Recently, J.K. Rowling broke many of her young fans’ hearts when she revealed that she didn’t believe her characters Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger to be ideally suited to one another. There were tears, and numerous outraged articles written telling the author to keep her revisionist opinions to herself – for these readers, the final book has been written, and the plot is no longer Rowling’s to own. Indeed, such is the devotion inspired by Harry Potter that for some, the world of Harry and his fight against the evil wizard Voldemort does not end in the final pages of Book Seven, but continues to influence their actions in their own communities and countries. The Harry Potter Alliance serves as a rallying point for fans, who are inspired by Harry’s fight for the equal rights of house-elves and werewolves to lobby their own politicians for marriage equality, and rights for illegal immigrants. Blogs on the Alliance’s website make further parallels between fictional events and events in the world today, for example, one begins: “If we lose control of the media, we lose control of our own voice. That’s why Voldemort seized control of the Daily Prophet, and it’s why [in The Hunger Games] the Capitol keeps a tight lock on the information being broadcast to the twelve districts’.
The Harry Potter Alliance does more than just bring fans together, and it has been involved in a campaign to get Warner Brothers to certify that all the ‘Harry Potter’ branded chocolate they sell is fair trade. In a recent BBC radio programme, the founder of the Alliance Andrew Slack admitted that he would like his organisation to not only make change on the issues it cares about, but also inspire others to get behind stories and causes that they believe in. He said,“this is not about just simply can we get Warner Brothers to make change, this is about encouraging other groups to embrace the books, the TV shows, the stories they love to make change. If we don’t utilise stories then we are making a grave mistake, we are missing the boat in terms of the role that symbolism can play in terms of deep impact. We’re interested in changing the nature of activism.”
It may be however that the nature of activism is already changing – the Harry Potter Alliance is not the only example of the power of ‘fan activism’. Lady Gaga was able to mobilise many of her fans to call their senators in opposition to the ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ law in the American military, and YouTube comedian Hannah Hart inspired hundreds to help out in their neighbourhood food banks when she went on a crowdfunded tour of the United States. This is more than the ‘slacktivism‘ which has been criticised by Evgeny Morozov, as it involves activity which is offline as well as online and has real-world impacts. On one level, such celebrity inspired activism is nothing new – we all remember popular events such as Band Aid. Arguably though, the power of the internet allows fans to organise amongst themselves in a way that has never been possible before.
It is striking that the growth in the power of ‘fan activism’ coincides with a decline in the popularity of Western organised religions, which has historically been another way in which people have mobilised around stories and characters to effect change in their own communities. Fan activism also reflects a decline in the strength of local communities, and a general rise in the profile of global celebrities, who increasingly are famous not only for their talents but also for their personalities which are constantly being shared with their fans through social media. Fan activism also reflects a growing rise in the power and ubiquity of connections which are formed online. People really care about the books, movies and TV shows that they love, and through the internet they are able to connect with other people who feel the same way. The resulting bonds that are formed are intense, as the Internet allows people with very specific common interests to find each other and communicate in a myriad of ways. Furthermore, with the popularity of social media such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, it is easy for people to not only act to support causes that they believe in, but to do this in a highly visible way which can influence others. For example, after Lady Gaga tweeted that she would like fans to call their senators, two teenage girls decided to make a YouTube video of themselves doing just that, and after they posted this on the internet they tweeted at their heroine to let her know what they had done. She re-tweeted their post to thousands of her followers, who then began to follow suit. This is an example of an interesting symbiosis between celebrities and their fans, which has been intensified by the internet.
Charities and third sector organisations have been quick to harness the power of ‘fan activism’ in order to promote their own causes and campaigns – witness roles such as United Nation Special Envoys, or Oxfam Celebrity Ambassadors. Ultimately however, what ‘fan activism’ points to is a highly connected world where organised campaigns on behalf of major charities or politicians are less and less important, while thousands of people from all over the world can mobilise overnight around a specific issue that they care about, brought together by a shared passion for a celebrity or story, and sparked by a random Tweet or YouTube video.