Social media are important in the Western world, they are a source of information, enable us to interact with other users and to become part of a social exchange that might primarily take place in a virtual environment but can also have wide-reaching consequences for our everyday lives. In this sense, participatory culture is embedded in the social media platform.
“Social media differ from traditional media. While messages are generally delivered by unidirectional communication on traditional media, social media involve interactive and co-operative communication based on Web 2.0, where information can be easily generated and shared” (Hwang, 479).
As such, social media have also been widely critiqued for replacing actual social interactions and perhaps even preventing other, more active, forms of social communities from forming. But to view social media as inherently isolating would be a mistake. Thus it becomes especially important to investigate social media in regards to causes and impacts of social media movements. Especially in the context of activist movements, social media can be approached from different perspectives: on the one hand, they facilitate the dissemination of knowledge and lower the threshold for participation, but on the other hand using social media might also lead to a kind of “keyboard activism” that in turn only furthers a superficial, low-effort engagement with an issue. Ultimately, it is important to understand and consider how online and offline activism exists in a reciprocal relationship on social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook, but also extends to real-life interactions and processes.
Social movements are evolving and changing. Recent developments involving the internet and its endless possibilities of community building and disseminating information have shaped and perhaps transformed our understanding of what constitutes a social movement. There are many examples of how social media have been utilized to gather resources, spread information, and accumulate supporters. From disaster relief to public calls for justice during times of revolution, social media facilitate the organization of social movements as well as rallying around a common goal. In short, social media foster an environment that promotes community building, organization, and participation, thus utilizing new communication technologies that are categorized by immediacy and actuality. That means, of course, also excluding or silencing non-social media users, as access to current discussions and information is simply not possible or available.
In this post, I will not focus on the limits of social media activism, but rather build on my previous blog post outlining the role and importance of fan fiction archives to explore how social media movements connect to fandom and activate fans as participants in these social campaigns.
The concept of fans coming together in online communities to rally around a common goal is not a new one. In fact, the most well-known campaigns launched by fans often attempted to bring back beloved television programs that were canceled prematurely. A prime example of such a case is Veronica Mars and its Kickstarter-fueled success, essentially funding the production of a Veronica Mars movie 8 hours after the campaign was launched. In this instance, fans not only become ideological supporters of the television program, but also provide financial sustenance in order to see their favorite characters return to the screen, also incorporating aspects of crowdfunding.
This type of fan participation is a process that often involves online coordination and organization of networks that eventually leads to an offline result, thus highlighting the transformative power fans possess to influence media production. “Crowdfunding campaigns that successfully engage their fans in a more participatory manner – acknowledging previous fan work, noting the saliency of fan activities in the past, appealing to fan attention in the future – highlight the temporal existence of fandom” (Booth, 151). Social media played a key role in activating the community and turning this particular Kickstarter campaign into an instant success. There are, of course, discourses at work that might be considered to exploit fan money, work, and time, but fans as groups or communities possess a degree of agency and self-awareness that should not be so easily dismissed.
Therefore, it can be fruitful to take a closer look at one such instance of a community-driven social media movement that, unlike the Veronica Mars Kickstarter, was not pushed by producers or actors and did not provide goods such as movie tickets or downloads in exchange for the monetary support.
Because many social media movements are nowadays most commonly known by and associated with their Twitter hashtags, the movement I focus on has been known as “LGBT Fans Deserve Better” and “Bury Tropes Not Us”.
To understand the Twitter hashtags and the surrounding social media movement, a brief introduction of the CW television program The 100 is necessary. The story of The 100 centers around the surviving members of the human race living on a space station, the Arc, following the eradication of humankind after a nuclear war. Because of overpopulation, each minor transgression is considered a capital crime on the Arc for every inhabitant over 18 years of age. So instead of being “floated” aka killed, 100 juvenile delinquents are sent to earth to test its inhabitability at the risk of dying of radiation exposure. To their collective surprise, the 100 find earth not only to be hospitable but also already inhabited by other humans, the “grounders”. Over the course of 2 seasons, Clarke Griffin, one of the main characters, finds herself trapped in a battle against grounders, her own friends, and another even shadier enemy living in the military base underneath a mountain. After the introduction of the grounder leader Lexa, many fans immediately flocked to the side of the queer relationship between the two women and to the delight of a large portion of the audience, Clarke and Lexa became a couple… for about two episodes.
To put it mildly, fans were incredibly disappointed by Lexa’s untimely and stereotypical demise. What followed after the episode aired is an almost unprecedented fan effort to bring attention to the issue of queer characters, specifically women, continuously dying on television (oftentimes right after a happy event).
But why did this specific television program spark such a large social media movement? One explanation might be the temporal and spatial locatedness of this dystopian teen-drama that has attracted audiences from various age groups with an affinity for social media. Perhaps it is also the process of how fans become active participants and engage with this topic that is admittedly a controversial one. The implication of fans being able to collectively voice disapproval is backed by a much larger attempt to rally around a cause that can have wide-reaching, real-life consequences. It is an inherently emotional experience, in this sense a cumulation of events.
