Online Fandoms on the Frontlines
How fandoms—from BTS to D&D—are organizing for Black Lives Matter.
Last week, following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, #WhiteLivesMatter was trending on Twitter. The tag was not laden with white supremacist propaganda, as you might think. Instead, it was mostly pictures of Jungkook, a member of the K-pop group BTS. Members of the BTS ARMY have organized some of the most radical Internet-based mobilization efforts for Black Lives Matter in the past few weeks. Raising over $1.2 million as of June 8, ARMYs have also mobilized to shut down the Dallas police department’s eyewitness app with fancams. But BTS ARMYs are not the only superfans out there that have managed to successfully mobilize their comrades to get out, protest, and donate huge sums of money to anti-racism organizations. It actually seems like almost every fandom on the internet is doing something equally impactful and powerful.
Just look to fans of the game Super Smash Bros. Melee, as another group of passionate nerds determined to do good. Nico Rodriguez, a 22 year old who lives in Harlem and is studying to be a high school English teacher, got into Smash when he was 14 years old, and in the eight-and-a-half years he’s been playing, he’s made close friends, but he's also learned a tremendous amount about social justice: “A lot of my understanding of social issues have been shaped by just the leaders of [the Smash] community saying the right thing. If I really liked that community leader or a certain community space, I always wanted to respect them, because it would always do a lot for me as well,” he says. “My favorite thing about the community, honestly, is probably the in-person interactions. It really just becomes this really, really large friend group that you can trust for a lot of things, if done correctly,” he continues. Because of the close-knit nature of the Smash community, Rodriguez and his friends knew he would be able to mobilize other players into action. Alongside a group of 40 people, Rodriguez put together an online tournament that raised over $35,000 for the George Floyd Memorial Fund, a variety of bail funds, and for the BTFA Collective over the course of one day. It was possible for Rodriguez to raise this money because of how active the Smash community is, as are so many fandoms.
William White, a 27 year old who is trans and lives in Los Angeles by way of Minnesota, got into online tabletop roleplay through their boss at their warehouse job. White, who also plays in the cult emo band glass beach, tells me that much of the online tabletop community is extremely invested in politics: “There's not a lot of Black or Indigenous or people of color and trans individuals that get to perform in this space. So all of the creators that I follow for the most part are Black, Indigenous, or people of color who speak out pretty openly about how there needs to be more representation in the scene.” According to White, because the tabletop community skews so white and cisgender, there is a lot of activist work that must be done. "Rivals of Waterdeep" is a tabletop show with an all BIPOC cast that is making huge strides for racial justice right now. Recently Tanya DePass, one of its members, raised over $275,000 as of June 7 for the Bail Project and the Chicago Community Bond Fund via an Animal Crossing livestream. On a more personal level, QueueTimes, the company White streams with, has also been raising money, so far donating more than $4,000 to a series of bail funds.
"Little Monsters," as superfans of Lady Gaga are called, have advocated for various social justice movements for as long as Gaga has put out records, and Black Lives Matter is no exception. One group chat, which recently changed its name to Monsters for BLM, has raised close to $8,000 as of June 8 for the Marsha P. Johnson Institute. Jacob Hege, a 23 year old who lives in Washington D.C., is an active member of the chat. Hege tells me he’s “never not been a fan” of Gaga, and cites an early experience of watching her perform on American Idol as a young, closeted gay kid. He joined the group chat in college, courtesy of a friend who is a fellow Gaga stan, and in the past few years has gotten to know fans from all over the U.S. Since the group is so spread out, members of the chat have raised money for local and national mutual aid funds. The group has also taken to social media, signal boosting videos, different ways to mobilize, and places to donate. Outside of the chat, Hege has raised over $5,000 for Freedom Fighters DC, a Black-led activist group. Most of Hege’s friends in the chat are participating in similar organizing efforts, be it attending protests, regularly sharing resources on social media, or donating money. “Everyone in this group chat is supportive of the movement and is paying attention. As far as I know, there are no Black people in the group chat, and probably 90, 95% of us are white. It is cool to know that these are people that get it, and they're actively using their privilege to do something,” says Hege. “And I think also specifically we're talking about, because we are Lady Gaga stans, it is important that we're doing this is because not only are we supportive of Lady Gaga because of what she does and how she speaks out, but also because we are actively then turning around and doing that ourselves in our own communities. We're reaching people that maybe Lady Gaga isn't, which sounds a little silly.”
Niche fandoms for podcasts like the Magnus Archives also are mobilizing, both financially and through signal boosting on social media. Six Rudolph, a 23 year old trans lesbian who lives in northern New Hampshire, found out about the horror podcast while they were working out in the Arizona high desert as a ranger. Rudolph tells me the reason they were drawn to the podcast was because of how sensitive it was to matters of sexual assault. They spent years feeling alienated by the horror genre because it often uses sexual assault and sexualized violence as plot devices, and the Magnus Archives was a crucial departure from that. Rudolph tells me the fandom is equally sensitive and thoughtful, so it was no surprise to them that people would be so quick to organize in support of Black Lives Matter. Members of the fandom have taken their talents to Twitch and Twitter, offering drawings in exchange for donations to anti-racism organizations. “I think it's important for everyone to take action; fandom is just a good way to network with people and find other people who can help you do that activism work. But I think that it's not necessarily the Magnus Archives fandom in particular or even fandom in general. I think it's just that right now, [we all need to confront] the issue of police brutality specifically against Black people,” says Rudolph, “The Magnus fandom in particular, is very heavily LGBTQ. So it has attracted a very LGBTQ fanbase, and I think it's especially important for people to recognize, it being pride month right now, that even if you're not Black yourself you need to show that sense of solidarity with the Black community, and in particular with Black LGBTQ people.”
Across the board, fandoms—whether for niche podcasts or mega celebrities—are doing more organizing work for the Black Lives Matter movement right now than most celebrities and brands. It is telling of our culture right now and our understanding of the power of celebrity that it is these groups of people online that are doing some of the most aggressive Internet-based organizing work. Fandoms are a microcosm of goodness, a group of likeminded people who know that if they have the mobilizing skills to get their favorite artists a number one song, they also have the power to shut down police apps and get all of their friends to raise huge amounts of money. Kallie Quist, a 22 year old BTS fan who lives in Brooklyn, explains this phenomenon in terms of BTS ARMYs: “The BTS fandom, when they put their mind [to it], they can trend anything on Twitter. They can get anything a ton of views. They can crash a website if they want to. I feel that devout mentality can really be useful here when applied to the right places. So I think the annoying K-pop fans online are doing a good job.” That very same mentality can be said of so many fandoms right now: if you are unified by something in pop culture that you love, it is very likely that you are able to successfully radicalize your people and work as a united front for change.