Possibilities for Engaged Scholarship

I’ve been thinking lately about engaged and other forms of participatory scholarship and how it might apply to the work that we’re doing at Civic Paths.  Engaged scholars are intentional in crafting a relationship with their work that includes a dedication and involvement with their subject matter; the scholar admits to becoming a stakeholder rather than attempting to remain objective and uninvolved.  This kind of framing connects to a trend in qualitative methods where scholars deeply consider the potential impact of their work, and attempt to challenge the power dynamic that appears to so starkly distance researchers from their subjects.  By engaging with participants in this way, researchers can also begin to employ different notions of traditional concepts like validity and voicing.  For instance, new knowledge and findings can be validated by the participants, rather than just the researcher, and the voices of the participants can be utilized within the writing process alongside the voice of the researcher.

Although our research collective sometimes shies away from discussing our relationship with organizations, it seems that there is a standard default that has been assumed—we are studying and learning from these organizations, and we are not intervening in their work in any way.  Whether or not it is intentional, this assumption upholds the position that we must remain academics, and they must remain practitioners, and that a divide exists between the two.  I would like us to question these assumptions, for a number of reasons.  First, our process of growing knowledge and developing insights about how young people become civically engaged via participatory culture could be strengthened by a sense of collaboration and reflexivity, rather than assuming the traditional posture of the (knowing) academic and the (unknowing) subject.  Although I don’t feel that anyone actually believes that academics are superior to practitioners, we still need to consider the implications of choosing conduct our research in a traditional fashion.  Given the unique relationships that we already have with these organizations (for instance, that we present together at academic conferences), it seems natural to begin to question our own methodologies.  Moreover, it is safe to say that we already are stakeholders in the project of helping young people to become civically engaged—we have a firm opinion on the matter, which is that our society is improved when more people are civically engaged, and so we are invested in learning about this process so that we can find new ways to encourage others to do the same.

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Definitions of Otaku and Hikikomori

I was surprised at a wrong definition of Otaku listed on Urban Dictionary.com…

Otaku is defined in the Urban Dictionary as follows:

Otaku is the honorific word of Taku (home). Otaku is extremely negative in meaning as it is used to refer to someone who stays at home all the time and doesn’t have a life (no social life, no love life, etc). Usually an otaku person has nothing better to do with their life so they pass the time by watching anime, playing videogames, surfing the internet (otaku is also used to refer to a nerd/hacker/programmer). (death_to_all, 2003)

Then I finally realize why some American people couldn’t tell the difference between Otaku and Hikikomori.

Wikipedia listed more appropriate definition as follows:

In modern Japanese slang, the term otaku refers to a fan of any particular theme, topic, or hobby. Common uses are anime otaku (a fan of anime), cosplay otaku and manga otaku (a fan of Japanese graphic novels), pasokon otaku (personal computer geeks), gēmu otaku (playing video games), and wota (pronounced ‘ota’, previously referred to as “idol otaku”) that are extreme fans of idols, heavily promoted singing girls. There are also tetsudō otaku or denshamania (railfans) or gunji otaku (military geeks).

So, English translation could be maniac or mania. Otaku people have a specific and profound interest in something and they can interact with other fans in person and online even though they talk and act in a geeky way. Otaku can be used positively to express their expertise.

On the other hand, Hikikomori people have sever difficulty in social interaction so that they stay at home all the time, have nothing better to do with their life, and pass the time by watching anime, playing videogames and surfing the internet as Urban Dictionary explains about Otaku people. I don’t know how this misinterpretation started but it might be attributed to the honorific word of Taku (home) since the image of being at home can be connected the word, Taku.

The meaning of new terms created in popular culture is always changing and hard to define. While researchers have hard time to keep up with changes, the participatory culture like Wikipedia can take more prompt action about popular culture.

Akoha – a Direct Action Game?

How can we make everyday civic participation more compelling? There is a new kind of game on the horizon, one that experiments with real-world action. I call them “direct action games,” because they restructure acts like volunteering, activist training, and charitable giving. One early prototype is Akoha, which launched last year, quite off the radar of traditional civics activities.

