Narratives, Nerdfighters, and New Media 160938718X, 9781609387181

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Narratives, Nerdfighters, and New Media
 160938718X, 9781609387181

Table of contents :
Introduction: Reading John Green and Writing Anticipatory History
1 Welcome to Nerdfighteria
2 Nerdfighteria by Numbers
3 Connections, Commerce, and Philanthropy
4 A Community of Readers
5 Words and Worlds: Responding to TFiOS
Conclusion: The Road to Nerdfighteria
Appendix A: Nerdfighteria: A Chronology of Events, 2005–2020
Appendix B: Computational Analysis of Qualitative Nerdfighteria Census Data: Terms and Concepts
Appendix C: Selected Nerdfighteria Census Dataset Questions and Figures
Bibliographic Essay

Citation preview

Narratives Nerdfighters and New Media

Narratives Nerdfighters and New Media Jennifer Burek Pierce

University of Iowa Press Iowa City

University of Iowa Press, Iowa City 52242 Copyright © 2020 by the University of Iowa Press Printed in the United States of America ISBN 978-1-60938-718-1 (pbk) ISBN 978-1-60938-719-8 (ebk) Cover design by Lindsay Starr Text design by Omega Clay No part of this book may be reproduced or used in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the publisher. All reasonable steps have been taken to contact copyright holders of material used in this book. The publisher would be pleased to make suitable arrangements with any whom it has not been possible to reach. Printed on ­acid-­f ree paper ­Cataloging-­in-­Publication data is on file at the Library of Congress.

For Nerdfighteria, especially those who have shared their stories with me and all who have made it possible for me to tell this story and For Aaron and Cora, who always want another book

| Contents Acknowledgments ix Introduction | Reading John Green and Writing Anticipatory History 1

1 Welcome to Nerdfighteria  28 2 Nerdfighteria by Numbers  48 3 Connections, Commerce, and Philanthropy  71 4 A Community of Readers  91 5 Words and Worlds: Responding to TFiOS 116 Conclusion | The Road to Nerdfighteria 135

Appendix A Nerdfighteria: A Chronology of Events, 2005–2020  149

Appendix B Computational Analysis of Qualitative Nerdfighteria Census Data: Terms and Concepts  159

Appendix C Selected Nerdfighteria Census Dataset Questions and Figures


Notes 163 Bibliographic Essay  209 Index 215

| Acknowledgments It is no overstatement to say that it would not have been possible to write this book without the support of any number of Nerdfighters, some of whom I have met in real life and some of whom I know through a series of online messages. My appreciation for this community only grew as I wrote. Particular gratitude goes to Colleen Theisen, Maia Ledesma, Kyle Barr, Ahsante Bean, Valerie Barr, and Victoria Bongiorno. Their reactions and ideas made a difference to this book and to me as a writer and Nerdfighter. For every email they’ve responded to, every question they’ve answered, every bit of text they’ve previewed, every resource they’ve directed me to or provided, and every fact they’ve corrected, I am most grateful. The people who have transcribed and recorded content for the Nerdfighteria Wiki and other online sources of information on all things Nerdfighter likewise have made my work simpler, and I thank them for their persistent dedication to those projects.

A number of individuals have read the chapters that make up this

book in draft form, and their responses have been both useful and encouraging. To Colleen, Kyle, Micah Bateman, Michael Bonin, André Brock, and Katie Heffner, I am indebted for their time and reflections on my work in progress. Colleen shared her thoughts with me as I revised, reading with an eye to how Nerdfighteria was being represented, while Kyle ­fact-­checked my history of the community’s early years and the conclusions I drew about its changing dynamics. Their kind attention to my words, their willingness to be the first readers for this work, and to share their perspectives on the intersections of reading, new media, and Nerdfighteria, has provided confidence and companionship during my hours at the computer.

Visual media has been integral to this project, and my ability to

write about it is likewise indebted to others. Jason Mattock photo-

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graphed the TFIOS bench in Amsterdam in September 2019, allowing me to see how fan graffiti at this site has continued to change. Other creators, known for their artistic talents, have graciously allowed us to reprint a couple of my favorite pieces of their work here: Sylvia Odhner’s Road to Nerdfighteria banner and Karen Kavett’s Tour de Nerdfighting map.

The technical and computing support necessary to complete this research is

likewise appreciable and appreciated. James Cox, Lindsay Mattock, Mike Hendrickson, and Dakota Zipporah Derryberry have worked their computational magic to produce the numbers that I write about in two chapters. Riley Hanick has also read and edited with me, offering provocative ideas and questions during the later stages of crafting this manuscript, as well as applying his theoretical interests in indexing to creating one for this book. The Graduate College of the University of Iowa funded his support for this project with a summer 2019 fellowship. A number of conferences welcomed my work in its early stages, notably those hosted by the Center for the Study of Print and Digital Culture at the University of W ­ isconsin-­Madison, the Children’s Literature Association, and the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing. Jim Connolly, director of the Center for Middletown Studies, invited me to discuss the data involved in chapters four and part of five at the Library Circulation Histories Workshop that will be held in the summer of 2021. The staff of the University of Iowa Press grounded my work with their encouragement and supportive feedback throughout this manuscript’s development. The TFiOS chapter is included in a somewhat different form in the Edinburgh History of Reading (University of Edinburgh Press, 2020); my thanks to my editor for that volume, Mary Hammond, for her considered interest in my study of Nerdfighteria as readers, and to the press for allowing its reuse here, as well as to Jonathan Rose and others involved in producing that work.

For some years now, I have read authors who thank the people who have aid-

ed them, attributing the strengths of the project to them and insisting that any errors are the author’s own. Although the routineness with which these words appear sometimes leaves me dismissing them in haste to turn the page, writing this book has renewed my sense of their sincerity, importance, and truth. —JBP

Narratives Nerdfighters and New Media


Reading John Green and Writing Anticipatory History

Toward an Anticipatory History of Nerdfighteria I did not begin watching Vlogbrothers videos, the weekly exchange of f­our-­ minute communiques between John Green and his brother Hank, with the intention of scrutinizing them as a scholar. I began watching their YouTube videos because I was looking for a book. Perhaps I was looking for an alternative to the role that John’s An Abundance of Katherines played in my young adult literature course. Maybe I simply wanted something to read, preferably something written in the alternately witty and trenchant voice that creates distinctive perspectives on what it means to connect with and to let go of people during our lives. In retrospect, it was the beginning of a shift in how I read and regard stories and, more vitally, in how I think about the history of reading and how communities of readers form. It opened a door to readers’ ­responses—­readers whose prolific and potentially ephemeral online dialogue entwined books and digital media, creating countless points of connection. It called my attention to the way that the history of reading is happening: before our eyes, where we can see it, and in readers’ lives, wherever they may be.1 The readers I learned about from and through the Greens’ work conceptualize their online interactions in terms of place, and their voices demonstrate that books continue to have readers and resonance. My ordinary interest in a book would become a pathway to Nerdfighteria, the community of readers, viewers, and listeners of the Greens’ content, itself a group of creators. As Robert Darnton has observed, “We commonly think of books as containers of ideas or wrapping for literature, but they can be understood in other ways—­as if they were blood cells carrying oxygen through a body politic or data points as infinite as stars in the sky. Books . . . intersect with our lives in ways we have only begun to understand.”2 The Nerdfighter community

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represents these dynamics, turning cyberspace into a real place of connection around stories, regardless of platform or medium. Despite their affinity for new media, Nerdfighters are readers, many of whom have reported reading more than ­t wenty-­five books annually—­an amount Hank once described as “a lot of frickin’ books.”3 Their communications about books, and about YouTube videos about books, and their involvement with online communities and social media developed around this content, is a story of its own.

What I knew then was that some years had passed without a new John Green

novel. As a reader’s reader and book nerd, I had no awareness of the Vlogbrothers channel until its videos started appearing in Google search results for “John Green new book” and “John Green forthcoming novel.” I watched the scattering of YouTube videos that appeared high in the results lists, found no answer to my question, and repeated the searches periodically, checking recent Vlogbrothers videos for the sorts of celebrations that had marked John’s previous literary successes. For his readers, it was a time of expectation, one in which the next John Green book seemed inevitable, when we did not know to anticipate novels by Hank. Those who read John’s novels as they appeared had enjoyed a steady stream of books, beginning in 2005 (Looking for Alaska) and continuing with new titles in 2006 (An Abundance of Katherines), 2008 (Paper Towns and, with Maureen Johnson and Lauren Myracle, Let It Snow), and 2010 (with David Levithan, Will Grayson, Will Grayson). After The Fault in Our Stars in 2012, a drought followed. Gradually, I stopped watching for the date when John’s new novel would be released and began instead to wait for the appearance of new videos, even if I remained confident that this YouTube exchange would be how I found out about John’s next book.

By the fall of 2016, though, it became apparent that John’s readers could not

expect another novel any time soon. On September 16, Hank released a video that he called “Let’s Talk About Failure.”4 He declared that stigma attaches to failure, resulting in silence: “We don’t talk about failure at all,” worsening a sense of shame when it happens. Hank’s problem was that it was becoming increasingly clear that his latest venture, NerdCon, was not financially viable. Four days later, John responded with “Failing to Follow Up The Fault in Our Stars.” By then, John observed, it had been “almost five years” since the publication of The Fault in Our Stars, which he described as a “very public success

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[that] happened to coincide with a series of very private failures.” Those who have seen interviews with him in the years since know that he had stopped taking mental health medication in hopes that it might help his stalled writing and had, as he explained, instead found himself “looking at these hundreds of pages as I realized they would never be a book and just sobbing.”5 He recounted feeling “intense pressure” and “like I could never follow it up,” a theme that he would return to in 2019 as time without a new book elapsed again.6 John’s words in that video suggested we might never see another novel with his name on the cover—“I missed writing in the way you miss someone you used to love,” he said, adding, “I don’t know if I’ll ever publish another book”—before hinting that he might yet make a c­ odex-­based comeback. Even when a student had asked, weeks before, if John could still be regarded as novelist or if he was better understood as an activist, I trusted that his past predicted his future. By then, too, I was watching each Vlogbrothers video as it appeared, belatedly joining the fold of Nerdfighters, a community whose members felt a sense of connection and belonging through this online conversation, who followed John and his brother to whatever platform or medium they adopted for the stories they wanted to share.

Like any number of other scholars who find themselves studying the media

they love, I began with an interest in compelling creations.7 Academic conversations about digital humanities, new media, and contemporary reading prompted me to see Nerdfighteria not just as a community that echoed my enjoyment of the Green brothers’ sensibilities and productions but as a distinctive group whose voices contributed to how we might think about the intersections of reading, fandom, and intermediation, or the concurrent use of both old and new media. My efforts to understand Nerdfighteria as a researcher began with a number of questions: Why do scholars regard some individuals as fans rather than readers? What differences and common ground exist between communities of readers, participatory culture, and fandoms? How do we invoke this academic vocabulary usefully and meaningfully when texts include both the enduring print codex and digital media such as ­e -­books, audiobooks, and movie versions of books we first encountered in print? What would justify including reading, or making meaning from stories, as the sort of making sometimes seen as integral to fandom?8 What creates bonds between authors and readers,

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or among readers themselves, and how do they talk about their often digital connections? In short, what does it mean to read in the early decades of the ­t wenty-­first century, years that have been declared “the late age of print” and an “electronic” era?9

It is a time when the smart phones so many of us carry in our pockets provide

access, wherever we go, to long- and ­short-­form texts and to anchoring communities, despite cultural critics who decry people’s attention to their screens, as if these devices didn’t allow us to read and to connect with others.10 Author and illustrator Jonny Sun has powerfully described these kinds of online spaces as ones “where all the people are” that afford us “small moments of human connection” by creating conversations and community.11 Recognizing the social, digital aspects of reading—­the ways we interact with people who share our affinities for certain books and the stories that foster our inner lives, whether we hold texts or devices in our hands—­complicates and enriches our sense of what it means to enjoy a book. Those complexities resist truisms and are continuously changing, sometimes through our observable efforts and at times in ways no longer evident. Nerdfighters show us that we must regard reading expansively, with reference to digital and actual conversations, places, and things.

This project writes an anticipatory history of Nerdfighteria as a community

of readers who engage with narratives, regardless of media, while the sources documenting its development are still available. (This scope and intention are reflected not only in the chapters that follow but in the chronology found in the appendices.)12 A moment from Nerdfighteria’s first years illuminates the basis and the need for this kind of history. In the summer of 2008, John led a shared reading of The Catcher in the Rye. The Vlogbrothers video that presents his interpretation of the book’s first chapters, highlighting Holden Caulfield’s emotional isolation and failed efforts to connect with others, endures. As of this writing, readers and viewers still post comments, joining this online book discussion more than a decade after its start. Amy Asendorf Berger wrote, in words that echo the themes I want to explore, “This was the first Vlogbrothers video I ever saw. . . . This book brought me to the community I would soon call home.” By linking an online video created by one author about reading another writer’s novel with her feelings of belonging and place, both embodied in the word home, this Nerdfighter succinctly focuses our attention on the communi-

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ty’s values and priorities. Still, something is missing. At the end of his video, John invited people to continue the conversation via a discussion thread on the Nerdfighter Ning, one of thousands of “custom social networks” operating on that platform.13 The Nerdfighter Ning, however, came to an end in 2016, and with it, the documentation of those responses to J. D. Salinger’s 1951 novel. We know, from this vantage, that Nerdfighteria had a summer book club in 2008 and that its interests and themes have what has been called, in other contexts, a long tail. We may never know the fullness of that online conversation, the texture of its interactions. We know, simply, that it existed and that its threads continue to bring people to Nerdfighteria through books read, shared, and discussed online.

I have approached this study of Nerdfighteria as a participant in its culture

and its activities and as a historian informed by scholarship and conventions that have emerged from a relatively recent field known variously as the history of the book, print culture, and the history of reading.14 This history is inflected by technology, because the printed book has always depended on technology and, as Ursula Franklin has argued, “technology changes the social and individual relationships between us” so that we must consider, among other things, “the changing nature of community and constituency that has been brought about by technological systems.”15 This context means that while Nerdfighteria has myriad interests, my focus tends toward the textual elements of that community’s activities over those spawned by sports and games, whether played on screen or with cards. As a historian of print culture and a belated participant in Nerdfighteria, I went back to Vlogbrothers’ beginnings, hoping to understand the emergence of this dispersed, digital community and the resulting interactions between readers and viewers. Originally conceptualized as a daily ­internet-­era open letter from brother to brother, this YouTube channel became a space for authors and readers, creators and viewers, to interact. On the first Tuesday of January 2020, when Hank posted a Vlogbrothers video with the title, ­“Re-­thinking our YouTube Channel,” hundreds of people responded with testimonials about their years with Hank, John, and the community. The transformation into a channel with a production that could accrue 83,000 views and multiple, active comment threads within eight hours was not immediate. Early Vlogbrothers vid-

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eos, which often reflect different production values than those driving most ­present-­day YouTube releases, had much smaller audiences. As one writer put it, Vlogbrothers “didn’t take the world by storm.” John told that interviewer, “For the first seven months, all our viewers were teenagers or librarians who liked my books.”16 It is worth pausing for a moment, given frequent characterizations of the audiences for Vlogbrothers and for John’s books as consisting predominantly of teens, mostly young women, to observe that he described his early audience as one of mixed ages, adolescents and adults, and not necessarily a gendered one. From the start, books figured prominently in cultivating the audience for this YouTube channel, and books factor in its continuing evolution. As Hank told his 2020 audience, Vlogbrothers is “about doing things together and thinking about things together.”17 Life’s Library, a subscription book club, was the first example he offered of that collaborative engagement.

