German Gamers Use Shared Media Culture to Bring About TV Investigation

For the last two days I’ve been following a very interesting and most of all rapid form of civic engagement amongst the gamer community in Germany. I first heard about it from my brother back home, who is a gamer and sent me a link to a video that sparked a tremendous outrage online, particularly on YouTube. The content of the video is a short “news report” on the gamescom (game convention and exhibition in Cologne last weekend) from the current affairs show ‘explosiv’ on RTL, one of the two leading German broadcast TV stations (German cable is virtually non-existent). In the report gamers are portrayed as a bunch of male, alcoholic and crazed weirdoes who have a terrible body hygiene and no romantic relationships.

You can find a subtitled version here:
(I hope this video hasn’t been taken down when you are accessing it; banning YouTube videos has been RTL’s crisis strategy, it seems).

First shown on air last Friday, August 19th, the video immediately
went viral amongst gamers, and when leading gamer and YouTuber Rainer
Schauder came back from gamescom Tuesday this week (August 23rd) and
finally saw the video himself, he took to his YouTube channel (link in German) to not
rant against the TV station (like so many other gamers had at first),
but to encourage all other gamers to go to (link in German),
Germany’s official TV complaints website, and to launch a formal
complaint against RTL and the ‘explosiv’ report.



Rainer Schauder calls upon the gamer community to stop ranting and take 'real' action against RTL



Schauder explicitly asked his viewers to abstain from any derogatory remarks against RTL or the video, and to clearly and objectively explain in the complaint comment section how this report discriminates against gamers and breaches several broadcasting laws and codes of ethics. Schauder uploaded this video at 4am on Wednesday (August 24th) morning (EST+1 /
German time).

According to a second (link in German) video Schauder uploaded about 12 hours later, even he himself would never have imagined the immense and immediate response to his video, which of course also went viral. Thousands of gamers all over Germany took first to the TV complaint website to lodge their official complaints, and then created their own (link in German) YouTube videos sharing their objective and to-the-point messages they used in the complaint comment section. Many went so far as to cite broadcast laws and regulations in detail (chapter and paragraph numbers). By 9am on Thursday morning (August 25th), had broken down several times due to its extreme website traffic, and a total of 6.500 complaints (link in German) had been submitted. At the moment the website is back up again, with a request to not submit any more RTL/’explosiv’- related complaints as the Complaints Commission is already looking into it. In addition, a video (link in German) has surfaced on several YouTube pages and website that claims to be an official message from the hacker group Anonymous, with a threat to take RTL down due to its sensationalist practices that lack any journalistic integrity (this is not the first time RTL’s ‘news programs’ have been questionable). However, it has been questioned whether this video is real (i.e. indeed authored by Anonymous).

While RTL and the show ‘explosive’ have a website, Facebook pages, and Twitter accounts, it took until noon on Thursday, August 24th 2011, that RTL issued an official apology, as a press release and as a video on their website. The producer of the show also posted on the gamescom facebook page saying that the report was meant to be comedic and ironic, and that he apologizes “should he have insulted the feelings of anyone.”

However, it seems that these apologies aren’t enough for the gamers – and I cannot blame them. The wording of the apologies is formulaic and insincere at best, and so the gamers are demanding a broadcast apology with an actual effort on RTL’s behalf to show the diversity amongst the gamer community and to eliminate the prejudices the producers established in their original report. It is late Thursday evening in Germany now, so I’m waiting to see what will happen tomorrow, but I think this whole situation is an excellent example how youths can use their shared media culture to organize quickly and efficiently, and to
bring about real-life and even actual legal action.


Update (Aug 25 2011, PM): Rainer Schauder just uploaded his “final” video for his cause, thanking the gamers for taking such great action and asking them to now stop complaining and the let Complaints Commissioners do their job. He also doesn’t want anyone to keep ranting about RTL and particularly doesn’t want them to continue to throw swear-words at the station and its show. Lastly, he makes it clear that he doesn’t want to be seen as a ‘Michael Moore’ of the gamer community, and just wants to continue living his normal life.

