Testimonials of transformation: The Harry Potter Alliance and Invisible Children

Stories of Self-Transformation

This semester I’ve been thinking a lot about how civically engaged people tell stories about their transformation from disengagement to connectedness. Some discernible patterns seem to recur in the way these narratives play out. For example, in my own life, when I tell the story of how I became politically conscious, I often start in the late 90s, a time in which — looking back— I see myself as a very different person. It’s important that the story starts here with a disaffected, but ultimately apathetic, teenager and young adult. Whether this description is fair to my former self is somewhat irrelevant, because it’s this “before” image that helps me articulate the transformation that happened next. At the fulcrum of my “before” and “after” shots lies the Florida election crisis in 2000, the events of 911 along with the aftermath and the lead up to war in Iraq. These events of the early 2000s triggered a sense of profound powerlessness for me as I watched the world reshaping itself, seemingly impervious to my own fears, desires, and expectations. Those feelings of impotence and frustration were channeled into a search for like-minded folks, whom I eventually “discovered” online. And it was from within this online community that, during the 2004 election, I started to participate in large scale coordinated actions.

This kind of collective engagement provided me with way of thinking about myself as a civic agent in contexts that had previously felt beyond my control. Testimonials of this kind are familiar. They trace a trajectory from isolation and impotence to connectedness and coordinated action and also provide a framework for articulating what would otherwise be a fairly abstract relationship to the “outside world.”

The Harry Potter Alliance and Invisible Children

This semester I’ve been working with a group of colleagues to understand the ways that these kinds of narratives operate within civically minded organizations. We’ve been studying two very different groups that — each in their own way — occupy the intersection between civics and pop culture. The two groups that we’re looking at are the Harry Potter Alliance (a group that casts itself as a kind of real world Dumbledore’s Army) and Invisible Children (a group that capitalizes on theatrical spectacle, high-production value, and youth participants to advocate for those displaced by war in Uganda). In particular, I’ve been working with a subgroup to focus on the individual experiences of participants. Over the past month, we’ve been reading through transcripts of interviews and trying to develop a language to describe the overarching narratives, personal trajectories, and content worlds that are representative of these two groups.

One motif that has emerged in several stories is the idea of recounting the past as a moment of loneliness, lack of connection, and powerlessness. As in my own story, these feelings serve as juxtaposition for what is to come: a “discovery” of some new community that facilitates the storyteller’s identity transformation. These stories often move, then, from isolation and skepticism, to “discovered” community, and finally to a more abstract sense of connection to the outside world — often articulated by our interviewees as a realization of their “wish to help.”

Testimony and Rites of Passage

What’s becoming increasingly interesting to me is the way that testimonials of the transition to civic engagement get taken up as spectacle. For example, stories of self-transformation play key roles in soliciting potential new recruits into membership. They get published, rehearsed, and remediated at critical junctions in the groups’ development and self-maintenance. They also provide a model for new recruits to imagine a trajectory that moves from potentially familiar feelings of self-doubt and skepticism to a renewed sense of belonging.
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Bowling Off-Topic: rethinking the echo-chamber

Image by drrt licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

Interactions in online forums don’t fit so easily into Cass Sunstein’s arguments about the internet as echo-chamber. This argument is basically the oft-quoted claim about the internet fostering cyberbalkanization. Others have built on this claim by citing the lack of hyperlinks connecting left and right wing blogospheres as evidence for a decline in the ability to communicate with civility across ideological barriers (Adamic and Glance, 2005).

But when we expand scope of inquiry to include models of online interaction outside of the typical political blog platform, the notion of internet as echo-chamber becomes less clear. A variety of counter-examples from online fandom and other modes of interest-driven participatory culture suggest that Sunstein’s argument about the limitations of online communication may need to be re-evaluated.

One interesting area that emerged in our research over the past year is the role of off-topic subforums within larger interest-driven forums. These off-topic subforums provide a space for diverse conversation on the sidelines of an otherwise fairly homogeneous forum. In this sense, they seem to parallel the function of what Ray Oldenburg calls ‘third spaces’ — spaces where a heterogeneous group of people come together (in cafes, bars, and other establishments) to have casual interactions outside of work and domestic experience. For our purposes, the contrast to professional and domestic space is perhaps less salient, but the idea of “thirdness” is still relevant insofar as these subforums are neither the primary focus of the group nor are they explicitly coded as sites of civic action. Instead, they are something in between.
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