Hank’s first Vlogbrothers video, taped during a New Year’s Eve party in some-

one’s home and uploaded within eighteen months of YouTube’s launch, would eventually resonate through t­wenty-­first-century reading culture. As the first video on the Vlogbrothers channel, it began an enduring online conversation about writing, reading, viewing, and activism. It would become a space where people who loved books and stories would gather, and the resulting conversations and corresponding ­real-­world gatherings that promoted both brothers’ work were ones other writers would envy.

Intermediation was its hallmark. Hank’s January 1, 2007, video opened with

a GIF producing letters one by one, as if by manual typewriter, complete with the sound of keys striking a platen, forming the words, “Two Brothers, One Video Blog,” followed by “365 Days of Textless Communcation,” its final word a ­much-­discussed glitch.18 The creator’s voice was simultaneously young and serious, mildly s­ elf-­mocking and determined, as he laid out the terms of the shared online endeavor. There was a fleeting, frustrated mention of a technical problem. The music that played in the background became part of his conversational thread, a soundtrack to both the party and the video. Words, music, and images aligned to shape his message, all within a t­wo-­minute run time. Intentionally or not, the first Vlogbrothers video anticipated the way the content that centers Nerdfighteria ranges across media formats and outlets and the way that the real world and mediated ones intersect.

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When John responded from their parents’ home the following day, he identi-

fied the channel’s dramatis personae and highlighted the features of the place he and his brother had once lived, notably its aging technology, including the stubborn persistence of d ­ ial-­up internet service, old photos, and an Apple IIe computer as lingering material artifacts that reflected their “memories of . . . childhood.”19 The resulting capsule of their lives in this first exchange conveyed John’s resignation, determination, and gently dark humor about this new media creation, the vlog. In subsequent interviews, John explained the channel as a means of reconnecting with a younger brother whom he seldom saw, given differences in their ages and locations, but his orientation to audience and setting, his need to ground this digital enterprise with respect to people and place, was likewise evident. One critic has called the early videos that followed “almost too personal and idiosyncratic,” but those same traits came to be embraced by l­ong-­term watchers as “old school vlogbrothers,” cherished and essential to the evolution of the project.20

When the channel was created, their Vlogbrothers roles were secondary to

their independent identities as an environmental activist and a young adult author. Hank, who would develop a following for his ability to popularize complex ideas, whether science concepts or Pride and Prejudice, via internet outlets, had yet to form the video production company that was rebranded as Complexly in 2016. John had won the American Library Association’s Michael L. Printz Award for Looking for Alaska the previous year, but there were few signs that he would have numerous novels on the New York Times’ bestseller lists within a decade. As it acquired a significant and dynamic role in the lives of viewers and readers around the world, Vlogbrothers videos would transform from an experiment in online communication—­an effort to learn a new medium, video blogging, and a t­ hen-­new platform, YouTube—­into a ­story-­centered community. Nerdfighteria’s significance now has something, though not everything, to do with its size as defined by a readily available metric: YouTube channel subscriptions. While it has grown considerably since its inception, it is no longer one of the largest YouTube audiences, as it once was following a period of rapid growth. Its statistics, though, are not inconsiderable. Some twelve years after that original post, the Vlogbrothers YouTube channel has more than three million subscribers, and industry experts calculate that together with its affil-

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iated channels—­an alliance sometimes referred to as a multichannel network occasionally interwoven with partnered productions known, in the parlance of YouTube, as collabs—it r­eflects the attention of “well over seven million subscribers.”21 In 2020, Hank reported that the collective subscription base for Crash Course had exceeded ten million subscribers.22 While these numbers are rather shy of the figures boasted by YouTubers like Logan Paul, whose YouTube page shows that he has more than eighteen million subscribers (even after the company penalized him for a controversial, obtusely insensitive video filmed in a Japanese forest in which suicides frequently occur), the community and media produced by John and Hank maintain a substantial and dynamic coherence.

The facets of this community are many and varied, and they take form across

an array of social media platforms. Yet part of what enables us to see Nerdfighteria as a community, rather than as a group of platform users, is its multimedia engagement with stories. What we might think of as older technology is equally important. John’s ­best-­selling novels and their film versions complement this online empire, and in 2018, Hank’s first novel debuted at the top of the New York Times ­best-­seller list and received considerable critical notice, adding yet another literary element to the community’s cultural products.23 Other outposts include Nerdcrafteria, the community’s online gaming server; any number of Reddit threads; countless Facebook groups, including Adult Nerdfighters and Nerdpurrteria; the official Nerdfighteria Wiki; and more recently, the Dear Hank & John podcast and associated activities. Other venues include the hankgames YouTube channel and the associated @sportswithjohn Twitter handle and various Discord groups, not least of which is the uncannily prolific Tuataria.24 The literary environment created by the brothers and their audiences, thousands and thousands of individuals we might regard as “actual readers,” sprawls into what Gérard Genette described as the “infinite diffusion” of “social space” and what I want to refer to as the “infinite diffusion” of “social [media] space.”25 The brothers and their fans have shown a remarkable adroitness in experimenting with, adapting, and sometimes discarding, online platforms to facilitate the types of conversations they want to have.

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Locus: Connecting Reading and Place Genette and other scholars invoke metaphors of terrain and place, couching the abstractions of reading in terms of the physical world. A similar pattern, albeit with a different valence, can be found in the words that construct Nerdfighteria as a community. I want to explore the tendency to translate the experiences of and connections among ­far-­flung readers and viewers into a real, perhaps even mappable, world. These metaphors and markers signal the way community is forged and negotiated, and these dynamics, in turn, offer perspective on the linguistic choices of scholars and literary critics. The resulting intersections illuminate aspects of contemporary reading, particularly in their allusions to how readers connect. The community that adopted the name Nerdfighteria from a misread video game name in an airport arcade embraced both the brothers’ content and a culture of enjoying books while using those positive feelings and goodwill to improve the world around them. Beyond what are sometimes called “in real life” components—­chiefly, gatherings like VidCon and NerdCon—­the audience for the Green brothers’ narrative output responds to novels, retellings, and new media productions. As John, Hank, and others involved with Nerdfighteria explore new platforms and release new work, the terrain of Nerdfighteria shifts continuously. Franklin encourages us to consider technologies and the resulting outlets we use as mutable ones in which “practice can define the content.”26 Her scrutiny of how we make use of technology and how we respond to its potential and its limitations is congruent with themes and questions that arise within Nerdfighteria. Conceptualizing Nerdfighteria as a community of readers requires a turn from studies on reading communities, which most often focus on a geographically proximate community such as a town, to studies of fans, media, and online communities.27 Even the 2018 PBS Great American Read, which included John’s Looking for Alaska among the nation’s one hundred favorite novels, bounded its reading community by border lines. It is primarily in researchers’ attention to media fandoms that we find discussion of dispersed yet connected individuals who respond to the same creators’ works. Scholarly and critical frameworks might consider Vlogbrothers viewers a fandom or, because Vlogbrothers view-

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ers generate their own media in response to what they see, hear, and read, as an instance of Henry Jenkins’s participatory culture. The community’s engagement might also be regarded as evidence of what Ted Striphas has called intermediation: the concurrent use of old and new technologies, including print. Other researchers label such communities a “taste public” since multiple media, rather a single text, unite them.28 Such concepts must augment ­t wenty-­first-century discussions of reading, as they create a more encompassing, though not wholly unanticipated, perspective on how readers respond to texts. Academic commentaries invoke place, terrain, and geography in talking about media consumption, particularly reading; collectively, these references comprise what I refer to as a locus metaphor—­for one that refers in varied ways to “a sense of place.”29 Locus has come to anchor our ideas about the nature of fandom, even as “[t]he digital revolution has had a profound impact upon fandom . . . blurring the lines between producers and consumers . . . and giving rise to new forms of cultural production.”30 Andrew Piper and Elizabeth Long are two ­t wenty-­first-century scholars who link reading and place.31 Jenkins and Ellen Garvey Gruber do so in how they respond to de Certeau’s notion of cultural poachers, quoting his commentary on appropriationist reading, his emulation of voices that value authority over open interpretation: “Far from being writers . . . readers are travelers; they move across lands belonging to someone else, like nomads poaching their way across fields they did not write, despoiling the wealth of Egypt to enjoy it themselves.”32 These critics attend to practices that remake texts, and Nerdfighteria, with its multimedia nodes, aspires to be a place where readers, viewers, and listeners are free to range where they wish and to locate their own stories in any of its sites.

De Certeau’s discussion of reading in The Practice of Everyday Life returns,

repeatedly, to the “uses of space, . . . the ways of frequenting or dwelling in a place . . . and on the many ways of establishing a kind of reliability within the situation imposed on an individual.” For this and other reasons, his characterization of reading serves as a prelude to a discussion of Nerdfighteria. Reading and popular culture represent “arts of making” because of the ways individuals make up their own minds about what they read, view, and share with others. I find De Certeau’s description of reading as “anything but passive” and of a text as “a whole society made into a book” compelling and resonant in the activities

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of Nerdfighteria.33 Sometimes de Certeau’s discussion acquires a critical cast; often, it acknowledges that the exchanges and uses of space are, in fact, the point of reading. “A different world (the reader’s) slips into the author’s place,” he writes, and although readers might get “lost” there, “This mutation makes the text habitable, like a rented apartment.”34 This contemporary framework changes older practices, resulting in a populace “migrating . . . through the pastures of the media” and hunting “in artificial steppes and forests.” When readers pursue this route, de Certeau argues, they confront an older mindset that “interposes a frontier,” a veritable “Great Wall of China,” between text and reader “that can only be crossed if one has a passport delivered by these official interpreters.”35 His inclination to side with readers’ s­ elf-­determined courses emerges here, allowing us to see him as someone who anticipates the practices of communities like Nerdfighteria.

Even those not invested in de Certeau’s logic of landscape extend that meta-

phor across the scholarship of contemporary reading as well as media creation and use. In 2001, Janice Radway remarked on readers’ potential to reinvent what they read, writing, “They may wander off into uncharted, fantastic, unprecedented territory.”36 Later, Lisa Gitelman proposed a vision of our contemporary interconnected media environment as “a ritualized collocation of different people on the same mental map, sharing or engaged with popular ontologies of representation.”37 Matt Kirschenbaum deems it essential for contemporary literature scholars to consider the “landscape of authorship and reading that is no longer confined to simple geometries and lines of influence.”38 Robert Darnton, too, reminds us that historians of the book now join the scholars who, as the internet began to change our sense of what was possible, think about the information landscape.39 These metaphors intersect with the ways fandom has been understood, and particularly when we consider a dispersed fandom or fan community that connects in cyberspace, locus becomes a defining metaphor. It aligns with the ways others, including Nerdfighters themselves, have talked about this community. A long trajectory leads to these conversations. Fandom, defined by dictionaries, depends inherently on place. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that a fan is short for “fanatic,” “an unreasoning enthusiast,” and it gives the meaning of the suffix –dom as an ending added to words to denote a figurative

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“domain” or “realm.”40 The suffix itself was used by young amateur journalists in the n ­ ineteenth c­ entury to describe their loose, ­self-­formed association and its passions for printing and textual exchange.41 Denotation and history, then, take us down the same path as theory, characterizing fandom as real or virtual places where fans, especially those interested in the written word, align. Where scholars weigh whether fandom refers to a fan’s identity or behavior, denotation is less interested in such analyses, instead seeing fans as staking out spaces that sanction their enthusiasms.42 In some characterizations, then, readers, particularly those with passionate convictions, are not so much determined and faithful practitioners of a skill that government report writers and cultural critics alike fear is waning; rather, they are crowds or mobs whose right to occupy the places in which they’ve found themselves is questioned.43 Implicit in this collective locus metaphor, however, is the fact that place allows people to be together and that public places have been designed for gathering and conversation. Although our recent gatherings are increasingly virtual, our connections are nonetheless grounded in the U.S. Constitution, which protects the right to assemble, to occupy space together. Purposeful reading becomes as important as place in the community’s explanation of itself.

The first efforts to understand Nerdfighteria as a community saw the impor-

tance of books and place emerge in tandem. In 2013, Hank released a community survey that posed the question, “What makes you feel like a Nerdfighter?” Respondents indicated that reading and books factored in their identification with this online community, particularly “reading John’s books.”44 Other kinds of reading, including participating in the comment threads on Vlogbrothers videos, also furthered people’s affiliation with Nerdfighteria, despite its grounding in the video culture of YouTube. Another common response returns us to actual places. In addition to reading, t­ hirty-­nine percent of the people who responded to the survey linked their sense of community to Nerdfighter friends whom they see regularly. In discussing the survey via his individual YouTube channel, Hank said, “It’s nice to me to know that there are people out there who aren’t isolated Nerdfighters but who are part of a larger Nerdfighter community.”45 In other words, community members themselves create intersections between their online and daily lives, connecting the worlds authored by the brothers Green to the places where they live.

I N T R O D U C T I O N   13

Their sprawling reader response, the collective output of Nerdfighteria, characterizes the community itself in terms of place in other outlets as well. In 2014, Rosianna Halse Rojas told an interviewer that creating Nerdfighteria was “like the formation of a nation . . . . Only we weren’t fighting anyone to do it.”46 Her words and her ideas about how readers and viewers came together around reading and Vlogbrothers videos seem to respond to concepts articulated in Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities.47 In Imagined Communities, national feelings are linked to geography and borders and also to narratives, so it is not difficult to wonder whether the feelings and allegiances Anderson attributes to actual countries in a p ­ re-­internet era might, after all, be extended to online connections in the years since. His articulation of a “national imagination,” constituted in part by shared reading, aligns with the making of ­t wenty-­first-century Nerdfighteria. Anderson discusses, in particular, the way reading a novel unfolds a “sociological landscape” and creates a “fixity that fuses the world inside the novel with the world outside.”48 This sort of duality is integral to Nerdfighteria.