Update (Aug 26 2011, AM): The Complaints Commission decided (link in German) that RTL’s ‘explosiv’ report did not violate any rules and regulations of German broadcasting and was protected by freedom of expression/opinion, but did agree that the nature and tone of the program was “irksome” and that the outrage surrounding it as well as RTL’s apology were justified. The gamers’ reaction was one of acceptance with underlying contentment; even if RTL is not facing any legal consequences, it seems that the gamers are happy to have a) shown RTL (and the entire country) that they are a large societal group to be reckoned with, and to have b) seen that they are in fact capable to quickly organize themselves to take effective action. I for my part will be interested to see whether this self-organization will continue, given that the gaming community in Germany is still facing many prejudices and scape-goating, particularly when it comes to violence among youths.



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…]

A ‘Big Bang’ – and Participatory Fans are now on your TV Screens

It’s been a while now since geeks have made the sudden and rapid evolution from social outcasts to trendsetters. They’re amongst the coolest people out there at the moment, causing sales of large, geek-style glasses to increase and kids to explore their ‘nerdy’ sides in hopes of being the next Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates.

Mark Zuckerberg, one of the people that made geek cool, was named Time's Person of the Year 2010

But it’s not just geeks that have all of a sudden become it. Engaged fans have become cool, too. Fan participation has become cool. What used to be seen as the behavior of a confused* minority group that may or may not have lost touch with reality* – this same behavior all of a sudden has become hip.


Don’t believe me? Consider this:

1. Three out of five protagonists of How I Met Your Mother are seen at a Star Wars convention at least once – in addition to countless die-hard Star Wars references between Ted, Marshall, and Barney (to the extent that they consider ANY woman unsuitable to marry Ted if she doesn’t love Star Wars as much as he does, and Barney gets into countless fights with Robin and Lily over the life-sized Stormtrooper he has in his living room).


Lily (Darth Vader), Ted (Luke Skywalker), and Marshall (Chewbacca) from 'How I Met Your Mother' at a Star Wars Con


2. Similarly, The Big Bang Theory is full of references to Star Trek and Star Wars, as well as to various comics such as the Marvel series (their collector’s editions are all over the walls in Sheldon’s bedroom, for example), and the show includes scenes at fan conventions or the entire gang dressing up in matching fan outfits.

Rajesh, Leonard, Howard, and Sheldon from 'The Big Bang Theory' all inadvertently dress up the same on Halloween as Flash (from one of their favorite comic series)

3. And even the cases of Harry Potter and Twilight, where both book signings and film premieres consistently prompt thousands of fans to show up in full-on costumes, often camping outside venues several nights before the events to get the best spot in the queue or in front of the stage. And rather than being ridiculed, the news media join into the craze, counting down the hours until a new release with the fans and joining into the debate of whether Harry Potter is a craze or a classic.


What’s important here is not the fact that all of these fans exist on television, but the way they are being portrayed in the media. Yes, devoted fans have always existed, and so have fan crazes like the ones surrounding Twilight and Harry Potter. What’s new, however, is that devoted fans are no longer framed as a crazed minority, some weirdoes who are trying to escape from reality. They are portrayed as cool, sometimes funny, but increasingly normal. But where does all of this come from? How did participatory fans all of a sudden make it into some of the most successful TV shows?


One reason could be that TV producers have discovered the continuous source of revenue participatory fans can provide. Unlike ‘everyday’ fans that only follow a film or television series for some time before turning to something else, engaged fans stay with their chosen show(s) and film(s) over years, if not decades and even their life. Maybe studio bosses and producers have come to realize that this devotion means additional income from media content that is long past its original airing and its zenith, and so they may now try to engage participatory fandom by showing it on-screen in the first place and in a positive manner at that.


Or maybe it’s all for fun and ridicule. Both How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory feature relatively geeky main characters, and their devotion to fandoms like Star Trek, Star Wars, and Marvel Comics is often the cause for humor and comedy. However, the positive and amiable depiction of these characters’ fan dedication suggests otherwise. Fan references and fan commitments may be comedic at times, but they always also highlight the importance of a fandom in a characters’ life, and what’s more, the way his/her fandom bonds a protagonist to his/her friends and significant others.


Which leads me to my third possible reason: Maybe the general public has begun to accept and respect participatory fans. Maybe they have seen engaged fans’ continued and lasting commitment to their fandoms, have realized that they are not just following some form of extreme craze, and that they actually (surprise, surprise!) get a lot more out of their fan objects than mere escapism. And maybe they started to think that in a time where we are trying to let anyone live in a way that makes them happy, regardless of social backgrounds, sexual orientation, and religious affiliation, for example, participatory fans could be allowed just the same – without being derided or made fun of, but with being accepted and respected.