This fan effort also highlights how fandom is a point of convergence for different media, from television to social media platforms and fundraising websites, the internet becomes an interactive online environment.
In an open letter to the producer of The 100, one blogger laments the way in which Lexa was killed off the show and provides an insightful opinion on why exactly the issue of queer women being killed on television is worthy of further discussion: http://www.fandomfollowing.com/an-open-letter-to-jason-rothenberg-of-the-100/
“Writers’ rooms and producers often can’t imagine other storylines for queer people that don’t revolve around their sexualities, meaning that when they finally get what they want (i.e., love or sex), they’re no longer necessary. Television might be a dangerous place to be queer, but there’s nothing more deadly than a medium that still doesn’t know how to treat LGBT people with basic humanity.” – Salon article
In fact, since January 2016 14 queer female characters have died on various television programs, clearly showing that this trend is more than a mere nuisance for fans. Sentences such as “we’re watching ourselves die on television once a week” certainly hit hard and make a point that goes beyond television representation.
Therefore, it might not be terribly surprising that the social media movement began to take on a different shape.
It is difficult to trace the many comments, discussions, and suggestions as social media sites are constantly updated and changed in an ephemeral space, thus making it almost impossible to pinpoint any exact emergence of a social media movement. However, fans of The 100 used social media, specifically Twitter, to call attention to this particular issue when the next episode of the television program aired and turned #LGBTFansDeserveBeter into a nationally trending topic. Furthermore, fans began a massive fundraising effort through social media and created a website with a mission statement, fundraiser information, and an active newsfeed to attract more supporters even outside of this specific fandom.
“The tipping point was the unnecessary death of Lexa (Alycia Debnam-Carey) on The 100, a series on the CW Network which caters to genre shows and teen audiences. Since the airing of episode 3×07 on March 3rd, 2016, forums and social media outlets have been flooded with outcry over the mishandling of a beloved fictional character who served as a beacon in the lives of many young LGBT and non-LGBT persons. In that episode Lexa – the powerful and openly lesbian leader of the show’s post-apocalyptic society – had just consummated her long-simmering relationship with the show’s protagonist Clarke Griffin. In the very next scene (64 seconds later), Lexa was accidentally shot dead by a stray bullet intended for her lover.
Fans of the show – and even members of the LGBT community not previously involved with it, are upset not just due to the nature of the death itself which played into the harmful “Bury Your Gays” or “Dead Lesbian” media trope, but also due to a false sense of security derived from the repeated baiting by the writers on popular social media sites.”(LGBTFansDeserveBetter.com)
Thus far, fans and supporters have raised more than a staggering 117,000$ for the Trevor Project, the leading national organization for providing crisis intervention and suicide services/hotline for LGBT+ youth.
To outline this particular fan engagement highlights how fans organize and go beyond expressing disapproval or critique and enter the realm of activism to bring attention to this very specific set of issues. As mentioned earlier, it is important to not dismiss online activism, especially in connection to fan efforts, and recognize this critical labor that is being performed as a part of social media movements that are categorized by online and offline organization.
The response to these fan efforts was largely positive, and even creator and showrunner of The 100, Jason Rothenberg, acknowledged that television does not exist in a vacuum and that yet another dead queer female character means more than just a storyline or a dramatic effect.
The fundraising campaign that followed the outrage after Lexa’s death on The 100 should not be seen as a destination, but rather another starting point for future, perhaps even larger, discussions about media representation and cultural stereotyping. In this sense, the “LGBT Fans Deserve Better” initiative is distinctly different from say a Veronica Mars Kickstarter, and thus deserves more scholarly attention from fandom studies as well as digital humanities scholars.
 Every Regular or Recurring Lesbian or Bisexual Female Character Killed On Television, Ever: http://www.autostraddle.com/all-65-dead-lesbian-and-bisexual-characters-on-tv-and-how-they-died-312315/
 Tumblr Rant: TV programs with queer audiences: you’re f*cking stuck with us: http://racethewind10.tumblr.com/post/136894398431/so-you-have-a-queer-fandom
Booth, Paul. “Crowdfunding: A Spimatic Application of Digital Fandom.” New Media & Society 17.2 (2015): 149-66. Web.
Hills, Matt. “Veronica Mars, Fandom, and the ‘Affective Economics’ of Crowdfunding Poachers.” New Media & Society 17.2 (2015): 183-97. Web.
Hwang, Hyesun, and Kee-Ok Kim. “Social Media as a Tool for Social Movements: The Effect of Social Media use and Social Capital on Intention to Participate in Social Movements: Social Media as a Tool for Social Movements.” International Journal of Consumer Studies 39.5 (2015): 478-88. Web.
Kessler, Edward. “Social Media and the Movement of Ideas.” European Judaism 46.1 (2013): 26-35. Web.
McCurdy, Patrick. “Social Movements, Protest and Mainstream Media: Social Movements & Mainstream Media.” Sociology Compass 6.3 (2012): 244-55. Web.