Fandoms Saving the World One Altruistic Step at A Time; Online Activism Within the Supernatural Fandom by Dylanna Fisher
“[The characters] stand for the idea that making a difference — doing something, however great or small, to help others and make the world a better, safer place — gives meaning to life. They haven’t been able to save everyone they set out to help, but that hasn’t stopped them from trying, and in the show, their selflessness and sacrifice have saved the world.”
(Dominiak, 2011, p. 95)
Fandoms are a necessary and well-known part of popular culture. They’re more than consumers; they engage with the original content beyond simply enjoying it. As a community, they share creativity, connections and, in some cases, altruism. Fan activism is more than online activism since it combines the community of fans with the motivation of online activism. Supernatural fans or the SPN Family work together in a crew, cast lead, and fan-led projects. Online activism is, by definition, based on the Internet, and its share of benefits and drawbacks come with that. The Internet provides a lower cost, increased efficiency, improved community creation and upgraded community mobilization. On the other hand, the disadvantages include overwhelming content, online disassociation, lack of tangible impact, and the controversial importance of awareness. Through Supernatural Fandom’s activism projects, the fans show that they are a beneficial source of activism despite the drawbacks of the medium.
Bronies, Browncoats, Potterheads, Schwifties, Whovians, and X-Philes are all examples of fandoms or communities based on a single work. The list is the names of self-identifying fans of specific shows and fandoms. These communities can also be involved in activism. Activism has a broad definition of both connotative and denotative. For this paper, activism is an umbrella term for actively attempting to improve the world, including fundraising, events, petitions, and awareness (Jackson, 2015, p. 27–28). There are nearly endless examples of fan activism. There are fandoms in every creative work. Each fandom can potentially have several activism projects occurring all at the same time.
This paper focuses on one fandom: Hunters, the SPN Family. This fandom is based on the C.W. television series, Supernatural. Airing its first season in 2006, it’s currently in season 13. Though it’s difficult to measure the actual size of the Supernatural Fandom, its online and offline impact is evident (Casper, 2014, p. 77). As a fandom, the SPN family is highly active. Random Acts, GISHWISES, Always Keep Fighting, T-Shirt Campaigns, and the SPN Family Crisis Support Network are the most notable projects.
Online activism differs from traditional activism because it’s online (Jones, 1997, p. 10). The Internet provides a lower cost, increased efficiency, and improved community engagement. Regardless, there are always drawbacks. The controversy around online activism is that it doesn’t function suitably. This is because of the content, online disconnection, the lack of tangible impact, and the controversial importance of awareness. Although online activism may not provide immediate solutions to solve all the world's problems, using activism within the Supernatural Fandom, for example, has an undeniable positive impact.
Many websites encourage social change through political change or pedagogy, which aims to change the world or raise awareness (Banaji and Buckingham, 2013, pp. 20–23). In a technological utopian ideal, the Internet is considered a revolution and catalyst for social change (Hill, 2013; Banaji and Buckingham, 2013). Instead, the Internet is simply a tool for people, which is neither binary, utopian, nor dystopian (Hill, 2013, p. 13). Activism merely uses the Internet. In its essence, activism and activists themselves are essentially unchanged. The difference is that online activism provides them with an updated form of communication.
Fan activism is the fusion of two distinct groups; fans and activists (Jackson 2015, p. 6). Fandoms are audiences that engage after they’re finished watching, such as fan-made artwork, including music, art, fiction, compilation videos, etc. Activists are those that actively try to make the world a better place. Fan activism differs from typical online activism because of “its unique use of media narratives and its ability to tap into the Fandom subculture” (Jackson, 2015, p. 30, 36–37).
The SPN Family specifically is known for being active. This fan community is more like a family. This sentiment started when Jared Padalecki referred to the fandom as his family (Fitzpatrick, 2017, para. 9). several authors are writing about how the Supernatural Fandom is as close-knit as a family, including Mary Frances Casper, Zubernis, and Katherine Larsen. These authors discuss how the fandom is akin to a family because of the interactions and connections between not only the fans themselves but between them and the cast and crew (Casper, 2014; Zubernis and Larsen, 2012). Those interactions and relationships have become stronger as the show continues (PicklePegg, 2011, ch. 5, para. 32). The SPN Family is described affectionately and accurately as the SPN Family.