At first glance, Akoha looks like a media hub for a do-it-yourself Boy Scouts. Their website and iPhone app reveal thousands of participants, many reporting on success with real-world “missions,” from going vegetarian for a day, to debating the “I Have a Dream” speech.  The actual missions often take place offline, but are only acknowledged when documented with photos and stories for the online community.

Participants are mostly adults, but the ages vary widely. The experience is deeply social, as friends create missions for each other, and share their stories.  More formal recognition for participation comes as players earn badge-like awards — such as “multi-talented” for those who complete one mission in every possible category.

Yet most of Akoha does not look or sound civic. Only one of the mission categories explicitly addresses “social causes.”  The other nine concern self-actualization in various forms, from “health and well-being” to family time, engaging with popular culture, and the discovery of travel.  Is this breadth an upside or downside?   That depends on your civic goals, which might include:

  1. Fostering citizen journalism, as participants report on civic themes in their communities
  2. Informal civic learning, as participants reflect on their civic experiences in new ways through stories and pictures
  3. Building social capital, as participants create new ties across traditional social groups

These civic goals may be structurally possible with Akoha, but they are rhetorically hidden.  Even as Akoha’s missions bring people into the real world, they avoid the “we are purely civic” framing that occurs on many activist and volunteering websites.  For the Akoha community, it’s OK to admit that you are mainly there to have fun, or are trying to improve yourself (and not simply sacrificing for others).  Consider this screenshot from the social cause mission “I Am Not an Island”:

Akoha screenshot -- mission -- not an island

Participation begins with the usual click of a button, yet the specific language of “Play Now” differs sharply from the tool focus of civic action websites (e.g., “Take Action Now;” or “Sign the Petition”).   But what exactly does it mean to ‘play’ Akoha?  Is it a game?
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The Tea Party movement

Over the last few months, I’ve been helping to develop the group’s understanding of civic activism by US political groups on the right – conservatives and libertarians, broadly speaking. We’ve been particularly looking for examples which centre on encouraging youth movements through grassroots participatory practices and new media platforms. Of course, the most high-profile example of participatory politics identified with the American right today is the Tea Party phenomenon, which was hailed as potentially being decisive in the 2010 midterm elections (although the actual results were mixed). The Tea Party movement is actually neither a political party nor a unified movement although the numerous groups which compose it have a generally recognized shared agenda that supports smaller government and a reassertion of what is claimed to be the original or traditional values of the U.S. Constitution in American politics. Typically understood as first being catalyzed by the government response to the financial crisis of 2008 as well as opposition to proposed healthcare reform legislation, the Tea Party movement can be roughly characterized as being focused on economic and political libertarianism, with relatively little interest in the social issues that conservatives often prioritize. A card-carrying veteran libertarian might question the ideological consistency of Tea Party politics, however — seeing them as more culturally than philosophically driven.

While it has formed itself out of many different and distinct clusters from across the country, the movement is generally understood as favouring relatively leaderless, non-hierarchical and decentralized structures and processes of organization and communication. For example, as the National Journal has reported, a popular management book that is widely read by organizers within the Tea Party movement is The Starfish and the Spider by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom (2006) which describes and contrasts the advantages and drawbacks of two ideal type models of organizations – the centralized, tightly controlled and hierarchical spider model and the dispersed, loosely networked and egalitarian starfish model. Many Tea Party members would consider their movement to be more like a starfish while more traditional political party structures are thought to to be more spider-like.  The starfish model however would not have been so successful were it not for the crucial role played by new media platforms, and especially Web 2.0 social media – Tea Party organizations have prominently encouraged social media training for its supporters.

