Why youth are drawn to Invisible Children: Prefiguring Kony 2012

The astonishingly rapid and expansive spread of Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 film has garnered immense attention (both positive and negative) online. While much of the criticism is around the organization’s rhetoric, its suggestion of military intervention, or its financial practices, I would like to touch on a different aspect of Invisible Children — its impact as an organization on youth participation in US civic and political life.

Why has Invisible Children’s approach resonated so well with young people and what impact does this and other campaigns have on their sense of themselves as political agents? The Kony 2012 video has been most popular with 13-17 year old Americans (as well as 18-24 year old American males…), and part of the video’s soaring viewership is attributed to these teenagers’ sharing of the video through their various social networks. So far, it would be simple to dismiss their sharing of the video as a form of Slacktivism: these young people, allegedly, are practicing easy and thus meaningless forms of social action, actions that don’t go beyond pressing ‘share’. This critique, however, ignores the possibility that for the millions of young people who watched Kony 2012 and shared it with friends, the movie may be meaningful in mobilizing young people as civic actors. Making such statements around Kony 2012 would be premature, as only time will tell what the long-term impacts of young people’s experiences with this movie will be. But, we can gain some preliminary insights by looking at what Invisible Children has done before, over its years of mobilizing young Americans to action. At this time, we do not want to get into the controversies about the right action to take around the war in Central Africa. Rather, we want to highlight Invisible Children’s ability to powerfully engage young people through what we call Participatory Culture Civics.

Let’s first provide some background. Invisible Children (IC) is an organization that has been around for 8 years. IC’s previous 10 movies, while not circulated as widely as Kony 2012, have sparked similarly intense reactions from many of its viewers. Some of these previous viewers joined what became the “Invisible Children movement”, consisting of volunteer staff, interns, roadies, and local club members in high schools and colleges. These members participated in IC’s large-scale, performative campaigns, including the Global Night Commute, Displace Me and 25, and dedicated time and energy to promoting IC’s causes nationwide. While this was not Invisible Children’s original goal, the organization became increasingly aware of its “inadvertent” role in encouraging American youth’s social engagement. The organization has increasingly focused on this role as part of its action, as exemplified by the “Fourth Estate” event they held in the summer of 2011, an event dedicated to empowering 650 socially active youth to become activists for the causes they care passionately about. The key elements of this event are summarized in the following video.

The Civic Paths Project Research Group, working with Professor Henry Jenkins at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, University of Southern California and supported by the Spencer Foundation, has been looking at Invisible Children as a case study of what we call Participatory Culture Civics: organizations which build on top and harness the strengths of participatory cultures to further their civic goals. Invisible Children sparked our interest due to its innovative and non-orthodox use of media, but even more so, due to the way it created a participatory community around its goal. But we’ll get to that in a moment.

Among the tens of millions (we’ve given up on updating this number) of viewers of Kony 2012 are hundreds of thousands of young people who have joined Invisible Children’s mission long before this film. In 2010-2011, we interviewed 30 such members, who told us about how they learned about Invisible Children and got involved in the organization, and how becoming involved with the group helped shape their identity as civic actors. We talked to members who were relatively highly engaged: interns volunteering to work at IC offices for the summer, roadies, who volunteered 3 months of their lives to tour IC movies around the nation, and leaders of local IC clubs in high schools and colleges. In short, they were young people who dedicated significant time, energy and effort to IC’s cause. Yet in some ways, they are not unlike some of the new viewers of Kony 2012: many were in high school when they first encountered IC, and to many (though not all) viewing the film and becoming engaged with IC was a first experience of taking part in any civic action. We believe that listening to these members’ accounts of their experiences can help us better understand why young people are attracted to Invisible Children and what role the organization has played in the past in helping young people begin to conceive of themselves as political agents. This blog entry is based in our research with Invisible Children and builds on a forthcoming article “Experiencing Fan Activism: Understanding the Power of Fan Activist Organizations through Members’ Narratives” which will be published in the Journal of Transformative Works and Cultures in June 2012.

Creating content worlds – Invisible Children’s storytelling through movie

Our analysis of Invisible Children’s model of youth engagement began with the lens of “fan activism”: forms of civic engagement and political participation growing out of experiences of fandom. We were examining Invisible Children as a parallel to another case study of Participatory Culture Civics: the Harry Potter Alliance, a non-profit organization that mobilizes the Harry Potter fan community toward civic action, using metaphors from the popular narratives. In comparing the two organizations, we found that while the Harry Potter Alliance built on an existing fan community and harnessed a pre-existing content world (a powerful narrative that strongly resonates with members) toward its civic goals, Invisible Children began with a goal–ending the use of child soldiers in the civil war in Uganda–and built a content world around it.

Invisible Children has been creating documentary films since 2004, when they released their first, and for many viewers most powerful, film, Invisible Children: The Rough Cut (watch here).

For an analysis of IC’s transmedia storytelling practices see this piece by fellow Civic Paths member Lana Swartz.
This movie documents IC founders Jason, Bobby and Lauren’s trip to Uganda, where they first learned about the war with the LRA and the existence of child soldiers. In members’ narratives, this movie is attributed with an almost magical effect in transforming their worldview:

“They showed me the film and I remember being so floored like, ‘I cannot believe that this is going on’ and ‘why have I never heard about this.’ I remember something in me shifted that night.” (Ruth, IC intern)

The main strength of the movie to most IC members is the feeling of identification with the protagonists—the three filmmakers and future IC founders, young people not much older than themselves, who go out to Uganda, encounter a social issue and launch a movement:

“The movie is just very raw, and it’s, even though they were older than me they were kids, and you see these kids just go, they see something, they run into a problem and they’re like, OK, now we have to fix this problem.” (Beth, IC intern)

In this respect, the Kony 2012 movie represents a significant shift in point of view and style. If Rough Cut presented the founders as naïve but good-intentioned film students accidentally stumbling onto a war, Kony 2012 shows Jason as a leader of a viable movement and, predominantly, as a father. When he teaches his 5 year old son about Joseph Kony being “the bad guy”, it’s not clear with whom young viewers most identify – with the 30 something old dad, or with the innocent but earnest 5 year-old.