Comparative to others, the Supernatural Fandom goes beyond and has become an altruistic force in a way that other fan cultures haven’t (Casper 2014, Jackson 2015; PicklePegg, 2011, ch. 5, para. 31–32). The ideals of the show Supernatural transfer to the fans, “It’s this unshakeable commitment to family, regardless of circumstance, that resonates with fans and creates the fandom’s underlying personality” (Casper 2014, pg. 79).
The SPN Family is active online for its charity work, each project typically with its website and Twitter handles. Many cast and crew use social media to further activism campaigns. Social media is an excellent platform for both fandoms and activists. It’s natural that when they combine, social media is again a powerful platform (Jackson 2015, p. 19; Wilkinson, 2014, p. 47).
As a collective, the SPN Family has a solid online presence and is active on various platforms, including Tumblr, LiveJournal, FanFiction.net, Twitter, and Archive of Our Own.com (Wilkinson, 2014). One example of their prominent presence is Tumblr. The joke is that the Supernatural Fandom has a GIF for everything, regardless of its relevance to the fandom. This is an infamous phenomenon throughout Tumblr, irrespective of whether people are Supernatural fans (Lewis, 2014). For Supernatural activism, there has been a lot of media coverage. It’s a topic that has pertinence to the SPN Family and fans in general. This topic is discussed throughout entertainment media, including The Odyssey, Nerdist, People, Variety, Entertainment Weekly, Buzzfeed, and Den of Geek.
Fan activism has three primary purposes; to gain awareness, raise funds and organize action (Jackson 2015, 36). There are several activism projects throughout the Supernatural Fandom. The more widely known and headed by the cast include Random Acts, GISHWISHES, Always Keep Fighting, T-Shirt Campaigns, and SPN Family Crisis Support Network.
Misha Collins started the charity Random Acts in 2009, an organization dedicated to encouraging acts of kindness worldwide (Fitzpatrick, 2017, para. 11–12; PicklePegg, 2011, ch. 5, para. 15; RandomActs.org). It started as “Minion Stimulus,” a project to get U.S. government stimulus money for non-profit “minion” initiatives.’ (PicklePegg, 2011, ch. 5 para. 15). It eventually became Random Acts with the cheeky and altruistic mission “to conquer the world one random act of kindness at a time” (Jackson 2015; PicklePegg, 2011, ch. 5 para. 16).
“I actually think that the most efficacious way of making a difference is to lead by example, and doing random acts of kindness is setting a perfect example of how to behave in the world,” Collins tells Laura Prudom in an interview with HuffPost U.S. “While it seems small, it can ultimately be somewhat profound in various people’s lives. I know that when people have perpetrated such acts against me, it has had a lasting effect on me, so I like to return the favour”
The Greatest International Scavenger Hunt the World Has Ever Seen (GISHWISHES) is a campaign through Random Acts (gishwishes.com) GISHWISHES is an annual competitive scavenger hunt (Jackson 2015, p. 35). It is one of the largest donors of Random Acts (Jackson, 2015, p. 35; Ratcliffe, 2015). According to Collins, “We’re finding a way to making doing good things also very fun and playful. We’re getting people to do good things at the same time as they’re doing artistic things” (Ratcliffe, 2015, para. 6). This has gotten quite a lot of interest. Dan Casey, a writer for Nerdist.com, referred to it as an “avalanche of awesomeness” (Casey, 2013).
In 2020 alone, GISH players and their completed challenges raised enough for over 1,000,000 meals for kids in need, fundraised almost $350,000 for criminal justice reform and the fight for racial equality funded over $60,000 through RandomActs.org, and provided tens of thousands of anti-insecticidal nets to prevent malaria in Africa (Gish, 2021).