Of course, the Tea Party is also known for being controversial, with heightened political tensions on all sides. The movement has attracted much critical attention from those on the political left and centre — including accusations that the the movement is largely (consciously or not) motivated by the divisive politics of race and alarmism — although many critics seem to be still working through the process of making sense of the complexities of the Tea Party movement for themselves. There have also been prominent liberal commentators who have expressed partial or selective support for some Tea Party positions and initiatives, including the feminist Naomi Wolf and the cyberspace legal theorist Lawrence Lessig. There are critics of the Tea Party on the right too — for instance,  conservative commentator Ron Radosh has concurred with liberal Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s objections to the Tea Party’s understanding and use of the history of the American Revolution and the Founding Fathers. And while Republican Party representatives and politicians have increasingly and often successfully sought to work with Tea Party activists, there are tensions between the Republicans and the Tea Party movement and some gaps in mutual understanding. Alliances between the two are still fraught with debates over whether the traditional GOP establishment is co-opting a movement that prides itself on its grassroots origins and a philosophy of principle over party. Views amongst Tea Partiers are also decidedly mixed about those right-wing political celebrities who seem to be claiming a role in the movement: while there is significant skepticism about probable contender for the 2012 Republican Presidential nomination Sarah Palin, there is seems to be greater support amongst Tea Party activists for the Fox News television personality  Glenn Beck.

There are, I think, two characteristics of the Tea Party movement thus far which are of most interest as lines on inquiry for our research into the participatory civics:

  1. The evolution of grassroots identity. The Tea Party movement famously understands itself as fiercely proud of its amateur grassroots identity and origins – it is widely recognized as one of the most successful popular political movements in America in recent decades. Anecdotes of movement supporters becoming interested in politics for the first time in their lives are a staple of coverage of the movement. However, as the movement has matured, a substantial amount of the grassroots political activity originally sparked seems to have faltered or has turned out to have been limited in its engagement in political processes — as highlighted by a recent Washington Post investigation. At the same time, the GOP and the well-funded and long-established networks of think-tanks and professional political activism organizations on the right seem to be playing an ever greater role in the movement despite the anxieties of many Tea Party organizers who are protective of the movements’ grassroots identity. What can the experiences of the Tea Party movement tell us about the evolution of the meaning of “grassroots” in the life cycle of a popular political movement?
  2. The curious lack of young Tea Party activists. As Meghan McCain has complained, the Tea Party seems to have struggled to attract and retain young activists.

While it is true that the demographics of the Tea Party movement seem to closely track those of the general U.S. population, it is striking to compare it with the “Obama-mania” of 2007-8 as well as with Republican Senator Ron Paul’s “Re-LOVE-ution” libertarian “insurgency” in the same period. Both those movements were seen as grassroots successes (albeit with support from traditional political structures) with strong internet and new media components – and both were understood largely driven by younger participants. This was especially so in the case of Ron Paul’s campaign which is curious given that many of his positions (and those of his son, Republican Senator-elect Rand Paul) are roughly sympathetic with those espoused by Tea Party movement supporters. What can the Tea Party case tell us about youth participation on the right in America? Grassroots youth interest in libertarian groups appears to be strong so why has the Tea Party not (so far) attracted more young voters and activists?


(Pictures are Creative Commons licensed images from Flickr.com. Top picture is by “The Q” and is a shot of Tea Party protestors listening to a U.S. Congressman in Washington D.C. in 2010. Right picture is by “B Campbell” and is a shot of Tea Party activists in Albany, New York in 2009. Bottom picture is by “Chuck ‘Caveman’ Coker” and shows Tea Party activists in Yucaipa, California in 2009.)

Ghoulish ATMs, It’s a Wonderful Bank, and Bloody Valentines: Personal Finance as Civic Communication

On April 5, 2010, President Obama issued a proclamation (PDF) declaring April “National Financial Literacy Month.” It was a call for collective agency and responsibility, positioning the “recent economic crisis” as the “result of both irresponsible actions on Wall Street, and everyday choices on Main Street.” He condemned the financial industry, but also noted, “We are each responsible for understanding basic concepts: how to balance a checkbook, save for a child’s education, steer clear of deceptive financial products and practices, plan for retirement, and avoid accumulating excessive debts.” Global economic disaster became a wake-up call for quotidian financial literacy.

