Fandom and Criticism: What I learned from LA’s Social Media Week

By Joseph Marks

October 2, 2013

I spent last week in Los Angeles at Social Media Week because, well, the weather was great and the government was still operating then.  

There were some ways in which government’s digital concerns translated perfectly to LA’s entertainment-heavy panels. Other times I was in a foreign land.

There was the Los Angeles Times happy hour, sponsored by the journalists’ network MuckRack, where a public relations type told me how a friend who manages hip hop stars keeps them from saying anything too explosive on Twitter. When she senses a storm brewing, she changes the client’s password for a few days until he cools down, my happy hour partner said.

That might work well in entertainment but woe to the Congressional staffer who gives it a try.

I also spoke with the designers of the MyLA311 app about a new customer relations management system the city is planning for 2014. (More on that in the next few days). One key insight was that when you make it easier to report gaps in government services (unfilled potholes or graffiti that hasn’t been removed) citizens report more of those gaps, which puts a greater burden on city services. As a result, improved digital services may create the appearance of less efficiency, only because they expose inefficiencies no one saw before.

That’s a lesson anyone working in government claims processing should take seriously.

One key insight, though, came from this panel on social media fandom in the film and TV industries. Panelist Lauren Bird of the Harry Potter Alliance played this video as a demonstration of how super-fandom can go hand in hand with intense criticism.

The video is Bird’s defense of the HPA’s campaign urging Warner Brothers to present proof the company doesn’t allow any child labor in the production of its Harry Potter-themed chocolates. The HPA is a nonprofit coalition of Hogwart  lovers who use their fandom to push for social change.

Bird begins her defense acknowledging it may seem silly to protest labor practices in the chocolate industry by focusing on an entertainment company rather than, say, Nestle or Hershey’s. But it makes sense for the HPA, she says. That’s partly because a shift by Warner Brothers could put pressure on larger players in the chocolate industry.

More importantly, though, HPA members are all Harry Potter fans -- huge ones! -- and they care about the issue in large part because it tarnishes a book and film franchise that’s dear to them. The video is part of a larger campaign called Not in Harry’s Name.

One reason the video seemed so foreign from a government perspective is that, with the exception of NASA, few agencies think of themselves as having a committed fan base. There are the agencies’ constituents of course -- farmers and food consumers for the Agriculture Department or small businesses for the SBA -- but that’s something different. A lot of people watched the Harry Potter movies; less than 1 percent contributed to a fan page about them.

Government writ large has its fans and its critics of course -- that’s, in large measure, what the current shutdown is about -- but they’re rarely the same people.

The idea that an agency’s greatest fans could also be among its biggest online gadflies is rare in government. It’s tough to blame agencies for this. Many of them face so much online vitriol it’s tough to sift out any constructive criticism.

But agencies are also sometimes so cynical about their own capacity for popularity that they might not recognize a fan movement even if it existed. If you’ve ever seen someone from the IRS speak at a conference you’ll know what I mean. The presentation usually begins with a joke about wearing a bulletproof vest.

Even when an agency does inspire a few fans, such as liberal supporters of President Obama’s Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, those fans are often light on criticism, perhaps because they feel legitimately defensive against the agency’s many conservative critics.

I don’t see a fan culture rising up in government anytime soon, but perhaps one good thing to come from a government shutdown, will be an acknowledgement of how much some federal agencies do for the public and a healthier mixing of support and criticism.

(Image via Gerry Boughan/

By Joseph Marks

October 2, 2013