While Kony 2012 was released online, previous IC movies were mostly distributed through “screenings”: 1.5-2 hour long events, taking place in high schools, colleges and churches. In screenings, IC roadies, who are volunteer staff members, show the movie, and accompany it with an introduction and Q&A sessions. Some screenings also include young Ugandan, recipients of IC scholarships in Uganda, who come to the U.S. for a short period of time to tell their own story in screenings. After screenings, audiences were encouraged to donate to Invisible Children, buy its merchandise, as well as become more involved with its local clubs.

This distribution model, of course, reached a negligible audience when compared with Kony 2012. At the same time, the live interaction with the roadies enabled Invisible Children to create a different experience than that possible when watching Kony 2012 online. By supplementing the movies with live interaction with the roadies, Invisible Children could supplement the information given in the movies (e.g., explain the current state of affairs in Uganda), answer audience’s questions (e.g., how are donations used) as well as create contacts between roadies and IC supporters, which were later maintained online. This model, while reaching much smaller audiences, enabled IC to create a more nuanced and informed message, and thus counter some (though not all) of the criticisms it is now encountering.

Accusations of Slacktivism, or, can watching a 30 minute movie make you a social activist?

image source: http://jeffzelaya.com/

Part of the critique around the Kony 2012 campaign is that it promotes Slacktivism: a genre of social action that is easy (done with a click of the mouse), comfortable, and thus meaningless. One of the memes that’s been circulating around Kony 2012 presents this critique. This critique already ignores some of the more active forms of participation that are planned as part of the Kony 2012 campaign, such as the “cover the night” events planned for April 20th 2012, in which participants are called to cover their local cities with posters of Joseph Kony. Countless notices have already sprung up for such local events on Facebook (though, arguably, the goal of getting the world to know who Joseph Kony is, has pretty much been achieved).

Beyond that, however, talking to members of Invisible Children shows how previous IC movies indeed played important roles in helping young people become socially active, though not always in clear, immediate ways. Beth’s story is one example of this. When we interviewed her, Beth was an IC intern, in charge of updating their website with news on the war in Uganda. Beth claimed that she used to be an apathetic, selfish kid (though her family had always been involved in aid in Africa). She happened to watch The Rough Cut at a church, where it was shown by a youth pastor. Beth described watching the movie as a formative moment, an embarking on a journey of engagement in activism: “I guess it affects everybody differently. For me there was no way I could do anything else. I couldn’t go get a white collar job […] I don’t even remember what other selfish tracks I was on.” The movie opened her eyes to the world of non-profits, and she began researching them online. She became engaged with the student organization STAND, and is now their local president. Through her work with STAND she reconnected with IC. In the interview, she claimed that she now sees no other alternative for herself but being involved in activism: “That life to me just seems like the kind of life everyone should live, a life where you’re not doing something only for yourself, whatever you’re doing is putting something back into the world”.

Beth’s story exemplifies an element we heard in many IC members’ re-tellings: a narrative of self-transformation. In this narrative structure, IC members often describe their ‘former selves’, before joining IC, in contrast to who they are today. Beth describes her former self as apathetic and selfish, in many ways echoing prevalent stereotypes about disengaged youth. In her narrative, watching the Rough Cut represented a life-changing turning point. Her commitment to social engagement, then, seemed to be created at that moment of realization, “understanding that there’s more to life than the mall” (Beth).

These narratives of members are extremely powerful, though they may not be the full picture of what’s going on. Digging down deeper reveals that many IC members (though not all) had been previously socialized to altruistic values and practices. For example, while Beth understates the significance of her parents’ involvement in aid in Africa to her own activist desire, research shows that parental modeling is a key variable predicting youth civic engagement. Yet the movie served as an important catalyst to civic action, one that allowed Beth to feel that she shifted from selfish child to civic actor. Moreover, we found that seeing IC movies was part of a larger process through which young people could become socially involved.

Even when young people want to create social change, finding ways to get meaningfully involved, particularly in world affairs, is described by many members as a challenge. Many “traditional” non-profits, like the Peace Corps, offer limited possibilities for youth (under 18), and often require extensive voluntary commitments. Other organizations may offer young people ways to become involved, but are perceived as old-fashioned and out-dated, “charities run by middle-aged women” (Edie, IC intern). A key strength of IC, and one that Kony 2012 exhibits as well, is the way it offers young people actionable steps, concrete channels to express a pre-existing activist desire:

“I had been trying to find ways that I could get into volunteering or working to become part of a more global community. I saw the screening and they were in the process of trying to get the bill passed and they were encouraging us to talk to senators to hold a meeting, a cool way that you guys can make a big change, and so I got really involved from there.” (Tina, IC roadie)

While signing an online pledge or purchasing a $30 action kit (which are now completely sold out) may be seen as meaningless steps, for young people they can be perceived as significant first steps in taking civic action, giving them a sense of agency and empowerment that often sparks further action, as Beth’s story shows.

“White man’s burden?” Nuancing the message

One of the accusations against Kony 2012 has accompanied Invisible Children from its start: the accusation of presenting “poor Ugandan children” who “need to be rescued” by white Americans. Invisible Children as an organization has grappled with this accusation and over the years made many attempts to nuance their message. One of the leadership’s key statements is that their relationship with the Ugandans is one of friendship and mutual learning, not only one-directional aid. This message is in fact one that was very peripheral to Kony 2012, but it is strongly echoed in the narratives of members we talked to. IC members repeatedly expressed shared affiliations with the people of Uganda whom they have never met.

“Even though I haven’t met anyone from Uganda, I feel like they’re kind of my extended friends now. I care about them not just a far off, ‘Oh, I want everybody to be okay’ but I really feel somewhat connected.” (Dave, IC intern)

Janelle, an IC intern, is one of few IC members who have visited Uganda. She similarly speaks of a mutual relationship:

“It was such an eye opening experience. You put faces to the people you’re helping, it’s not just helping others but building friendships and exchanging. It was definitely what [the Ugandans] were giving, they were giving to us as well, learning from their culture.” (Janelle, IC intern)

It is still early to tell which relationships toward Ugandans Kony 2012 may invoke in its viewers. In trying to create a movie that people will be compelled to share, Invisible Children may have sidetracked their previous commitment to a nuanced representation of their relationship with the Ugandans. Yet when young people participate in conversations online about whether or not Kony 2012 is a representation of White Man’s Burden, they may be creating such nuanced understanding themselves in active ways that may be particularly effective. In this manner, the movie may again be seen as one aspect of a wider experience through which young people gain awareness of a problem they previously did not know about, become more informed about it, but are also mobilized in concrete and empowering ways.

