We Create and We Resist: GISH and Social Activism

From May 30th-May 31st 2020, thousands of people participated in the second ever at-home GISH mini-hunt. GISH (Greatest International Scavenger Hunt) is usually an annual week-long event, created by Supernatural’s Misha Collins, in which teams complete a variety of tasks in order to benefit Random Acts and other charitable initiatives. Collins and the team at GISH hosted a mini-hunt earlier this year to raise money to help food-insecure families and children who were affected by school closures due to COVID-19. After the success of the first mini at home hunt, GISH scheduled a second mini-hunt, again with the goal to provide meals to children in need, for May 30th-31st. When protests against police brutality erupted nation-wide after the brutal murder of George Floyd by four police officers in Minneapolis, Collins and company considered cancelling the event. Instead, GISH and Collins made the decision to use the hunt and direct the emotional energy of Gishers (people who participate in GISH) towards explicitly anti-racist activism and social justice. By the end of the hunt, Gishers raised over $178,000 for the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Educational Fund and enough to donate 515,000 plus meals to children experiencing food insecurity.

Check out the recording of the May 30, 2020: Racial Inequality and Injustice Panel featuring: Daryl Davis, Briona Jenkins, Reverend Deborah Johnson and Baratunde Thurston.

Tanya’s Perspective:

Kaela and I have been studying fandom spaces for the past four years working to understand how, why, and when fans shift from fundraising and charity work to overt activism. We pay special attention to GISH because we are both avid Gishers, and because we know from our research that completing service work (and weird art projects) together creates a kind of power that sociologist Robert Putnam referred to as bridging social capital. Bridging capital creates solidarity between groups of people of diverse social identities. In other words, through GISH’s team-focused structure, players must cooperate to accomplish items, leading to new connections for an individual with people outside of their typical in-group social networks.

Interestingly, in this hunt, my positionality in two different fandom networks allowed me to serve as a bridge over a structural hole. I learned after the hunt that a whole group of Xenites (fans of the television show Xena:Warrior Princess which ran from 1995–2001) that I met at Xenite Retreat decided to participate in GISH because they had seen my posts on social media and it looked fun. While most Gishers are fans of Supernatural, only a couple of the Xenites had seen the show, most had joined just because they thought it looked like a good cause and a good time. While I don’t know how common this is for GISH, I suspect that it is not unusual that people with tenuous ties to the Supernatural fandom are brought in by what sociologist Mark Granovetter called the strength of weak ties.

I think it is highly significant that we are seeing non Supernatural fans participating in GISH. That phenomenon, plus the turn the latest hunt took toward overt social justice causes and anti-racist activism, is a huge step from fandom-based charity work to fully-engaged social movement. Robert Putnam’s best seller Bowling Alone, published in 2000, decried the loss of social capital and political engagement among citizens in the era of the internet and social media. Kaela and I (and other scholars) argue that although it seemed as though civic engagement went into hibernation, instead, it went online and morphed into new, unrecognized forms. The latest GISH hunt and many other fandoms are showing it’s not an era of “Bowling Alone” that we are living in, but an era of “Nerding Together.”

Photo Credit: Judit Julià For Team Illusive Yetis: Backstory for this GISH Item from Judit’s Teammate Cindy: The house is in Vancouver, Canada and functions as a boarding house for expats from around the world, and everyone in the house all saw it and were in awe and sent pictures home to their families. “Item Description: Last quarantine hunt we had people making signs to show appreciation for first responders and medical professionals. This Hunt, we would like to turn our attention to showing support to people of color whose lives are impacted or even lost because of the institutional racism in the American criminal justice system. Make a sign showing your solidarity for Black Lives Matter or in memory of George Floyd or other people of color impacted by racism and post it in your window or in your front yard.”

Kaela’s experience:

While I am an avid fan of Supernatural, my first experience with GISH was on a team that had largely joined the hunt after learning of Star Trek actor William Shatner’s intent to participate, back in 2014. Like Tanya’s experience with Xenites who had joined the mini-hunt, my 2014 team had a shared interest in doing good, charitable work, and a general affinity for geeky pop-culture consumption, but not all had seen Supernatural. Since that summer of 2014, my team has remained a cohesive group of people from around the world who are able to draw on one another for support on an ongoing basis, almost entirely online. Because we are from different parts of the world, we have been able to share things about our cultures that have increased our understanding of activism on a global scale, in addition to strengthening our bonds with one another. For me, my teammates were some of the first to check in as the coronavirus pandemic broke, and have been people I continually see engaging both online and at protests regarding the current wave of Black Lives Matter activism. Much of my regular team was unable to join the mini-hunts, but that simply meant bridging new capital with new teammates who were all game for the work at hand.

What is unique about GISH in bridging social capital is that there is something for just about everyone, even on a list like that of the May mini-hunt that was specifically focused on Black Lives Matter. While some were learning about systemic oppression and racial justice (maybe even for the first time), for example, others were making dinosaurs out of tea leaves or trying to get a pet to sit still for a series of silly costumed photos. There was no way to really participate in the hunt to its fullest without engaging with Black Lives Matter, but there were ways to take a break to re-energize through more comical items. This is an important part of activism, the ability to engage in self-care, care of one another, and re-energizing to go back out and persist in the work. For myself, GISH has always had that quality of re-energizing me and filling up my creative and emotional cup. In a week where I was feeling emotionally drained and unable to show up for activism that is otherwise extremely important to me, GISH was the thing that got me out of bed and back to work because, if I can be accountable to my GISH community for crafting a fancy hat for my dog out of an unusable face mask, I can be accountable to Black Lives Matter, and all of the other human rights movements that need me to show up.

The images below are what some teams created for this item: “Create a portrait of one of the far too many black people who have been hurt or killed by racial inequality in America. It must be in black and white — no color and no shades of grey. Post it on social media along with a short description of who this person was and how their life was taken. Tag it #NotOneMore & #BlackLivesMatter. Upload the original image on the GISH website.”

Credit to Christine Killian-Jones & Kaitlyn Wood for Team KAZ2Y5
Credit to: Christina Camp for Team Church of Chuck

Final Thoughts:

We, as two white women, are not here to tell you how to be a better ally, or what the solution is to the unrest we are seeing. There are people who have said it better, more eloquently, and from positionalities that matter more to the conversation on race in America than our own. For that, we have linked to resources below. What we are here to promote is the idea that online activism can be real activism, can translate into real change, and is an important part of the web that makes up social movements today. Through online activism, we can build the social capital needed to bring together folks from different backgrounds to work towards a singular cause. We don’t believe online activism necessarily replaces in-person activism, live protests are crucial for creating the kinds of change that are needed right now, but there is plenty of room for both types of activism in our highly digital age.

Additional Resources:

To learn more about Racial Injustice in the US and how to be an Anti-racist and ally check out Baratunde’s Bookshelf that benefits local bookstores.

The Harry Potter Alliance (no affiliation with JK Rowling) has a variety of excellent Toolkits including this one that draws on themes in Black Panther to facilitate learning and discussions about racial injustice, colonialism, and immigration.

Information on how to take action here: https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co/

For information on self-care and activism, the organization New Tactics in Human Rights has a list of tips and resources that can be found here: https://www.newtactics.org/conversation/self-care-activists-sustaining-your-most-valuable-resource

A discussion on self-care, specifically related to Black Lives Matter, can be found here: https://mlk50.com/self-care-in-the-age-of-black-lives-matter-2a73162b06b9

We (Tanya and Kaela) are two fans and academics who study how fans help and support each other and their communities.