SPN Family Crisis Support Network
Started in 2016 by Ackles and Collins, The SPN Family Crisis Support Network is a way to support those in the fandom (Highfill, 2016, para. 5). It’s not just a crisis line for those in immediate need; it’s a network that provides community resources, and training for volunteers to be crisis responders in their spare time (Highfill, 2016, para. 5,7). In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Collins explains,
“We have this interesting exposure to our fandom in the form of conventions, where we go and meet fans face-to-face almost every other weekend. And we have to meet thousands and thousands of Supernatural fans. At every event, every one of us encounters as many as a dozen people who share heart-rending stories about self-harm or addiction or depression or suicide attempts. We see a lot of people with tattoos of semicolons on themselves — the semicolon is where the author could’ve chosen to end a sentence but instead chose to carry it on, so it’s a very potent symbol for somebody who’s struggled with near-death situations and forged on.”
(Highfill, 2016, para. 3).
Pros of Online Activism of Supernatural
As seen in the few examples of the Supernatural Fandom, there’s an obvious intent to do good. The Internet makes that intention realized with the advantages of improved technology.
Compared to traditional methods of dissemination, the Internet is relatively free. It’s cheaper to spread information. All online activists need is a computer and internet access (Damberger, 2013, p. 18). Instead of spending money on advertising, press releases, television spots, and radio broadcasts, those resources can be used elsewhere. Furthermore, it’s cheaper to access. The lower cost provides access to those who are socioeconomically disadvantaged or can’t access other forms of information. (Cohen and Luttig, 2016, para. 4). This improves the level of access and, thus, representation since anyone can take part in online activism. Using the Internet to spread information, “young people are bypassing traditional gatekeepers and mobilizing informal connected networks to make social change” (Cohen and Luttig, 2016, para. 18).
Random Acts can donate thousands of dollars to its programs, including Acts of Kindness ($128,948), Dreams to Act ($87,580), Crisis Support Network ($175,610), Change a Life ($397,903), Stronger than Storms ($259,654), and Childhood Hunger Act ($147,044), while their supporting administrative services only amount to $105, 283 in 2019 (Random Acts, INC., 2019).
T-Shirt Campaigns are a way to raise funds and awareness for many charities (Jackson, 2015, p. 34). The charity they fundraise for corresponds to a specific t-shirt design with 35 distinctive styles. For example, Misha’s Random Act T-shirt raises funds for Random Acts, Jim Beaver’s “Family Don’t End with Blood” fundraises for the Rainbow House, and Jensen and Misha’s “You Are Not Alone” T-Shirt raises funds for SPN Family Crisis Support Network (Jackson, 2015, p. 34). In an interview with People, Jensen Ackles said, “We’ve changed a lot of lives doing this… It inspired us to see how far the helping hand of the Supernatural family can reach” (Steiner, 2015 para. 6).
Always Keep Fighting is one of the first T-Shirt Campaigns started by Padalecki that focuses on mental illness awareness and fundraising (Jackson, 2015, p. 34; Steiner, 2015, para. 3). Padalecki wanted to bring more awareness of mental health and raise funds to help those dealing with those illnesses (Jackson, 2015, p. 34; Prudom, 2015, para. 8). There have been seven “Always Keep Fighting” T-Shirt Campaigns donating to To Write Love on Her Arms, Attitudes in Reverse, Random Acts, The Wounded Warrior Project, and St. Jude’s (Jackson, 2015, p. 34; Fitzpatrick, 2017, para. 8). #AlwaysKeepFighting went viral and raised $250,000 (Jackson, 2015, p. 34; Fitzpatrick, 2017, para. 7).
The Internet provides an improvement in communication. Activists can communicate with people worldwide regardless of location or time, as they can branch out in real-time (Damberger, 2013, p. 23). Unlike other traditional methods of communication, the Internet can spread a near-infinite amount of information through a variety of channels around the globe for a relatively low cost (Maratea, 2014; Damberger, 2013, p. 20–21). Using the Internet, they can spread their message through nearly endless forms on the Internet; videos, music, comics, podcasts, articles, photographs, and infographics.