The message young people are getting (again)

Beyond the specific discussion around Kony 2012, we have, as scholars, a wider agenda.
Part of the criticism that Invisible Children is receiving is a normative and ideological one: it is about what social action needs to look like, who may participate in it, and what it should entail. Bluntly read, what some of critics are arguing is that social advocacy, particularly around world affairs, should be left to experts: to politicians, to “serious” NGOs, to erudites. Young people—and this includes both the film’s 30 something-old creators, and its mostly 20 and under viewers—are told that this isn’t a world for them. It is too complicated, too hard, too serious. These are the same messages young people are getting about politics: If you don’t know exactly what you’re talking about, you’d better not talk at all.

A lot of the criticism of Invisible Children and Kony 2012 can be read as a protecting of boundaries and barriers. Who is and who is not allowed to speak; what is the right way to speak; and what should that sound like. There are many ways to take social action, and there are many other organizations out there that probably do many things better than Invisible Children. They have more nuanced messages, they offer more detailed information, they spend more of their budget on direct aid programs. IC is accused of spending too much money on filmmaking and “marketing”. Yet this statistic is seen in a different light if we consider fostering youth engagement as a central role of what Invisible Children does, as the Fourth Estate youth leadership event implies. When was the last time so many young people were so engaged around any social issue, let alone a war in Africa?

IC belongs to a new genre of civic organization, one that plays with and challenges accepted definitions of social action and what it should look and feel like. Over the past days, many critics have again and again articulated what IC is doing wrong. But in speaking to young people, it is obviously doing something right.

Many critiques of Invisible Children and of Kony 2012 may point to real improvement areas for the organization, and IC will have to meaningfully grapple with these critiques over time. But in addition to pointing out important problems, non-profit organizations, politicians and scholars should also ask, how is Invisible Children able to resonate so strongly with young people? How does it mobilize and get them involved? We suggest that the answer to these questions can be found not only in their film-making but also among IC’s young viewers, supporters and members, who want to speak up – but they need to be spoken to and invited to participate first. Invisible Children is asking them to participate. Are you?

Imagine Better Opens at the Close

Fan art by ShadowKunoiciAsh

In Deathly Hallows, the last book of the Harry Potter series, the phrase “I open at the close” is inscribed onto a golden snitch, Dumbledore’s inheritance to Harry. Not knowing throughout the book how to open this mysterious object, Harry [spoiler alert!] finally realizes that it will open only when he is about to face his own death.

Given this quite sinister plot connection, it is perhaps surprising that “open at the close” came to be the unofficial theme of LeakyCon 2011, this year’s Harry Potter fan convention. At LeakyCon, the phrase held several meanings. “Open at the close” was the name of the event in which conference attendees could, for the second time, enter the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal’s Island of Adventure for a special night-time celebration, when the park would open — only for the fans – as it closes for all other guests (see Henry Jenkins’ accounts from last year’s event).

But “open at the close” was also used in a wider sense. As both mainstream media and popular conversations wondered what will happen to the Harry Potter phenomena as the last of the movies was released, for the fans gathered in the conference halls this question carried deep personal meaning. As fans were breathlessly preparing towards their special fan screening of Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (6 hours before the official midnight release!), many talked about ‘the end of an era’. “I can’t believe there will be no more midnight screenings”, fans said to each other, mirroring – perhaps more palely—many of the sensations that have been voiced before, as the last of the books had come out. If those fans from a few years back consoled themselves that they still had the movies to look forward to, the fandom now has latched onto Pottermore, J.K. Rowling’s new online project, as the new lifeline. As Henry has discussed a few weeks ago, Pottermore is not free of potential controversy, and yet at LeakyCon, it was embraced by fans as a source supplying more valuable canonic information around Harry Potter, and was hailed as the pathway for a new generation of fans to enter the series. The sequenced order in which the digital versions of the Harry Potter books will come out was already exciting fans as an opportunity to have more countdowns on fan websites, and fans were eagerly awaiting the possibility of being the first to join the new site. The phrase “open at the close” thus served, at least metaphorically, for the fans to assure each other that this is not really the end of an era. Instead, it is the beginning of a new phase for Harry Potter fandom, one that will rely more heavily on fan production and fan creativity to keep the fire burning, and, in addition, one that excitedly looks forward towards Pottermore.

Yet “open at the close” was also used at LeakyCon in another context: as part of the press conference launching the new organization “Imagine Better”, which was described as “the future of the Harry Potter Alliance”. Regular readers of this blog will probably be familiar with the Harry Potter Alliance, a key case study for our USC-based research team Civic Paths, which explores continuities between participatory culture and young people’s engagement within civic life. The Harry Potter Alliance (HPA) has played an important role in shaping our understanding of how such processes may function. Creating metaphors between the Harry Potter narratives and real-life issues, as well as tapping into the structures of Harry Potter fandom, the HPA has succeeded in reaching over 100,000 young people, encouraging them to channel their love of the text and their connection to other fans around them towards civic-minded action in the real world. More on our work about the HPA can be read here and here.

The HPA was also what had led me to LeakyCon–my first experience at a fan conference. For almost two years now, I have been following the HPA as part of our Civic Paths research, interviewing members about their experiences with the organization and attending their public events. LeakyCon, as a mecca for Harry Potter fans, garnered an impressive presence of HPA members as well—the organization boasted 37 volunteer members in brand new staff T-shirts, and an impressive repertoire of HPA programming, including hands-on sessions like “how to open an HPA chapter” and “all about the crisis climate horcrux”. When examining the HPA as a civic organization, however, getting to know the Harry Potter fan community is a key component. The assertion that the organization’s success thrives on the energies of the fandom, which had been expressed in many interviews before, could not be clearer than at LeakyCon.