In 2016, a group of viewers and video producers began documenting fans’

responses in The Road to Nerdfighteria, using language that parallels academic commentaries that see place as an explanatory metaphor for fandom and the way readers’ interests bring them together. Notably, a number of Road to Nerdfighteria (TRtN) video testimonials themselves echo the focus on place and connection, and by extension, reading. One person described the novelty that Vlogbrothers videos presented, saying, “I had never seen a creator talk to their audience before, nor had I seen an audience talk back to that creator in the comments.” This dialogue via the comments field, I would note, is written and read, not literally spoken. The immediate fascination with these online interactions aside, Steve Sundquist understands belonging to the community as an orientation to others and to a larger purpose: “A nerd is someone who is engaged with the world around them.”49 His phrasing, his words about the world, evince the metaphor of place found in many of these video testimonials and other, related texts. Another TRtN example illustrates this tendency less abstractly. Dr. Lindsey Doe, whose Sexplanations videos earlier formed part of the Complexly multichannel network, explains that her bonds with Nerdfighteria were enhanced

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when she found “a video where John referred to a fire that happened in Bozeman, Montana, and he referred to it as something that would affect Hank . . . . [Bozeman] was my city!” In the video, she recalls her excitement upon realizing, “Hank is here!” It meant, she explained, “At least one of these two men who had affected me so profoundly, professionally and personally, almost as if they were my coworkers, lives in Montana.”50 Additional texts that surround and inform Nerdfighteria make clear that this sense of shared worlds is very much how the community has been conceptualized and created. Locus is central to Nerdfighters’ sense of belonging, regardless of where they live. Similar phrases and concepts appear in John’s assessment of his role, especially when he turns to the reception of his work, whether on the page or on the screen. Notably, earlier author biographies that described his activity on YouTube positioned Vlogbrothers relative to the world, rather than other YouTube channels, in describing its size.51 This reflected the fact that Vlogbrothers was, for a time, listed “in the Most Subscribed Channels of All Time list on YouTube.”52 Then, in a 2014 speech titled “Does YA Mean Anything Anymore? Genre in a Digitized World,” John defined genre as “a conversation that benefits from many voices,” rather than being a literary convention that reflects “individual geniuses.”53 Elsewhere, he has argued that reading “will change, or continue to change . . . because it is always changing.”54 Since then, he has characterized the nature of that change in a New Yorker interview, saying, “For many young people today . . . reading is not an act of private communion with an author whom they imagine vaguely, if at all, but a prelude to a social experience—­ following the author on Twitter, meeting other readers, collaborating with them on projects, writing fan fiction. In our connected age, even books have become interactive phenomena.”55 His remarks position what Genette regarded as peripheral epitext on par with the central, authorial text. This statement seems like a technology inflected way of revisiting Wayne Booth’s belief that “the encounter between reader and book” represents “a relationship,” and one that renders the idea more literally.56 Although in more recent years John has created boundaries for his own comfort and privacy, when Nerdfighteria began, he was more directly engaged with community members and formed friendships there.57 Interviews and his own essays describe these relationships and the way he and Nerdfighters have experimented with different

I N T R O D U C T I O N   15

platforms to see if their affordances suit the community’s needs and interests. In all this, John encourages us to focus on the creation of meaning through reading and social media, physical books and online discourse, regardless of platform. John’s willingness to interact with readers, to encourage them to interpret literature independently of an author’s intentions, extends and strengthens the community’s conversation about books.

In the ­t wenty-­first century, then, understanding material that Genette char-

acterized as seemingly tangential—­ discourse about books and of fandom itself—­is essential to the experience of reading. The resulting transposition of epitext and text is one of the defining elements of contemporary reading and fandom, and the readers and viewers of content created by the brothers Green offer distinctive insights into that transformation. Not only do they center writing and conversation about books, which Genette and other critics have regarded as peripheral or secondary to a literary text, Nerdfighteria recasts epitext itself as a site where relationships, reasoning, and cultural change can be realized. These individuals, through their responses to media—­whether books, video, games, or other content—­rewrite earlier paradigms of literary consumption and engagement. Particularly when they use social media platforms, they come together and transform older notions of what it means to read. This community of readers is continuously engaged in remaking their information landscapes.

The emerging and shifting nature of reading requires us to revisit our under-

standing of contemporary reading practices and to see them extended through new media. The resulting public content formerly confined to “a ­close-­knit system called the Republic of Letters” documents both change and continuity in the nature of reading.58 When we turn to social media outlets to uncover those perspectives, we evoke the larger purpose of those sites. José van Dijck has observed that YouTube, understood popularly as a ­video-­sharing site, in fact originated more complexly, its name serving as a “shorthand” for “sharing creative practices, aesthetic values, political arguments, and cultural products.”59 Her reminder of what people actually do with YouTube is also germane to the core workings of Nerdfighteria.

These cultural roles and functions seem important given scholarly research

seeking to show that fandom represents a retreat from the adult world—­a finding that was disproven—­or provides a form of “affective labor,” where fans’ en-

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thusiasm manifests as book and merchandise sales for authors.60 The dynamics of this community signal a different way of regarding enthusiastic connection around stories and world view. In the instance of Nerdfighteria, references to place and the world in which we live are something more than simple metaphor; instead, they translate the abstractions of Nerdfighteria into the actual world in which we live, positioning readers and fans as people with agency. In tandem with Jenkins’s argument that fans are those who make something of a narrative and bring it into their lives, the community’s practices are strategic. While Nerdfighteria represents in part, as John has described it, unabashed enthusiasm for videos and books, Nerdfighteria is also about readers conveying their passions into the world, rather than, as de Certeau’s image of readers as poachers has been used to suggest, taking something from it.

Readers and viewers, in sharing their responses, form a community oriented

to books and narratives. This book, then, explores the community’s exchanges and what its members bring to their shared spaces. In this, it seeks to provide a response to Elizabeth Long’s question: “If readings are relationships, then what is going on in these relationships?”61 It crafts a contemporary, anticipatory history of the connections, metaphors, and projects that have anchored Nerdfighteria during the previous decade and considers what this community can tell us about contemporary reading. Nerdfighteria’s norms ask us to think about the interactions between authors, texts, and readers in new ways or even to reconceptualize these elements of our enduring scholarly interest.62 In 2009, Robert Darnton observed that “the study of books need not be limited to a particular technology,” a truism that seems ever more apt.63 Matt Kirschenbaum has noted, “Today you cannot write seriously about contemporary literature without taking into account myriad channels and venues for online exchange.”64 The activities of Nerdfighteria, which have endured and evolved for more than a decade, exemplify the basis for this sort of multimedia study of texts and reading. The shared meanings and values that emerge from reading, even or especially when inflected by new technologies, and the way reading frames our orientation to the world around us, matter. If we want to understand links between books and social media, between texts of any kind and community, Nerdfighteria allows us to make these connections.

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Notes on Research: Methods and Philosophy The materials I gathered to explore and to document Nerdfighteria, whether through my own efforts to locate the site along one of Amsterdam’s waterways where a scene from The Fault in Our Stars was filmed and via iterative searches of social media platforms, represent currently available traces of readers’ responses to the stories created in conjunction with the Vlogbrothers channel, novels written by John Green, and related media. This content is supplemented by responses to surveys created and collected by Hank Green. There are necessary omissions in what I discuss, for several reasons. That rationale frames my study and what I want to tell you about Nerdfighteria’s development as a community of readers. While the community’s interests are shared ones, their commentaries are neither indexed nor collected in a centralized outlet, and locating them requires an iterative search process, the results of which shift daily. Matt Kirschenbaum has called attention to Jacques Derrida’s pronouncements that “the possibility of the archive begins . . . as soon as there is an apparently uncalculated deposit in a place of exteriority,” and that we will never have “one archive,” but rather “an archiving process with different states.”65 An archive’s role in preservation, however, has not been brought to bear on these ephemeral, often digital, texts deposited on the internet or in the world. Without cues that these commentaries exist, one might not even know to look for them. Sometimes, for example, when I sought out the TFIOS bench in Amsterdam simply because it was there and I was, too, no prior mention of the site indicated that it was a repository for readers’ responses. I had visited the Funky Bones art installation in Indianapolis, one day finding it quiet and another witnessing children playing on the comically oversized skeletal form, much like they do when The Fault in Our Stars characters picnic at the site. At the Leidsegracht canal, I expected to find an ordinary weathered, dark green bench. Instead, I arrived at a place where fans and readers left traces of their own stories, carved graffiti and love locks. On a gray, ­not-­quite rainy day, people on a canal boat tour pointed up at me as I sat and read the lettering left by previous visitors, and two teens waited with their parents to take their own photos there. It was as if I had found a site like Alice’s rabbit hole or Lucy Pevensie’s wardrobe, a place linking one world to another.

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This place, though, led me to a real, previously unrevealed realm where stories mattered deeply.

For all its materiality, the TFIOS bench shares the problem of ephemerality

with much other media; it has been a victim of theft and a beneficiary of urban renewal, each process removing the mementoes it contains. If, as Kirschenbaum has written, contemporary culture results in “a new kind of archive taking shape,” that unbounded archive is fundamentally unstable.66 A history of contemporary reading practices, then, must pursue a documentarian role and support efforts to preserve readers’ testimonies about the stories that matter to them. Platform changes and users’ changing commitment to online activity signal the possibility that these glimpses into readers’ minds and hearts might disappear. Google’s decision to remark its maps, Facebook users’ decisions to delete their accounts in the wake of the Cambridge Analytica scandal, and the established challenge of preserving YouTube videos all signal the ways that this community’s reading history could vanish.67 Preserving traces of readers’ devotion to stories fixes them in time, even though it may render the community a static entity, rather than a living and breathing one, thrilled and awed to see a book transformed into a movie or to find a city bench. Each chapter that follows depends, to an extent, on its own methods, but overarching principles have guided my work. Scholars from multiple disciplines illuminate the process of discovery, which depends on online and r­eal-­world searches alike. This study is anchored, as is my previous work, by Roger Chartier’s sense of historical research as a process where, “by their choices and comparisons, historians assign meaning to speech pulled out of the silence of the archive.”68 Speech, in this case, is comprised of the words and images that document fans’ experiences of Vlogbrothers videos, John Green’s books (and later Hank’s first novel and its much anticipated sequel), and associated social media. One must learn the language of that media, its terms, from its authors and readers.69 Further, while some researchers theorize ­computer-­mediated communication as cultural study, the role of ­real-­world places, particularly the conventions where Nerdfighters meet one another and that Amsterdam bench where two of John Green’s characters sit during a crucial conversation, invoke attention to material culture as well.70 The result, to use the words of van Dijck, is that the online “culture of connectivity” is also the culture of reading, of the

I N T R O D U C T I O N   19

way it is represented in the here and now.71 An amalgam of critical and scholarly interests grounds this historical study that reflects ­t wenty-­first-century readers’ responses to stories across time, place, and medium, and the signs created by readers and viewers foreground and modify the processes of locating and interpreting these t­ wenty-­first-century testimonials to feelings for books.

Deficiencies in and omissions from my scholarly attention to the ways Nerd-

fighteria changes and challenges our ideas about reading are inevitable, and not just because I am creating a kind of time capsule of an interactive phenomenon. Admittedly, this study may not reflect the voices of all readers. Vlogbrothers videos and Green brothers’ book releases allow Nerdfighters to engage immersively or selectively, publicly or privately, as they choose. Studies by Paul Gutjahr and Christine Pawley explain possible means of studying actual readers, using location and other identifying features to understand communities of readers connected by either common reading or geographical place.72 Tempered by concerns that emerge in the study of fandom and the ethics of internet researchers, however, I make no effort to position the readers of Nerdfighteria beyond their interest in John and Hank’s creative and philanthropic work.73 Instead, it is through the abstraction of metaphor that I consider place. The canon that connects this readerly community is more than stories; it articulates ideals and a moral compass, further shaping my thinking about how I share what I see as I read, watch, and interact with its members. In Paper Towns, John described the consequences of seeing people as their public or imagined roles, rather than as human beings with feelings, needs, and vulnerabilities: “What a treacherous thing, to believe a person is more than a person.”74 He argues that this distorted perspective dehumanizes the very people we admire: “We can also imagine them as more than human: When we think of celebrities, or those we love romantically, we may see them as superhumanly free from the fear and pain and despair that plague the rest of us.”75 The same theme emerges in Hank’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, where narrator April May reminds us that personae created via t­wenty-­first-century media almost always misrepresent personhood, particularly when viral media and marketing are in the mix. Hank, in the voice of April, observes that “What you do when you brand is a process of simplification . . . so branding a person also benefits dramatically from simplicity. People are complicated, but brands are simple.”76

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In other words, while Simone Murray has argued that we should understand online authorial personae as performances, rather than as manifestations of genuine personhood, the Greens counter this contention in their literary works and their videos.77 Looking for ways to understand the essential threads of reader and viewer response, their motivations and feelings, without infringing on individuals’ essentially human anxieties or oversimplifying their stories, has guided my aims as a researcher and author. This means that I have, for the most part, limited my discussion to public, recorded text and video. While Vlogbrothers videos and viewers’ commentary on them, multiple podcasts, Nerdfighter newsletters past and present, author essays and interviews, fan sites, and social media posts and occasional elaborations on these documents from creators and l­ong-­time community members are some of my materials for this book, I have omitted other interactions. Any number of community livestreams fall outside the parameters of this project. On several occasions, for example, John took viewers’ questions during Facebook and YouTube livestreams while signing pages that would be bound into the first edition of Turtles All the Way Down. Some audience members hoped these sessions would be saved and made available later, but John told them that he did not want these informal, spontaneous interactions scrutinized and quoted by the media. While access to previously undiscovered sources is among a scholar’s fondest wishes, respecting individuals’ boundaries matters more. This book does, however, draw on previously unaccessed sources: selected qualitative answers generated by the annual Nerdfighter Census between 2013 and 2016. This data occupies a gray space in the ­black-­and-­white contrast between public versus private utterances; these expressions of interest in books, reading, and stories are anonymous and put forward in response to a survey, the results of which are discussed in an online video each year. Indeed, it was seeing replies to questions about favorite authors and current reading on screen during these analytical commentaries that prompted my interest in the myriad voices engaged there. Occasionally I have wondered if an unusual title, one I’d never encountered before in all my bookish life, might be so esoteric as to effectively identify a reader; even uncommon titles, however, are demonstrably more available than might seem likely upon first encounter. Honoring

I N T R O D U C T I O N   21

these disclosures of people’s reading lives, these thousands and thousands of expressions of sense and sensibility, has been a foremost priority of mine. Additionally, in contrast to studies of Nerdfighteria that focus on the 2014 Census, a h ­ igh-­water mark year, I include findings and data from most Census years before 2018.78 Still, later data appears. Because the Census’s hosting organization, Complexly, does not routinely close the surveys at the end of a calendar year, data collected for any given year reports viewer responses beyond that time span. Since there are so many Vlogbrothers viewers and the surveys are promoted across associated outlets, like the Dear Hank & John podcast, there are tens of thousands of responses to any given question. I used hybrid methods to find themes and patterns in these results. At first, I wanted to read them much as a historian might read any archival file of letters or diaries, attending to the words and subjects each respondent offers. The notes I made as I started this process, counting the number of times a title or author was mentioned, or noting distinctive commentaries, soon pointed toward the desirability of another mechanism. Digital datasets allow other ways of sorting through a massive amount of material (figures for each year and questions of interest are provided in Appendix C), and I soon realized the wisdom of relying on computationally thinned sets of survey responses. A number of individuals have made this possible, either through their technical skills or their participation in the community. It might go without saying that if Hank Green had not initiated the survey ­ our-­long analytical videos that hinted at all the responses to his and made h questions about books and reading, year after year, my effort to understand Nerdfighters as readers, and my perceptions of reading in the ­twenty-­first century would be radically different. Without Victoria Bongiorno’s provision of the ­open-­ended responses, largely unevaluated during those videos, this work would not have been possible. My colleague Lindsay Mattock ran initial queries on the resulting data with Open Refine, and independent researcher and librarian James Cox used Python to code for a more extensive and abstract set of queries across the years (these search terms and queries are provided in Appendix B). My work with them was supported by the technical advice of Mike Hendrickson and Dakota Zipporah Derryberry. Given the sheer volume of responses, and answers from 2017 in earlier survey data, I am coupling those

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later responses with published word clouds generated by Hank in the course of his analyses to represent the ways trends continue and shift in the final years under consideration.

