Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Yomna Elsayed & Katie Davis (Part I)

Yomna Elsayed

It’s 2019, eight years following the events that changed the course of my life and that of many Egyptians. To international spectators, the Arab Spring uprising may have been this passing phenomenon that fascinated the world for a span of 18 days (in the case of Egypt). Nevertheless, eyes were soon drawn to other spectacles, such as those of the Occupy movements in the US and around the world. But the memory of the Arab Spring never left many Egyptians, particularly the 80s and 90s generations who have witnessed and possibly participated in the protests. Since then, public forms of dissent have been progressively outlawed, in an attempt to possibly close all the system’s loopholes that may have contributed to their eruption in the first place. But, to someone who has witnessed the before and after of the uprisings, a dismissal of the uprisings as an anachronistic anomaly, and rebranding them as the Arab winter or Fall were simply not convincing enough.

To my mind, the energy fueling the Arab Spring must have transformed, but never dissipated. So, in my book manuscript, Cultural Agency in post-Arab Spring Egypt: Afterlife of a movement, I set out to trace the Arab Spring agency through the narrow lanes of the Egyptian cultural scene of online youth post-Arab Spring. I followed Egyptian youth as they experimented with humor on YouTube, channeled their anger through RAP, and developed new languages, and identities through the participatory practices of satirical memes and remixes. By looking at the politically ambiguous online spaces of arts and humor, I could discern a vibrant cultural movement in the making.

Since 2011, there has been an explosion in the number of Facebook pages dedicated to satirical memes and remix videos. The topics of these memes and videos ranged from sports, global and local popular culture, to social and political commentary. The pages though different in their scope or niche, all used satire and popular culture to pass social or political critique of youth’ lived realities. The common frames of reference, the shared language, and the participatory practices on these pages were all pointing to a form of fandom, yet one, not clustered around the love of a text, but rather the rejection of many of what this generation grew up watching. Unlike fans who cluster around a text of interest, members of these pages gathered around the ridicule of state-produced childhood texts, which made them more anti-fans than fans, where anti-fandom is the “active or vocal dislike or hate of a given text, personality, or genre”[1].

With persistent state surveillance, youth often chose to direct their anti-fandom at the low hanging fruit of a failed system that promotes mediocrity and is threatened by mobilizing art. Hence, previously revered childhood texts became an arena for struggle between a generation that saw a rekindling of hope with the Arab Spring, and another that viewed the protests as a threat to their well-established views on politics and society. Previously revered religious figures such as Amr Khaled, and the once admired stage and TV actor Mohammed Sobhy, have over time become targets of ridicule. The optimistic upbeat tone of Amr Khaled, which was refreshing at a time of political and social stagnancy before the uprisings, sounded ludicrous and out of touch post Arab Spring, and under the draconian political situation brought about by military rule. This discrepancy in particular, has turned many of his fans into anti-fans that not only share a distaste for him, but also use his widely circulated videos as material for their own remixes and parodies.

Mohammed Sobhy, as well, once assumed to be anti-establishment, has repeatedly bashed at the “revolutionary youth” following the uprisings, describing them as anarchists and referring to Egypt’s crisis as one of morality. His superficial overemphasis on morality lead to a social media trend, whereby participants in sarcastic pages, spent days creating and sharing memes about Sobhy and his self-righteous rhetoric. One of the memes read, “Do you take morality in the vein or muscle?”, and another, “Mmmm… custard with Morality”. Such memes alluded to his injection of morality-based arguments in every talk show or statement and youth’ rejection of his moralism.