There are good reasons to try to understand the “magic formula” behind the HPA. In addition to the organization’s tangible achievements (raising $123,000 for Haiti in two weeks, donating 87,000 books to local and international communities, collecting 15,000 signatures on a petition for fair trade chocolate, achieving first place at the Chase Community Giving Competition to receive a $250,000 grant), it has received national media coverage as well as academic interest. The idea behind the launch of the new organization “Imagine Better” is to take the approach that has proven successful for the HPA – connecting fans around story worlds they love to create real world change – and to apply that to collaborations with other fandoms. This is a segment from the press release at LeakyCon, at which Andrew Slack, founder of the HPA,  officially launches Imagine Better:


Strategically timed, the HPA chose the release date of Deathly Hallows 2 to launch Imagine Better. An activist in heart, as well as a man of symbols, Andrew Slack reminded audiences that July 14 is the date of Bastille Day, while the Imagine Better website was—also symbolically—launched on the 4th of July. From a more pragmatic point of view, the launch date secured some interest from mainstream and niche media outlets, who were looking for Harry Potter-related stories to cover around the movie release. The idea behind Imagine Better, however, has been looming in the head of Andrew Slack for several years now. In fact, as Slack revealed at LeakyCon, this had been his original idea when he envisioned linking narratives with activism: “taking a bottom-up approach to love to stories and the art, and connecting it to the world”. In contrast to the strong links that the HPA has made so far to a specific canon, as well as their embeddedness within a specific fan community, Imagine Better seeks to tap into the shared ground of all kinds of fans, aggregating their respective energies towards shared social action.

Leading towards this new organization were almost 2 years of research conducted by young HPA members. The volunteer “fandom team” received the task of searching and cataloguing other fandoms online, as well as identifying potential contact points within these fandoms. This legwork has enabled Imagine Better to list over 20 fan communities in its list of collaborators, including fan communities around popular books, shows and movies, as well as you-tube celebrities and young adult authors.

This list, however, is still open-ended. At Leakycon, conference attendees had the chance to imagine Imagine Better together with its founders. In a break-out session devoted to the new organization, 35 LeakyCon attendees brainstormed possible fandoms they would want to collaborate with. In addition to the usual suspects, this brainstorming brought up surprising directions such as Sparklife, a community of regular users of Sparknotes. The group then focused on three fan communities: Glee, Hunger Games, and Doctor Who, and made a list of real-world issues that could be raised in conjunction with these texts. They then broke out into small groups, discussing potential campaigns the HPA could hold in conjunction with these other fan communities. The group discussing possible collaborations with ‘Gleeks’ (fans of Glee) thought of campaigns ranging from issues of LGBTQ rights and bullying to fighting ableism (discrimination towards persons with physical disability).

Collaboration with other fan communities is a natural step for many HPA members. In our conversations with members we often hear long lists of texts they are passionate about, starting with Harry Potter, but moving on to a variety of genres and media (recurrent favorites are Doctor Who, the Hunger Games, Star Trek and more. The relationship with Twilight is a bit more contested). Many HPA members also identify as ‘nerdfighters’ – followers of the vlogbrothers John and Hank Green. In Textual Poachers, Henry builds on De Certeau’s notion of readers as nomads to describe fans as being similarly nomadic: “always in movement, ‘not here or there’, not constrained by permanent property ownership but rather constantly advancing upon another text, appropriating new materials”. Imagine Better seems to build on this idea of fan as nomads, whose passion may be directed towards any greatly told story, rather than towards a particular narrative. Moreover, it builds on the shared characteristics, and potentially shared identity, that fans (of different texts) may have with each other. Slack expresses this when he announces at the press conference that Imagine Better is going “to start with the most popular piece of fiction in human history and to go beyond that because, who here loves stories beyond Harry Potter? We all do. And we’re going to continue to love Harry Potter and continue to love other stories and continue to love being engaged as heroes in the story of our world. This is our launch, as we open at the close.” Here, “open at the close” takes on added meaning. It may refer to the end of the canon, but it is also preparation towards a possible decline, or at least decrease, of Harry Potter fandom.

Yet at LeakyCon – the gathering of hardcore Harry Potter fans, let’s not forget – this statement receives a slightly reserved reaction. As fans are spending the whole convention assuring each other that the fandom is alive and kicking, not everyone seems ready to quickly shed off the ‘HP’ part of the HPA, and stick only with the ‘Alliance’. While Imagine Better is aiming to speak to the shared identity of “fans”, or to the fan as nomad, many in the room may align themselves more as “fans of Harry Potter” (see John Edward Campbell’s recent discussion of this notion). For them, their mode of engagement may be seen not as a fixed identity, but rather a relationship towards a particular text. Part of this may stem from the fact that to many, Harry Potter is a first experience within fandom, that hasn’t necessarily (or perhaps, not yet) crossed into a more generalized fan identity.

It seems that the HPA is aware of this potential tension, as the launch of Imagine Better happens parallel to continuing action of the HPA, and not as a new organization replacing it, as was previously suggested to us in our conversations with staff members. An important part in this decision may have been fan perceptions climbing bottom-up: With most of its staff being volunteer members and with its vast variety of participatory forums, the HPA as an organization has extremely close contact with its member base. The general consensus within Harry Potter fandom that it is alive and kicking, thank you very much (strongly aided by the announcement of Pottermore), may have been a contributing factor to launch Imagine Better as an additional venture, rather than a replacement of the HPA.

As Slack reminded us at LeakyCon, few people – within the fandom and outside of it – had believed that the HPA would succeed as a civic organization. But it has. Imagine Better now takes on the next leap. Its attempt to apply a similar formula to other fan communities offers us a fascinating test case on the intersections between fandom and civic engagement. We are excitedly following it as it “opens at the close”.

