The Best Organizing Strategy You’ve Never Heard Of
In a time of political turmoil, fan activism might be exactly what we need.
Fan activism is the practice of organizing fans of pop culture for social change. It’s a diverse community of practitioners with varying interests, fandoms, and approaches to the work, but a common vision unites the fan activism community: to make the world a more loving, equitable place for all.
Your first question might be: why? Of all the organizing strategies available to us, why are fan organizers so passionate about fan activism? The most obvious answer might be that it’s fun, and in a time when almost every organizer you meet is spending most of their time frustrated and exhausted, finding ways to make organizing fun is a welcome balm. But it’s not just that: fan activism is uniquely equipped to build new inroads across the political spectrum, communicate a vision of tomorrow, and empower the next generation of activists.
Fandom Is Built for Discussion
Our culture is still steeped in that old advice to never discuss politics or religion in polite company. These norms make casual conversations about our collective values and politics fraught. Furthermore, topics like privilege and systemic oppression are more likely to garner a reactive response from those who need to have these discussions the most, a function of white supremacy that is critical to push through.
On the other hand, fandom is inherently a practice of discussion. Sharing our favorite or least favorite parts, discussing theories of what will happen next in between installments, debating how we interpreted different scenes and characters: these are all cornerstones of what fandom is. Fandom also lends itself to a practice of accepting multiple “correct” answers; you and your friend may have different opinions about the best movie in the franchise, or whether or not Han Solo shot first, but this variation enriches rather than endangers the experience of being in community. Fandom is a world where thoughtful critique is part of the game.
So when it comes to tackling complex issues across the political divide, fandom becomes an incredibly effective tool to circumvent knee-jerk reactions. The same person who struggles to discuss racism without becoming defensive can probably have an open conversation about the ways prejudice against people from different backgrounds is explored in Star Trek. By leading with fandom, a shared language and common set of values, moving from the hypothetical (or in this case, imaginary) to reality becomes easier.
In many ways, fandom affiliation acts as a “third space” of identity. In sociology, a third space is somewhere outside of home or work that serves as a more neutral, community-oriented place to gather. Engaging with people through their fandom identities helps us subvert the cultural norms and white fragility that has functioned as a protective buffer for systemic oppression. For the same reasons, fandom left unchecked and unexamined can become toxic, a fact that far right organizers use to their advantage.
Creation, Communication, and Desire
In fandom, changing the story to reflect the world we want is an everyday practice. Fan artists and fanfiction writers regularly recast characters to better reflect the real world, making them more racially diverse, more queer, more neurodivergent — in short, representative. Alternate Universe (AU) stories are a hallmark of fanfiction, not just putting characters into new scenarios (“AU: Avengers except they run a coffee shop together”), but often rewriting the media that disappointed them (“AU where Dany doesn’t go crazy in the end”). Some fan interpretations of media are so ubiquitous that they’re known as “fanon,” fan works that, for the fandom, are practically canon. For example, Harry Potter characters Remus Lupin and Sirius Black are so broadly interpreted as queer that it’s almost more unusual to find a Harry Potter fan who doesn’t see them that way. Sometimes fanon even becomes so accepted that it makes its way into canon; fans of the CW show Supernatural interpreted the characters of Castiel (originally meant to be a short term guest role) and Dean Winchester in love for over decade before Castiel professed his love for Dean in 2020.
In other words, fan activists are already well practiced at communicating a vision. As progressive organizers look to communicate an alternative vision for our future than that of the far right, fan activists are armed with years of experience in both communicating a vision and, perhaps even more critical, engaging in collaborative, distributed relationships to create that vision.
Fandom naturally creates the conditions for new creators to thrive — it’s an environment where creative contributions, no matter prior experience or level of skill, are welcomed and celebrated. Many fans end up creating original works or engaging in other projects because they were given a safe space to explore and develop their skills early on. These democratized opportunities for exploration and positive reinforcement help foster a greater diversity of up and coming creators and organizers to lead the way.
At its core, fandom is community. A culture of generosity, exchange and barter, promotion of one another’s work, and even mutual aid are all regularly observed in fandom, and in the case of fan activists is intentionally fostered. Fans are also incredibly skilled at rapid mobilization — by using the same tools they rely on every day to build community, fan activists can boost information and gather support quickly. In a time of endless political battles and a struggle to maintain grassroots networks, fandom communities act as strong digital networks that can be quickly activated.