The vast numbers of Nerdfighters whose reading, writing, and viewing cre-

ate this discourse also must be acknowledged. Their words, ideas, and images make this study possible, and respecting their passions and doubts, their bookish philosophies and questions, has guided my work. From the person who wrote directly to the “survey reader,” whom he assumed not to be Hank or John, to the 2013 Nerdfighter who confessed to “spilling my guts into a survey that will probably never be read,” I encountered voices whose honest ideas and feelings are thoughtful and memorable. They were not lines of data whose aggregate is larger than the city where I live, but individuals who told their stories, if only in a few words. It is not possible to overstate how my ideas about what it means to read have been changed by this community’s dialogue about books and narratives. Simone Murray has argued that researchers who turn their attention to vast quantities of data must remember conventionally humanistic research aims.79 I interpret her words here as a call to remember that each of the thousands of records of reading that I have encountered through these survey results and online posts represents the voice of a person. Particularly when it comes to the voices of Nerdfighters whose ethnicity and diversity has left them feeling at something of a remove from the larger community, these concerns are paramount.

Transforming Community It is far from unprecedented to map fictional worlds onto our own, to connect the written word and the real world.80 Nerdfighteria expands that phenomenon, itself a kind of paratext, through fundraising for charities, putting cheerful notes in library books, asking questions about authorship, and connecting at ­meet-­ups with other readers and viewers. These readers and creators support taking the joy, the complexities, and the passions aroused by resonant and thoughtful storytelling into our lives, in hopes of transforming the world around us. As Lewis Hyde ventures in The Gift, “That art matters to us—­which moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage

I N T R O D U C T I O N    2 3

for living, however we choose to describe the experience—­that work is received by us as a gift is received.”81 Nerdfighteria reads, writes, listens, and creates in this spirit. The community’s connections are about making the world a better place, and the nature of Nerdfighteria is that no reader need undertake these sorts of endeavors alone.

These intersections between authors, readers, and media and the way their

heartfelt connections cross geographic and textual boundaries, play out in myriad ways. With a community that continues to grow and change, grasping the entirety of its expanding endeavors will remain beyond the scope of a single manuscript. Selected threads of these interactions are brought together in this book, which concentrates on developments through 2018 and into early 2020. By 2018, there were multiple indicators that a widespread, changing community would alter further. Although John’s first 2007 Vlogbrothers video described both brothers as writers, their authorial output then fell into different categories: Hank’s ­science-­based commentaries and John’s more traditionally literary output. The release of An Absolutely Remarkable Thing in September of 2018 and Hank’s discussion of its sequel playing out across social media the following year, coupled with John’s continuing questions about when or whether he would release another book and his subsequent turn to nonfiction essays via his podcast, challenge earlier characterizations of their roles and work.82 After nearly twelve years of Vlogbrothers exchanges, John posted a video titled “How Does This End?”83 Where his initial Vlogbrothers post pondered how the channel would develop, the 2018 video raised abstract, speculative questions about how much longer the channel might endure and what its future might look like. His point was not that the channel’s endpoint was imminent, only that its duration raised questions about how much longer audiences would find it engaging, but his remarks came amid larger currents carrying questions about the future of YouTube. Controversy and concerns about creators’ continued engagement with the platform flourished in 2017 and onward. Not only had Logan Paul’s display of a Japanese suicide victim’s corpse raised concerns about his channel and, more broadly, the content promoted on the platform, other issues were being aired via YouTube channels and in traditional news media. These topics included the relationship between advertising revenues and content, algorithm effects, and

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reports of some YouTubers’ predatory behaviors toward young female fans.84 Collectively, these issues stood to damage YouTube as a brand, affecting creators who had little control over the matters receiving such negative attention. Whether producing on the platform was sustainable without burnout and depression, or whether YouTubers left the platform because its novelty had waned, were also being discussed.85 Hank and John had addressed some of these subjects previously, and Hank articulated factors that helped buffer Vlogbrothers from the vicissitudes of YouTube, which included its dedicated audience.86

Change was not simply a response to what was happening on YouTube. Hank

had indicated that each brother had separate endeavors in progress, and the fall of 2018 also brought word that their two extant podcasts, Dear Hank & John and Delete This, the latter of which Hank created with his wife, Katherine Green, along with a third Complexly podcast, would be acquired by WNYC, a New York– based public radio station known as an early adopter of new media formats.87 Later, John indicated he would forgo the use of most social media platforms in 2019, though not without wondering if it might affect their audience metrics. Nerdfighters’ feelings for the brothers’ work aside, it seems clear that shifts in the terrain of Nerdfighteria lie ahead. This book, then, looks at texts, videos, and commentaries that have brought us to this point, which is one that asks us to find new ways of regarding reading and its relationship to the use of other media. This backward glance may be nostalgic, but it is by no means melancholic.

When a 2018 Vlogbrothers video celebrating Hank’s birthday and book re-

lease gleefully announced sponsorships by An Absolutely Remarkable Thing supporting high school robotics and debate teams, as well as the Dutch National Quidditch Team and the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text podcast, it was clear that the quirky joy and ripple effects of Vlogbrothers would extend into the future. Selecting sponsorships from the many applications, John said, showed him once more that “all the time people are working together to increase world awesome and decrease world suck” and that “we really can accomplish so much more together than alone.”88 It was a video about a new book that made its way onto uniforms and into club names, that depicted images of the book cover and its signature graphics appearing, suddenly and unexpectedly, in the real world.

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It both celebrated and enacted a central premise of Hank’s book, while also carrying out the tenets of Nerdfighteria. It was not simply a digital celebration; it placed that joy and narrative—­along with images of the alien Carl, who likewise materializes around the globe in Hank’s book—­at multiple sites in the world. My work, in turn, focuses understanding this community and the way it alters our sense of what it means to read a book in the digital here and actual now of the ­t wenty-­first century.

The Greens’ readers and viewers leave illuminating commentaries scattered

across a digital landscape, and if we don’t identify those testimonials and draw the lines between these points while it is still possible to do so, we might miss empirical responses to commentators who decry the effects of digital media and online culture on books, reading, and community. My interest in the dynamics of this community of readers, then, includes documenting critical moments and messages in the saga of Nerdfighteria’s development. Barring careful collection of the evidence of contemporary communities of readers, only chance allows these scattered voices to endure. The existence of a ­long-­term, international community whose values and interest in narratives leads members to adapt an array of technologies in order to share their ideas and their enthusiasms depends on a sense of a shared space carved out of the amorphous and sometimes unkind digital sphere.

Widespread communication using new media technologies, particularly by

young people, has happened before; any number of texts, too, have been read passionately and reshaped to reflect contemporary preoccupations.89 In this respect, Nerdfighteria continues a story of how people, including but not exclusively the young, use media to share their enthusiasms and to tell their own stories in turn. Prior research on Nerdfighteria, though, has scrutinized its civic and community engagement, with scant, even superficial, attention to its history and its bookish leanings.90 Yet its proliferation of texts and stories, and its sharing of reader response via social media, distinguishes Nerdfighteria from its forerunners. Its s­ elf-­definition, relying on metaphors of place, reshapes notions both of community and of what it means to read. Nerdfighters value their connections with one another, with books and media, and with the creators who have founded and shaped this community. Connection, of course, has long been used to describe relationships and feelings of affection—­notably and con-

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cisely in E. M. Forster’s powerful phrase, “Only connect”—yet also describes the way communication technology, like phone calls or Internet access, functions. Thus connect is invoked in multiple theories of social exchange, both online and o ­ ff-­line.91 These valences—­literary works and their heritage; relationships between people and between people and nations, however imperfect; and the exchanges made possible by technologies—­factor into the workings of Nerdfighteria. I began by noting my personal involvement with and investment in Nerdfighteria, a theme threaded throughout the chapters of this book. This is anticipated by Leah Price’s contention that “the history of books is centrally about ourselves” and “conditions of possibility for our own reading.”92 It is inevitable that my entry into Nerdfighteria as a reader, viewer, and traveler shapes this study of the community that engages with the Green brothers via myriad media platforms, as much as the mechanisms of scholarly research. This project, then, is sympathetic to Kristina Busse’s contention that “fan studies often makes the personal political and academic.”93 Its contents are both intellectual and personally felt, the products of my own choices and the ones that scholarly apparatus derive.

The chapters that follow offer, first, a description of Nerdfighteria as a com-

munity, with attention to how books inform its values and norms, followed by an assessment of its demographics, derived from the media and platforms where its unifying content is created. An examination of ­real-­world activities that facilitate Nerdfighters’ connections, including its core philanthropic endeavors, precedes a discussion of the community as readers, based on qualitative Nerdfighteria Census data. A further chapter considers the landmark work, The Fault in Our Stars, particularly the way its readers and viewers connect story and place in their responses to it. In these chapters, I acknowledge the various book clubs and reading groups that have been developed by John and Hank, including the late 2018 launch of Life’s Library, with its physical and digital components. The conclusion explores the intersection of locus and reading, particularly the way these entwined concepts foster Nerdfighters’ sense of community. I describe these aspects of Nerdfighteria with reference, too, to my own experiences as a contributor to community events like the annual charity fundraiser, the Project for Awesome. Appendices provide, first, a chronology

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of key events in Nerdfighteria’s development and then more technical details about the computational research that supports this study.

I want these words to enable us to better understand the community of Nerd-

fighteria and what it can tell us about the vitality of contemporary reading. Observing how its allegiance to narratives and its norms sustain it and suggest pivotal changes that invite us to modify critical theories of reading practices, among them Genette’s hierarchical model of text and epitext, is central to this book. This fundamental transposition redefines what it means to read, giving greater agency to readers for whom creating and making are intellectual and emotional, digital and actual, endeavors. Nerdfighters share a space where varied interests and passions are welcomed. Their connections create a unifying locus, and the landscape they envision is an encompassing and transformative one, changing responses to stories and to our world.


| Welcome to Nerdfighteria

Nerdfighters and Nerdfighteria What is a Nerdfighter? is a recurring question. Although the term was coined in 2007, and its creator now has ­top-­grossing movies and books on the New York Times b ­ est-­seller list to his credit, the need to explain what it means to be a Nerdfighter persists. Those explanations occur most prominently in a 2009 Vlogbrothers video and most recently in a 2018 60 Minutes segment on John Green as a popular storyteller. Over and over again in the years in between, John and his brother Hank Green have wryly observed that rather than fighting nerds, Nerdfighters are ­“pro-­nerd” individuals whose distinctive interests often align outside the mainstream—­people who are invested in good books, compelling stories, and good causes.1 The Greens’ initial contention, that no aspect of identity excludes one from the community and that anyone can opt in, only begins to describe Nerdfighteria after years of growth and change. A much used catchphrase proclaims that Nerdfighters are “made of awesome,” another way of talking about people who feel strongly about everything from books and online media to acceptance and making a difference.2 This personal trait and shared purpose is further reflected in the community’s mantra, “Don’t forget to be awesome.” It is frequently shortened, like so much else in Nerdfighteria, to an initialism—­DFTBA—­that appears in online greetings, Twitter bios, apparel, and tattoos to express a common ethos. In 2009, Nerdfighteria was explained as “the community that’s sprung up around [Vlogbrothers] videos,” a group of people who shared sometimes quirky sources of joy and were committed to “decreasing world suck.”3 Beyond its nod to the community’s mores, this short description focuses on John and Hank’s shared YouTube channel as a locus of interest and a connector, a tendency also seen in some publications on Nerdfighteria. That early tendency has been maintained in much academic attention to Nerdfighters and Nerdfighteria, even

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as the community engages with causes and stories across places, media types, and online platforms.4 Those studies often focus on the community’s origins, its values, and its presumably youthful membership—­phenomena that blend constants and change. By stopping short of differentiating between that which was once true and that which has taken place during the intervening years, research often repeats the community’s own mantras, rather than forming new understandings. One study, for example, concludes that teen Nerdfighters see Nerdfighteria as “a unique place on the Internet, which valued intellectualism, positivity, and kindness,” echoing a 2017 Thought Café video that characterized Nerdfighteria as “a very supportive and curious group” and “a community where you can pose questions about complex issues.”5 The voices in that 2017 video talk about “doing things with your best foot forward and with heart” and “opening your mind and not judging others.”

While the community’s origins may be most readily traced to the Vlogbroth-

ers channel, more than a decade later its membership is neither defined by nor confined to YouTube.6 This is apparent in both the ongoing activities of Nerdfighteria and in the community’s remarkable capacity for ­self-­documentation of its past.7 If early YouTubers created a “small world phenomenon” made up of small, c­ lose-­knit, interactive groups, then changes that occur as an audience expands matter.8 For all the enduring features of Nerdfighteria—­its personalities, its worldview, and its language—­changes resulting from the passage of time and changes in technology and the community are notable. Anecdotes describe people who join N ­ erdfighter-­affiliated groups on social media because they call themselves nerds, rather than because of any familiarity with Hank or John. For all that, Nerdfighteria remains a community with an unflagging interest in narratives, media, and culture; it has become a diffuse, global community adeptly using new technologies to connect with others with similar interests. It can be both silly and serious, s­ elf-­invested and socially aware. Awareness of injustice and of the need for resources, whether attention or money, to address problems in local communities and around the globe has been heightened by international events, whether ongoing issues of poverty and colonialism described by Paul Farmer, or the consequences of war, like the Syrian refugee crisis.9 The intrinsic role of narratives and media in shaping and sustaining the Nerdfighter community reflects not only its origins in media consumption but

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its commitment to authentic engagement with people and the world. The consistent values and shared interests that created Nerdfighteria continue to factor in how people find their way there and why they stay.

