the ethical frameworks that came along with that. In an interview, DeGeorge explained, “I was trying to link up a member group, like Teachers for Obama.” Candidates regularly campaign by appealing to group membership identities like union member, woman, or teacher. DeGeorge invited fans to use their fan identity in the same way (Politics for the Love of Fandom: Fan-Based Citizenship in a Digital World).

Fandom also affected how politicians and fan-citizens engaged the 2016 election, applying fan practices to and integrating fan identities into electoral campaigns. In Poaching Politics: Online Communication in the 2016 Presidential Election (which I co-authored Paul Booth, Amber Davisson, and Aaron Hess), we examine the way in which participatory cultures affected the 2016 election. We argue that individuals claimed campaign discourse as their own, transforming the long-assumed relationship between citizens and campaigns from one in which citizens were passive and rational to one in which citizens are active and affective as well. In the 2016 election, we saw this emerge around fan culture and troll culture (two prominent and long-standing participatory cultures).

One chapter of our book traces how politicians came to adopt fan identities and practices during their campaigning. For example, during the primaries ahead of the 2016 election, Ted Cruz performed a Star Wars fan identity on the campaign trail, integrating it with his political persona. Cruz’s integration of his fan identity into his candidate personae invited voters to imbue him with the “cool” that his awkward persona sorely lacked, while also allowing him to court the voting bloc of Star Wars fans (a significant number of voters).

On the other side of the aisle, MoveOn, the well-established progressive political organization, deployed Harry Potter in an attempt to garner support for Hillary Clinton in their online video advertisement “Merkely Potter” on Facebook and YouTube. MoveOn’s ad used the same approach as the cases of fan-based citizenship I studied in my book, Politics for the Love of Fandom. They invited voters to apply a Harry Potter ethical framework (respect, tolerance, etc.) to voting, arguing that Harry Potter fans who supported those values should vote for Hillary Clinton. In doing so, MoveOn constituted Harry Potter fans as a voting bloc. This was particularly important because the Millennial voting bloc was both large and up for grabs (particularly as young people supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries). MoveOn constructed a political argument that called Harry Potter fans to vote for Hillary, not because they were Democrats, but because they were Harry Potter fans.

Fandom also played a critical role in the surge of progressive organizing and activism after Trump’s 2016 election. In our Poaching Politics book, we trace the way in which fandom was used to attack Democratic candidate Jon Ossoff. Ossoff was running for a seat in the House of Representatives that was vacated after Trump appointed Tom Price as Secretary of Health and Human Services. During the race, a conservative PAC released an advertisement attacking Ossoff that utilized footage of Ossoff delivering lines as Han Solo and goofing around with lightsabers. The ad asserted: “Ossoff really wants you to think he’s ready to be in Congress” and then goes on “You see, Osssoff was just a college kid, doing things like dressing up with his drinking buddies and pretending to be Han Solo.” While the attack ad attempted to use Ossoff’s fandom as evidence that he was young and inexperienced, Better Georgia, a progressive organization, released an advertisement that reframed the same evidence of Ossoff’s Star Wars fandom as beneficial. The ad stated, “Jon Ossoff. Honest. Serious. And so ready. Sorry Trump Republicans. But District 6 has a new hope.” Ossoff and his supporters eventually leaned into his Star Wars fandom, integrating it into his political persona. Ossoff’s case demonstrates how political personae integrated with fan identities can become contested on both sides, with implications for what kind of leader the candidate might be. While Ossoff eventually lost (by only a few points), his campaign illustrates the changing terrain of fandom in elections.

Citizens too (not just politicians) utilized fandom during the surge of progressive organizing after Trump’s victory. During the research for my book, Politics for the Love of Fandom, I met a group of writers and librarians who found themselves devastated after Trump’s 2016 victory and were looking for ways to do good and create change. They stumbled upon the Harry Potter Alliance and decided to form their own chapter. The chapter ran two campaigns within the first six months. For these citizens, who felt spurred to action by Trump’s victory, it made sense to turn to fan activism.

These case studies all illustrate the complex inner-workings of the intersection between fandom and politics. But they also illustrate two larger points about fandom in the 2016 US presidential election: 1) We shouldn’t be surprised that fandom is giving rise to political action—these citizenship performances reflect where our social ties and our communities are. 2) We can’t understand the 2016 US presidential election without understanding fandom. It may be easy for journalists on the campaign beat or for political scientists specializing in voter turnout to ignore fandom as something unusual or an exception to the rule that can be ignored. Yet, I think the cases I’ve discussed here demonstrate that fandom is actually at the center of the 2016 election. If we want to understand American politics in the 21st century, we have to understand fandom too.


Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former lawyer and “fixer” is testifying before the House Oversight Committee as I write this introductory statement, the often tense back and forth pumped out from a portable speaker in my kitchen as I ponder the state of participatory politics today. Needless to say, so much has changed since 2015, when my co-authors and I wrapped up our fieldwork and analysis for By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism (Jenkins et al., 2016), and I’m thrilled to think about what current iterations of participatory politics look like in conversation with Ashley Hinck, whose fascinating body of work on fandom and politics explores how citizens and politicians alike have deployed fandom toward civic ends.

First, a little bit about me: I’m somewhat of an outlier in this group of marvelously smart and accomplished academics who are also participating in these discussions on participatory politics. After finishing my PhD in Sociology (with parenthetical notation in Feminist Studies) in 2010 and a dissertation on teenage girl music fans, I spent almost four years at USC working with Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova on the Media and Participatory Politics Project (MAPP), which has now transformed into the even richer Civic Imagination Project. After that, I made the leap to the non-academic world and haven’t looked back. For the past five years, I’ve worked primarily in the education and technology space, first at the non-profits National Writing Project and Connected Camps, and most recently at the edtech media company, EdSurge. As such, I’m really glad to re-join this conversation on participatory politics and to hopefully bring some of that “on the ground” experience into it as well.

One professional project I worked on that’s germane to this conversation is Letters to the Next President 2.0. This was a national, large-scale, multi-modal writing project supported by the National Writing project and KQED that engaged and connected young people, aged 13–18, as they researched, wrote, and made media to voice their opinions on issues that mattered to them in the 2016 presidential election. You can see their finished letters here; these expressions of youth voice give an often poignant look into the issues young people are wrestling with, partisan politics aside.

I’m also excited about this conversation on a few different theoretical fronts. First, the connection between fandom and politics is a topic I explored in By Any Media Necessary in my case study on libertarian youth, in which I tried to show how participatory politics is enacted in non-progressives spaces. While studying the student group, Students for Liberty, I found flourishing fan communities built around shared admiration for a range of libertarian schools or theory like Anarcho-capitalism and classical liberalism, as well as the movement’s influential intellectual figures, from Friedrich Hayek to Murray Rothbard. The creative productions of young artists/theory fans like Dorian Electra and other YouTube stars such as PraxGirl and Token Libertarian Girl further helped bridge the gap between fandom and politics for a new generation of libertarians.