Figure 1: Mohammed Sobhy depicted as a Morality Police in a sarcastic meme

Figure 1: Mohammed Sobhy depicted as a Morality Police in a sarcastic meme

Jokes around widely-known figures such as Sobhy, were quite generative as they built on common knowledge and experiences among the Arab Spring generation who have consumed the same cultural products growing up. Before Satellite TV and the Internet were prevalent, the 80s and 90s generations in particular, had a limited but homogenous set of entertainment options to choose from. State-produced/sanctioned TV shows, movies and plays were the least common denominator among them. Hence, once a joke resonated with followers, they would start to add upon it and modify it, until it became a trend, a participatory practice they playfully referred to as “Tahfeel (or Partying)”. 

Figure 2: TV Promo of "Diary of Wanees"

Figure 2: TV Promo of "Diary of Wanees"

Youth’s negative response to Sobhy was surprising given how widely liked the childhood TV series, “Diary of Wanees”, was among this generation. It depicted an average Egyptian family with a mother and father determined on “raising their kids righteously” (see Figure 2). His Juvenile fans used to call Mohammed Sobhy “Baba Wanees”, as they saw in him a father figure and a role model. Perhaps their negative response-as adults-was proportional to their level of disappointment in him. But it was also a reflection of the shifting cultural and social values whereby there was no longer a central autocratic father figure as the one depicted in Figure 2.

Despite the ephemerality of these pages’ content, it constituted a common memory and language in the collective consciousness of its participants, thus laying the bedrocks for developing a new digital identity, nevertheless, one based in play. Through their immersion in the culture of these pages and its practices, its followers developed a ‘tacit capacity’ or ‘implicit knowledge’[2] enabling them to exchange and enjoy ‘inside jokes’. These inside jokes can be way of strengthening group cohesion, but they can also be a way of “widening the gap between those within and those outside the circle of laughter”[3].

The study of anti-fandom, uncovers the various levels of engagement that audience can form with a text, but the study of anti-fandom in authoritarian contexts can be revealing of the complexity of such engagement, when these texts are the product of an oppressive (everyday) context. Looking at the relationship between online youth and state-produced media (in contemporary political speeches or childhood texts of the past) as a case of anti-fandom revealed to me how someone’s relationship with a text can be a reflection of their developing self-understanding of the meaning of citizenship, especially when a text exemplifies the tropes of power. In such contexts, anti-fandom takes on the role of clandestine protracted subversion, consciousness-raising, and identity development. These functions are the basic ingredients for slow social change, one that may be less spectacular than the Arab Spring uprising, but whose effects are longer lasting.

Katie Davis

In the spring of 2013, I serendipitously sat down next to Cecilia Aragon at a gathering of human-computer interaction researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle, WA. Around the midpoint of my first year as a faculty member at the UW Information School, I was still very much feeling my way around my new life as a faculty member, with all its accompanying pressures to raise money for research, publish in top-tier venues, and prepare engaging course content for students. No doubt these pressures were swirling around my head as Cecilia and I introduced ourselves and started to chat.

Cecilia is a computer scientist with research interests in data science and online collaboration. My research focuses on the intersection between human development, learning, and networked technologies. Despite our different areas of focus, we soon discovered a shared interest in the topic of fanfiction. In particular, we were both fascinated by an apparent discrepancy between the passion, skill, and commitment among young fanfiction writers that we had each witnessed—both personally and, in my case, through prior research—and the current (2013) public hand-ringing about young people’s deteriorating abilities at the hands of emojis, Wikipedia, and Google search.

We continued our conversation in the days following and soon found ourselves planning a study focused on the nature of young people’s participation in online fanfiction communities. What began as a lunchtime conversation ultimately turned into a five-year study involving several graduate students and a variety of research methods, from a nine-month ethnography of three fanfiction communities (Harry Potter, Doctor Who, and My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic), to a broad-scale analysis of the (then) nearly 7 million stories on the popular fanfiction site,

We examined how community members sought and received support for their writing, as well as the qualities of networked publics that shaped their exchanges in specific ways. Drawing on concepts that are likely familiar to readers of this blog—such as participatory culture and new media literacies (Henry Jenkins), affinity spaces (James Paul Gee), and connected learning (Mimi Ito and colleagues)—we developed the concept of distributed mentoring to describe the distinct forms of peer support that we were seeing in our research. Grounded in Edwin Hutchins’ concept of distributed cognition[1], distributed mentoring represents a new form of mentoring that is uniquely supported by the affordances of networked technologies.