Gishwishes volunteers and participants have cleaned up 1,000s of beaches worldwide, donated through over 2,000 blood drives, presented over a million dollars to charity, held over 1,400 winter coat drives, and broke the world record for photos of hugs (108,000) (Gish, 2021). With Gishwishes as a yearly event, these numbers only continue to grow.
Creating a community on the Internet is simpler. It has a broader reach since it’s not limited by the traditional methods for building community, such as geographical location, time zone, language, or religion (Jones, 1997, p. 104; Hill, 2013). Instead, the online communities’ membership is deemed by the degree of engagement. Being in a community is “fundamentally (1) a collective of (2) members that have feelings of belonging and (3) who actively engage with the community through (4) the sharing of resources” (Jackson, 2015, p. 17). Members and non-members depend on the level of engagement within the community.
Membership is also more accessible online because people find the Internet socially liberating since they can participate without direct consequences (Jackson 2015, p. 18; Damberger, 2013, p. 25). Online action doesn’t require as high a threshold of participation which encourages people to participate as much as they can without the obligation to fulfill a specific quota of participation (Damberger 2013, p. 25). This doesn’t negate the sense of community but shows there isn’t an obligation to participate.
Add to that that social interaction isn’t as intimidating on the Internet. The stigma of the Internet and fandoms are that both are incredibly isolating, which isn’t always the case (Damberger, 2013, p. 23). The Internet allows expanding and reaching out to people you wouldn’t have the chance to meet otherwise (Damberger, 2013, p. 24). It gives people a voice if they are part of a marginalized or disabled group (Hill, 2013, p. 111).
Having that separation between someone and their online activities makes it easier for people to start small and gradually increase their level of participation. As lazy or ‘handholding’ as it is, this allows those limited in their participation to engage with the potential for more while the more engaged activists actively participate. This disconnection between the users and between the users and their actions allows projects to reach members of all levels of engagement without limiting the progress of the overall group.
Gishwishes has mobilized countless people and rallied enough of them to break several world records, including the Largest Photo Scavenger Hunt (2011), the Largest Media Scavenger Hunt (2012) — 14,580 participants, Most Pledges for a Campaign/to Complete a Random Act of Kindness (2012) — 93,376 pledges, Largest Online Photo Album of Hugs (2013) — 108,121 hugs, Largest Chain of Safety Pins (2013) — 3,583 feet/1,802 meters long, Largest Gathering of People Dressed as French Maids (2014) — 695 participants, Most People in a Decorated Hat Competition (2014), Longest Human Chain to Pass Through a Hula Hoop (2014) — 572 participants (Barrett, 2013; Highfill, 2014; Mandy, 2012; Prudom, 2013; Romano, 2012). This creates a deep bond for everyone that participated.
Fandoms existed before the Internet but weren’t as collectively engaged as they met at very localized settings, annual conventions, or living room clubs (Jackson 2015, p. 18). The mobilization of communities is far more accessible through the Internet by sharing information and collaborating on events on an array of platforms (Damberger, 2013, p. 22). Supernatural fans have freedom in how they engage in activism on the Internet. The activists aren’t limited to one way of engagement. Instead, they can inform, discuss, or debate and do so creatively.
This ensures that it’s easier for people to connect and engage. In an interview with People, Ackles admits,
“If we can help in any way, then I believe it’s our duty as human beings and as people who are in a position to do so. There are people out there fighting that could use the help and encouragement and inspiration, and those are the people we’re trying to reach” (Steiner, 2015, para. 8).
Their current campaigns include Random Acts Support Program (COVID-19), which provides support and financial aid to local organizations helping their community during the Covid-19 pandemic. Another one is the Childhood Hunger Campaign, which aims to eradicate children’s hunger worldwide. These campaigns and many like them are supported by Random Acts, with more having the chance to be sponsored by the organization in the future. This organization offers up to $499 for first-time applicants and over that price for continuing applicants.
Cons of Online Activism
As with anything, there are drawbacks. In the case of online activism, the concerns include issues related to content, disconnection, impact and awareness.