Electra, who I interviewed for By Any Media Necessary and whose artistic output I chronicled closely, now spends time challenging gender norms and toxic masculinity rather than mainstream economic theories and is a good example of how fandoms, along with the personal investments of those in them, change over time. Electra, who identities as non-binary, has retired all libertarian-leaning work from their official Youtube account and tours frequently with the likes of pop sensation Charli XCX.

Along with thinking about participatory fandom together, I’m equally as excited to think about the affective dimensions of contemporary politics alongside Ashley. Drawing on Jenkins (1992), Van Zoonen (2005) explains that academic and popular discourses often hold that fandom is primarily an affective enterprise, while political activities are more rooted in critical cognitive assessments that constitute good citizenship, such as informed knowledge of current events. Jenkins and Van Zoonen both argue against such a dichotomy, and the libertarian case study is just one of many that demonstrate how fan practices bridge with political and civic activities in ways that combine rational discourse with more affective expressions. The Harry Potter Alliance (HPA), which Ashley Hinck describes here and which my colleague, Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, also wrote about in By Any Media Necessary, is another great example.

The importance of affect for participatory politics was also a theme In DREAMing Citizenship: Undocumented Youth, Coming Out, and Pathways to Participation, also in By Any Media Necessary, in which my co-author Arely Zimmerman and I looked at how DREAMers, who were just starting to become recognized on the national stage at the time the book was published, built on historically situated practices of mobilization and used new media for movement building. We argued that DREAMer participatory practices, both affective and tactical (Johnson 2009), constituted a new repertoire of action (Tilly 1978) to effect change that supported members of traditionally marginalized groups in becoming civically engaged. We examined coming out videos and other “testimonios” to show how the affective and strategic were mutually reinforcing for DREAMers and their political goals. 

Our analysis, which directly connected the emotional experiences of DREAMers to their political work, is part of the effort to develop what Jeff Goodwin and others (Jasper 1998; Goodwin, Jasper, and Polletta 2001) have termed an emotional sociology: a sociology attuned to the potential causal significance of emotions because they are “constitutive of social relations and action—and not simply as individual, psychological reactions but as intersubjective, collective experiences” (Goodwin, Jasper, and Polletta 2001, 283). We found that DREAMer’s online storytelling practices, combined with an explicit legislative agenda, helped propel the movement forward and set the stage for widespread visibility.

I had the unfair advantage of reading Ashley’s intro before I finished my own, but her question about what different disciplinary lenses can teach us about participatory politics seems especially important for this conversation. I’m looking forward to hearing her perspective, as a rhetorician, on the state of participatory politics, and seeing where and how it intersects with my sociological perspective during the course of the conversation.


Ashley Hinck is Assistant Professor, Communication Department, Xavier University

Liana Gamber-Thompson is Digital Project and Operations Manager at EdSurge. 

Participatory Politics in an Age of Global Crisis: Neta Kligler-Vilenchik and Nicholas John (Part Two)


Nicholas John

In a way we’re talking about similar things but in different ways. We’re both interested in the place of social media in political deliberation, especially in the context of Israel, where we live and work. We’re both interested in the negative trajectory that political talk seems to be following in Israel, as elsewhere. In other words, we have both been looking at social norms for discourse on social media and wondering what the role of social media is in shaping them. There are clearly pre-internet rules of etiquette that determine which topics can be discussed in public; on the other hand, the algorithmic ranking of social media feeds rewards engagement but tends to be agnostic regarding content. You ask, how can we encourage better political discussion? I ask: how limited is our understanding of such efforts? I think that these questions maybe converge when we see that the features of social media that maybe have deleterious impacts on the quality of talk (an emphasis on engagement, virality, spreadability) also determine the limits of our knowledge about social media, which do not give access to data about negative feedback.

Neta Kligler-Vilenchik

I agree we’re both interested in the place of social media in political deliberation, but wouldn’t necessarily sign on on the idea of a ‘negative trajectory’ that political talk is following, nor necessarily that social media have deleterious impacts on quality of talk. It may be a bias in the way I select cases for study (see some of my thoughts on the matter here), but I can find myself encouraged by social media political talk. I’ll give two examples.

One is the case study I mentioned briefly in my opening statement - two large-scale Israeli WhatsApp groups devoted to informal political talk, created by Israeli political blogger Tal Schneider. In this group, a heterogeneous group of Israelis from a variety of ages, including secular, religious and ultra-Orthodox Jews; a wide range of political views from extreme left-wing to extreme right-wing spends their time debating Israeli politics. What amazes me about this group is not only the extent and excitement around political talk (they’re all self-proclaimed political junkies) but the fact that this varied group is able to discuss the most controversial topics in Israeli politics while (usually) maintaining civil discussion.

In a less extreme case, my colleague Ioana Literat and I examined youth political expression around the 2016 election in a range of online affinity networks. We found that youth were using creative practices to express themselves politically around the elections, using it as a way to reclaim agency towards the political process, to offer support towards others in light of the election results, or to reimagine an alternative political realm. Online spaces provided young people with important spaces to exert their political voice and to find their way around the complex political reality.

In these cases, I wouldn’t say social (or digital) media were deleterious to political talk. Perhaps we can tweak our question to, under what conditions can different contexts (including social media) enable constructive political expression and discussion? And, to respond more closely to the important points you raise, to what extent are we able to constructively study and analyze these spaces, given constraints created by social media platforms?


I don’t think I would want to make the argument that social media are bad for political talk. I mean, they might be, but that question is slightly outside what I consider to be my field of expertise. I would certainly not want to argue with your claim that we can find fantastic examples of productive political talk that is computer/smartphone-mediated. After all, you’ve found them and studied them (to our considerable edification). However, these examples could be the exceptions to the rule that proves the rule. They certainly prove that the technologies of social media do not necessarily have to lead to polarization and a breakdown in civility, and there is something optimistic in that. 

But I think that I’m more of a pessimist than you are. Right now I’m writing up findings from interviews with 20 Palestinian citizens of Israel who unfriended Jewish Israelis on Facebook against the background of the Israel-Palestine conflict. These acts are important--certainly for the people who carry them out. Yet they are invisible to researchers for reasons, I argue, that sit in a kind of elective affinity with the commercial objectives of social media platforms. We cannot measure unfriending and we cannot see it by ourselves. We can talk to people about it, but we cannot collect data in ways that we have learnt to do from social network sites. This is because we are studying an absence, and not a presence; a nothing, and not a thing. This is not to take anything away from the fascinating examples of productive political expression that you have identified. It is to say that there are invisible phenomena that we should also study.


Ha, yes, the optimism/pessimism question is one that often crops up around my research (I believe am in good company there with my advisor and mentor Henry Jenkins :) ). In our 2016 book By any Media Necessary, we explain that our perspective to examining youth participation is one of “cautious optimism” (p. 9). Even with the political, social and technological developments that have happened since 2016, I do still stand behind that approach--to me, cautious optimism is important both empirically (in being open to seeing the positive aspects of participation) and ideologically. After all, the questions we’re dealing with here are ones that affect our everyday lives and future, and I insist on maintaining some optimism regarding these aspects! 

