“Decreasing World Suck”: Fan Communities, Mechanisms of Translation, and Participatory Politics

Hi, guys. I have been taking some much needed down time this summer, putting the blog on hiatus, focusing on other writing projects, and putting in motion plans for new content in the fall. As a result, I am only posting when I have some major news to share.

Today, I am releasing a report from the Media, Activism, and Participatory Politics research group in the USC Annenberg School of Communications and Journalism. We are part of the larger Youth and Participatory Politics Network, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, and led by Joseph Kahne (Mills College). Our team is doing interviews with young activists, as well as field observations and media audits, to better understand the practices that have enabled successful networks and organizations to draw youth into greater political and civic participation. Our previous reports have included case studies of the DREAMer movement and Students for Liberty; a report on civic learning within the Harry Potter Alliance and Invisible Children; and a special issue of Transformative Works and Cultures focused on the concept of fan activism.

This week, we are releasing “‘Decreasing World Suck’: Fan Communities, Mechanisms of Translation, and Participatory Politics,” which shares insights about the Harry Potter Alliance, Imagine Better, and the Nerdfighters. The report is written by Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, an Annenberg PhD Candidate, who is doing her dissertation research on this topic.

We’ve written here about the Harry Potter Alliance before, so let me share a little of what she has to say about the Nerdfighters:

The Nerdfighters are an informal group, revolving around the YouTube channel of the “VlogBrothers,” two brothers in their thirties. John Green is a best-selling young adult author and Hank Green is a musician and entrepreneur, though both now engage in a wide variety of online projects. Inspired by video artist Ze Frank, the Green brothers launched the “Brotherhood 2.0” project in 2007, in which they pledged to cease all text-based communication for a year and keep in touch through publicly accessible vlogs (video blogs). In their vlogs, the brothers adopt the “talking head” format, facing the camera and chatting with the audience (and each other). Over time, they developed an elaborate repertoire of made-up jargon and inside jokes, which encouraged others to join their exchange. In 2007, YouTube featured Hank’s song “Accio Deathly Hallows” (calling for the release of the seventh Harry Potter book) on its front page, greatly increasing their visibility. The main focus for this case study is the community of Nerdfighters—the predominantly young followers of the VlogBrothers.

The name “Nerdfighter” emerged from one of the Greens’ vlogs; John encountered an
arcade game called “Aero Fighters” and mistook its name for “Nerdfighters.”. The brothers’ followers adopted the term to describe themselves, and the VlogBrothers address many of their vlogs to Nerdfighters or “Nerdfighteria.” The Greens define a Nerdfighter as “a person who, instead of being made of bones, skin and tissue, is made entirely of awesome.” Over time, the Nerdfighter community reached significant proportions—the average Vlogbrother video has over 250,000 views.  The “barriers of entry” to Nerdfighteria are kept low. As the VlogBrothers quip: “Am I too young / old / fat / skinny / weird / cool / nerdy / handsome / tall / dead to be a Nerdfighter? No!! If you want to be a Nerdfighter, you are a Nerdfighter.”

Based on their sense of agency and their real-world engagement, Nerdfighters go beyond being a mere “audience” to the VlogBrothers, and can instead be conceptualized as a “public.”

The pronounced goal of Nerdfighters is to “decrease world suck.” When interviewed, John Green explained that, to him, this goal is:

Very much at the center of Nerdfighteria and I don’t think that there really is a community without that commitment to decreasing world suck or, as Hank likes to say, “increasing world awesome”. I don’t think there’s a community without its values.

As the VlogBrothers enigmatically define it, “World Suck is kind of exactly what World Suck sounds like. It’s hard to quantify exactly, but, you know, it’s like, the amount of suck in the world.” This broad definition leaves much space for individual Nerdfighters to interpret what “World Suck” (and decreasing it) means to them. Examples cited in interviews have ranged from personal acts, such as being a good person or cheering up a friend, to collective acts that fit within existing definitions of civic engagement. For example, Nerdfighters are very active on Kiva.org, a non-profit organization enabling individuals to make small loans to people without access to traditional banking systems.Kiva.org features communities of lenders, and Nerdfighters are the largest community on the website with 34,773 members, topping “atheists, agnostics and skeptics” (23,795 members) as well as Kiva Christians (10,652 members). For several months, Nerdfighters ranked highly in the amount loaned, with a total of $1,771,025 disbursed. The Nerdfighters also support Project for Awesome (P4A), an annual event in which members are encouraged to create videos about their favorite charity and non-profit organization and simultaneously post those on YouTube. The first year the project was launched, its goal was to take over YouTube’s front page with videos of charities and non-profits for one day. In the 2012 P4A, Nerdfighters uploaded hundreds of videos and donated impressive amounts of money to the “Foundation to Decrease World Suck” (a non-profit created by the VlogBrothers). Nerdfighters could then vote on which charities should receive the donation. Finally, Nerdfighters decrease World Suck by collaborating with the Harry Potter Alliance.


In particular, Kligler-Vilenchik is interested in what she describes as “mechanisms of translation” where-by these groups tap into the passions and social ties that bring these networks of fans together and providing means by which they can be connected to debates around social change and public policy. In the course of the report, Kligler-Vilenchik explores the strategies by which these groups deploy elements of their content worlds as analogies for thinking about political issues; the ways they encourage their supporters to actively produce and circulate media content, sometimes in the service of their larger campaigns; and the ways that they provide a social environment that encourages people to reflect on politics and which provide varying degrees of support for diverse perspectives. These kinds of fan groups are only one model of the ways that participatory culture might build the scaffolding needed to help young people enter into their new roles as politically-engaged citizens, and we are eager to see other case studies identify a range of other mechanisms that fulfill these bridging functions.

You can read the full report below.