About a month before, a headline from the parody newspaper the Onion declared, “U.S. Economy Grinds To Halt As Nation Realizes Money Just A Symbolic, Mutually Shared Illusion.” It begins, “The U.S. economy ceased to function this week after unexpected existential remarks by Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke shocked Americans into realizing that money is, in fact, just a meaningless and intangible social construct.” The revelation radiates out from Bernanke, and bewildered traders show up out of habit for the opening bell to blankly stare at “meaningless scrolling numbers on the flashing screens above.” President Obama is depicted alone with his coin collection, muttering, his mind “too blown” to hold a press conference. Would-be bank robbers laugh with security guards about the “absurdity of the idea of $100 bills.”

The Onion article and Obama’s declaration of National Finance Literacy Month are metonyms for money’s position in what Time called the “great recession.” Money is both central and illusory. There seems to be a growing sense that money is system of socially contingent shared meanings and practices– far from the totally rational method of exchange we have sometimes imagined it to be. However, this awareness alone bestows neither the knowledge to monitor banking reform legislation nor to climb out of credit card debt. However, it does put the meaning of money into play.

After the jump, I take a closer look at groups that have seized this opportunity to infuse even traditional uses for money with new significance, undermining the taken-for-granted authority of financial institutions and turning personal banking into a form of civic communication. Plus, since we’re beginning the holiday season, there’ll be some ideas for a slightly late Halloween, an early Christmas, or a rather early Valentine’s Day!
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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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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.

Structure of Feeling / Structure of Being

Throughout the course of our investigations, we have garnered a much greater understanding of the relationship between activities grounded in pop culture and political movements, civic engagement, and public participation. Together we have begun to contemplate a multitude of frameworks and spheres ranging from social media—a member of our team, Kevin Driscoll, has recently responded to Malcolm Gladwell’s criticisms of Twitter—to DIY cultures and flash activism. Our thinking has been supplemented by insightful interviews and we have undoubtedly grown since our inception a year ago.  Yet, as with many other forms of research, hard work and findings, while fruitful, have also served to illuminate further areas of inquiry. For our research team, one of these subjects is the role and potential purpose of religion.

Going into this project, I feel as though our group endeavored to discover emergent themes:  although we each came to the table with a particular set of experiences, we used our backgrounds—a shared history of fan studies, civic action, popular culture, and cultural/media studies—to develop loose hypotheses regarding the various trajectories that groups might take. In some ways, then, it might make sense that we have only recently begun to dig deeper into religion’s role as the intersection between religion, media, and culture has only recently become a point of consideration; traditionally, scholars in various fields explored the overlap between religion/media, religion/culture, and media/culture, but not necessarily all three at once (Hoover and Lundby 1997).  [Read more…]

Perhaps a revolution is not what we need

Malcolm Gladwell joins a rising chorus of skeptics in his latest piece for the New Yorker, Small change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted. Responding to what he calls an “outsized enthusiasm” for social media technologies as activist tools, he argues that the weak ties enabled by services like Twitter cannot inspire the kind of commitment and bravery required of “high-risk activism” like the civil rights movement.

It’s a compelling argument and, to his credit, Gladwell works hard to name the sources of this “enthusiasm”. Among his slacktivist hall of shame: oversold “Twitter Revolutions” in Moldova and Iran, massive awareness campaigns on Facebook, and the Legend of the Stolen Cellphone (as told by Clay Shirky).

Despite careful attention to some very real weaknesses of network activism, Gladwell’s argument suffers from a lack of detail in two important areas: technology and history.

What is “Twitter”?

Three different Twitter clients

Twitter is the representative social media technology throughout most of Gladwell’s article. But as an admitted non-user, Gladwell overlooks features and user scenarios that would add a critical complexity to his argument. Like email or the telephone, Twitter is a non-prescriptive communication platform. Each user experiences “Twitter” differently depending on the time of day and frequency she checks her feed, the other people she follows, and the interface(s) she uses to access the network. Because of this flexibility, norms emerge, mutate, collide, and fade away among Twitter users with a fluidity that may not be easily apprehendable to a non-user like Gladwell.

