Black and Steinkuehler quote a common concern regarding the increased engagement with electronic media: that civic engagement is declining as a direct result (Black & Steinkuehler, forthcoming). It is beyond the scope of a short blog post (or even a long one!) to question the findings of this report, but I can offer examples of intensive civic activity centered on the running of some fan fiction sites.
No doubt it has been noted elsewhere that these fan sites, groups in virtual worlds, and guilds (or their equivalent) in multiplayer games are generally self-organizing. This may be a trivial task in the case of small fan movies created by one or two people, but it often becomes necessary to reflect upon the challenges of organization, control and authority as endeavors become large. Text-based fan fiction sites can become as large as the Gungan Council ("The Gungan Council," n.d.), which still boasts over 8,000 members. Such numbers spark a need and an interest in making some sort of explicit governance to maintain order, provide direction, set rules, and enforce them. Such a monumental task is often beyond the abilities of the founders (usually a core of 1 to 6 members), overwhelming them and causing some sort of decision to spread the administrative load. Such decisions often spark debate and reflection about the topics civics instructors only wish their students would take seriously. Questions such as how to organize the community and how to select leaders are often only the first round in grappling with the challenges of community governance. Questions of security and methodology in running elections arise, effective transfer of power is often not a simple matter, and coping with legacy rules and practices once a new set of leaders is in place vex even the most dedicated new leader.
And this call for a fair system in running a community does not always arise from within, prompted by an internal need to off-load responsibilities. It can come from outside the leadership circle of a reasonably popular site, which was the case with the Jedi Temple ("The Temple of the Jedi," n.d.). When the membership of this group approached 200, pressure from active members forced the ruling group of seven to eventually declare democratic elections. This lead to them to restructure the ruling Council, establish a transparent set of rules for admittance and advancement through the membership levels, and establish firm rules for acceptable behavior on the discussion board as well as rules for dealing with infractions of those rules. Over the course of nearly a year, the public debate on these topics was certainly engaged and often heated as members debated the best forms of government, the ideal qualities of leaders, how to grant sufficient power to leaders but restrict them from inappropriate use of such power and so forth. While the quality of these discussions varied greatly, some members showed exemplary rhetorical technique and ability to reason clearly on issues from the domains of philosophy, sociology and political science.
Admittedly, this is a somewhat dramatic example, but it is indicative of the level of group organization that occurs with any fan fiction site. What many people miss in looking at fan sites of all types is that, whenever people come together to achieve some goal, they must organize themselves in some fashion to achieve that goal. This is civic engagement at its most fundamental, grass-roots level. It is reminiscent of the agora of Plato in which every man present has a voice in running the community. Members of these fan sites take voicing their opinion very seriously and are often willing to be involved, over long periods, with an endeavor that is by no means fun but is otherwise rewarding.
Perhaps, if we believe that traditional civic engagement is faltering, we need to examine why voters are not interested in the ballot box but will spend hours structuring communities built around their hobbies, interests, and popular media.
Black, R. W., & Steinkuehler, C. (forthcoming). Literacy in Virtual Worlds. In L. Christenbury, R. Bomer & P. Smagorinski (Eds.), Handbook of Adolescent Literacy. New York: Guilford.
The Gungan Council. (n.d.). Retrieved April 24, 2007, from http://p099.ezboard.com/bthegungancouncil
The Temple of the Jedi. (n.d.). Retrieved April 24, 2007, from http://www.jeditemple.freehosting.net/