Tapping the Fanatical Surplus

I have a confession to make: I am a fan. I read fan fiction. I participate in Livejournal communities. I have actually written fan fiction on occasion. It’s been a great hobby in a life where I can’t have hobbies that involve material things, and fan fiction has saved me more than once from death by boredom on trips too long to carry as many books as I need.

It’s traditional to pretend to be ashamed of this hobby, but I’m not. It’s been crucial to my understanding of social media, community, and the way the world has shifted to a new participatory culture. I am proud to be a textual poacher. This level playing field has even changed the way I see international development. And sometimes fans do wonderful things.

Which is a long way of getting to this post by Laurenist. In it, she deconstructs a new charity started by Misha Collins, the actor who plays Castiel on Supernatural. Here’s how she begins:

Now, Misha is attempting to once again tap his social networking prowess (and large fanbase) to raise funds for a new charity, Random Acts. Not awesome. (Sadface.)

Don’t get me wrong. I like charities! I like Misha! I want Misha’s charity to be one that I like. Unfortunately, it seems the people behind it have good intentions, but as we in the international development blogger community know, “Good intentions are not enough.”

Let’s look at how Random Acts says it’s going to spend the money it raises:

  • 33% will be divided between the orphanages we support in Haiti
  • 15% will go to support victims of the horrific flooding in Pakistan
  • 51.99% will go to support random acts of kindness all around the world
  • .01% will be spent bribing public officials

She has two major criticisms: 1) Orphanages are a bad idea and 2) Supporting random acts of kindness is not an effective use of money. I agree with her on both points. Orphanages are a bad idea, almost always. Saundra can tell you why. And the whole random acts idea strikes me as kind of weak. A lot of feel-good; not much actual result.


Misha Collins actually responded to Laurenist’s post with a well-thought-out comment, and here’s what he had to say about the “random acts” portion of his charity: “Part of what made me want to do this project was seeing so many of my followers on Twitter putting so much energy and so many resources into fandom. I think all of that energy is great, but my thinking was, perhaps, if we could harness a fraction of those resources (both creative and fiscal), we could put some of this c-list idolatry to good use.”

He’s got a point. Fans are completely off the hook crazy. I know this because I am one. I once sent a postcard to David Hewlett that said “how are you so awesome?” I have seen every movie Josh Charles ever appeared in, and that takes some serious endurance. Small wonder Misha Collins wants to tap this fanatical surplus.

The thing is, fans are crazy because being a fan is fun. It’s not meaningful, Henry Jenkins aside. It’s not purposeful. It’s just fun. People don’t do fannish things because they want to be useful. They do it to entertain themselves. While a Misha Collins doing-serious-things charity probably wouldn’t capture fannish attention, maybe his doing-silly-things charity will. And while those silly kind things may not be terribly effective, they are not, as the comments on Laurenist’s post pointed out, worthless.

Misha Collins, in his own way, knows the community he’s dealing with: nutso fans. He’s designed a charity that will appeal to nutso fans and use their energy for good. So, this time, I have to say – more power to him. (Except for the orphanages.)


Photo credit: fanpop

Yep, that’s Misha Collins.

Change Hurts

There has been an interesting blogosphere discussion of crowdsourcing in the last few days. The usual crew of people who think about aid – this time humanitarian response in specific – seem to be polarizing slowly into pro and anti-crowdsourcing camps. I linked you to the calmest posts there. There are positions staked out all the way along the spectrum from “crowdsourcing is evil and will hurt innocent people” to “crowdsourcing is going to change the world all by itself.”

As always, I’m somewhere in the middle on this. Crowdsourcing is just a tool. It’s not a miracle cure for anything. It’s a good tool, and sooner or later most competent emergency response groups will find a way to use it. Some will be early adopters, some will trail in at the end. Eventually it’ll get trendy with donors and everyone will start mentioning crowdsourcing in proposals, whether they have a decent plan for it or not.  (I’d also like to point out the remarkable similarity between the rhetoric on crowdsourcing and the discussion of the last big miracle, microfinance.)

But this post isn’t actually about crowdsourcing. It’s about change.

Look, we all know international aid is a mess. The system is not selecting for efforts that work. Bad programs get rewarded. Useless programs get extended. Good programs vanish for no apparent reason.

There are a whole lot of reasons that aid doesn’t really work. Personally, I like to blame democratically elected governments and their need to control where taxpayer money goes.* You can also look at international politics, the challenges of data collection in poor countries, and the sheer complexity of the system. Just for a start.

Anyway, everyone who works in this field knows it’s deeply flawed. The chance to work for an effort that really works is like gold. It’s what we all dream of. We cling like barnacles when we find it. Because it’s too rare. (Too rare, but does happen. Let me make that clear. A broken system means inefficiency, not utter failure. There are development efforts that succeed, and we don’t want to lose them. That’s one reason that feelings run so high.)

Something has to give. We can’t make this broken system keep flailing along forever. Heck, even Rajiv Shah knows it. And when the system changes, it’s going to hurt everyone invested in the status quo. I don’t know if it’s going to be a formal system shift like Cash on Delivery aid, or a disruptive innovation born of some technical advance. But it’s going to hurt, and everyone that’s part of the current system is going to struggle to adjust.

So when tempers flare over whether SMS messaging has actually been proven to save lives, I think what we’re really looking at is fear and hope. Is this the disruptive innovation that’s going to change everything? And if it is, is that good or bad? What if the change makes a flawed system worse?

* No, I am not arguing for dictatorship. But I am saying that most democratically elected representatives aren’t going to be aid experts, and they do control the purse strings. This leads to inevitable mess.


photo credit: fd

Chosen because barnacles were the only decent visual in the whole blog post.

Social Objects — a nice introduction. Basically, a social object is the thing that brings people together to socialize – whatever it is you talk about with your friends and acquaintances when you talk. Most social networks form around a social object. I am trying to figure out how to link this idea to counterpublics. Do counterpublics also form around a social object?