As a hopeless optimist and idealist, I’d like to think that it is mainly reason three – increased general tolerance and respect. If this is not the case, then I’m still ok with any of the other reasons, as long as participatory fans continue to get their screen time, and do so in a good light.



*I’m not exaggerating here. These words actually came up in conversations with countless non-participatory fans throughout the last ten years of my life.


Making the Case for Fan Fiction

At dinner last night with my screenwriter friend, I got into a discussion of the value of fan fiction, prompted by a comment I had made that indicated that I was fan of the Showtime show, The L Word, and that I read The L Word fan fiction. My friend stated that she could not fathom someone being so obsessed with a TV show as to take the characters and expand on their world and explore their lives.

“These people who are spending so much time and energy on fictitious characters and situations should spend that time and energy cultivating their real life relationships. Only people who are dissatisfied with their lives would spend that much on fan fiction, and reading about people who aren’t even real,” she argued. She was making the argument that people who read fan fiction are “nerds,” which I don’t completely disagree with. However, she was discounting the very real emotional attachment that people have to the characters and their stories, which also discounts the values of having a space in which narratives and storytelling are explored around common interests in order to form a participatory community.

So I replied, “But you, who are a screenwriter, should know better than anyone the process of getting into a fictitious character’s head in order to explore issues and stories through an emotional narrative plot line.” I was flabbergasted that she could not see how people would get emotionally attached to fictitious characters and would want to treat them like real people when, through the process of writing a screenplay, a screenwriter treats these characters like real people in order to portray them and make them feel as real as possible.

“Filmmaking is a business. People spend years and years on films so they can get paid. People spend tons of time writing fan fiction, but never get paid!” She did have a point, a broader topic, perhaps, of how art and creativity has become commodified, standardized with rules of conventions for what will sell. Her argument also touches upon ideas of gift economy and digital labor. Indeed, The L Word Fan Fiction site is completely free. People give freely of their own time to write stories, and others give of their time to comment and give feedback. I countered my friend’s argument, “What, then, do you think of people who make webisodes and short films on YouTube? The value in fan fiction seems to lie in the formation of community. The value of these communities lie perhaps not in economic capital. The Internet has enabled a platform on which people from geographically disparate areas can gather and form a community based on a common interest, with similar levels of obsession for that interest. Perhaps its value lies in the accumulation of social capital through participating in this community.”

Or something like that. I’m paraphrasing in quotations here.

There seemed to be two points here. On one hand, we were talking about real life versus fictitious life, and the time and energy invested in exploring fictitious worlds. My friend seemed to think that unless one is getting paid for their fantasy explorations, such explorations and expansions of pre-existing worlds are not legitimate uses of one’s life and one’s time, and that one must only partake in these communities because one’s real life sucks. This leads to the other point – the point about community in fan fiction, and the very real emotional investments people have in characters and their stories. Walt Fisher, through the narrative paradigm, talks about the “cognitive significance of aesthetic communication lies in its ability to manifest knowledge, truth or reality, to enrich understanding of self, other, or the world.” (Fisher, 1989, 13) Human truth or reality includes emotions and feeling. Fiction writing, being a form of aesthetic communication, ties itself to these human emotions, rendering them real through the narrative storytelling process.

In fan fiction, writers use familiar characters, popularized on television shows, as a means by which to explore deeper narrative plots and emotional entanglements, mostly for entertainment, but through a narration, and through sharing the narration, and interacting with others, a community is formed. Sometimes the community, like The L Word fan fiction community, are built around members of marginalized social groups (in this case, lesbians and queer women), giving people a space in which they can explore or affirm their identity among people who understand. Some of these people are geographically located in areas where being not heterosexual is not ok. Fan communities, then, provide them with a space filled with people who are like them and who will not stigmatize them for who they are or what they enjoy as entertainment. In a community of obsessors, no one is one.

Fan fiction and fanvidding (wherein people use actual clips from TV shows and remix and re-edit them to tell a narrative), have long been considered stigmatized. As my friend stated, it has a reputation for being the socializing grounds for people who don’t have lives offline. An L Word fan fiction writer with whom I’ve had conversations keeps her fan fiction writing from her family. Similarly, a maker of L Word fan videos with whom I have corresponded, keeps her fanvidding life behind closed doors. One is conventionally known only by one’s username on fan fiction sites. Perhaps in the case of the L Word, there is the added stigma of dealing with homosexuality in the stories, in a time and world in which being gay or lesbian, or queer, is still stigmatized, or at the very least, marginalized.