Going into the study, we (admittedly naively) expected to see fairly traditional forms of peer support, where more experienced writers provided guidance to less experienced—typically younger—writers. Although we certainly saw these types of traditional mentoring relationships, they were by no means the dominant form of peer support in the fanfiction communities we studied. Instead, we documented a far more complex, distributed web of support that included a variety of channels (private messaging, public reader reviews, forum responses), delivery mechanisms (one-to-one, one-to-many, and many-to-many), and participant roles (a single writer might provide mentoring around plot development while seeking input on canon knowledge).

Distributed mentoring is characterized by seven, interrelated attributes: aggregation, accretion, acceleration, abundance, availability, asynchronicity, and affect. Each of these attributes is supported by the affordances of networked technologies and draws on many of the new media literacies described by Jenkins and colleagues. For instance, aggregation represents the ability of authors to seek and receive guidance on their writing from many different sources. Using skills such as collective intelligence and transmedia navigation, fanfiction authors collect and compile many different types of feedback in various forms, from story reviews to discussion forum posts to private messaging. Through the process of aggregating these disparate types of feedback, an overarching direction for the work emerges that is more useful and profound than any one mentoring exchange on its own. The other six attributes work in much the same way; here, I will simply describe the defining characteristics of each.

Accretion of advice occurs as reviewers interact with each other through comments on individual stories and in forum discussions, referring to and building on earlier reviews.

Acceleration: The rich discussions generated around disagreements among reviewers about the direction of a particular story often serve to accelerate the process of learning through active discussion.

Abundance describes the sheer volume of feedback accessible to the author.

Availability relates to the persistent and public nature of reviews, which facilitates sustained exchanges and relationships among community members.

Asynchronous communication in fanfiction communities means that authors and reviewers can interact with each other across time and geographic boundaries, enabling collaboration in instances when synchronous interaction would be impossible.

Affect: Authors enjoy emotional support and encouragement from the many positive comments and interactions they experience in fanfiction communities.

You may be thinking: Interesting stuff, but what does distributed mentoring have to do with participatory politics?

harry_potter_crew_fan_art_by_meomai_dafnrwu-pre (1).jpg

Henry Jenkins has described the potential for participatory culture to serve as a gateway to political participation. A prime example—and particularly fitting for this blog post—is the humanitarian work carried out by members of the Harry Potter Alliance, such as their assistance to the victims of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake. In their book By Any Media Necessary, Henry and his co-authors document other instances of participatory culture interweaving with and supporting political participation.

What role might distributed mentoring play in participatory politics?

In the final chapter of our forthcoming book, Writers in the Secret Garden: Fanfiction, Youth, and New Forms of Mentoring (Aragon & Davis, MIT Press, 2019), Cecilia and I consider whether and how distributed mentoring might manifest in other types of communities online. We consider other interest-driven communities, such as DeviantArt, a community dedicated to sharing original artwork, photography, and videography, and Ravelry, an online community of knitting enthusiasts. This blog series has given me an excellent reason to think more deeply about how distributed mentoring might show up and support the work done in communities focused on civic engagement.  

The Youth and Participatory Politics Research Network (YPPRN) has identified four types of activities through which young people actively engage in democratic processes: Investigation & Research, Dialogue & Feedback, Mobilizing for Change, and Production & Circulation. YPPRN researchers have described how networked technologies have expanded these practices in significant ways. For instance, social media and the internet have dramatically changed the way Investigation & Research happens. Especially among younger generations, broadcast media and newspapers are no longer looked to as the main outlets for news on civic and political issues. Platforms like Twitter and Facebook are used to circulate information, and Wikipedia serves as a prime example of how crowdsourced information can be co-created easily and shared among many people. The other three types of activities are similarly affected in profound ways by networked technologies.