That being said, I benefit a lot from having difficult and challenging conversations with great colleagues like you, as well as imaginary conversations vis-a-vis the work of many fantastic scholars, not to mention simple reality, that forces me to grapple with many serious and grave concerns regarding the future of (youth) participation (online). Being more aware of the role of social media platforms in making some data invisible--data that is crucial to our understanding of the phenomena we’re studying--is one such important take-away.  


Nicholas John is a Lecturer at the Department of Communication and Journalism, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research interests include technology and society, the internet, social media, sharing, and unfriending. He is the author of the award-winning book, The Age of Sharing. This book offers an innovative approach to sharing in social media, specifically by linking it to sharing in other social spheres, namely, consumption and intimate interpersonal relations. The book won the Best Book award from the Israel Communication Association, and the Nancy Baym Book Award from the Association of Internet Researchers. Nicholas is also interested in disconnectivity, which he sees as a neglected aspect of digital culture. In particular, he is fascinated by Facebook unfriending, particularly when it is politically motivated. He sees unfriending as a new political and social gesture that we know very little about. His teaching looks at the complex interrelations between technology and society.

Neta Kligler-Vilenchik is Assistant Professor of Communication and Journalism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her work focuses on civic and political engagement in the context of the changing media environment, particularly among young people. Neta has published work in leading communication journals, including the Journal of CommunicationNew Media & SocietyInternational Journal of Communication,Social Media + Society, and Computers in Human Behavior. She is a co-author of the book By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism published by NYU Press in 2016. Neta received her Ph.D. in Communication from the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.

Participatory Politics in the Age of Global Crisis: Neta Kligler-Vilenchik and Nicholas John (Part One)


Neta Kligler-Vilenchik

I want to take the opportunity of this conversation series to think through a thought I've been playing with for a few years now around participatory politics, that has to do with my own research and personal trajectory.

My work on participatory politics started in my PhD program, when I was working with Henry Jenkins and later became part of the Youth & Participatory Politics network (which I'm assuming Sangita Shresthova and Joe Kahne mentioned in their conversation a few days ago). At USC, we were interested in the ways young people found their way to civic engagement through popular culture interests, and the case study I came to work on was 'the fandom case,' which included theHarry Potter Alliance, Imagine Better, and the Nerdfighters- which were all groups that built on young fans' passion towards popular culture content, and mobilized that interest towards engagement in and around social issues (You can read more about that work, much of it co-authored with USC colleagues,here,hereandhere).

One of the things that characterized our work was the basic premise that young people (in the US) as a baseline are not very civically/politically engaged (though of course this varies between civic and political engagement - many young people are active in volunteerism or 'social justice' issues, but shy away from partisan politics that is seen as divisive and dirty), and so we were looking for pathways that got them more interested and involved, and that got them to see the relevance of politics to their everyday lives. The general idea was, more engagement = more social good.

While at USC, I also collaborated with Kjerstin Thorson and Emily Vraga to look at young people's political expression on Facebook, in the context of the 2012 election. We found that the young people we talked to tended to see Facebook mostly as a social space (one to share cute cat photos and stories about your latest vacation), and - based on that perception - were hesitant about expressing political views, that were seen as divisive, on Facebook. They preferred social harmony over political discussion, transferring onto Facebook the idea that "You don't discuss politics or religion." The few people who did post political opinions on Facebook were seen negatively, as 'ranters', who deviated from the (preferred) social norms.

In 2015, I finished my PhD at USC and was very fortunate to join the Department of Communication & Journalism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Besides getting great new colleagues, the move back to Israel confronted me with a different relationship between young people and politics, which made me question some of my working assumptions from the US context. In Israel - as I know well enough as an Israeli - politics is perceived very differently from the generally political avoidant-norms I encountered in my work with US youth. 

(And a word of caution here. Of course it's a gross over-generalization to talk about 'US youth' - or 'Israeli youth' for that matter - as one common entity, but this is a blog conversation, so humor me... I'll deal with justifying these large-scale comparisons when I respond to reviewers ;-) ). 

So in Israel, in general, talking politics is perceived as a valuable and even enjoyable activity, and people do it all the time, at the check-out counter at the supermarket (happened to me just this morning), with colleagues at work, over beer with buddies. And a very similar pattern occurs on Facebook. Working with doctoral student Yifat Mor and my senior colleague If at Maoz, we found that young Israelis held very different norms around talking politics on Facebook: They saw Facebook as an appropriate venue for political talk, enjoyed using it to share their views (and to sound smart). They were, however, aware that they may have diverse audiences, and that in some contexts what they say can be misunderstood or used against them, so they employed impression-management techniques to balance saying what they wanted about politics without offending or annoying those who don't see eye-to-eye with them too much...

So it seems that in Israel the picture around young people and politics was quite different. Young people didn't need to be 'persuaded' or 'pushed' towards politics - they were already quite interested and engaged in politics, had quite clear opinions, and were not very hesitant about expressing them. So what do I do here as a scholar of youth political participation - am I out of work? 

Not really.

The thing is that politics in Israel is also - and increasingly so - characterized by properties that are hardly beneficial for democracy. Over the years that I spent studying in the US (2008-2015), Israeli politics became not only more right-wing oriented, but also less tolerant and civil. People - including politicians, opinion leaders, and everyday people on social media - allow themselves to say malicious things towards other social groups (left-wingers, Arabs, settlers) that wouldn't have been acceptable in the public sphere a few years ago. The peak of that was in 2014 during the Israeli-Gaza conflict - which I'm sure you'll mention, Nik, in relation to your first unfriending study - but the aftershocks of it were still highly visible in 2015 and beyond when I returned to Israel. The two clearest indications of the political malice online is the Berl Katznelson 'hate report,'that monitors hateful and inciting speech towards different social groups online; and the Facebook page of Israeli ex-rapper 'The Shadow,' which includes not only his own racist and inciting content, but comments from regular users (identified on Facebook, with their picture and link to their own profile and everything!) so unseemly it makes you lose faith in humanity. 

So in Israel, it seemed, the problem is not - how do we get young people more engaged in politics, but rather - how do we encourage the kind of political participation and expression that is beneficial towards democracy? That includes listening to the other side, and acknowledging their right to have views I don't agree with, without disrespecting them as human beings and fellow members of a democratic nation.

In the latter installments I'll talk about one group I found in Israel (surprisingly, taking place on WhatsApp!) which somewhat encouraged me that such participation is possible, but first... back to the US.

Enter the elections of 2016, and particularly the immediate post-election context, with the new political reality represented by President Donald Trump. As I first witnessed, and later studied (with my colleague Ioana Literat), some of the reactions of (mostly liberal-leaning youth) around the election of Trump, as well as the reactions of their Trump-supporting peers, I felt I was seeing a picture that resembled much more closely the Israeli political reality. These young people didn't need to be persuaded that politics matters to them or is relevant to their everyday life - this was perfectly clear to them. They had political views and they expressed them very clearly. But again the question was, is all political expression and participation good political expression and participation? Or may we be seeing the rise of youth political expression that is characterized by a disconnect from 'the other side,' that may make it increasingly difficult to talk across ideologies and function together as members of a democracy?

In short, is US politics post-2016 plagued by similar problems as Israeli politics?