­ ne-­year video project into a sustainable Vlogbrothers’ evolution from a o

YouTube channel with affiliated creators, millions of subscribers, and a responsive community is a multifaceted story. Currently, it is made possible by a t­hirty-­five-­person staff at Complexly, along with viewers and readers who commit their energies to its projects, shaping them through their own energies. The community entwines Nerdfighteria’s history with its own important, vibrant threads. New and older voices tell both individual and collective stories. Their perspectives and distinctive ways of fostering this community illustrate how Nerdfighteria emerged from the YouTube channel’s audience into its later permutations. Nerdfighteria is the shared space, online or in person, where these priorities coalesce. Nerdfighteria, John once told a Chicago television reporter, seeks “to bring people who feel like they’re on the outside into a place where they feel like they’re on the inside.” That sense of not conforming to larger cultural

Illustration by Karen Kavett.

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norms emerges in part from believing in “reading and education, and thinking it’s cool.”10 Years later, Hank recounted his hopes of bringing together people who wanted to “know for knowing’s sake” and who view “the world as a puzzle to be solved.” Together, he believed, the community would find ways of “doing things that never could have been done before. . . . This is such an interesting community,” he told viewers, “I really feel like it’s unique in the history of the world . . . so that’s cool, right?” The community, however, doesn’t exist simply to listen to compliments. Hank hoped Nerdfighters would “come together and use this interest to do cool things, that’s the most interesting opportunity that we have.”11 Nerdfighteria, then, was conceived less as a fandom and more as a community. The distinction is subtle, imperfect, and thus worth exploring as a prelude to further conversation about Nerdfighteria itself. Nerdfighteria’s relationship to fandom must be considered in relation to how fandom itself has been defined and with awareness that internal judgements about whether someone is a fan, whether a person truly belongs, may be contentious.12 Some scholars regard fans as media consumers rather than recognizing them as also being creators; further, people creating the media that centers a fandom may be quite distinct from a fandom’s participants.13 This characterizes much of the Harry Potter fandom, for example, where J.K. Rowling and the legal entities that protect her work, such as the newly introduced Wizarding World Digital app, have little to do with groups like the Harry Potter Alliance activist group and countless other nodes for casual expressions of enthusiasm for the fantasy world she created. Additionally, it is common to see experts and some fans themselves assert that deep involvement and expertise distinguish a true fan from a more casual aficionado.14 Questions and cavils about whether someone deserves their identity as a fan indicate the importance of the 2009 Vlogbrothers pronouncement that “if you want to be a Nerdfighter, you are one,” but there are further reasons to look at the potential alignment of fandom and Nerdfighteria.15 Most scholarship that examines Nerdfighteria sees this early statement about belonging as sufficient to explain who becomes a Nerdfighter, yet contemporary social issues add to the reasons for a more i­ n-­depth consideration.

YouTubers of different ethnic backgrounds have discussed the bar that these

­long-­standing criteria create for them; as Hank has paraphrased their concerns,

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the early, and often repeated, ways of talking about joining Nerdfighteria by “saying things like, ‘Do you feel like you belong here?’ . . . implies . . . ‘Do you feel similar to the people who are already here?’ And that’s just awful.”16 The casual quips that guided the community’s genesis had to change to reflect the complexity of ­t wenty-­first-­century life and media, which give increasing visibility to people whose race, ethnicity, or identity might otherwise not be mirrored in the readily apparent visuals of this community. Meaningful conversations about the community, then, must move beyond the language of its inception. Attention to language itself and to place is a fruitful direction for that dialogue. To borrow the language of Hank’s production company, the community is complex, having changed over time in response to media and technology, to information, and to the conditions of the brothers’ and others’ lives. The people who feel welcomed by Nerdfighteria will continue to change as new audiences find John and Hank’s books, videos, podcasts, and r­eal-­world gatherings, and as the community’s discourse adjusts to include them. For now, I would observe that few people associated with Nerdfighteria use the term fan to describe themselves or other people affiliated with it. One Nerdfighter has explained to me that, rather than seeing Nerdfighteria as a fandom per se, she regards it as a place where fans of other literature and media are welcome. She offered this distinction: “Loving things unironically (being a fan) is a category for membership, and it might even be that we might say we’re fans of SciShow, or John’s books (individual projects) but NOT of Nerdfighteria itself. Nerdfighteria is made of fans, but not a fandom.”17 In contrast, however, another Nerdfighter proclaimed that her c­ ommunity-­related illustrations reflect her identity as an “extremely passionate fan artist,” and John himself once referred to the channel’s viewers as fans.18 Importantly, ideas about place have a role in both these statements. A midcentury mimeographed book, the Fancyclopedia II, was written by ­science-­fiction enthusiasts who tell us that a fandom is “the world in which fans live and have their being.” It seems doubly significant that these authors, whose thinking about their status as fans resulted from determined reading and engagement with stories about real and imagined places, chose these words to characterize their identity. Their evocation of “the world in which fans

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live and have their being” alludes to the here and now, the interpretive and imagined communities of the fandom, and the fictional worlds that orient their collective interest. Beyond this, they note that “interest and friendship linkages beyond that of language,” but nonetheless including language, factor in the development of fandom. They debated whether fandom is simply about shared pleasure in texts or whether it should be oriented to political ends, long before academic researchers began to insist on the latter.19 Significantly, the authors claimed that “fans outside the E­ nglish-­speaking bloc have increased tremendously in numbers since World War II.”20 Especially given the role of YouTube and its international user base in facilitating Nerdfighteria’s formation, Fancyclopedia II anticipates several conditions of the community’s formation. Because Hank’s novels are often categorized as science fiction, concepts arising in conjunction with this genre have ever more potential to intersect with Nerdfighteria. A key online fandom dictionary observes that the concept of fandom originated in science fiction and as a label applied to readers, particularly readers who started to communicate about what they read, rather than one they chose for themselves.21 Other research suggests that fandom was in no way exclusive to science fiction, even in the concept’s early years, arguing that interactions, particularly between readers and writers, were pivotal to, among other things, the union of separate fictions as a narrative “universe.”22 This concept of linked texts parallels the multimedia, multiplatform community of Nerdfighteria. Tensions between identity, interests, and activity—­often the defining elements of scholarly discussions of fandom and community—­have coexisted throughout Nerdfighteria’s history. Nerdfighters themselves have been known to discuss their loyalty to the community in terms of the variable levels of activity that it affords. When their lives permit, they are more actively engaged; when time constraints and other pressures emerge, they may do less but retain a sense of connection and emotional resonance.23 This dynamic signals that relying on common tropes of fandom could divert attention from the essential workings of this community. In “How to Be a Nerdfighter: A Vlogbrothers FAQ,” the brothers articulate a composite of viewers’ questions about belonging: “Am I too young/old/fat/skinny/weird/cool/nerdy/handsome/tall/dead to be a

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Nerdfighter?”24 Considering whether one’s personal features align with Nerdfighter norms suggests some expectation that Nerdfighteria could be defined in exclusionary terms, but the brothers rejected this idea.

Instead, core traits align around identity, choice, openness, and media. Does

a person see themself in some aspect of the community, whether its nerdiness, its bookishness, or its other values? Does one choose to identify with the community? Does one approach the people and the messages of the community with an open and generous perspective? Does a person enjoy the communi­ uick-­witted and f­ ast-­paced videos appearing on Vlogty’s media, whether the q brothers each Tuesday and Friday or other ­Nerdfighteria-­related content? Does one produce media related to or intended for community members?25 While not fully avoiding the shortcomings in the early descriptors’ potential for inclusiveness, these abstract elements have historically guided Nerdfighters’ thinking about how and why one becomes part of the community.

Although I envision Nerdfighteria as a constellation of sites, including those

represented by individual readers of the Greens’ novels, an i­n-­depth understanding of Nerdfighteria nonetheless rests on familiarity with Vlogbrothers. Like so many elements of popular culture, there are some ambiguities about the origins of the channel, and things that helped it develop have changed, too. While Hank Green posted the initial Brotherhood 2.0 video, the author of Streampunks credits John with its concept.26 It was, by all accounts, a not particularly robust beginning. As John recounts in “Accio Decade Hallows,” during the first six months of recording, “a few hundred” people watched their daily video uploads. These viewers included people referred to as “secret siblings,” young adult novelist Maureen Johnson among them, who responded to Hank and John through YouTube videos of their own, linked to Vlogbrothers by means of now discontinued platform mechanisms. The relationships fostered by those earlier affordances of technology, including the way that participants themselves are creators, endure.

Another author’s books, however, would factor in the channel’s initial audi-

ence gains. Harry Potter enthusiasts’ discovery of Vlogbrothers generated its first substantial and pivotal subscriber growth. When Hank performed his “Accio Deathly Hallows” song days before the publication of the last Harry Potter novel in 2007, his video was promoted on the YouTube home page; as a result

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of this visibility, the number of Vlogbrothers viewers suddenly surpassed five thousand.27 Another, later increase would be referred to as the “TFiOS effect,” describing the many people who discovered Vlogbrothers following John’s The Fault in Our Stars, released as a hardcover book in 2012 and as a movie two years later. The TFiOS effect, though, was different; although it undoubtedly swelled subscriber numbers, it did so at a point when the channel was well established, rather than during its initial stages of development, like Hank’s “Accio Deathly Hallows.” Both leaps in community numbers, however, are linked directly to reading and to books. This is one reason that Nerdfighteria, though defined casually in relation to the brothers’ YouTube channel, should be seen as extending beyond that medium and platform. Although the modalities have changed, a number of individuals have long produced some of the community’s digital cornerstones and culture. This creative and technical work offers important markers of how the community has developed and who has participated in its development. From the start, women were there, contributing to the community’s online presence by creating with media and technology. Novelist Maureen Johnson appeared in Vlogbrothers videos, encouraged young women to express themselves by participating in Blog Every Day in April, and marshalled the hashtag #yasaves on Twitter to promote readers’ voices. A group of friends who adopted the name Catitude in the summer of 2009, many of whom were young women, created the Eff Yeah Nerdfighters Tumblr, a significant online guide and gathering place for Nerdfighteria.28 Constructed after Catitude exchanged ideas via multiple platforms and communications tools, the site also promoted other women’s online creativity, like a September 2009 post that highlighted the blogs written by the women of the Five Awesome Girls project.29 The parody Fake John Green memes were created by designer Karen Kavett. Further, as Hank and John’s video channels increased in scope and number, women were hired as writers, hosts, and producers at Complexly, notably for its science content. The history of the community and its outlets shows that women themselves have created key outposts of Nerdfighteria, work received positively by the community, although sometimes challenged by outsiders, despite their affiliation with the brothers’ work. Thus, it feels necessary to take issue with the contention that “John and Hank’s Project for Awesome functions as a space in which women’s political

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voices are permitted, protected, and welcomed in ways that they are not across the rest of the internet . . . inviting women to discuss politics in ways they cannot in other online parts of public culture.” 30 This conclusion that the brothers’ brand results in women’s safety seems, in effect, like a forerunner of a moment in 2019, when John voiced concerns about how his name was used to tout a collaborative endeavor relying on the talents of others, including prominent women.31 Women, after all, are among the moderators who actively lead and shape the online conversations that play out during the Project for Awesome. This statement also ignores some of the wrinkles evident in the way women, including those with Nerdfighter affiliations, have been treated online. Research demonstrates, for example, that women who create STEM programs on YouTube do so in the face of “hostile, critical/negative and sexist/ sexual commentary.” When the New York Times covered this story, Emily Graslie, whose Brain Scoop channel was first hosted by Complexly, appeared prominently.32 Even the comments on Hank’s 2007 “Accio Deathly Hallows” video, which was promoted on YouTube’s front page, saw negative remarks on his interests and appearance.33 These incidents suggest that Nerdfighteria’s online outlets, regardless of the creators’ gender, are not immune to the negative forces that challenge individuals’ participation in digital dialogues.

The brothers’ b ­ ack-­and-­forth on YouTube has veered from personal stories

to a range of eclectic ideas to proposals for ­community-­oriented activism, topics that continue to feature in their work, although in different forms. After an early 2019 Vlogbrothers exchange of ideas about motivation, personal energy, and burnout, ­long-­time Nerdfighters celebrated Hank and John’s return to a more conversational style of video exchange. One commenter rejoiced that the recent string of videos recalled those of the channel’s first year. Others agreed, observing that sustaining a subject across multiple videos results in a more ­in-­depth perspective. Nerdfighters’ responses to certain kinds of work, then, are not simply nostalgic. As another viewer commented, the longer exchanges, which included questions and answers on Twitter, supported Nerdfighters’ interests in “trying to better understand the world.”34 Despite these endorsements, it seems unlikely that Vlogbrothers will ever fully return to its origins. In responding to comments on the 2016 Nerdfighteria Census, in which a respondent asked why the channel had changed, Hank explained that both he and the

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platform had changed; the earlier content and style no longer suited the brothers.35 At Complexly, there is an ­ever-­present awareness that the platform where Vlogbrothers and other videos are released is continuously in flux, or, as one video editor described it, Complexly’s output forms part of “the ever changing YouTube landscape.”36

The Nerdfighteria Census, a questionnaire developed by Hank in 2013 and

run in varying permutations ever since, is both integral to this book and to the community’s broader ­self-­concept. It returns us to the question, “What is a Nerdfighter?” through queries about reading and other ­community-­oriented activities, many of which are linked to literacy. Census respondents are asked if they have ever transcribed videos for the Nerdfighteria Tumblr site, participated in the annual Project for Awesome charity fundraiser, commented on Vlogbrothers videos, and so on. Questions about how people get their news about Nerdfighteria and how often they view videos appear regularly. Nerdfighters have also been asked, over the years, about their favorite authors and their use of ­e -­books, audiobooks, and libraries. The data that Hank collects helps to construct the community’s continuing story, and it is a mechanism that allows a degree of dialogue between the channel’s creators and the community. The Census, coupled with a lively but lengthy analytical video released on hankschannel, is one of Nerdfighteria’s annual events. Some activities, like the Census, have become mainstays; others have come and gone. For l­ong-­time Vlogbrothers viewers, two other events mark the calendar: Pizzamas and Project for Awesome. Pizzamas, which originated from a 2010 Nerdfighter meme, is now a ­t welve-­day period each year when the brothers return to daily video releases. In addition, products are sold featuring Pizza John—­a zany image of John with a mustache, a still captured from a video in which he shaved his beard and was tagged with the word pizza—­with proceeds supporting Partners in Health and its efforts to provide healthcare in developing countries.37 The Project for Awesome (P4A) is another ­long-­standing event: a ­t wo-­day video livestream that raises funds for multiple charities. With a rotating cast of hosts, thousands of videos promoting organizations that help people in myriad ways, and perks for contributors, it is truly an event with multiple moving parts. It is also one way that the values of the community manifest through regular events. Nerdfighters, then, are individuals who have participated, in some way, in

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shaping this story of how readers come together to share their belief in stories in different ways. As Murray has observed, “The internet offers an abundance of what was collectively termed ‘book talk.’ ” In addition to the institutional outlets she surveys, a generous, impulsive, joyful, thoughtful abundance of Nerdfighters’ commentaries about books and bookish matters occurs across the internet.38 Nerdfighteria, in its ­real-­life and online incarnations, represents a place where people come together to share their passion for stories and ideas, concentrating as well on the transformative effects that words can have in people’s lives.