Using my lens of distributed mentoring, I see the 7 A’s at work here. Let’s suppose, for example, that a young person were concerned about climate change. This example comes readily to mind right now as I spend my sabbatical year in Berlin and read about young people across Europe and other parts of the world demonstrating against climate change and their government’s response (or lack of response) to it.  

Aggregation: Networked platforms allow this young person to identify and compile information quickly and easily from a variety of different sources. A focused search session can yield rich information on the causes and consequences of climate change, how governments across the world have attempted to address (or dismiss/ignore) the problem, as well as the role of other stakeholders, from global corporations to individual citizens.

Accretion: By sharing evidence and viewpoints with other interested people—including those with whom one may disagree–knowledge about and insight into the phenomenon of climate change accumulates over time (provided the evidence is sound, which is a topic I won’t venture into here!).

Acceleration: Disagreements are inevitable when engaging in conversations around issues, like climate change, that generate passionate views. From the perspective of distributed mentoring, these disagreements can serve to accelerate the generation of insights and actions through active discussion.

Abundance: Two people agreeing on a strategy for curbing climate change is one thing. Many thousands of people voicing their support is quite another and may be particularly useful for motivating action and drawing attention to the issue. This seems to be exactly what we’re seeing right now with the student climate change protests, which began with a single student in Sweden and has now grown to a global movement involving millions of youth.  

Availability: The persistent and public nature of text-based online communication can provide a useful record of evolving ideas and plans for coordinated action. For instance, The Guardian reported that on Friday, March 15, 2019, over 1.4 million young people walked out of schools in 2,233 cities and towns in 128 countries. It’s hard to imagine how this level of global coordination could happen without networked technologies.

Asynchronous communication may speed up the pace of this action due to the fact that the exchange of ideas can take place across time and geographic boundaries.

Affect: After a period of participating in online forums on the topic, it’s likely that our young person has developed connections to others who are similarly interested in addressing the problem of climate change. These relationships can provide the emotional support and encouragement necessary to spur and sustain action aimed at reversing climate degradation. 

It is my hope that these connections between distributed mentoring and participatory politics can do more than represent a fun thought experiment. For me, the lens of distributed mentoring helps underscore the participatory nature of participatory politics; the distinct ways that networked technologies shape and sustain participation; and the awesome agency and influence that young people can generate when they come together around a shared interest and contribute what they can, when they can.

The challenges we face today are big, with high stakes attached. As a single person—and, I would argue, especially a single young person—it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the prospect of effecting real change. Through the process of documenting and describing the concept of distributed mentoring, my colleagues and I have referred often to a well-known phrase—the whole is greater than the sum of its parts—to understand the processes by which many disparate acts of engagement—even very small ones—can generate meaningful insight and action when placed in dialogue with each other.


[1] Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the wild. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[1] Gray, J. (2005). Anti-fandom and the moral text: Television without pity and textual dislike. American Behavioral Scientist48(7), 847.

2] Moustakas, C. E. (1990). Heuristic research: Design, methodology, and applications. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

[3] Levine, L. W. (1978). Black culture and black consciousness: Afro-American folk thought from slavery to freedom. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.


Yomna Elsayed is a Lecturer of Communication at the University of Southern California online communication management program. She earned a PhD in communication from the Annenberg School for Communication at USC. Her research examines the role of popular culture and technology in advancing cultural and social change in the US and the MENA region.

Katie Davis is an Associate Professor at the University of Washington Information School, Adjunct Associate Professor in the UW College of Education, and a founding member and Co-Director of the UW Digital Youth Lab. Her research explores the role of new media technologies in young people’s personal, social, and academic lives, with a particular focus on the intersection between technology and identity development during adolescence and emerging adulthood.