If so, perhaps the question shouldn't be how do we get young people more politically involved, but rather - what kind of political involvement is beneficial towards democracy, and where and how can we encourage it?

Nicholas John

In the last couple of years I have been finding myself increasingly interested in questions about the scope and depth of our knowledge about online political participation and civic engagement. The more I look into these questions, the greater my discomfort with the growing gap between the quality and quantity of knowledge held by different stakeholders: social media platforms, politicians and their institutions, the public, and academic researchers. However, it is not simply that the public, for instance, is not interested in knowing about how politicians are using social media to shape debates and opinion; it is that there are mechanisms that prevent the public from attaining such knowledge. It is not the case that academics, for example, are not interested in gathering knowledge about the role of bots in political discourse; it is the case that in many instances they lack access to the data that would enable the production of truly useful knowledge.

I came to this realization back in 2014, during the war between Israel (where I live) and Hamas in Gaza. At some point, the press started reporting on waves of unfriending between Israelis from different sides of the political map. I naively approached Facebook’s research team to ask for data—aggregated, anonymous—about the rate of unfriending among Israeli Facebook users during the weeks of that war. It seemed obvious that Facebook could provide that information. It seemed obvious that such information is of significance to anyone interested in the role of social media in process of polarization. Even looking at it through Facebook’s eyes, if people connecting with one another is politically and socially important—and this is Facebook’s fundamental vision and belief—then people disconnecting from one another is equally important.

Here, though, we find a huge blind spot: not only does Facebook not enable researchers to know about unfriending, it similarly does not enable individual users to know about it either (external developers sometimes produce tools that will notify you if you have been unfriended; Facebook breaks them as soon as it becomes aware of them). Looking into this further, I learnt that the technical means that Facebook makes available to the public for querying its database—it’s Application Programming Interface, or API—is extremely selective regarding the types of information rendered accessible. Specifically, activities defined as negative feedback, such as unfollowing, blocking, removing a Like, or unfriending, are impossible to study using tools provided by social media platforms themselves. Put simply, knowledge about a swathe of forms of digital political expression is unattainable using tools provided by Facebook and others for learning more about connectivity.

Another type of ignorance about the political implications of social media derives from the platforms’ opacity and refusal to answer quite simple questions about data they themselves voluntarily present to the public. A striking example of this is a web page (not a Facebook Page) that Facebook published for a decade, with a hiatus of a couple of years. On this page Facebook claimed to document the number of Facebook friendships formed across the lines of violent and protracted conflicts, such as between Indians and Pakistanis, and Israelis and Palestinians. The message of the page, which sat first at and later at (for those interested in looking it up in the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine), was that Facebook brings people together where national leaders fail to do so. Communication technologies are portrayed as enabling grassroots ties, an argument Facebook applies to itself and, for a decade, substantiated via its “World of Friends” page. 

Given the huge research potential of data about such Facebook friendships, I started paying spzzecial attention to this page, keeping track of the numbers reported daily. It was then that I began to suspect their veracity. For example, the number of friendships formed between Facebook users in Israel and the Palestinian territories was recorded at 200,000 per day. Some cursory googling showed me that Israel has about 4.7m Facebook users, and the West Bank and Gaza Strip around 1.7m. So if Facebook’s numbers are right, every single Palestinian Facebook user makes an Israeli Facebook friend every 8.5 days, and every Israeli Facebook user makes a friend in the Palestinian territories at least once a month. Because I didn’t trust these numbers, I surveyed Israeli Facebook users and learnt that on average they make less than 6 Palestinian friends a year. For these and a number of other reasons I reached the conclusion that these potentially fascinating and hugely useful numbers are unreliable.

Wanting to know what Facebook had to say about this, I wrote to the press office and the research team. At no point did I get any answers (though the page was shut down in February 2019, which is perhaps a kind of answer). There can be no doubt, though, that Facebook could provide answers, both about friending and unfriending, without any impact on their users’ privacy. Imagine how fascinating—and, for researchers, important—it would be to know about patterns of unfriending among Democrats and Republicans in the US during and since the 2016 presidential campaign.

This is not to say that we are in a state of no knowledge, but researchers need to be creative—and in possession of significant research funds—in order to reach the knowledge that the platforms could provide with very little effort. I have commissioned surveys to gauge the extent of politically-motivated unfriending in Israel, as have other in the US, the UK, Hong Kong, Colombia, and elsewhere. A Twitter bot identification project in Israel is reliant on crowdsourced funding and the goodwill of Twitter users to let a researcher analyze following networks. A particularly creative project underway in Israel is inviting Facebook users to take screenshots of political ads they see in their feed, along with the “why you are seeing this” text in order to create a database in a way that does not fall foul of Facebook’s anti-scraping rules.

 We need a clearer view of computer-mediated political activity. Such a view is currently obstructed by social media platforms’ data access policies, or by their refusal to explain data they are voluntarily publishing. Users and researchers lack the power to shift the position of some of the most powerful corporations in the world, and we are all worse off for that.


Nicholas John is a Lecturer at the Department of Communication and Journalism, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research interests include technology and society, the internet, social media, sharing, and unfriending. He is the author of the award-winning book, The Age of Sharing. This book offers an innovative approach to sharing in social media, specifically by linking it to sharing in other social spheres, namely, consumption and intimate interpersonal relations. The book won the Best Book award from the Israel Communication Association, and the Nancy Baym Book Award from the Association of Internet Researchers. Nicholas is also interested in disconnectivity, which he sees as a neglected aspect of digital culture. In particular, he is fascinated by Facebook unfriending, particularly when it is politically motivated. He sees unfriending as a new political and social gesture that we know very little about. His teaching looks at the complex interrelations between technology and society.

Neta Kligler-Vilenchik is Assistant Professor of Communication and Journalism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her work focuses on civic and political engagement in the context of the changing media environment, particularly among young people. Neta has published work in leading communication journals, including the Journal of CommunicationNew Media & SocietyInternational Journal of Communication,Social Media + Society, and Computers in Human Behavior. She is a co-author of the book By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism published by NYU Press in 2016. Neta received her Ph.D. in Communication from the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California.

Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Caty Barum Chattoo and Jeffrey Jones (Part Two)


Caty Borum Chattoo:  

Your experience with the term “civic” matches my own in terms of whether or not young people embrace it semantically. In university classes focused on communication and storytelling for social justice, I position the idea of “civic” as a dominant element. But I do so with the recognition that the term might be new – but also with the motivation that it might also be inspiring. The ideals of “civic” help to capture their imaginations about who they are as human rights actors – as individuals who move through the world not merely (or foremost) as consumers of material things, but as members of publics with fundamental human rights and the ability to affect change through their voices and ability to coalesce around social problems that matter to them.

These are exciting moments in the classroom, actually, when this kind of framing provides language to help position and identify the inner-workings of people-powered change, or perhaps it simply resonates with their natural proclivities, given that their digital identities have already empowered them with the language and tools of creative engagement beyond anything natively understood by older generations. I don’t know, of course, precisely what they get out of it. But I do know that introducing thinkers like Dewey and his concepts of “publics,” and civic and its concept of a shared system of communal values, is the backbone of inspiring students to come with me on a journey to learn how social change happens, and how social change has unfolded historically, powered by the relentless pursuit of justice by individual people who demanded remedy.