There is overwhelming content on the Internet (Banaji and Buckingham, 2013, p. 15). Despite all good intentions, someone can’t engage in every kind of activism project on the Internet or even be aware of them all. Granted, the Internet makes it easier to organize information and counter misinformation, but there is still a large quantity. There are countless examples of fan activism. Potterheads, or fans of the Harry Potter franchise, have The Harry Potter Alliance, which works on activism for equality, human rights, and literacy (www.thehpalliance.org). Racebending is a grassroots organization that started after a negative response to the lack of representation in the film, The Last Airbender, which aims to improve representation within entertainment media (racebending.com).
Even within the Supernatural Fandom, numerous activism projects weren’t discussed in this paper. Most of the cast and crew fundraise for various charities on their own. Through their online communities, the SPN Family engages in online activism in both small-scale and large-scale ways. Beyond the celebrity-endorsed campaigns, there are projects started by the fan base themselves, such as Sweet Charity, SPN Survivors, Operation Winchester Or Support Supernatural (Jackson, 2015, p. 35–36). Online activism intends to make a difference, even if it’s a minor or only one issue. There are issues of overwhelming content, and a solution lies in the growing awareness of issues through social activism. As more people become aware of the problems, more people and organizations can collaborate their efforts for a solution.
Being online provides a disconnection between the individual and the activism in two main ways. First, it provides anonymity. Being a faceless user doesn’t contribute to the traditional sense of community since it allows people to be distant. Even though it doesn’t strengthen the community in the same ways that an offline community does, it does enhance it by making it easier to become involved in activism (Damberger, 2013, p. 25). Individuals can put only their ideas out there and nothing else. Those are the only things being considered instead of their age, appearance, economic stature, gender, race, and so forth. This “depersonalized” group emphasizes the issues at hand more than interpersonal similarities and differences, making for a more logical discourse (Damberger, 2013, p. 24–25). If a person chooses to disclose personal details, that’s up to them. Secondly, it provides a disconnection between the person and their actions. The downfall is that disengagement’s easy, limiting the campaign's effectiveness, which will be discussed in the next section. Participation in online activism has a shallow threshold (Damberger, 2013, p. 25).
One of the most prominent issues with online activism is the doubt that it impacts anything beyond making an individual feel like they contributed. Within social activism, the term “slacktivism” or “clicktivism” arises to criticize others for online actions considered to be lazy or uninformed (Damberger, 2013; Jackson, 2015, p. 27–28). Petitions and awareness are simplistic compared to fundraising or rallies because their impact isn’t as immediate or obvious. (Jackson, 2015, p. 27–28).
That could be caused by the definition of activism being too narrow. It isn’t easy to see the progress possible through online activism if only the tangible is considered. Online activism may not be able to fundraise millions of dollars in a single day, but it’s regardless impressive the kind of effort that fans put forward.
There have been several Supernatural projects that have provided tangible outcomes. At the start of Random Acts in 2009, it fundraised $30,000 to help UNICEF’s work in the wake of the Haiti disaster (PicklePegg, 2011, ch. 5 para. 16). Collins announced on September 5, 2010 that would run as far as he could to raise money to help support aid efforts in both Haiti and the recently flood-stricken Pakistan (PicklePegg, 2011, ch. 5 para. 17). He ran for 52 miles and raised $84,664.62 (PicklePegg, 2011, ch. 5 para. 17). In the fall of 2015, fans raised $1,500 for Attitudes in Reverse at a Supernatural convention in New Jersey (Fitzpatrick, 2017, para. 10). The SPN Family Crisis Support Network used the slogan You Are Never Alone, and at the end of the campaign, over 10,000 shirts had been sold and 1,500 fans had volunteered to be trained as mental health crisis supporters (Fitzpatrick, 2017, para. 8). Ackles’ ‘Stronger Than Storms’ campaign fundraised for the communities affected by Hurricane Irma and Maria and fundraised over $358,000 (Fitzpatrick, 2017, para. 14). In the case of the Supernatural Fandom, online activism does have an impact on raising funds along with increasing the amount of interaction with the world.