Bringing the guilty part to justice: How Facebook, the scouts and one frustrated sister drove youth mobilization in Israel

Our work in the Civic Paths team touches on different ways in which participatory culture is linked to realms of civic engagement, particularly for young people. The following story, which has occupied the Israeli media last month, is an intriguing case study both for some questions our team has previously examined (what is the power of storytelling in mobilization?) and aspects we haven’t previously interrogated  (how can “traditional” youth movements fit in “new” efforts of mobilization?).

[Read more…]

Liminal political spaces

Liminal political spaces— Thoughts on my (mediated) attendance of President Obama’s visit to USC and what it can teach us about participatory politics

Neta Kligler-Vilenchik


                During the last week, a popular conversation topic on the USC campus was the upcoming visit of President Obama. His visit was planned as part of a political rally, promoting voting for the Democrats in the upcoming California election. Interestingly enough, though, it seemed that a lot of the conversation revolved around the logistics of this visit. People wondered whether classes and events would be rescheduled, how crazy traffic and parking will be. When trying to probe with some of my classmates whether they were planning to attend the rally, most replied that it would be too much of a hassle to come to campus.

                Throughout this week I was deliberating on whether or not to attend the rally. As a non-American citizen, I cannot vote in the upcoming elections. Still, I can’t deny the attraction of potentially seeing an American president in real life, and not only an American president – one that seemed particularly endowed with a celebrity quality. Still, I too was worried about the logistics on campus, and – as a busy graduate student – was also anxious about missing too much precious work time. As a compromise, I decided to come to campus, but to arrive only shortly before Obama’s expected speech (hours after first attendees showed up), and to see how things go. In fact, they went much easier than expected, and I arrived at campus rather quickly.

                  Upon my arrival, I was at first surprised at how deserted the campus seemed. Getting closer to the area of the rally, I found that it was walled off with a large green fence, but a “jumbotron” – a large video screen – was projecting the rally onto the grassy area at the nearby Leavey library, where some students were sitting and watching. In the beginning, I still made several attempts to go into the actual rally. The entrance area to the rally at first seemed encouragingly empty, but then I found out that people had to first stand in a different line to get a ticket. I hung around that area for a while, hoping that somehow I would get in anyway, but it seemed that these tickets were necessary, and the line for it was just too long. The people in charge were warning students in line that they may not get in at time to see Obama’s speech, and their best bet would be to watch the event from the jumbotron. So this was what I did too – I sat on the grass on a sunny afternoon, leaned on a tree, nibbled on a bagel, and watched the President of the United States on the screen, just 50 feet away from me. It turned out to be a unique experience. Not, as I first hoped, because of seeing a president in person in a political rally, but through thinking of the unique characteristics of the perspective from which I viewed the event – that of the “jumbotron” crowd.

                Comparing the experience of attending a public event versus watching its mediated version is not new, of course. As early as 1951, the sociologists Kurt and Gladys Lang attempted to compare the experience of attending the “MacArthur Day” parade and watching its televised counterpart. They found that while the audience actually attending the event experienced it as dull and disappointing, when televised it seemed like a dramatic, exciting event. Lang & Lang attributed this gap to the practices of television, which structured the event according to its assumptions of the audiences’ expectations. They called this the “unwitting bias” of television.

                Sitting and watching the Obama rally off the jumbotron while sitting on the grass with other students can’t be put on either side of Lang & Lang’s spectrum. It wasn’t sitting at home, watching an account of the rally produced by commercial mass television, using different angles and perspectives. But it wasn’t the same experience as actually attending the rally, either. I was very close to the physical location of the rally, I had other people around me, yet the fence separating this viewing area from the actually rally served as a significant boundary. In this way, the grass on which I sat, together with other students, watching the screening of the rally, can be thought of as a  liminal political space, a blurry boundary zone between the world and politics and the “everyday”.  Neither watching from at home, nor “being there”, it took on some of the characteristics of its counterparts, creating its own unique experience for its dispersed crowd.

                    On the one hand, we—the “jumbotron” crowd—were barely 50 feet from the area were the rally was taking place, and where Obama would soon speak. On the other hand, separated from the rally by a large green fence, the “feel” of the experience was palpably different. Whereas inside the political rally, people could not go in with backpacks, food or drink, on the grass of Leavey the atmosphere closer resembled that of a picnic. The audience, mostly USC students but also other guests, were sprawled on the grass in the surprising afternoon warmth (after a chilly morning and a rainy week), looking in the general direction of the jumbotron, shading their eyes from the sun. Some were sitting on picnic chairs, one student had his shirt off. People were snacking on sandwiches and drinks. Some students, perhaps—like me—anxious about the work time they’re missing, were working on their laptops or reading academic articles. The atmosphere, similarly to that felt inside the rally, was that of waiting for “the big event” – President Obama’s speech. But in the meantime, the mood was that of a relaxed afternoon in the sun. The many political figures that appeared in the rally before Obama, and on our screen, were met with relative indifference. A possible cause, or perhaps reflection, of this indifference, was the uncertainty of some of the audience as to what this event was actually about. After a series of Democratic candidates came on stage one after the other and called the crowd to vote for the Democrats, I overheard a student next to me ask his friend: “So is this a Democratic event?”. His friend wasn’t sure.

                The strange quality of our liminal political space was perhaps most apparent during the pledge of allegiance and the national anthem. Looking around me, I could see people wondering, do I stand up or not? Do I say out loud the pledge of allegiance? Do I sing the anthem? Again, the boundaries were blurred. The national ritual was enacted in front of us on the screen, and in very close proximity to us in reality. But we were not really participants in the rally, were we? It seemed that for most, the compromise was to stand up, some said the pledge of allegiance, but only few sang the anthem. Others, however, remained quite serenely sitting down and chatting, or walking across the grass during the singing of the anthem – behaviors that would have most likely been inappropriate within the parameters of the rally. For me, this was quite a relief – I do not know the words of the anthem, and as non-American citizen, am not sure I would feel comfortable singing it even if I would. Standing in front of the screen, I wasn’t as anxious of this as I may have been inside the perimeters of the rally.