At the same time, as you also convey, young people are practicing civic engagement in ways that are breathtakingly new and exciting. I work with and study activists, and this bears out. In the young advocates for gun control or climate or racial justice, we see a full embodiment of their own voices as they leverage the participatory tools of the networked media age without fear or hesitation in their right to be heard. And this is where I think our two essays connect in the grand ideas about contemporary civic practice in service of issues that matter. So much of my research and writing – and indeed, work with change-making organizations – is devoted to lifting up the power of creativity, culture, and real storytelling in social change work. While we certainly need to convey facts and statistics – information – to help publics understand the prevalence or severity of daunting issues, we also certainly know enough from decades of research to understand that those are not the elements that actually engage people and encourage them to participate. Too many well-established civil society organizations still rely on communicating dire facts and information almost exclusively.

And yet, here we are in the beautiful chaos of the digital media era, with all of its possibilities for creating narratives and capturing attention through creativity and culture. This is where I come back to your idea of young people and voice, and my work about culture and creativity in social justice work: Young activists do not need to “learn” these ideas, even if the semantics around “civic” might be fresh to them. This is their native practice, engaging through social media and telling and sharing stories. Indeed, the young activist I write about in my opening reflection, 26-year-old Amanda Nguyen, didn’t think twice about leveraging the cultural, civic practice power of comedy – of all things – in a movement designed to change legislation around sexual assault, one of the most harrowing issues to address. She, and the young activists you mention, exemplify the cadre of social justice leaders Henry Jenkins and his colleagues write about – they do their work “by any media necessary.” So, this is a totally new interplay we will continue to follow as young people shift the reality of what civic practice looks like, along with the creative and storytelling machinations they employ to spark it in the first place. It’s all very hopeful to me, ripe for discovery and research and new ideas.

And yet, while my optimism is real, I come back to a question I pose to myself as much as anyone: Our civic fabric is deeply damaged by polarized ideas and the way we even dehumanize one another in our dialogue about public issues, so how will we build and repair from this moment? A new Pew study finds that Americans find it increasingly stressful to even talk about issues with people with whom we’re pretty sure we disagree. I come back to the idea of culture and creativity and storytelling every time, though, inspired by the idea that new generations of young people who want to pursue social change will embrace this idea organically, without needing to be convinced. But how will we come together in these endeavors if our divides continue? How will communal values – “civic” – be established as we shape a new way of being after this political moment has ebbed? Or maybe it won’t ebb, and this is the new normal. How do we build civic practice and shared concepts of social good in such a world?

Jeffrey Jones:

Well, you have truly asked “the question” of our day, one which we will be wrestling with and trying to answer for many years to come. Before I attempt an answer, though, let me reiterate your point about young people and their natural proclivity to “act” through social media, to use the tools that come naturally to them for communication, expression, and mobilization--for what us observers call civic practice. 

What’s important here is that the tools we use really matter. Digital and social media have the structural advantages of widespread dissemination, feedback/participation, amplification, dialog, rebuttal, contestation, etc. built into them. That is, digital-social media embody the dialogic components that Dewey (writing in the 1920s) and Carey (the 1980s) found missing in the mass communications of the 20th Century, structured as they were toward the top down, with controlled access, limited distribution, no feedback loops or avenues for participation, awash in spectacle and distraction. The downside, as we have seen, is a robust propensity toward troll culture, where racism, misogyny, anti-semitism, violence, and so forth are just finger clicks away from dominating the tenor and tone of all public conversations (as the saying goes, “don’t read the comments”). The upside, though, is that those who have typically not been given a voice in public spaces or who have been relegated to the margins--young people, immigrants, the marginalized--can and now do have a voice, one that can speak, rally, mobilize, etc. No invitation is necessary, no permission is needed, no training is required. And thus, we are seeing young people, people of color, women of the #MeToo era, sharing their voice and making it public. And as you say, once that has happened, all manner of creative civic practice can and has emerged. 

Another thing you say is vitally important, which is that such empowerment can lead young people to think of their identities in new ways. And the way that is most exciting to me is their identity as “citizens.” By having voice, we see our citizenship differently. Too often in the past citizenship was seen as a “duty” or an “obligation” (indeed, Boy Scouts--one of the strongest civic organizations in training young people--still employ these words when encouraging citizenship). Or citizenship was connected to the sine qua non of civic practice, voting occasionally. Now in this creative digisphere, citizenship is or can be about telling our stories.  And when we tell stories, most often the best stories are personal stories, ones that are derived from personal and local experiences. As former House Speaker Tip O'Neill famously put it, “all politics is local.”

So what we see is not just organizations mobilizing for criminal justice reform, but people posting videos of police violence and intimidation of black kids for just being black. We don’t just see organizations trying to counter the NRA with rational gun laws, but also David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez talking about the horrific mass murder of their Parkland High School friends. We don’t just see climate change deniers given equal time on cable news networks to sow doubt and confusion, but also 15-year old Greta Thunberg publicly shaming older generations of politicians at a UN Climate Change conference because it is the younger generation that will bear the costs of their cowardice. In each instance, young people found their voice and identity as citizens to speak for change because it was personal, and local. And we know these young people’s names not because it is so unusual to hear young people speak publicly (though it is), but because their testimonies were powerful, precisely because they were personal. 

But let me now attempt a feeble answer to your difficult question about how to restore the civic fabric and bridge partisan and ideological divides. The concept of bridging that divide is a popular one on the political left and middle (I’m not sure those on the right feel similarly), and indeed, is grounded in liberal democratic thinking that through dialog and deliberation we can arrive at commonality and the common good. Certainly Dewey and Carey felt that way, as we have discussed, but they never imagined an America where its democratic norms, traditions, and civic culture would be so thoroughly and rapidly challenged (if not upended). 

First, many of the things we believed in, that many of us took for granted as beliefs that transcended both major political parties--the rule of law, the separation of powers, the separation of church and state, fair elections, unbiased courts, anti-corruption of government officials, the value of a free press and watchdog journalism--are actively being challenged by an authoritarian leader, a cowardly GOP, and an electoral base that seems completely fine with it all. 

Second, it is important to note that there are groups who have helped create this divide and who benefit greatly from having it being a divide (and an angry one at that). This includes right-wing media, evangelicals, the NRA, oil companies, even the GOP more broadly. Often emanating from these groups are ready-made talking points that citizens have taken up and use. Perhaps more insidious, though, is that they have formulated ways of thinking, an epistemology that stands in stark contrast to liberal democratic thought. This includes a rejection of evidence, a rejection of standard terms of debate, the contestation of “truth” and how it is arrived at. So when Carey suggests that it is shared beliefs that maintain society, it would seem incumbent that our communications try to tap into these shared beliefs as starting points for agreement. But how we go about bridging a divide when there are such enormous ruptures in shared beliefs and agreed upon ways of thinking is going to be tremendously difficult. 