Twitter may feel like a new phenomenon but listen closely and you will find echoes of older technological paradigms at its borders. A Twitter feed is expressed using the same protocols that syndicate blog content and its famous 140-character limit ensures compatibility with a text messaging standard from 1985. These design decisions afford Twitter data a powerful mobility. You can subscribe to a Twitter feed with an blog reader and send a tweet from any old mobile phone. Technically speaking, there is little “new” about it.

Although Andrew Sullivan and others initially reported that the 2009 protests in Iran were coordinated by Twitter, it turns out that most of the Twitter activity was taking place in Europe and the U.S.. This narrative meets the needs of Gladwell’s argument – Twitter use did not contribute to direct action on the streets of Tehran – but misses an opportunity to investigate an odd parallel: thousands of people with internet access spent days fixated on a geographically-remote street protest.

Who was that fixated population? Amin Vafa suggests that young diasporic Iranians like himself (“lucky enough to move to the US back in the late 1980s”) may have played a critical role in the flurry of English-language activity on Twitter. He recalls obsessively seeking information to retweet, “I knew at the time it wasn’t much, but it was something.” Messages sent among family and friends within and without Iran provided countless small bridges between the primarily SMS-based communication paradigm in Iran and the tweet-based ecology of the US/EU.

Such connections among far-flung members of Iranian families represent strong ties of a type similar to those that Gladwell admires in the civil-rights movement. And Vafa’s experience suggests that the specific technological affordances of Twitter enabled people to exercise those ties on a transnational scale. This is not to recommend either Twitter or SMS as effective tools for organizing an uprising (when things get hectic, cell phone service is the first to go) but instead to highlight the critical importance of including technical detail in any discussion of social media activism.

What is “the civil-rights movement”?

Leaves blowing away

Gladwell presents the civil-rights movement as a touchstone for “traditional” activism. In vivid narrative passages, he recounts moments of breathtaking heroism among black activists in the face of hate, discrimination, and brutality. This bravery, he argues, was inspired by strong local ties and enabled by support from hierarchically-structured organizations like the N.A.A.C.P. The movement, as he finds it, was “disciplined”, “precise”, and “strategic”; systematically mobilizing thousands of participants in the execution of long-term plans toward well-defined goals. “If you’re taking on a powerful and organized establishment,” he concludes, “you have to be a hierarchy.”

Absent from this discussion, however, is consideration for the role of history in our present-day understanding of the civil-rights movement. During a visit to our research group last week, Steven Classen reminded us that our cultural memory of the civil-rights era is built on an incomplete record. Civil-rights activism was, in Gladwell’s terms, “high-risk” activism and carried the threat of injury or death. For this reason, activist communication was covert and empheral; the kind that does not leave traces to be collected and preserved in an archive.

Before the civil-rights movement can provide data to support an analysis of hierarchical activist organizations, consideration must be made for the thousands of “silent heroes” whose whose risks and labor were not recorded in any official history. Classen’s interviews and archival research revealed an enlarged history of the civil-rights movement in which the highly-visible actions of centralized organizations were accompanied by small acts of resistance among seemingly autonomous groups in rural communities throughout Mississippi. How should researchers account for these gaps and discrepancies? In spite of the sheer quantity of data produced by today’s social media use, there will always be aspects of social movements that are lost, forgotten, obscured, and excluded.

The same risk of injury that once obscured many human stories from the dominant history of the civil-rights movement is fundamental to Gladwell’s categorization of different types of activism. On one hand, he is right to distinguish “high-risk” activism like the civil-rights movement from comparatively safe acts like joining a Facebook Cause but when he writes that, “activism that challenges the status quo […] is not for the faint of heart”, he seems to imply that violence is a necessary condition for effecting social change. In response, Linda Raftree recalls the nerve-wracking experience of carrying a politically-themed t-shirt through the streets of El Salvador in the early 1990s. The very same act that seems innocuous to a U.S. citizen can be extremely risky within a different political regime. As social media networks and their users increasingly cross national boundaries, the line between “high” and “low” risks will blur. Depending on one’s geographic, cultural, and religious position, participation in social media activism may involve considerable risks: social ostracization, joblessness, displacement, or spiritual alienation.