“The Moral Power of Good Stories” Where research on Nerdfighteria has described its support for causes in terms of “goals” and “noncivic ethical modalities,” I believe that a core, defining aspect of Nerdfighteria is its values and that those values can be traced to books.39 As John observed in his Printz Honor Award speech, I believe that authors—­particularly those of us writing for teenagers—­have a responsibility to tell stories that are both good and—­for lack of a better word—­ moral. I heard Tobin Anderson say a few months ago that he is no longer opposed to fiction that teaches lessons, and neither am I. In fact, I believe that fiction must teach lessons—­after all, any story that we believe in comes with a lesson, be they YA novels or Geico commercials. A book that is just its lesson cannot be a good story, of course. But we can’t ignore the moral power of good stories, either.

Given John’s degree work in religious studies and his service as a chaplain

at a children’s hospital, it is perhaps unsurprising that moral, even weighty, ideas shape his novels. Both his and Hank’s books engage questions about the choices we make about our roles in relationships, in communities, and in the larger world.40 Elsewhere, the brothers have characterized technology in much the same way, with Hank arguing that by using particular platforms and sharing content there, they have the potential to shape the use and the discourse of those sites.41 While the DFTBA mantra has long been said to serve as the community’s moral compass, the more complicated ideas that develop and play

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out over the course of the Greens’ books also resound in Nerdfighteria. Understanding Nerdfighteria as a community of readers, then, rests on awareness of these principles, which are voiced in books and reflected on by their readers. Tensions frame Looking for Alaska, John’s first published novel, creating a series of uncertainties that narrator and reader alike must navigate. Its countdown structure is the most immediately apparent aspect of this sense of an impending unknown, with chapters labeled “one hundred ­thirty-­six days before,” “one hundred t­ wenty-­seven days before,” and onward toward the story’s climax and its aftermath, but other dualities pull at readers’ attention as well. There are pranks, some benign and others less so; ­rule-­breaking, along with the possibility of getting caught and punished by expulsion that means not only removal from school, but from one’s friends; and relationships and romantic attractions, accompanied by the question of loyalty and where it lies. There are also the fundamental questions pursued by one of its central characters: If we live in a confounding world, one whose possibilities require us to weigh our options and devise reasons for our best, if sometimes faltering, choices, what anchors our ability to find our way? How do we resolve uncertainty and make sense of pain? This is, essentially, the dilemma of confronting the Great Perhaps, rather than following a more certain path.42 It is the challenge of the questions Dr. Hyde poses to his students, among them, “How will we ever get out of this labyrinth of suffering?”43 The characters wrestle with these dilemmas, and readers find meaning in their efforts.

This novel encourages readers to link books and life, reading and real feel-

ings. Students in my young people’s literature classes have identified it as a “favorite book” that rewards rereading. One year, a student described its “pull on my heart strings,” a tug that “made me happy, but also sad, every time.” Another was reassured by its familiarity and the memory of its role in an earlier phase of her young life, writing, “Looking for Alaska was one of my favorite books for a very long time.” Rereading it was “hands down the best part of my week.” Still others called my attention to the way the book reflects their realities, with one student recounting the death of a peer in a car accident and telling me that “John Green understands teenagers like most adults don’t. He writes about things that most adults like to pretend are not happening.”

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Even those who hadn’t read the novel before recognized its intersections. One of my favorite responses to it, one of the most striking and heartfelt, begins: This book meant more to me than anything I have read to date. . . . [S]omething profound occurred during my time with the book. I seemed to have read a book about my life. Perhaps that was Green’s purpose; maybe he wrote the book so all could find a piece of themselves within the pages. I think that is true of most “coming of age” books. Yet, I did not just find b ­ its-­and-­pieces of myself in the book, instead, I found myself staring back at me through the text.

Although this student had not read Hisham Matar’s words, they seem to share the conviction that “the most magical moments in reading occur not when I encounter something unknown but when I happen upon myself, when I read a sentence that perfectly describes something I have known or felt all along.” This sort of discovery creates connections between reader and book and between reader and the world.44 Looking for Alaska, then, opens a space where readers find their own stories as well as the one John wanted to tell. The experiences of John’s fictional teens resonate with real teens, and his readers respect the author for the honesty of his representations. In the pages of this book, readers feel their ideas and lives are acknowledged and validated.

Not every novel that John has written initiates such profound responses. Yet

even his lighter second novel, An Abundance of Katherines (2007), a ­road-­trip novel that one reviewer has called “fun and entirely entertaining,” suggests ways we might think about life.45 John has described the appeal of the book as its authenticity and absence of ironic posturing.46 As a whole, the book traces its narrator’s discovery of resilience. The Horn Book Magazine aptly referred to An Abundance of Katherines as a c­ oming-­of-­age novel and a bildungsroman, emphasizing how Colin’s story models a maturation process.47 Significantly, his growth is marked not simply by independence—­geographic and otherwise—­ from his parents but also by love. By the book’s end, Colin has embarked on a relationship with a young woman to whom he is genuinely attracted, rather than with someone he thinks he is supposed to fall for. This novel’s conclusion, with its swirl of freedom, friendship, and the sparks of young love, represents a warm and charming endorsement that these are essential elements of a good life.

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In addition to its messages about love and resilience, An Abundance of Kath-

erines is also a tribute to abiding friendships. As my friend Nerdfighter and librarian Colleen Theisen observes, “The big picture life message that resonated with me . . . was the relationship between Colin and Hassan.” This title was, she told me, “very important to me when I read it,” because of the honest ­give-­and-­take between Hassan and Colin. Each of these characters, in some way, doesn’t conform to the norms of U.S. life and expressiveness; whether despite or because of this, each remains a true friend to the other. Their friendship, based on mutual tolerance and respect, allows them to speak frankly to each other about flaws and choices that make it difficult to get along in the world.48 An Abundance of Katherines offers an implicit recognition that one’s unedited self, one’s actual self, might best be shared with close friends, family, and an accepting community. The next novel John published, Paper Towns (2008), engages the issue of authenticity in more direct and less readily resolved ways. It presents the disappearance of the narrator’s neighbor, ­one-­time friend, and ­long-­time crush as a mystery to be solved; a series of ­puzzle-­like clues, if answered correctly, will yield the location of the missing Margo Roth Spiegelman. Its pages also, albeit indirectly, allude to contemporary adolescent problems: runaways and high school dropouts, parental alienation, and the pressure some students feel to direct their energy toward achievement and a career path even before they leave high school. A l­ ate-­night conversation at an a ­ lcohol-­fueled party provides insights into the sometimes dispiriting topics of reputation and others’ perceptions.49 Those concerns resound more deeply and darkly when Quentin finds Margo, and they turn to the questions of how and whether they can, in the end, understand one another. Quentin’s words are angsty, honest, and redolent with the language of Corinthians and Leonard Cohen: When did we see each other face to face? Not until you saw into my cracks and I saw into yours. Before that, we were just looking at ideas of each other, like looking at your window shade but never seeing inside. But once the vessel cracks, the light can get in. The light can get out.50

His pledge of understanding results from the culmination of the fraught notions of identity that characters carry around and project onto one another. If Paper

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Towns, which won an Edgar, is reduced to a message, it is this: that love is a willingness “to see . . . [one another] almost perfectly in this cracked darkness.”51 It is in The Fault in Our Stars that questions of how to live, of what constitutes a good life, emerge with often startling clarity. Young people like Hazel, the book’s narrator and central character, who attend a cancer support group in an Episcopalian church basement, are barraged with messages about how to live their uncertain, at times painful, and possibly irremediably shortened lives. The group leader, Patrick, guides them through the “serenity prayer” and the concluding mantra of “LIVING OUR BEST LIFE TODAY.”52 When Hazel meets Augustus Waters and visits his parents’ house, she sees platitudinous affirmations that the family calls “Encouragements” displayed on the walls, “True Love Is Born From Hard Times” among them.53 Hazel’s own parents celebrate holidays great and small, looking for occasions to experience life with joy and enthusiasm.

Hazel and Gus, her newfound friend and fellow cancer patient, have, at best,

mixed feelings about these r­ eady-­made statements, and the teens’ relationship is forged by contesting visions of how their lives, in the time they have left, might possibly acquire the sort of meaning they would like them to have. Gus is inclined toward big dreams and a big presence, apparently congruent with the unfulfilled promise of his earlier feats on the basketball court.54 He admits his own determination “to be remembered,” to leave “a mark on the world”—a grand aspiration to “[o]utlast . . . death” through reputation and legacy.55 In the movie, Hazel’s quieter perspective, her belief that what matters most is how she affects the people she is closest to, emerges when she responds to his hopes: I think you’re special. And isn’t that enough? You think that the only way to lead a meaningful life is for everyone to remember you. For everyone to love you! Guess what, Gus—­this is your life! This is all you get! You get me, and you get your family, and you get this world, and that’s it! And if that’s not enough for you, then I’m sorry, but it’s not nothing. Because I love you. And I’m going to remember you.56

Where the s­ tar-­crossed lovers in Romeo and Juliet come from opposed families, Hazel and Gus come to their relationship with opposing views. The Fault in Our Stars is not only a narrative about young lives lost in “the ancient and

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inglorious war against disease,” but it is about the gulf between the two central characters’ world views and how they love and respect each other despite deep differences of perspective.57

Augustus Waters declares metaphor a guide and a motive for his actions. As

Hazel understands his position shortly after they meet, “You choose your behaviors based on their metaphorical resonances . . . .”58 Expressing connection between the immediate and the remote, the like and the unlike, brings character and philosophy into focus. Although he never quite relinquishes his hopes for bigger things, Gus tells Hazel, even after his life is bounded by his parents’ house and his wheelchair, “It is a good life, Hazel Grace.”59 This is the closest readers will find to an endorsement of one character’s hopes over the other’s, and its message lingers. Further questions about “how it is possible to live with pain,” created by Hazel’s fears for her parents’ future and the wreckage of a bereft father’s life after the loss of his daughter, permeate the novel.60 To the extent that there are answers, they emerge from Hazel’s perseverance and honest communication with the people she cherishes, rather than from received ideas. Above all, the book seems to make a bold statement about where we find happiness and meaning in this world.

Turtles All the Way Down (2017) has been celebrated both as John’s return to

novel writing and as an acute realization of what it is like to live with a particular kind of mental illness. As in his other fiction, readers witness anger, sorrow, and misunderstanding when friends rely on caricatures instead of acknowledging one another’s feelings and personhood. Messages about the importance of recognizing people’s feelings and dignity appear elsewhere in the textual cosmos of Nerdfighteria as well. In multiple videos, essays, and other media, John and Hank discuss the importance of envisioning others complexly. This newer catchphrase and descriptor, now the imprimatur of Hank’s educational video company and an organizing principle in a Wikipedia guidance document on platform civility, might be regarded as an encapsulation of another ideal that guides Nerdfighteria as a community.61 These writings, then, extend norms that receive necessarily brief mention in other media.

As I acknowledged, these principles don’t make Nerdfighteria an untroubled

idyll, but hurt feelings and misconduct are usually confronted by renewed articulations of the community’s values. From time to time, concerns about how

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community members treat one another emerge on various platforms. Sometimes these incidents have a more public airing, as when Hank reported that someone had complained to him about being “shamed in a Nerdfighter community for being transgender.” It led him to remark, “I don’t know how someone could feel like that’s the kind of thing a Nerdfighter would do. . . . That’s not a Nerdfighter.”62 A couple of creators associated with DFTBA Records, a company cofounded by Hank, victimized young fans, and there has been another stinging yet false accusation of misconduct, veiled by online anonymity, as well.63 Gamergate, with its toxic targeting of women who create, play, and critique video games, touched VidCon and Vlogbrothers, too.64 Its taint trailed them in repetitious and abrasive comments on Vlogbrothers videos, upbraiding the brothers for defending a woman who was threatened during a 2017 VidCon panel. The accusation that they were unfair, not to Feminist Frequency founder Anita Sarkeesian but to the men who arrived to intimidate her, was posted nearly verbatim from different accounts and even repeated in the ­Nerdfighter-­to-­Nerdfighter comments on the 2017 Nerdfighteria Census, where a vestige of the offending remarks can be found: “Your response (Hank) and behavior following the vidcon debacle (Anita harassing an attendee and you being on the side of the harasser) was shameful and ridiculous. The new vidcon policy in response to it is also ridiculous.” Later, when John and Hank spent one 2018 video “reading mean comments” on their work, none of the material they laughingly identified as unkind had the valence of these other incidents.65 Contrasted with some issues that the brothers have confronted, these criticisms sounded far from edgy, although in 2020, Hank observed that “having too many people have opinions, it turns out, about your personality is not great.”66 It suggests that providing essential corrections and attempting to direct attention to the positive elements of a community’s discourse is part of how Nerdfighteria works.

Doubt, Love, and Language It’s not, then, that Nerdfighters unequivocally accept the answers—­to the extent that answers are presented—­in John and Hank’s novels or videos. It’s that many of them want to engage with these issues, and any number of outlets reveal that these are not simply personal questions but ones that frame how

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we engage with the world. In her study of Nerdfighteria and other activist fan groups, Neta ­Kligler-­Vilenchik considers their inclination to “deploy popular culture engagement toward political ends” and “cultivate . . . members’ civic imagination.”67 Transferring ideas about themes from novels and videos to attempts to address larger social problems is certainly implicit in allegiance to John and Hank’s work, because thousands and thousands of Vlogbrothers viewers participate in charity fundraising, whether through contributions to the microlending project on or participation in the annual Project for Awesome. It is easy to regard these volunteer activities and charitable contributions as ethical choices and enactments of values, yet we should also see the latter at work, I believe, in the decision to read. There are many reasons to see the community’s values exemplified in its engagement with books. One is provided by John, when he argued that for stories to work, “readers and writers must both be generous.”68 When we think about books, he urges us to look not for efforts to “impress” or “to be clever,” which he deems, at least in some instances, ­self-­centered. Instead, the author’s desire to create “a gift for other people” makes for stories and characters who reward our time with them.69 Earlier, he explored this approach to writing in a slightly different way, examining books’ potential to personalize understanding and foster empathy. He wrote, I would argue that books . . . allow us to live inside the lives of others because we have to translate scratches on a page into ideas and make the story ours. We become ­co-­creators of the story, and they allow us to inhabit someone else’s body for a while. Books give us the faith that others are real, that their joy and pain should matter to us, and that ours can matter to them. In some ways, this confirms our own existence, because most of our mattering is in the context of one another.70

His words, beyond a moral philosophy, also see reading as a means of making and emphasize its fundamentally creative properties.