President Obama at USC, 10/22/2010, photo by Shotgun Spratling, Neon Tommy

                 After several more speeches, the moment we had all waited for had come – President Obama came to the stage. He was met with enthusiasm – though perhaps less than I had expected. We, the jumbotron crowd, clapped as well, and the excitement was heightened. Obama began his speech talking about Trojan pride and gesturing ‘fight on’ – which was of course greatly cheered by the USC crowd. During his actual speech, though, a strange anti-climax seemed to occur. The audience gathered around the screen had obviously been waiting for Obama’s arrival. And yet, two or three minutes into his speech, when he began addressing politics, the excitement around me very quickly waned. Some people were chatting with their neighbors, others standing up and leaving. The group of students next to me – those who wondered whether this is a Democratic rally – were deliberating whether to get up and leave, probably in order to avoid the heavy traffic when the rally was over. One of them told his friend: “We waited until now, might as well wait till it’s over”. Deciding to stick around for now, they listened to the speech, throwing occasional joking remarks. When the Obama’s speech was over, the crowd quickly dispersed, hoping to reach their cars before all the rally attendees (I know I did…). On their way out, some took pictures in front of the jumbatron. I sure wish I would have taken one – but at that point I didn’t think of this blog yet.

                The notion I would like to devote some attention to, then, is that of the liminal political space. Watching the rally off the jumbatron, just a few feet away from the rally, created a unique experience, one different both from actually “being there” at the rally, but also from watching it on television (or the web) or not watching it at all. Rather than thinking only about this event, though, I want to see whether concept of liminal political spaces, and my experiences in this particular example of it, can help us elucidate the phenomenon we’re interested in our research group: that of participatory politics, or the ways in which participatory culture can lead to political engagement. Using the Harry Potter Alliance as one of our key case studies, we are asking ourselves how groups can engage young people in the political process in non-traditional means, building on existing content worlds and fan networks.

                   Liminal political spaces, as I define them here, are spaces of ‘in-between’: in between politics and people’s every-day lives. These are spaces that relate to traditional political spaces, but yet are uniquely distinct from them. Thinking of my experience at the rally, I’d like to mention several possible advantages of liminal political spaces in terms of increasing participation in democracy.


Crowd waiting in line for the rally (not for the jumbotron…). Photo by Jennifer Schultz, courtesy of NeonTommy.

                      First, liminal political spaces enable much easier access, or in the political science lingo, reduce the costs of political participation. Those who wanted to attend the political rally had to arrive very early, wait excruciating hours in line, stand all day in the sun without food or drink. Some even waited in line from 3:30 am. On the other hand, I, like many of the “jumbotron” crowd, arrived only an hour before Obama came on. When it was over, we left to our cars quickly, and weren’t stuck in traffic. We managed to experience a presidential visit (more or less), with minimum hassle involved.

                     Second, they allow for a wider variety of people to participate. For example, Republicans would have probably not felt very comfortable inside the rally, which was very clearly partisan. In our liminal political space, some of the audience criticized Obama or joked about his speech – but they still listened to it, were still part of the experience. They too, then, heard countless reminders of the importance of voting in the upcoming election – though perhaps they took it as a reminder to vote for the “other side”. For me, as a non-American citizen, participation in the liminal political space was more comfortable for other reasons. Not being inside the actually rally, I felt more legitimate in my “outsider” status, where it was ok not to sing the anthem. Around me I saw many who seemed like international students, and I suspect some of them felt the same – wanting to get the experience, but not feeling enough belonging to be inside the rally.

                    In that way, liminal political spaces allow for participation “on your own terms”. We could “participate” in a political rally while sitting on the grass in the sunshine, munching on bagels and chatting. But we still felt like we’re a part of the experience (even if a marginal part).

                    It seems to me that many of these advantages can be applied to some of the case studies we’re thinking of. Let’s take the Harry Potter Alliance. In many ways, it enables youth an easier access to politics (widely defined). While the view of all youth as being alienated from party politics is an overgeneralization, it does seem to have a point. For many young people, volunteering to take an active part in politics may just be too disconnected from their daily lives. Participatory politics can help bridge this gap, by using current areas of interest as points of connection between the audience and the politics. For example, for a Harry Potter fan, attending a wizard rock concert that is dedicated to fighting for marriage equality is  a much smaller leap than attending a traditional political demonstration. Participatory politics furthermore allows political participation on young people’s own terms. The forms of engagement we see in the Harry Potter Alliance vary from raising money, signing online petitions, donating books, participating in beach clean-ups, and encouraging other young people to register to vote (no matter to which party). There are different levels of membership possible, different levels of engagement. Some volunteer 20 hours a week, some sign an online petition once a month. In that way, participation can be diversified, allowing those with different views and different motivations to be a part of the political process, and to define this part for themselves.

                On the other hand, the green fence separating our grassy area from the rally has tangible consequences. As liminal political spaces are distinct from traditional political spaces, we must also consider some of their weaknesses, or even dangers, from the point of view of democracy.

                A main problem seems to be lower accountability. For the jumbotron crowd, our participation was made on our own terms, but this also meant that we felt much less committed to the political cause. The aim of the political rally was to get people (or, more specifically, Democrats) active and energized towards the upcoming election. They called people first and foremost to vote, but also possibly to volunteer to “make phone calls and knock on doors” (just as a side-note, what year are they living in? have they not heard of social networks?). But our liminal political space just did not seem to have the same energy that fosters active political engagement. The jumbotron crowd heard the same messages but, without the energy of hearing it together with a mass audience in a rally, the effect just didn’t seem the same. Here, it seems that the opposite happened than for Lang & Lang. From what it seems from random interviews, it seems that participating in the rally was a much stronger political-emotional experience than watching off the jumbotron.

                Here, I don’t want to be too quick to make comparisons to participatory politics. In fact, in some cases accountability may be even higher than in traditional politics. The Harry Potter Alliance, for example, functions through a structure of chapters and houses, competing with each other on achieving their social causes. Connected through their shared interests, members in participatory politics may feel more—and not less—of a shared responsibility towards their shared social causes.

                Another possible challenge, however, is that of the illusion of participation. This may be the argument of many critics about experiences such as our jumbotroned rally: You felt as though you were participating, but in fact you were not contributing to actual politics in any meaningful way. For example, we probably weren’t counted in the number of attendees. Did our attendance still matter politically, if we were not necessarily affected by its political messages? Then again, how does attending the rally matter?