The L Word fan fiction seems to have a double-whammy effect in terms of its marginalization. First, it’s fan fiction. Second, it’s fan fiction based on a show filled primarily with members of a marginalized social group (lesbians).

When Showtime’s TV series, The L Word, first aired in 2004, it was hailed, on one hand, as a “groundbreaking” show which had a cast and plots centered around lesbians and their lives, and on the other, as a squandered opportunity, stereotypically Hollywood with their skinny portrayals of characters, that does injustice to the lesbian community as a whole. ( Shortly after the inception of the show, fan fiction communities sprung up on the Internet with stories revolving around the characters in The L Word, many addressing the unsatisfactory handlings of the canon storyline as seen on Showtime. The most popular of these is a site that is aptly named “The L Word Fan Fiction” ( One of the more popular coupling on the site is Bette and Tina, a canonical couple who, in the canon storyline, had started out as a committed couple, and, after six years of twists and turns, end up back together. Many people on fan fiction sites see them as the epitome of love. Throughout the six canonical TV seasons, there are a few moments or events that happen that I call “points of trauma.” For the Bette and Tina relationship, there are about 3-5 major ones. I’ve noticed that many fan fiction stories revolve around explaining these points of trauma, expanding on the characters’ actions and thoughts, sometimes to the point of psychoanalysis, and using re-narration and re-telling of the canonical story, and taking it in different directions, as a healing process – to heal both the characters, and the writers, who, being fans with real emotional investments in these fictitious characters, experienced the trauma as well.

I will be talking about these points of trauma in more specificity in a future blog post, as well as the interconnectedness and cross-references of the stories within the fan fiction community.

Just One of the Low Millions?


Zombies are, for me at least, a rich subgenre of horror that allows us to explore a host of issues that deal with issues of politics, economics, and class. Even scholars who are only vaguely familiar with the topic can often cite the cultural critiques latent within George Romero’s Dead trilogy.

Over the past two years, our group has bandied about different concepts that deal with pop culture and the political, with mention of terms like “movements,” “groups,” and “masses” calling to mind the ways in which issues of power and powerlessness manifest in the zombie genre. Although we can talk about the larger ways in which horror intersects with notions of power, zombies, out of all the monstrosities, provide a more direct understanding of the relationship between individuals/communities and minorities/majorities.

In particular, I am curious about the ways in which zombies are being reinterpreted in modern culture:  employed in the 1930s as symbols of colonialism, resurrected in the 1960s to showcase the ills of consumer culture, and tweaked in the 2000s to evidence fears surrounding biological agents, zombies have always been, in some ways, representative of a fear of being subsumed by the masses. And yet the rise in zombie subculture seems to have split in recent years:  although we continue to preoccupy ourselves with surviving the impending zombie apocalypse (hint:  take up parkour), we also seemingly exhibit an increased desire to become zombies through events like zombie walks/crawls. Moreover, looking to online spaces—which are, in their own ways, very much about communities—we also glimpse a thriving group of individuals who choose to play as zombies in various forms.

What does all of this mean for the ways that we consider ourselves in relation to the communities around us?


Although groups like Invisible Children seem quite distinctly different from zombies, I wonder about how individuals in both organizations negotiate their identity as members of a highly-visible subculture that, most likely represents a national minority, might at times be a majority in local societal contexts. Moreover, in both situations, we have (primarily) young people who toe the line between belonging to a group and maintaining a sense of individuality within the mass—or maybe members do not fear being “swallowed up” by the group at all.

The more that I learn about how zombie culture is being enacted and embodied in real world practices, the more that I think about how lessons for political action can be extracted and utilized. But then again, zombies have always been about politics.

Chris Tokuhama studies popular culture, youth, Suburban/Gothic Horror, and media as a graduate student in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California while balancing a full-time job in the Office of College Admission. Primarily interested in modern mythologies and narrative structures, Chris has often reimagined the Scarecrow as a zombie. Comments, questions, and Starbucks gift cards can be sent to tokuhama [at] usc [dot] edu.


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.

[Read more…]

Definitions of Otaku and Hikikomori

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

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?
[Read more…]

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 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.)