What is also pernicious is that while we have these new means for engaging in communication that could enrich the local community (“social media”), our civic culture is so infected with the older forms of mass communication that have, as Carey put it (quoting Camus), “replaced dialogue and personal relations with propaganda and polemic.” Watch most discussions of politics on Facebook and you will see how clearly we mirror the talking heads on cable news. We want to win points, not find common agreement. People typically blame the platform (Facebook) while the problem is really a toxic civic culture. We see no commonality because we don’t see political talk as a road toward that end. 

In sum, I don’t know how to bridge the divide and restore the civic fabric. I think history has shown that there are, at times, bad actors in public life who simply must be defeated, not negotiated with. While sometimes that involves violence, we are still at a place in America where those defeats can happen in the courts and at the ballot box. And perhaps those defeats will be lead by young people and young female legislators (like AOC) who know how to deftly employ digital media to craft a new and fresh conversation that will encourage broader participation and engagement. 

Which begs my question back to you:  if digital media invites broader participation and storytelling from an array of fresh voices (like the young people and marginalized we’ve mentioned here), what types of stories (or how they are told) can unleash the civic imagination? How does storytelling utilize creativity and culture for social justice ends, for offering fresh avenues into intransigent issues such as rape culture, gun culture, racism, or science denial? Can such storytelling offer a way out of this toxic civic culture I have described?

Caty Borum Chattoo:  

I deeply appreciate this question about mediated storytelling and the contribution to shaping and repairing civic fabric – that is, the tapestry of human experiences and individuals and heroes and villains and values that tell us who and what we are as a society, and an aspirational set of ideals that brings us back to what we care about. At this juncture, divisive hatred surely is not what we want, but anger permeates so much of this moment. It’s awfully hard to move forward solely from the vantage point or motivation of anger, even to right grievous wrongs. I center this question in service of social justice – what kinds of stories, told by which storytellers, and to what end, to build the kind of compassion and connectedness that brings a culture together? Mine is hopelessly idealistic framing, I know, but to quotethe environmentalist Paul Hawken, “The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer. Hope only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful.”

There are, of course, different forms of mediated storytelling created and marshalled for social justice purposes – that is, the process and pursuit of fairness and equity for all people. There is a place for anger as a motivating source of energy, to be sure, but I’d like to focus this response on the place of empathy and human connection and optimism and hope.

Given the participatory tools of the networked era, social justice organizations and individuals are creating their own stories for dissemination across a variety of digital platforms. I’d like to suggest here that one of the great challenges is resisting a knee-jerk tendency to simply echo back the ideological polarization that is packaged up and sold to us by cable news outlets – that is, commercial enterprises that have benefited greatly from this culture of discord – or by the political machines in Congress, who likewise stir up vocal supporters through extreme rhetoric. We have to be smarter and more courageous.

Here’s an example of what I mean: From well-establishedresearch, we know, for example, that climate change is now well-understood by a vast majority of Americans as a real, human-caused phenomenon that requires intervention. The idea of “climate deniers” is fringe, believed by a fringe contingent, but used for political gamesmanship. And yet, we still see well-meaning campaigns promoting stories and narratives about climate change deniers as a public engagement strategy. Not only does this not reflect the reality of real public opinion in this country – but instead, the red-meat potential of “deniers vs. science” as drama carried out by pundits – but other research shows we damage the ability to have meaningful conversations with a wide swath of people when we employ this kind of divisive messaging.

So, what I’m suggesting here is that the kind of mediated stories that will help repair our damaged civic fabric, and indeed, shape a new one for a different future, will not be focused on polarized and divisive policy arguments, but will instead spotlight the lived experiences of people – deep, intimate, vulnerable, hopeful. Documentaries about social issues do this well, and if we’re talking about tactical outcomes here,my own researchhas found that elected officials on both sides of the dominant political aisle can come together when they witness human lived experiences behind hot-button issues. The path to enlightenment and compassion through storytelling comes from an emotional connection to stories and characters, not through the strength of a policy argument or the degree to which the tenor of anger matches our own.Social justice stories that employ comedyare important, as well, because of the motivating emotions of hope and optimism injected into seemingly intractable, impossible social problems, as well as comedy’s ability to entertain us.

Storytelling is, of course, dominantly reflected in the entertainment marketplace, and we know that the streaming era has competitively pushed open entirely new arenas for innovation to voices who have been traditionally marginalized and underrepresented – people of color, women, ethnic minorities. (To be sure, a great deal of work remains ahead in the business of equitable representation in the business of Hollywood, but there is great reason for hopeful forward momentum.) What’s particularly meaningful about this trajectory is the extent to which this digital generation of diverse storytellers – like Issa Rae, Hasan Minhaj, and many others – is entertaining us by embodying their full life experiences, asserting full cultural citizenship. This benefits us all in service of long-term social justice. These are the kinds of stories to create, lift up, study, and honor.   

I’ll end with another quote from Paul Hawken’s terribly inspiring missive, as it so accurately describes the kind of courage we will need as we move forward: “Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done…Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may befall us; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine, and reconsider.”

Jeffrey Jones:

It is interesting that you end with a quote using seven words with the prefix “re,” meaning “again” or “back.” There is an aspect in our discussion of looking forwards (form, build, imagine, consider), but also backwards at the same time, at what we have lost or should try to be again as a nation--for me, the dialogics of community exchange inherent in civic practice, for you the hope and optimism of an America not consumed by this fire of anger and hatred. 

My discussion of civics (even Carey and Dewey) suggests that we should look backwards or should re-engage with ideals of community that allow for participation and an inclusive politics of practice, but done for the 21st Century.  Indeed, I am sure many readers thought of high school in the 1940s and 50s when they read the word “civics,” the mandatory class in which we learned about government, but also the constitution.  As Frank Zappa noted, when civics classes were replaced with social studies in the 1960s and 70s, we stopped the intense study of the constitution. Here too we have lost something: “If you don’t know what your rights are,” Zappa contends, “how can you stand up for them? And furthermore, if you don’t know what’s in the document, how can you care if someone is shredding it? 

I think we both agree that the current moment can be served better by moving beyond a citizenship dominated by divisive 24-hour news programs and into civic spaces of robust and inclusive storytelling that offer the imaginations and lived experiences of people who have far too seldom been included in the construction of our democratic social order.  One of the privileges of doing the work I do--Directing the Peabody Awards--is we get to see and recognize (perhaps even culturally validate) so many of these storytellers, including two you just mentioned, Issa Rae and Hasan Minhaj. 

The Peabody Awards are an exercise in recognizing civic storytelling at is best. From 1200 yearly submissions, we choose 30 winners and 30 nominees from across news and documentary and entertainment programming in TV and radio and the web--”stories that matter,” as we call them. All are, as you say, vehicles for the emotional connection that comes from stories of the human lived experience. They are simultaneously powerful and moving and invigorating, and at times, downright depressing (as human avarice, deception, corruption, violence, hatred, and so forth typically are). Yet in the end, such civic storytelling is somehow hopeful, precisely because media makers are using narrative to move us to see, recognize, and understand these issues, doing so with tremendous depth and clarity of vision. 

