Content Worlds: Shared Stories
Throughout our case studies, we struggled with how to define the aspects of the communities we studied that were not directly political. What is the relationship of Verb Noire to science fiction? Of the Harry Potter Alliance to the Harry Potter series? It was difficult to describe these foci using pre-existing language. Therefore, we coined the term "content world." A content world is a story-world shared by the members of a particular activist group. A content world can be as explicitly fantastical, as is Harry Potter, or it can be as subtle as any work of realist fiction. A content world can be designed and created by the activist group, or it can stem from a pre-existing story. A content world can be championed, critiqued, or treated both ways at different times. However, all content worlds are rooted in stories, and all content worlds serve as a touchstone for an activist group, bringing them together and serving as a point of shared experience and understanding.
In his 2007 book Dream, Stephen Duncombe calls for progressive political and activist groups to embrace the appeal of fantasy, outlining a theory of "dreampolitik" (27). He calls argues that "instead of asking for sacrifice, we could try appealing to people's hopes and dreams, weaving them into a tale that ends with their lives being better than they are now" (82). Duncombe's vision of the way that fantasies and stories can motivate people for political and activist ends maps onto our case studies very well. However, Duncombe also cautions readers that "this entails looking deeper than the current vogue of celebrating commercial culture as a 'site of resistance' ... there is a big difference between rereading reality and acting to make it anew ... furthermore, this sort of 'resistance' is often cultivated by marketers who understand it – correctly – as another way to get consumers engaged with their product" (15). This challenge leads us to look at each of our case studies more deeply. How are these activist groups using their content worlds? When the content worlds are borrowed from commercial products, do they continue in service to those products, and do they actually lead to change? When they are not, do they become commercial products? Or are content worlds actually serving as a point of unity and inspiration for the activist groups we have studied?
Certainly, they are serving as a model for civic action. The Indian movie Rang de Basanti, which emphasized nationalism and social change, featured a candlelight rally at India Gate. The rally is held, in the story-world, to protest the death of an airplane pilot who was flying a defective plane - the plane having been purchased by the Indian government despite its known problems, as a result of bribery. In real life, shortly after the movie was released, citizens re-enacted the candlelight rally. They were protesting the fact that a rich young man had managed to get off the hook for a very public murder, and commemorating the victim of that murder. Their real-life protest resulted in new movement on the case and the eventual conviction of the murderer. The candlelight vigil was both a re-enactment of the fictional vigil, and a endorsement of a cause that echoed Rang de Basanti's themes. While the participants in the vigil may or may not have had a continuing fan relationship to Rang de Basanti, or even taken a continuing part in political action, in the moment they were inspired by the images and themes presented in Rang de Basanti. In Rang de Basanti, they saw a realistic depiction of their own world - almost themselves reflected in a mirror - that could serve as a model for their own political action.
Another group which has a content world is Invisible Children. Their 2008 annual report and their website explicitly state that they are "a social, political and global movement that uses the transformative power of stories to change lives." They emphasize that they are not just storytellers, though: they describe how they began with a story (the documentary they were shooting) and have moved on into taking action within the community. Most of Invisible Children's media output focuses on following the adventures of members of the organization as they try to help Uganda. To draw comparisons, Rang de Basanti's fictional story showed young people protesting government corruption; Invisible Children's nonfictional story shows young people protesting the treatment of children in Uganda. In both cases, the content world serves as a model for political action, as well as making that action appear more appealing.
The Harry Potter Alliance goes even further than Rang de Basanti and Invisible Children and explicitly uses its content world, the Harry Potter novels, as shared myth. In addition to campaigns that play on the surface aspects of the Harry Potter books, asking "What would Dumbledore do?" and so forth, the Harry Potter Alliance asks its members to "be these characters" and "make this myth come to life." The relationship of members of the Harry Potter Alliance to Harry Potter is similar to the relationship between Rang de Basanti and the people who showed up to the candlelight vigil, but it is longer-term. Rather than creating instances of "flash activism" or pure spectacle, the Harry Potter Alliance asks members to engage in a continuing effort to shape themselves and their values around the world portrayed in the Harry Potter books.
Verb Noire also emphasizes the power of stories to change people's behaviors, but rather than relying on a particular story to inspire its volunteers, it critiques the failures of our culture's common content worlds. Its founder, Mikki Kendall, points out that "sci fi is our view of the future, so to speak, but we're [people of color are] not there. You can't say 'we're all American together' and then you look at say Dune [the movie] and there's no brown people." While Verb Noire's volunteers and customers do not necessarily share one particular content world - Star Trek or Vernor Vinge novels, Kindred or The Courtship of Princess Leia - they share the belief that stories influence our understanding of what the future will be. While one piece of Verb Noire's activism is simply providing more opportunities for authors who choose to write about people of color, queer people or disabled people, another piece is in attempting to provide better content worlds for others to embrace. Unlike the previous examples of Rang de Basanti, Invisible Children, and the Harry Potter Alliance, Verb Noire does not hold up a particular content world as a model - rather, it assumes that people are doing this anyway, and works to make those content worlds better.
In our case studies, content world function as a "dream," to use Stephen Duncombe's word. Whether they are rallying points for flash activism or long-term inspirations, they serve as both an organizing principle and as a model for behavior.