However, not all campaigns fundraise thousands of dollars. If the world could be solved by money alone, the world would be much more straightforward. One of the significant benefits of online activism is sharing information, sharing stories, and creating awareness about issues. Though, some argue that understanding more than is needed. When millions of people are engaged in a problem, and the tangible outcomes are minor in comparison, it isn’t easy to see what’s enough (Lewis, Gray, and Meierhenrich, 2014).
There’s doubt that online activism is effective outside of the virtual environment (Lewis, Gray, and Meierhenrich, 2014, p. 4). It isn’t easy to know how active online activists are. As shown in the example of a Save Darfur case study, the activism wasn’t considered adequate since the number of people outnumbered the corresponding actions (Lewis, Gray, and Meierhenrich, 2014, p. 6). Like many other campaigns, many people know the problem, but not many contribute to the solution. Over a million people were knowledgeable and discontent with the situation in Darfur and fundraised only $100,000 (Lewis, Gray, and Meierhenrich, 2014, p. 2).
Despite the potential lack of tangible changes, the awareness-raising benefits of online activism can’t be ignored (Damberger, 2013; Jackson, 2015, p. 25). As another example, the KONY 2012 video campaign was “able to engage more of the general public with their initiative in a matter of days than some organizations can over months or years” (Damberger 2013, p. 60). In the cases of Safe Darfur and KONY 2012, awareness in itself is a benefit. As more people become aware, the more they can impact.
Simple awareness shouldn’t be taken for granted, however. Even though there isn’t an exact tangible change, “social reality is in a perpetual state of negotiation” (Maratea, 2014, p. 14). Awareness leads people to talk about the issues and their surrounding circumstances. The Internet influences political issues by informing the public and attributing to popular opinion on political matters (Maratea, 2014, p. 14).
Throughout the Supernatural Fandom, mental illness awareness is an effective activism campaign supported by Always Keep Fighting, The SPN Family Support Network, and SPN Survivors Support Supernatural. The Always Keep Fighting campaign was inspired by Padalecki’s fight with depression (Jackson, 2015, p. 34; Prudom, 2015, para. 3). It went beyond just a mere fundraising campaign. Fans used #AlwaysKeepFighting to talk about their struggles (Fitzpatrick, 2017, para. 7). For the SPN Family Crisis Support Network; it’s allowed a place that those in the fandom could turn to. Collins admits, “I think one of the big problems that people face when they’re struggling with these things is not knowing where to turn” (Highfill, 2016, para. 6). These help with awareness and make it possible for more people to talk about mental illness. Talking about mental illness itself removes the stigma and shame around mental illness. Thus, awareness alone impacts taking mental illness out of the proverbial shadows.
Although there aren’t immediate changes, people are becoming increasingly aware of current issues. Where awareness starts, action follows. Those involved in online communities become engaged in politics as they’re exposed to more political content (Bowyer and Kahne, 2016, para. 2). The action may not be immediate. Still, the awareness is, which is why awareness is easily spread and the resulting steps aren’t.
The Supernatural Fandom is a creative and engaged source of online altruism with real-world impacts. The Internet is a tool for activism, and fandoms utilize it for successful activism campaigns. Despite the argued shortcomings of online activism, it has the apparent potential to continue to aid in solutions and improve the world. The Supernatural Fandom has a substantial number of activism projects that are both large and small-scale, with ever-increasing awareness and collaboration. The disconnection many faces through online communities and activism provides the potential for everyone in the SPN family to participate. The SPN family has actively had an impact by rallying the support of their fandom to go beyond the community's creative side, resulting in hundreds of thousands of dollars for charities. Awareness through these campaigns is profound and even as simple as letting their fans know they are not alone.
Other kinds of research could look deeper at the phenomena of fan activism by a longitudinal study of Supernatural specific charity projects or even an ethnography of the individual fans and cast and crew involved in the activism. One could analyze other fandoms’ activism to branch to broader topics, such as Harry Potter, Star Trek, and Doctor Who. Fan activism will be around for a long time as it’s a way to feel a part of a family and contribute to that family.