In their creative endeavors, the brothers also focus on the social effects that

books, stories, and fandom can have. In the summer of 2019, for example, a pair of Vlogbrothers videos discussed the brothers’ admiration for actor Keanu Reeves’s response to a question about what happens when we die. In his anal-

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ysis, Hank observed that Reeves’s epigrammatic answer—“the ones who love us will miss us”—is surprising in multiple respects, most notably its “outward” turn, its focus on death’s effects on the people we leave behind rather than on the opaque and mystical experience of death itself. John then noted that Reeves’s careful replies reveal the sincerity of his attention, articulating a takeaway message for Nerdfighters: “Each of us has the opportunity every day to be kind to others and to listen carefully to them.”71 The video exchange represents another philosophical moment in the media that the brothers have developed; its themes, however, manifest elsewhere as that media proliferates. The partnered Dear Hank & John podcast offers advice—­admittedly “dubious advice”—about everything from continuing to read young adult novels into adulthood to relationships. The podcast also continues to construct a locus metaphor. Although its tagline carries the caveat that the brothers may not of­ rofessional-­grade advice, the podcast nonetheless contains moments of fer p earnest as well as humorous discussion. Hank and John evoke the notion of Nerdfighteria as an old, familiar place with its signature s­ ign-­off, itself a form of advice: “As they say in our home town, ‘Don’t forget to be awesome.’ ”72 This, I would argue, is why values are essential to how one thinks about Nerdfighteria: they are embedded everywhere in it. To follow John and Hank as they experiment with new outlets and new possibilities is, inevitably, to find reminders of momentous truths amid their ­fast-­paced, often glib and funny commentaries on contemporary life. Finally, both scholarly and personal discussions of Nerdfighteria have focused on the relationships between the Harry Potter fandom and the passionate readers who turned their attention to Vlogbrothers and John’s novels after the release of the seventh and final book in J.K. Rowling’s fantasy series.73 A different, if more limited, collective endeavor, inspired by another writer, however, seems equally important to how the terrain of Nerdfighteria was formed and shaped. The Beckonings of Lovely, dreamed up by Amy Krouse Rosenthal in 2008, provided another pathway to the community’s current values and form.74 This initial participatory celebration of creativity, friendship, and joy was attended by John Green and untold numbers of Nerdfighters. Over a handful of coming years, more Beckonings of Lovely took place in Chicago. In the years following, some Nerdfighters would remember their participation in Rosenthal’s

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collaborative creation of community, and Nerdfighters old and new alike would hear its refrain through events and media well into the future. Nerdfighteria has been made of words, year after year.75 It is continuously being made and remade in the stories that community members read, share, and discuss. As John once told a group of educators, “literature is not a cold, dead place, . . . books are not something that used to happen, but are instead a long and unbroken conversation in which we are all called to participate.”76 By locating their interest and their time in Nerdfighteria, individuals participate, in varying ways, in a community intent on narratives and relationships with other readers. They affirm, through their choices, that stories and community are part of a good life. They use words—and clicks and likes and views—­whether in conversation, books, or new media, to make the worlds in which they want to live and love. They are inspired and encouraged to create what they want to see in the world, or even, if they choose, to simply give their time and attention to creations that accord with their perspectives on what matters most. In the chapters ahead, this last element—­the stories that Nerdfighters give their attention to—­will become more central.


| Nerdfighteria by Numbers

Community Demographics, Media Formations, and Place For all its common interests, Nerdfighteria is a complex entity with a multifaceted composition. Demographics, though admittedly imperfect, offer ideas about how Nerdfighteria is constituted beyond the abstractions of its unifying interests and ideals. Those figures can be derived, either directly or indirectly, from the media that foster its conversations and connections. Considering the audiences for these sites of creation enables us to understand that media that bring Nerdfighters together are not simply echoes of one another and that one Nerdfighter, however prominent or interesting, does not define them all. As Peter Boot has written about a set of Dutch online book sites, “Each of these site types has its own specific characteristics, is suitable for certain types of discussion, and attracts a certain type of visitor. On the other hand, there are also many personal connections between these sites.”1 This pattern is true of Nerdfighteria, and it points us toward a recognition of how the community’s membership may differ from common assertions about who Nerdfighters are, which in turns affects how the community reads and relates its stories. Examining what can be known about its different sites of engagement with stories yields a more specific concept of this dispersed and continuously changing community. Beyond the Nerdfighteria Census that Hank runs annually, we can also locate information about book buyers, podcast listeners, YouTube viewers, and the Complexly staff members and others who make the community’s media. The information available to describe the people invested in each medium, each site, varies; because some information is proprietary, we have only glimpses of it, rather than the fullness of how it represents the community. For example, in some instances we have annual updates and the trajectories they reveal, while in others, broad market patterns outline a segment of Nerdfighteria.

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Together, they construct what Tony Bennett calls a reading formation, “a set

of intersecting discourses which productively activates a given body of texts and the relations between them in a specific way.”2 For Nerdfighters, given that the intersections arise from digital media as well as books, we might think of the clusters of texts and the community conversations they inspire as a media formation. It is analogous to what some researchers call a sociotechnical “microsystem” that reaches across platforms, yet responsive to my interest in Nerdfighteria as a community of readers.3 As Bennett argues, media formations allow us to make sense of reading and interpretive practices, and in Nerdfighteria, these details come back together in its shared sense of place.

Place provides a metaphor for how Nerdfighters explore the media created

for the community. Let us venture, for a moment, not into Nerdfighteria, but to Paris, whose w ­ ell-­known features might seem the antithesis of a contemporary digital community. Nerdfighteria contrasts notably with Paris’s iconic landmarks and culture: Nerdfighteria is a c­ ome-­as-­you-­are gathering rather than the fashion capital of the world, a group better known as LaCroix drinkers than as wine aficionados and employing an intentionally quirky t­ wenty-­first-century argot remote from a language regulated by a c­ enturies-­old academy. Nonetheless, both are invested deeply in literary expression, and literary commentary shows how Paris offers a way of thinking about how people experience Nerdfighteria. Writer John Baxter, for example, contends that there is no “single Paris,” no one way of experiencing and understanding the city. His claim derives from Colette, whom he quotes: “ ‘I discovered that Paris did not exist. It was no more than a cluster of provinces held together by the most tenuous of threads. There was nothing to prevent me from reconstructing my own province or any other my imagination should choose to fix in outline.’ ” Baxter sees “the city . . . as a blank page on which each person scribbles what the French call a griffe—­ literally a claw but more precisely a signature; a choice of favorite cafés, shops, parks, and the routes that link them.”4 For Baxter, the griffe grounds discussion of the Parisian sites that make up a life there; for us, it can frame a discursive journey through Nerdfighteria’s outlets. At the same time that fandom might encourage us to characterize common texts as canon or a core experience, Baxter’s concept suggests we consider that all Nerdfighters don’t give the plenti-

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ful media created by John, Hank, Complexly, and Nerdfighters themselves the same attention.

Readers, then, make their own Nerdfighteria. Nerdfighters choose whether

to watch Vlogbrothers videos or book tour livestreams. They might read quietly at home rather than share their delight in the brothers’ books on social media or participate in the intellectual puzzles and other online games that create bonds within the community. The varied media, and the production and administrative staff involved in creating the media formation of Nerdfighteria, means that we encounter not just the words of John and Hank, but the talented contributions of other creators whose names and faces are often less visible. Those people, however, are essential to diversifying our sense of Nerdfighteria. They factor in Nerdfighteria’s evolution during its more than t­ welve-­year existence: Now there is not one Nerdfighteria; there are many. Unless we see Nerdfighters as people who chose their texts and regard those texts as multivocal ones, we misunderstand how the community and its media respond to the changing realities of time and place.5 Its media formation, then, must stem from a composite of its sites, rather than a focus on a single year or particular element of its culture. Existing explanations of Nerdfighters and Nerdfighteria, however, range from the abstract to the quantitative, often without considering whether the resulting characterizations overlap or intersect. Most extant descriptions of Nerdfighteria focus on the shared ways that they think about themselves, drawing on the informal, sometimes ­self-­deprecating language of the community itself—­one Vlogbrothers viewer, for example, succinctly described herself as belonging to a “community full of ­self-­confessed nerds”—a decision that captures its vibe yet renders the collective rather opaquely.6 This means the attributes of people who claim this identity and ally themselves despite distance and differences of language and more could be better understood. I want to consider how the media elements that spark individuals’ affiliation with the community might vary from one another and how those media suggest some differences from common generalizations about who Nerdfighters are. Typically, researchers and journalists depict Nerdfighteria as a fairly homogeneous community: one that is primarily young, white, and female.7 Little attention is given to other, changing facets of this community, reflected in com-

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ment threads on videos and other signs. To arrive at a more expansive sense of the community’s participants, I have traced connections between several sites that comprise Nerdfighteria.8 The associated numbers show that Nerdfighteria is both large and geographically dispersed, at the same time that its most readily observed statistics do suggest it is in many respects rather uniform. A broad perspective on the community’s metrics begins with the Vlogbrothers YouTube channel and its more three million subscribers. Another medium, print, also reveals a widespread audience: John’s latest novel, released in October 2017, had a first printing of more than one million copies.9 Assessing Nerdfighteria through a composite of its other outlets, however, encourages the idea that they are not simply, as l­ate-­night host Stephen Colbert once joked, a youthful, ­cult-­like group that would follow John off a cliff to support his latest cause.10 Beyond more nuanced community demographics, further details help us understand how and why the community endures more than ten years after it was first conceptualized—­decisions about participation and identity, I believe, that relate to the way Nerdfighteria creates a sense of place through responses to media. This overview examines what is known about particular sites of John and Hank’s work, whether novels or new media productions, like the Dear Hank & John podcast. Recognizing that, while the Vlogbrothers channel began with each brother independently producing his own videos, the extended media creations that interest the community involve an expanded number of individuals who should also figure in how we think about these texts. Nerdfighters themselves produce material that tells us something about themselves and the ways their lives intersect with the community, revealing that audiences for the Green brothers’ videos, books, and podcasts both overlap and differ. I believe that seeing the different media products associated with Nerdfighteria as places where community forms, and examining the available evidence of audiences for these different texts, enables us to understand the community as one that aspires to diversity and inclusion. John has observed that “there isn’t just one story” in the world, and if we look carefully, we find multiple stories in Nerdfighteria.11 Numbers and other empirical details can help us follow the threads of those narratives. The media that Nerdfighteria calls its own is both readily identifiable and

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immense. In discussing authorship in the age of new and social media, Matt Kirschenbaum has remarked on the simply overwhelming number of texts that might be considered part of an author’s work. It is no longer possible, he concludes, to read and assess every document for its craft and bearing on an author’s reputation.12 This means that when we want to understand an author’s audience, the readers and viewers who engage with authorial texts across a shifting number of platforms, the potential number of items that make up that universe expands exponentially. Yet given that the activities and events associated with Nerdfighteria are promoted across so many media and platforms, including some created by fans, looking at what can be discerned about the audiences via multiple venues is both essential to developing a clearer sense of community demographics and an imperfect way of doing so. We must look for ways to define boundaries, even if those lines, the resulting exclusions, might seem a little arbitrary or omit some voices. My efforts to learn more about Nerdfighters began by reviewing multiple years of Hank’s discussion of the annual Nerdfighteria Census; I then pursued industry analyses of particular media formats and examined Nerdfighter outlets where demographic information is sometimes volunteered. The proliferation of associated social media groups and the conventions where readers and viewers gather, represent new, if potentially overlapping, sites that allude to community demographics; not all sites, however, offer insights into the ­make-­up of the community. What we can see is that each part of the microsystem of Nerdfighteria—­the YouTube channel and the annual Nerdfighteria Census, the readers of John and Hank’s novels, the Dear Hank & John podcast listeners, and the individuals who participate in events like NerdCon and who work at Complexly and make up the company’s ­multichannel network—­shifts our sense of who Nerdfighters are and what brings them together. A Thought Café video called “What Is a Nerdfighter?” was first released at NerdCon: Nerdfighteria, and the ensuing conversation around it on YouTube previews the sorts of things we might see. This outpost of Nerdfighteria drew different individuals into conversation about nerdiness and knowing oneself. I came across this 2017 community snapshot, in which speakers describe their experiences and attitudes, while searching for definitions of the term nerdfighter.13 To see how the video’s depictions of Nerdfighteria resonated, I ventured

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into its comments thread, where masculine avatars were visible in higher proportions than men are often said to be represented on other community sites. There were mentions of meeting at the gym and recognizing Nerdfighters by their DFTBA (“Don’t forget to be awesome”) tattoos. Comments were also posted by people clearly new to the concept of nerdfighting and the community, some of whom were puzzled and others who seemed to have found their people. This is the case each time one finds a cluster of Nerdfighters: we find both familiar tropes and new ideas about who Nerdfighters are.

Vlogbrothers and the Nerdfighteria Census One way that Vlogbrothers fosters analogies to a nation and to place is through the Nerdfighteria Census, an online survey of the community first conducted in 2013, six years after the channel’s first video appeared.14 The Nerdfighteria Census has run annually since then. Although the Census is promoted on other platforms, another sign that Nerdfighteria is not bounded by the YouTube channel, it is important to pause here to observe that the YouTube channel is itself inherently localized, an aspect of its operation with implications for its viewers. Audiences for social media may seem to connect in some remote, ethereal cyberspace; YouTube videos, however, are recorded in actual places, often recognizable as a room in the recorder’s home.15 Vlogbrothers videos, then, form an intersection that brings together John and Hank, wherever they happen to be—­in a studio, on a sidewalk in Missoula, at a hair salon in Indianapolis, or in a kayak on Lake Powell—­the viewing or promoting platform; and their viewers, seeing the video wherever they might be at the time—­in their own homes, at a bus stop, or on campus. Each time someone watches a Vlogbrothers or ­Complexly-­produced video, it brings that production site to the place where the viewer is, and by extension, it means that all the places on the map where audience members, fans, and Nerdfighters live come to bear on what happens at filming sites—­something that viewers can make clear by responding to the Census. For this reason among others, where we find the audiences for social media matters. Hank, who creates the Nerdfighteria Census, discusses what Nerdfighters reveal about themselves in annual videos he posts to his individual hankschan-

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nel on YouTube. In one of these commentaries, he recapped the rationale for the survey: “I think we all have this image in our mind of who makes up Nerdfighteria, but like all assumptions it’s at least a little wrong.” The Census, then, is an effort to confront assumptions with information. Still, the nature and the limitations of the Census shape its conclusions. It is important to be aware that the Nerdfighteria Census has, historically, been rather lengthy both in content and duration. Until 2018, the questionnaire contained no fewer than ­thirty-­four questions but usually far more, leading to inside jokes about and on the Census itself. Answers to the annual question, “What makes you feel like a Nerdfighter?” have included the option, “Filling out really long surveys.”16 Hank eventually acknowledged that “there’s a selection bias to a survey that’s 78 questions long,” leading to its reconceptualization.17 Further, Complexly, which manages the survey, often does not close the online form once the calendar year concludes. If someone hasn’t completed the annual Census, it has been possible to respond years later, so that the 2014 data includes answers provided in 2015, 2016, and 2017.