Ultimately, these are stories that appeal to us as citizens of a community (local, national, and global), and within that appeal is the belief that we as a community can, given sufficient willpower, address them. What three bigger issues can one imagine than global ecological disaster through climate change, racism, and guns treated as false idols (protected by America’s sacred text)? Yet as I argued above, I think these new youthful voices we are seeing and hearing are hopeful ones. They are civicly engaged, using stories that have the power to prompt further engagement, perhaps in the process restoring our civic fabric.  And in that, you and I share a degree of civic hope and optimism for restorative justice and change through the product of our civic imaginations. 


Caty Borum Chattoo is Director of the Center for Media & Social Impact, based at American University's School of Communication in Washington, D.C. Her documentaries have aired on TV outlets in the United States and internationally, and she is the author of two forthcoming books about the role of creativity and storytelling in social change (comedy and documentary, respectively). 

Jeffrey Jones is Executive Director of the Peabody Awards and Director of the Peabody Media Center at the University of Georgia. He is the author and editor of six books, most of which deal with citizenship as relates to popular media and culture.


Participatory Politics in the Age of Crisis: Caty Borum Chattoo and Jeffrey Jones (Part One)

‘On Shaping New Civic Fabric: Reflections on the Role of Creativity & Culture in Social Justice’

Caty Borum Chattoo (Director for the Center for Media & Social Impact, American University School of Communication)

“What is the problem you’re trying to solve?”

A colleague posed this question in my office a few weeks ago. We were discussing a particular scenario, but I’ve let the query reverberate internally, evolving into a kind of compass to guide a pile of prospective projects. It’s a decent existential place from which to contemplate civic practice and my perspective about the questions that remain and the challenges that lie ahead.

Across different industries, I’ve spent my entire career in service of social justice through the means of media, storytelling, and communication. But only now can I see a deeper understanding of how it all fits together, and more importantly, how it can fuel new curiosities and contributions. A quick glimpse into the journey: As a public health and media researcher out of graduate school, I worked on a philanthropic team that collaborated with entertainment producers and writers to incorporate pro-social HIV messages into top TV programs, and then evaluated how audiences learn and feel and even behave differently after watching. In my work on a national youth civic engagement initiative founded by the legendary Norman Lear, our route to encouraging voter registration and behavior was enabled by entertainment and comedy. I produced (and still produce) social-justice documentaries designed to engage audiences around issues ranging from human rights abuses to environmental justice to global poverty. I was a senior executive at a global communications agency, where I focused on social marketing and behavior-change communication, a research-based strategy that centers around audience targeting and precise messages to encourage healthy behaviors and prosocial norms.

I believe in all of this work, but aspects of it made me feel impatient – or rather, recognition of the fact that the various approaches often work in silos. We were not nearly stretching past the safety of templates and industry traditions and models of doing business. We – people in service of research and strategy around social justice and the role of media – were not sufficiently coloring outside the lines and experimenting. Research-derived messages alone often are too clinical to compel people to care about human rights and social justice challenges. The entrenched organizational and cultural norms of each area of work – scholarly and market research, communication strategy, storytelling – often prevent the kind of cross-pollination that leads to innovation.  

Feeling impatient – and curious – sparked the career revelation and manifesto for my current research, creative, and convening efforts at the innovation lab and research center I now direct: Positive social change is a long game that ebbs and flows, not easily reduced to behavior change or message targeting; the role of creativity and culture is and must be the centerpiece of efforts to expand social justice in the evolving information age. A favorite quote from the author Tom Robbins captures my perspective: “Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced, not because it has been sober, responsible, and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious, and immature.”

Enter the networked era – and the awakening of new creativity and activists who have exploited the possibilities of participatory media and pushed past the gatekeepers of the analog media age. Despite the constraints of digital platform dominance – which are considerable, like surveillance and corporate power over the information ecology – social justice activism is enjoying a resurgence of creativity. Activists, particularly new ones, are embracing culture as a mechanism to reflect and increase equity. Traditionally marginalized groups are capturing attention and telling their own stories, not trying to assimilate into versions of themselves deemed acceptable to pre-set power dynamics. It all matters in the remaking of our national and global civic fabric – which I envision as a rich tapestry of human stories and values and heroes and villains and norms that comprise the meaning of “civic” in Henry Jenkins’ articulation of it, as “a shared set of norms and values to which we return.”[1] From my perspective, the effort to build a strong, sustained, diverse, optimistic civic fabric is the one of the most important contributions to long-term social progress. It shapes the values and beliefs that underlie policy and norms alike. Believing and acting on this idea requires that the various “industries” of communication and social justice (foundations, researchers, strategists, storytellers) coalesce and actively collaborate with one another. Shaping civic fabric for the long game compels us to not feel content solely with one short-term effort at a time – to want more than only one measurable metric of influence. This way of thinking insists that civic imagination – envisioning the world we want to create, not only its problems – is a vital ingredient of every effort for change. It requires that storytelling and creativity play starring roles, and that we understand that these ideas are not synonymous with targeted key messages or predictably tidy tactics or a mere constellation of facts we transmit to people. It’s a lens that welcomes hope and optimism into dire social problems that can seem too impossible to tackle, and it encourages empathy and human connection, often more powerful forces than statistics when it comes to shifting perspectives.  


And so, this is one problem I’ve been striving to solve: How can social justice organizations and efforts more readily understand and embrace the profound function of creativity and culture in social change? What research and insights are necessary to help contribute to this work? What does it look like when creativity helps to fuel civic practice?

What it looks like, gleaned from creative projects and book research (in comedy and social-justice documentary storytelling, respectively) over the past several years, is inspiring: A young activist, Amanda Nguyen, passes unprecedented new sexual assault survivor laws partially enabled by engaging the public through comedy. Caring Across Generations works with The Second City, the legendary comedy group, to help empower a marginalized caregiving workforce to tell their stories, training them through improv. Independent documentaries create counter-narratives or break new stories or mobilize publics in ways that expand justice on a range of topics, from domestic violence to sex trafficking to environmental contamination. In the entertainment marketplace, comedy truth-tellers like Hasan Minhaj and Francesca Ramsey are talking about racism and student loan debt – they are connecting with young audiences who absorb the realities of the world around them partially through their generation’s digital-native creativity, in a media ecology where the boundaries between news and entertainment are hopelessly blurred.




And yet, the paradox: We are re-shaping our civic fabric to more readily embrace ideas and people who haven’t traditionally enjoyed full cultural access and cultural citizenship, re-fashioning a way of co-existing with one another as the digital media era has opened the playing field, at least partially. But we’re also engaged in this work while partisan divides expand and trust in news declines. Authoritarian messages tell us that access to information is an enemy of the people. Creativity and free expression are increasingly challenged. The ties that bind us together as publics, not just individual consumers of products – the notion of the “civic” as a shared set of communal ideals – feel weak.

While we embrace the renaissance of creativity, culture, and media power rendered a bit more possible in the evolution of the transforming digital age, we have to face the herculean task: Repairing and re-shaping our torn civic fabric from the damage of a Trump-era attack on news and even creative industries, alongside a culture of violence and hatred, is a generation of work that lies ahead. But fundamentally, it requires that we agree on the very idea that “civic” – that is, the values of public good and equity – is something to strive for, to pass on to a new generation, and that being civically engaged for the sake of community well-being is a shared value in itself. It feels like we are just beginning. Generating the questions and creative ideas and research projects that get us there: Those are the problems I’m trying to solve.  