What works?

Screenshot from an It Gets Better video

The most hierarchical organizations in the civil-rights movement focused on (and succeeded in changing) the most hierarchical problems they faced: discriminatory laws and policies. But racism is not a highly-structured problem. In fact, racism is a dispersed, slippery evil that circulates, mutates, and evolves as it moves through groups of people across time and space. The hierarchical civil-rights movement defeated Jim Crow, an instantiation of racism, but could not eradicate racism itself.

Perhaps network problems like racism require non-hierarchical, network solutions. Stetson Kennedy’s “Frown Power” campaign of the 1940s and 1950s was an effort to address racism in a network fashion. To combat everyday racism, Kennedy encouraged anti-racist whites to respond to racist remarks simply by frowning. Dan Savage’s It Gets Better project is a similar present-day example. Angered and saddened by the persistence of homophobic bullying among high school students, Savage asks queer adults to speak directly to victimized teens using web video. Both campaigns are activism for the “faint of heart”. They effect a slow, quiet change rather than large-scale revolution.

And maybe a focus on outcomes is what this conversation needs. Creating a hard distinction between “traditional” activism and “social media” activism is a dead end. Whether the medium is Twitter, pirate radio, a drum, or lanterns hung in a Boston church tower, “real world” activism depends on the tactical selection of social media technologies. Rather than fret about “slacktivism” or dismiss popular new tools because of their hype, we should be looking critically at history for examples of network campaigns like Frown Power that take advantage of their culture and technological circumstances to effect new kinds of social change.

Civic Proportions: Jill and Jagruti in Community and Society

“(The Harry Potter Alliance is not about activism per se but rather is) a community that is active.” – An HPA staff member

“… there is something both exhilarating and disheartening about the graph of civil society responses this year. At one level, the public outcry against the miscarriage of justice in the Jessica (Lall) and Priyadarshini (Mattoo) cases has truly been a spontaneous act of citizenship from people normally not given to acts of citizenship. At the India Gate rally for Jessica, for instance, there was no mistaking the anger, the yearning for something purer… But a curious theatricality underran the entire evening. People were acting in unconscious facsimile. Several people who took the mike that day referred to Rang De Basanti: at times it seemed more than the injustice itself, the film was their inspiration. It had not just intuited a latent public mood; in a curious twist, it had become the mood itself.” – Shoma Chaudhury, writing in Tehelka on 01.07.07

I. [Introduction]

Community : Society

A. Community

When I came to the communication program at USC Annenberg a little over a year ago, I was puzzled by what people meant when they used the word “community”.

Examples (made-up or otherwise) of such usage are:

1a. “The PhD community at Annenberg is tightly-knit, kept apart only by people’s busy schedules.”

1b. “Los Angeles’ diverse neighborhoods are unified by a distinctive feeling of community.”

1c. “Participatory culture shifts the focus of literacy from one of individual expression to community involvement.” (Jenkins et al., 2006, p. 4)

1d. “(The Harry Potter Alliance is not about activism per se but rather is) a community that is active.” (Member of the HPA interviewed by Ritesh on 8.14.10)

I asked myself: what do people mean when they use “community” in these instances? Is it similar to or different from the notion of “society”? In the India (Bombay) where I grew up, people hardly ever used the word “community”, let alone in the above manners. I am still in the process of grasping how “community” is used in America. In fact, the last usage example (1d), paraphrased from an interview conducted during our summer research with a member of the HPA, brought out most clearly one understanding of ‘community’. I tentatively put it forth as:

“a network of localized, neighbor-like involvements, geographical or virtual, through which one develops a sense of group identity, feels belonging with members of the group who are united by a sense of important purpose, and via whose goals and causes one contributes to the world-at-large.”

This understanding of ‘community’ is from the point of view of an individual member, and includes the aspect ‘contribution to a cause greater than oneself’ that is not lent to more generic understandings alluded in 1a-c above. For example, the understanding of “PhD community” in 1a does not suggest this aspect.

B. Society

What then do I mean by “society”? Let’s look at some examples of usage (made-up or not): [Read more…]