The Harry Potter Alliance: Networked Causes, Mobilizing Structures, and Chinese Censorship

A volunteer wizard army powered by love: that’s one way to describe the Harry Potter Alliance, a global network of Harry Potter fans committed to doing good in the real world. Founded in 2005 to bring attention to the crisis in Darfur, the group started out with book donations and has since moved on to campaigns that are increasingly activist and progressive, includingbattles for worker’s rights at WalMart, immigration reform, and a campaign against Proposition 8 in California.

They are currently attempting (and quickly succeeding) in raising $50,000 for “equality” broadly-writ, which is frankly more progressive and inclusive than many human rights campaigns,which tend to focus on one cause or vulnerable group. Their fundraising page on indiegogo reads:

We hold these truths to be self evident that all men (and women, and undocumented Americans, and children, and…) are created equal. Regardless of where you’re from, who you love, or how much money you have, we believe that we all deserve the same rights and opportunities.

Is it any surprise that millennials, born in the networked age, see causes as being networked as well? In a 2009 blog post, Henry Jenkins wrote,

The HP Alliance has adopted an unconventional approach to civic engagement — mobilizing J.K. Rowling’s best-sellingHarry Potterfantasy novels as a platform for political transformation, linking together traditional activist groups with new style social networks and with fan communities…. One can’t argue with the success of this group which has deployed podcasts and Facebook to capture the attention of more than 100,000 people [now 1 million]….

HPA is also an interesting case study in mobilizing structures, which Patrick Meier defines as “the mechanisms that facilitate organization and collective action.” The classic example is the black church in the civil rights movement. Though the church was areligiousinstitution, in became a locus for collective action againstinstitutionalizedracism.

In the age of the internet, the age of “ridiculously easy group formation,” often all you need to create an organization is a “social object,” a topic of focus that is of interest to two or more people and thus brings them together. In the case of HPA, that’s the Harry Potter novels.

According to Hugh MacLeod, one of the first to write about the topic, social objects go a long way to explaining group formation online:

Human beings are social ani­mals. We like to socia­lize. But if [you] think about it, there needs to be a rea­son for it to hap­pen in the first place. That rea­son, that “node” in the social net­work, is what we call the Social Object.

In the absence of financial or logistical obstacles to group formation, the only reason a group doesn’t form online is if no one wants to create it. The only reason a group of interested people (ie, people with a common social object) do not form a group online is if they are actively prevented from doing so. In fact, one way to think about China’stopic-agnostic anti-collective action censorship policy, is that they are trying to prevent social objects from emerging online.The Harry Potter Alliance demonstrates that the Chinese are right in so far as any social object – no matter how seemingly apolitical – can seed an activism organization.

It also shows that there are many new types of organizations made possible by the internet. Though we are most aware of Anonymous and its politically-motivated spin-offs and operations, this is likely just the tip of the iceberg. As the technology of online large-group collective action becomes better known and easier to implement, durable online groups will be composed not only of hackers and techies but also of teen book-lovers.

The capacity for collective action is the capacity for political power, and a world where this capacity is more evenly distributed is a more just and democratic one.


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