                In participatory politics there may be a similar danger. As some critics claim, while young people today are socially active in many ways, they are not involved in traditional politics and, for them, this is the politics that matters. According to their claim, party politics is how US democracy works. In order to make a political difference, you have to play the political game.

                Yet the advantages of participatory politics as liminal political spaces can be thought of in several ways.

                   First, they can be thought of as a step towards engaging with “real politics”. Watching the rally off the jumbotron, for me, still carried with it some feeling of disappointment, that I wasn’t really there. That perhaps next time I will take the extra effort, come early, wait hours in line, and have the “real experience”. Similarly, experiencing politics, even very widely defined, through the “safe spaces” of organizations such as the Harry Potter Alliance has lead some members to think of a future in politics, even if they view politics as dirty business.

                   But moreover, it seems we should value liminal political spaces for what they are, not only as a step in a trajectory. Counter to traditional notions that see such participation as trivial, we can think of ways in which it is in fact more meaningful to its participants than traditional politics can be. The political rally which we watched on the screen was mostly geared towards increasing political enthusiasm. This is one thing that organizations such as the Harry Potter Alliance definitely succeed in. By linking social causes to narratives, characters and content worlds which their audiences already feel strongly about, these groups manage to recruit fantasy worlds to the causes of current day politics, achieving some spectacular results. Traditional politics can still learn a lesson or two from these liminal political spaces.


The Harry Potter Alliance winning $250,000 in the Chase Community Giving action, achieved by receiving a top number of votes by members.

Shared readings

The readings I’d like to share are some that I have used for writing my blog post on “Civic engagement – defined and redefined”, and some others I wanted to use but didn’t get to…

Readings from political science and education relevant to thinking about new forms of civic engagement:

Dalton, R.J. (2008).  The good citizen: How a younger generation is reshaping American politics.  Washington, DC: CQ Press.

Shea, D.M., & Green, J.C. (2007).  The turned-off generation: Fact and fiction.  In D.M. Shea and J.C. Green (Eds.), Fountain of youth: Strategies and tactics for mobilizing America’s young voters (pp. 1-18).  Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

Colby, A. (2008).  The place of political learning in college.  Association of American colleges and universities, Spring / summer, 4-12.

Owen, D. (2008, September).  Political socialization in the twenty-first century: Recommendations for researchers. Paper presented at the Future of Civic Education in the 21st Century conference, Montpelier, VT.  Electronic copy retrieved from http://www.civiced.org/pdfs/GermanAmericanConf2009/DianaOwen_2009.pdf

On the “scissor effect” : the claim that volunteering comes in place of political participation: Longo, N. (2004). The new student politics: Listening to the political voice of students. The Journal of Public Affairs 7(1), 1-14.

Data about young people’s volunteering and political engagement:

Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA (2009).  The American Freshman: National norms for 2008.  Los Angeles, CA. Available:  http://www.heri.ucla.edu/publications-brp.php

Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, see http://www.civicyouth.org/

The MacArthur Series on Civic Engagement – a key source for many of the issues we’re discussing, with a foreword by Henry Jenkins, Mimi Ito and others.

Civic engagment – defined and redefined

Civic engagement – defined and redefined

Neta Kligler Vilenchik

 As our research team is interested in the ways in which groups that gather around shared interest and participatory culture may ‘evolve’ into civic and political engagement, the question of how to define these spheres of engagement has been raised several times.

Questions of terminology are of particular importance to our work, on several levels. First, we strive to understand how members of the organizations we are interested in define their own participation. Do they see it as charity? volunteering? civic engagement? political action? Second, and while taking into account the definitions used by interviewees, we need to establish the terms through which we as researchers discuss and interpret these activities. The terms and definitions we use must, in turn, be established in relationship and through conversation with other terms and definitions used in academia, whether in communication or in other, related disciplines. Finally, the ways in which we define these groups’ forms of engagement also have wider implications to the point we wish to make with our research. While being observers, we also have our own stake, in striving for wider forms of civic and political participation of young people to be acknowledged, accepted and valued.

                In this blog post, I would like to survey some work that was been done in the political science literature, which calls for accepting wider forms of civic participation of young people. The field of political science is often considered, within and outside of that discipline, as the ‘authority’ for questions of forms of political action[1]. Surveying this work serves to show the contribution of our own work, which calls for a dual widening of the sphere of the political: both in terms of the types of action that is acknowledged, and in regards to the diversified styles of action that is valued.

                A good starting point for this discussion is what Shea and Green (2007, p. 5) call “the myth of self-centered, apathetic younger Americans”. This refers to the view, common both in lay discussion and in many parts of academia, that young people in America are lazy, selfish, self-absorbed, and apathetic to civic matters. This myth, as Shea and Green quickly show, is very much mistaken. They cite studies showing that volunteering rates are higher among young people than among older adults, and higher among young people today than they were among the same age-group 20 years ago (see Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement). In contrast to what many think, young people volunteer not only due to service requirements in high schools and in order to be admitted to college, but—according to the amount of time donated—much beyond that. This tendency can furthermore be seen not only in college candidates, but throughout different ethnic groups and socioeconomic classes. Shea and Green conclude (2007, p. 5): “young Americans are anything but apathetic and immoral”.

                Why then the gap between reality and common perceptions? Here comes the main point Shea and Green (2007) are trying to make. Along with a group of academics (e.g. Longo, 2004; Colby, 2008), they are worried that while young people increase their civic engagement, this does not extend, and even comes instead of, political involvement: “While youngsters seem more than willing to lend a hand cleaning up streams, helping others learn to read, and volunteering at the community soup kitchen, they shun politics—the very process that could produce solutions to polluted streams, poverty and adult illiteracy” (p. 8). Longo (2004) calls this the “scissor effect”—the claim that while young people volunteer much more (Longo, p. 63, calls this “service politics”), but participate much less in actual politics. The alleged reason for this is that young Americans feel marginalized with the political process, and so prefer to volunteer in specific projects, which enables them to feel immediate, concrete paybacks of their involvement. This is seen as creating “nothing less than a crisis of our democracy” (Longo, 2004, p. 61).