Building upon the decades of successful work by fan organizers, we see ample opportunity for fan activism to act as a key tool in the fight for a more equitable, pluralist future for all.
The far right has been incredibly effective at weaponizing the internet, particularly in radicalizing young white men through social media and other online communities. We’ve seen the ways these groups are co-opting not just American imagery, but pop culture imagery and ideas; in just one example, a Captain America shield was on display at the Capitol Insurrection on January 6, 2021. If fan organizers do not intentionally create counter narratives and pluralist spaces within fandoms like Marvel or Star Wars, we’re essentially leaving these powerful stories and iconography up for grabs — and the far right isn’t hesitating to claim them. Because fandom communities are communities, with shared identities and norms, the potential to radicalize young audiences is high. Fan activists help to hold the line within these spaces, and with further resources and allies they could be an even more potent force to help combat the radicalization of young white men via the internet.
Shifting Narratives Through Cross-Fandom Strategy
Different fandoms generally have different political landscapes; for example, Harry Potter fandom tends to be very progressive, while Star Trek fandom tends to be more centrist. These are obviously broad stroke generalizations — fandoms are composed of millions of individuals — but they are consistent enough that fan organizers can typically tell you what the general landscape of different fandoms looks like.
Through collaboration with Harmony Labs and their Narrative Observatory project, in 2021 Fandom Forward was able to map key fandoms with data analysis. Harmony Labs uses a combination of data from 55k+ Americans (via opt-in internet panels) and review by researchers to discover and track narrative trends — in other words, what kinds of things people are interacting with and how they’re interacting with them. They can also group people into audiences based on their values using survey and cultural interactions on platforms like Tumblr, Reddit, and YouTube. Harmony Labs then identified people who look to be in particular fandoms by using frequent search terms (like “hufflepuff,” for example), and mapped them against the four values-based audiences.
Almost no one has just one fandom — most fans, including fan activists, participate in multiple fandoms, sometimes for media very different in nature. This means that rather than fandoms acting as distinct circles, you should think of fandoms more like venn diagrams, with overlapping participants in each.
Using these overlapping participants, fan organizers could strategically “pass” a campaign from one fandom to another over several months or years in order to strategically shift the narrative on that issue over time.
For example, using the fandoms mapped above, a campaign on gun control may be best suited to begin within the Avatar: The Last Airbender fandom (who are likely to readily accept that narrative), then be run again within the Marvel fandom, then again in the Star Trek fandom.
Because there is likely to be overlap of fans in each community, those fans serve the role of early adopters and trusted advocates within each new community. Thus, the narrative shift becomes a message coming from inside the community, rather than from external organizers with less earned trust.
A CALL TO ACTION
The fan organizers we spoke to expressed a consistent frustration: that fan activism is not seen as an important organizing movement, if it is known at all. These organizers are doing incredible work to create cross-generational movements reaching people more traditional organizing hadn’t yet connected with. It’s our hope that this report helps to share the work of fan activism with the broader community of progressive organizers across the globe. Maybe it even inspires a new fan organizer; after all, everyone is into something. What are you a fan of?
- If you’re a fan organizer, you’re not in this alone! The fan activism community is dedicated to supporting fan organizers of all kinds and experience levels. Please let us know what you’re working on, and get involved at fandomforward.org/coalition
- If you’re a movement organizer, consider how fan activism can be a tool in reaching your goals for social change. Fan organizers frequently collaborate with other movement organizers — you bring your expertise, we’ll bring ours! If you’re not sure who to reach out to first, Fandom Forward is happy to help get you to the right place: reach out to Katie Bowers at email@example.com.
- If you’re a philanthropist, you have the opportunity to bring invaluable support to a high-impact, severely under-resourced area of movement organizing. Most fan organizers have visions that exceed their resources, and with fiscal support could be even more effective. If you are interested in learning more about philanthropic strategies to support fan activism for narrative change, contact Pop Culture Collaborative’s Chief Strategy Officer, Tracy Van Slyke (firstname.lastname@example.org). Also consider whether any of the organizers and organizations included in this report sound like a match for your philanthropic interests and can reach out to Katie Bowers at email@example.com — we’d love to help find the perfect match.
Learn more about the coalition at fandomforward.org/coalition