‘Is “Civic” a Meaningful Word to Young People? No, but they may be an inspiration for rescuing its meaning’

Jeffrey Jones (Director, Peabody Media Center and George Foster Peabody Awards, University of Georgia)

The term “Civic Engagement” was popularized in the 1990s in political science to address what was often seen as a deficit thereof in the American polity. More recently, the employment of the word “civic” has found new uses, including phrases such as “Civic Imagination” (Henry Jenkins), “Civic Hope” (Rod Hart), and “Civic Fabric” (Caty Borum Chattoo). Even the MacArthur Foundation has a large grant project called “Civic Storytelling.” 

We talk about “civic” as if the term is widely understood and utilized. But what if it isn’t? In particular, what if young people—the citizens we are increasingly looking to for help and leadership in mobilizing against gun violence, police violence against minorities, and climate change—don’t know or use the word? This is the question that Andrew Slack, founder of the Harry Potter Alliance, posited in a Facebook post earlier this year. 

When talking about public life in one of my classes recently, I used the word, but then paused to test Andrew’s question. “Civic. How many of you know what that means?,” I asked. A smattering of hands raised, which was then followed by several weak attempts to define it. To cut to the chase, not many of these 18-21-year old students could define the word, and they certainly weren’t using it when conceiving of public life or their role as citizens within it. 

Thus, to follow Andrew’s line of questioning, if young people don’t know or use the word, is it worth rescuing from the Ivory Tower? Do we need to popularize the term, or find a new one? Does the word simply mean “politics?” In short, what is its continued value as an active word of choice by those seeking to address public life?

“Politics,” of course, is and has long been a dirty word, or at least a pejorative one. Politicians has been ridiculed in literature and poetry for millennia, while the modern-day Republican Party has spent the last forty years railing against it. In contrast, the word “civic” not only escapes these burdens but often carries a hopeful invocation in its usage—civic virtue, civic responsibility, civic participation, civic culture. The contemporary uses noted above—imagination, hope, fabric—follow in this same vein, suggesting a belief that there is some form of redemption or pro-social outcome inherent in the word.

I won’t attempt a definition of the word here but will simply point to some of its more common meanings and associations. Cities are best at locating the word in the physical world—civic centers and civic auditoriums are two examples. The word’s cousin, Civil, is used in invoking civil society, or institutions and associations that buttress public life. These include churches, volunteer organizations, youth leagues and activities (sports, band, scouting), libraries, councils and commissions, and so forth.  These are all institutions built by communal labor, entities typically dominated by volunteers more than paid labor. Even the word itself rarely sits alone; it is coupled with some other word to share meaning (unlike “politics”).

At the heart of all of these is community, the connections with others through which we share something in common, often best achieved as a group.  At the local level (as resident in the uses of civic and civil society noted above), such sharing and commonalities is fairly obvious (faith, family, geography, infrastructure). At the national level, though, such sharing seems less of a given. We share ideologies, political parties, and perhaps even positions on issues (taxation, regulation, welfare policies), but the bonds of communal connection are more ephemeral, perhaps best rendered in nationalized symbols, myths, and traditions than in common public self-determination.

Seeing the word civic as intimately related to community brings to mind Jim Carey’s discussion of the ritual view of communication (Communication as Culture), and the root of the word shared with others such as “communion,” “commonness,” and “communication.” A ritual view of communication is linked to “sharing,” “participation,” “association,” and “fellowship.” For Carey, society benefits most from communication systems dedicated less to control (of people) and more toward the representation of shared beliefs that maintain society.

Carey invokes John Dewey in his concern that the public has become spectators of public life rather than participants in its making. The public is asked to ratify a political world that is already represented (by news media, experts, officials, political consultants), not to be active in its construction. For Carey, our institutions of public life, especially our communication networks, have failed the public. Not only has community life atrophied, but the basic skills necessary to be engaged and self-constituting publics have withered as well. “We lack not only an effective press but certain vital habits: the ability to follow an argument, grasp the point of view of another, expand the boundaries of understanding, debate the alternative purposes that might be pursued.” 

What seems vital in this discussion is that public life via “politics” and mass communication has been rendered a spectator sport. What Carey and Dewey are asserting, instead, is that an informed and engaged public must, by necessity, be a self-constituting one, brought together through our communicative acts and institutions that facilitate it. As Carey argues, “what we lack is the vital means through which this conversation can be carried on: institutions of public life through which a public can be formed and can form an opinion.”

What is at stake, I argue, is that public life must be grounded in similar feelings of commonality and community, of connectedness, and of the ability to have these expressions manifest in communicative action. In short, the feelings and forces that constitute “civic” at the local level should be at play in constituting national public life as well. “Politics” is controlled by forces beyond our reach. “Civic” life, however, invests the community as constituents in its making.   

But rather than just proffer theories, I believe the contemporary landscape offers rays of hope for civic practice and public revitalization. In particular, what we are seeing through three specific mobilizations around issues--Gun Control (Parkland students, March for Our Lives), Climate Change (Greta Thunberg, school strike for climate), and racial injustice (Black Lives Matter)—at the intersection of youth and digital/social media is the emergence of a national and global politics much more strongly tied to ethos of local civic practice than old school politics. 

In each instance, the local is strongly impacted and has been part of the reason behind the mobilizations. News presents the visual evidence, but then through social media, young activists naturally turn to the channels through which they conduct their lives to make their case that previous generations, who seem to take the issues of racism, guns, and a warming planet as problems too big to tackle, are implicated (and condemnable) for their intransigence. Of course, these are big national and global political issues that will be dealt with (or not) through traditional political institutions. Yet there is a degree of witnessing, or a testimonial quality to these media engagements. Their invocation is to a commonality of experience, their appeal is through sharing. The personal is political, for sure, but also local.

In sum, this moment where youth + tragedy + digital/social media engagements = political activism has emerged in ways that suggest, at least to me, there is a particularly affecting communal quality here that is more than simply the politics of old. Rather, what I am seeing invokes a new brand of civics--one where the local experience is emblematic of the broader challenges we as a nation and global polity face (somewhat like Stonewall), one where an array of creative cultural expressions will be employed, where new forms of civic imagination (see Jenkins et al., By Any Media Necessary) will be deployed to mobilize and activate a polity that has been asleep for far too long.  There may not be a singular “New Hope” on the horizon, but I think the early evidence suggests that our most recent steps backwards in our national politics has, paradoxically, awakened a civic hope that is just now beginning to take shape.


Caty Borum Chattoo is Director of the Center for Media & Social Impact, based at American University's School of Communication in Washington, D.C. Her documentaries have aired on TV outlets in the United States and internationally, and she is the author of two forthcoming books about the role of creativity and storytelling in social change (comedy and documentary, respectively). 

Jeffrey Jones is Executive Director of the Peabody Awards and Director of the Peabody Media Center at the University of Georgia. He is the author and editor of six books, most of which deal with citizenship as relates to popular media and culture.