                In fact, this view may be outdated, as recent findings show that political conversation among college freshmen in 2008 was at its highest in the last 40 years, and keeping up-to-date with politics was increasing (Higher Education Research Institute, 2009). But even if this were not the case, the problem with this point is the clear distinction it creates between political participation and civic engagement/volunteering. Political participation is implicitly defined here as engagement that happens within party politics, whereas volunteering—while appreciated—is deemed as politically insignificant[2]. But does this distinction hold water?

Consider the case of Mara. Mara, 22, was interviewed as a member of the LA chapter of the Harry Potter Alliance. Mara defines herself as politically active in a wide range of issues she sees as important, such as libertarian groups, gay rights groups, Jewish groups. Mara spends between an hour and two hours daily (!) as an ‘online activist’. She subscribes to the mailing lists of dozens of political groups, both ones she agrees with, and one she doesn’t, receiving and reading around 25 political emails a day. She researches about these groups, and uses her connection to groups she disagrees with in order to resist their efforts and send her own messages. For example, if an anti-gay-rights group calls members to protest companies that seem to support gay rights, she sends those same companies emails with the opposite message, calling them not to cave to the pressure of such groups. Several times a month, Mara attends events of the different groups she belongs to, and has been part of beach clean-ups, book donations, commemoration of soldiers and war victims, and other activities. But Mara is not registered for a political party, and sees the Democrats as being no better than the Republicans. According to traditional definitions, which see political action as occurring within the frames of party politics, Mara may be seen as another “disengaged young American”.

                This aspect of participation, however, is not completely lost within the political science literature. One example is Russell Dalton’s book The Good Citizen (2008). Refuting the argument of declining political participation among young people, Dalton calls to accept new forms of political activism. According to this argument, what is changing are the norms of citizenship: duty-based norms of citizenship, the ones stimulating political voting, are declining. However, “engaged citizens apparently are not so drawn to elections, but prefer more direct forms of political action, such as working with public interest groups, boycotts, or contentious actions” (Dalton, 2008, p. 55). Dalton claims that the repertoire of political action is expanding, including not only voting, but also actions such as contacting officials directly, protesting, or engaging in communal activity: working with others to address political issues (p. 62).

This aspect is increasing within the realm of the Internet. As Dalton (p. 66) argues, “the Internet is creating a form of political activism that did not previously exist. The Internet provides a new way for people to connect to others, to gather and share information, and to attempt to influence the political process… The potential of the Internet is illustrated on the Facebook.com Web site, where young adults communicate and can link themselves to affinity groups that reflect their values as a way to meet other like-minded individuals”. Part of the reasons for young people’s new forms of engagement, in his view, has to do with “the growth of self-expressive values encouraging participation in activities that are citizen initiated, less constrained, directly linked to government, and more policy oriented” (p.68). Thus, “The engaged citizen is more likely to participate in boycotts, “buycotts”, demonstrations, and other forms of contentious action”.

Dalton finally names two examples of these new forms of engagement (p. 76), the example of Alex, an 18 year old from California who switched shampoos over animal testing, does not buy clothes produced by child labor, and helped organize a protest over the genocide in Sudan in her high school, before she was even eligible to vote. Jaime, a high school student in Maryland, created a teen group to encourage high school students to become socially involved, which boomed through Facebook. Dalton claims: “These two examples are not representative of all young people, but they illustrate the new focuses and forms of political activism that exist beyond elections, and that can enrich our democratic process if we understand these new forms of political action” (p. 76).

                Dalton’s position, then, is much closer to the one our research team takes, than that of Shea and Green (2007), Longo (2004), or Colby (2008), in that it accepts and acknowledges new forms of engagement as politically significant. In the political science literature, Dalton’s expanded definition of what is seen as ‘engaged citizenship’ is seen as a “provocative thesis” (see David Magleby’s review of the book).

The work we do in our research team, however, goes a step or two further. We focus on these non-traditional forms of engagement, that do not consist only of voting, but include “boycotts, “buycotts”, demonstrations, and other forms of contentious action” (Dalton, 2008, p. 68). While some of this political action takes place in physical locations, much of it happens online, and this online action plays a big role in our research (whereas Dalton acknowledged it, but did not study it). Going further, the groups we examine show new ways of recruiting members and of creating shared grounds of interest and commonality among them. For the Harry Potter Alliance, for example, a shared love for the content world of Harry Potter enables participants of diverse backgrounds, ages, and views, to come together for political action such as protecting marriage equality and other actions we are now learning of.

This review of some of the literature in political science assists us to base our claims within an ongoing scholarly conversation. The argument we make and the cases we examine place our research team in a key position in this conversation, not only implementing the up-to-date arguments in the field, but taking them several steps further. Still, we must also keep in mind that the dominant view of many is that politics only matters when it is performed within the frame of political parties. The argument that other forms of politics matter too will need to be justified in response to such claims.                


Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, see http://www.civicyouth.org/

Colby, A. (2008).  The place of political learning in college.  Association of American colleges and universities, Spring / summer, 4-12.

Dalton, R.J. (2008).  The good citizen: How a younger generation is reshaping American politics.  Washington, DC: CQ Press.

Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA (2009).  The American Freshman: National norms for 2008.  Los Angeles, CA. Available:  http://www.heri.ucla.edu/publications-brp.php

Longo, N. (2004). The new student politics: Listening to the political voice of students. The Journal of Public Affairs 7(1), 1-14.

Shea, D.M., & Green, J.C. (2007).  The turned-off generation: Fact and fiction.  In D.M. Shea and J.C. Green (Eds.), Fountain of youth: Strategies and tactics for mobilizing America’s young voters (pp. 1-18).  Plymouth, UK: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.

[1] Thanks to Ben for raising this point, as well as challenging it.

[2] Colby (2008), who is also worried that the increase in civic engagement does not lead to political learning, but still thrives to accept wider forms of participation, sees as a key criterion of distinction that “political activities are driven by systemic-level goals, a desire to affect the shared values, practices, and policies that shape collective life” (p. 4).