Then, despite its name, the Nerdfighteria Census is not a census in a conven-

tional sense. As defined by bodies like the United Nations and the U.S. Census Bureau, a census involves the “complete enumeration” or individual counting “of a population.”18 The ratio of respondents to channel subscribers indicates something other than a full count of Nerdfighteria, and scholarly studies contextualize our reading of that gap. Completing the Nerdfighteria Census is a voluntary act, making it what is called a convenience sample rather than a random sample that might ensure its representativeness, and numerous studies tell us that women, whites, and younger people are more likely to complete such surveys than people with other traits.19 What the Nerdfighteria Census documents, beyond something about the community, is also something about established dynamics of survey response, so it also provides further reasons for seeking information about Nerdfighteria’s population from other sources. One way of thinking about the Census’s ability to represent the community emerges in Hank’s comparisons of the number of people who saw a video announcing the Census to the number of respondents. In the first years that the Census was released, the number of people who completed the survey exceeded fifty percent of the number who had seen the first video promoting the

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survey.20 That ratio would shift, and given that the Census is promoted across platforms, including the brothers’ podcast and Twitter and Facebook posts, there are multiple reasons to believe that more people know about the survey than choose to answer its questions. Despite these factors, reasons remain for relying on the survey, not least because it is the most detailed accumulation of information about Nerdfighteria.

What the Census tells us about place is itself curious, reflecting these pre-

liminary and shaping factors. Although the questionnaire’s construction has shifted over the years, its findings continue to suggest that the majority of respondents are based in the United States, a contrast with what is known about YouTube audiences generally. Perhaps in response, Hank has acknowledged flaws in his initial survey design, among them an assumption that participants lived in predominantly E­ nglish-­speaking locales. Revised surveys show, as do comments on any number of Vlogbrothers videos, that the audience for the videos (and other media crafted by the Greens) is an international one. The international ­make-­up of Nerdfighteria manifests through commentary that reflects awareness of Census results as well. When a determined volunteer effort began in 2014 to transcribe and translate Complexly’s video productions, volunteers created access to content in German and Spanish. One viewer asked about interest in “translations into languages with a lower headcount as well, such as Slovak” and another person responded, “I think if you can you should, because nerdfighters.”21 Linguistic inclusiveness, then, seems to be a community value, and since YouTube contends that the majority of its viewers live outside the United States, the channel’s inclusiveness should be considered through the platform’s global reach.22 These data can be supplemented, too, by the “map of all known local Nerdfighter groups,” which shows these communities distributed across the United States and around the world, sometimes in high schools and colleges, and sometimes within a metropolitan area.23 Nerdfighters themselves, then, tell us that the community is more geographically dispersed than the Census indicates.

Other traits also vary from expectations. Youth has long been regarded as a

defining aspect of the community. Once, John told people, “Many Nerdfighters are teenagers, and they are really awesome,” and ­Kligler-­Vilenchik, in her study of Nerdfighteria, called it “an informal online community of young people.”24

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Other researchers likewise assume that Nerdfighters are teens or adolescents. Their remarks are congruent with analyses that see YouTube as the province of the young and with older community newsletters documenting activities of Nerdfighter clubs in junior high and high schools.25 A substantial number of Nerdfighters are adolescents and young adults, but age is not immutable.

In more recent Census discussions, Hank observes that his data show that

Nerdfighteria is aging, and additional sources confirm that Nerdfighters are not just adolescents. The first Census results, from 2013, indicated, as Hank reported to viewers, that the vast majority of respondents were “high school and college aged people,” with more than ninety percent aged t­hirty-­four or younger. A similar pattern occurred in the 2014 Census. Since then, two things have happened: The people who joined Nerdfighteria have aged, and older individuals have found the community. The 2017 Census reveals this shift, with the largest cohort of responding Nerdfighters aged between ­t wenty-­three and thirty.26 The pattern recurred in 2018, and as Hank observed, “The 31–40 segment is bigger than the under 15s”; further, thirteen percent have a graduate degree, while ­thirty-­seven percent have an undergraduate degree.27 Collectively, these data signal that thousands of Nerdfighters are adults, embarking on careers and professions. Comments on the Census and elsewhere come from parents watching Complexly’s educational Crash Course channels with their children and from teachers who find the videos useful in their classrooms. Indeed, the 2018 Census revealed that the highest percentage of people familiar with Crash Course were those using it in classroom instruction.28 In public comments on videos, remarks about age—­from one man who announced that becoming a grandparent was the highlight of his year to a viewer who recognized one of her teachers in the 2007 Happy Dance video—­appear notable, perhaps because they provide evidence that defies the expectation that Nerdfighters are teens. These people, as well as those who found Vlogbrothers and John’s books when younger and have maintained their interest in this content, are among the cohort of older viewers. Elsewhere, one person remembered watching the channel at the age of eleven and feeling that Hank and John were like “fun uncles” who offered important and influential ideas about how to live. Another commenter explained, “I started watching vlogbrothers when I was 13 and I’m 22 now and it’s been one of the only constant things in my life as I’ve grown from

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a teen to a young adult with a college degree and a full time job.”29 Seeing the community as a source of stability and an enduring interest, not something to be abandoned come adulthood, was mirrored in others’ reactions, too. During the 2019 Project for Awesome livestream, John commented on Nerdfighters’ loyalty to the community, noting the meaningfulness of their continued involvement as they moved from youth to maturity. The YouTube channel at the center of the community was created by two white men with nuclear families and even pets whose names became known to viewers, and certainly, there are indications that their race and culture have near emblematic status in the popular imagination. In 2018, Hank discovered an old image of him via a “ ‘White People’ . . . Twitter GIF search”; the dancing meme, he reported, was the third one in the search results.30 The brothers’ race, their whiteness, often frames the way the channel and its viewers are perceived, an element of the media formation that cannot be dismissed. At the same time that it can be hard to find evidence of Nerdfighters’ racial and ethnic diversity beyond inferring it from the global audience for the Greens’ media, those who speak out on race explain the cultural and systemic difficulties inherent in attempting to measure and observe this part of the community, regardless of its relative size. Although the community has a declared commitment to “lessening inequality” and “supporting marginalized voices,” other indicators simply express the desire to be a community that welcomes people regardless of their identity, appearance, or other facets of self or personhood not usually leading to inclusion.31

­ frican-­American YouTuber (Ahsante the Artist) who is an Ahsante Bean, an A

editor and program manager for video strategy with the Poynter Institute, is a signature voice on Nerdfighteria and race and someone who presents, clearly and persuasively, the reasons that Nerdfighteria must include race in its conversations about itself and in the issues it wants to address in the larger world. She urged that race and racism be confronted directly, both by messages conveyed through the brothers’ videos and by the community’s recognition that participation by people like herself felt, almost inherently, risky. Riffing on the community’s mantra in 2015, Ahsante described a lack of attention to racism and racial injustice saying, “They’d been fighting against world suck, but not the world I lived in.”32 In other words, the place she lives and the stories she has

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to tell have not always intersected with the imagined place of Nerdfighteria and the narratives that center it. If Nerdfighteria is created by its participants, her words and those of people commenting on her videos show that its metaphors have been constructed in ways that do not always align with the identities and experiences of ethnically and racially diverse groups. Ahsante has eloquently described the challenges of being visible as a person of color on YouTube, noting that some of her social media statements have resulted in her being targeted by white supremacists. Along with other YouTubers of color, she reports that it is difficult to be visible as part of an online community when your identity draws scrutiny, questions, and hate.33 Whether because the United States is nearing a m ­ inority-­majority population or because of the channel’s avowed interest in inclusiveness, the diversity of Nerdfighteria merits interest from multiple perspectives.34 Hank has acknowledged that diversity is an ongoing concern and that he wants the community to be both a welcoming space and more reflective of the larger world in ­ ake-­up.35 That it is otherwise, he has said, is “frankly disturbing.”36 His its m comments on how VidCon has not recognized “the depth of [black YouTubers’] relationship with their audience, or the sharpness of their opinions or strategies as a creator, or that they were doing truly fascinating things with the medium” suggest an intention of reshaping the broader media formation: “Our failure to discover those things is a failure both to those creators and the community.”37 ­Tenth-­anniversary images that depict a diverse gathering of creators and fans at VidCon 2010 seem like an effort to speak to these recent tensions by portraying the community as one that is inclusive and therefore welcoming.38

At the same time that Hank sees the fragmentation of audience and affinity

groups as intrinsic to contemporary social media, a phenomenon analogous to narrowcasting and therefore something complicating hopes for a more diverse Nerdfighteria, it is a dynamic he and others would like to change.39 Nonetheless, after reading results from the 2014 survey, Hank remarked, “We are not a very diverse group,” an assessment consistently borne out by later Census results.40 His concern was repeated in others’ evaluations of Nerdfighteria and of YouTube more generally, as well as in future commentaries on the Census.41 ­Kligler-­Vilenchik drew on demographic data from the 2014 Census (which received more than 125,000 responses from a subscriber base that then ap-

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proached three million) to show that the community was predominantly under the age of t­ wenty-­t wo, female, and white, data echoed in descriptions of the fan base of the movie version of The Fault in Our Stars as “predominantly women, even as much as 82% female.”42 More recent scholarship has also focused on the 2014 Census, despite the passage of time and accumulation of data.43 The context created by survey research and commentaries on representation, however, suggests we consider that these figures might not be transparent or uncomplicated. Because these descriptors correspond strongly with the attributes of individuals most likely to complete to surveys, and given that the number of Census respondents is small relative to the number of subscribers to the constellation of channels and media where the survey is promoted, we have little way of knowing the extent to which this group reflects Nerdfighteria as a whole. Particularly since the TFiOS effect swelled the number of Vlogbrothers viewers during this time, multiple elements might encourage us to be cautious about using the 2014 figures to represent Nerdfighteria. Hank has indicated that additional data about the channel also counters the Census’s representation of gender, explaining, “The views on Vlogbrothers videos are mostly male, but the people who fill out surveys are mostly female,” which he attributes to women’s tendency to feel “more identified with the community.”44 Whether it is this sense of identity or the dynamics that mean young women are more likely to answer this kind of questionnaire is hard to say definitively.

Elsewhere I have observed that there is more to identity than might be read-

ily visible or apparent to the world, and disability is often one such facet.45 Disability is also an aspect of Nerdfighters’ identity that remains obscured, despite Hank’s many questions. Until the Census of late 2019 and early 2020, when Nerdfighters were first asked if they identified as disabled and, if so, how it affected their relationship with the community and its content, no Nerdfighteria Census questions asked directly about disability.46 Given John’s declared interest in demonstrating what it is like to live with a mental health disorder, particularly the possibility of having a good and full life with this kind of condition—­which he discusses on Vlogbrothers and depicts in Turtles All the Way Down—­this is either a curious omission or one sensitive to the sorts of disclosures Nerdfighters might make. The number of people who live with disabil-

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ities suggests that it is not unlikely that any number of such conditions might factor in Nerdfighters’ lives.47 There are signs elsewhere, though, that Vlogbrothers viewers recognize that people with disabilities are part of the community and that they are accepted and supported.

Nerdfighteria’s orientation to internalized traits, attitudes, and values aligns

with the ideal of thinking inclusively about disability, which is acknowledged through both o ­ pen-­ended comments on the Census and the work of affiliated creators. One channel, for instance, that has recently become a partner in the DFTBA online store is that of Annika Victoria, who produces YouTube videos about sewing, thrifted clothing, and the consequences of a serious health condition, Takayasu’s arteritis, on her daily life. Her online fashion posts began in 2012, and in 2016, she became a ­full-­time YouTuber with merchandise sold via; now her channel reaches “an audience of more than half a million people.”48 She has twice been named a featured creator at VidCon Australia, also appearing as part of a panel with Hank and other YouTubers in 2018.49 She often relies on a wheelchair and, particularly on Instagram, explains everything from the insensitive responses of strangers to the relative ease of getting around Tokyo. On Instagram and Twitter she popularized the hashtag #disabled -andcute and started #babewithamobilityaid as playful yet powerful ways of seeking broader recognition that disability can coexist with youth, attractiveness, and sexuality.50 Her connection with and VidCon creates visibility in this media formation for craft, fashion, and chronic health conditions, framing the social and professional experience of living with disabilities as one of possibility. As an online creator whose work and voice intersects with outlets Nerdfighters go to for products and ideas, Annika adds to the way the community conceptualizes its membership and the larger world.

Disability also emerged as a theme in the 2017 Census, which gave respon-

dents the option of including messages and questions to other Nerdfighters. These ­Nerdfighter-­to-­Nerdfighter (N2N) comments are another space where disabilities and internal struggles are revealed, along with gratitude for the people and things that enable Nerdfighters to manage difficult conditions. The resulting document shows some Nerdfighters’ efforts to deal with depression, anxiety, and chronic illness, although not all embraced the clinical terms for these conditions. Writers described bouts of loneliness and despair. Some con-

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tended with what they characterized as “personal demons,” “family stress,” and “bad things happening in the world.” Others mentioned finding comfort in John and Hank’s videos and in the community itself. One described Nerdfighteria as “a beacon of empathy,” and another wrote, “I just want to say a huge, huge thank you to all of you.” One writer mentioned “the incredible Esther Earl,” who was afflicted by cancer and its treatment until her death at age sixteen in 2010, seeing her as a reminder “that my life should be lived to the fullest.”51 The community and the models that John and Hank themselves provide through their discourse seem to foster hope and determination. This sense of resilience is one more way that cognitive and emotional health conditions are linked to the benefits of social connections, including those forged online. Further, these attitudes complement researchers’ conclusions that reading can enhance ­well-­being.52 In the ­ Nerdfighter-­ to-­ Nerdfighter comments, community members open up about more than disability, whether mental, emotional, or physical. Their words, more than the metrics, reveal the depths of the community. Nerdfighters allude to everything from coming out to falling out with friends over educational rankings and recreational choices. They detail fears created by the current political climate, yet their messages often conclude with affirmations. One writer wanted readers to know “you are valid,” and others encouraged indulgence in contemporary comforts, whether favorite television shows or French fries. At the close of one note a Nerdfighter wrote, “You are good enough. You are not alone. You can make a difference. DFTBA,” echoing a common theme. Both empathy and distress shape the community; as in the larger world, some people need support, and some people offer it.

In addition to assessing personal attributes, prior to 2018, the Census asked

about multiple aspects of media consumption. One clear pattern emerges: Despite their interest in a ­media-­oriented community, Nerdfighters see far less video content than the U.S. national average. Streampunks: YouTube and the Rebels Remaking Media suggests the significance of Hank’s questions about how much time people spend online. If five hours now represents the daily U.S. average for viewing video content, including material produced for online outlets such as YouTube, the couple of hours of viewing reported by Nerdfighters, year after year, is well below U.S. norms.53 In 2017, Hank hypothesized that

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viewers, as they acquired more adult responsibilities, had less time for videos; however, since Vlogbrothers and Crash Course videos are relatively brief, their run time would nonetheless feature strongly in the limited viewing time reported by Census respondents. This aspect of Nerdfighteria’s media use further suggests that even if “users came to YouTube contents by means of referrals—­either from other Internet platforms (blogs, friends, news sites) or from automated referral systems on the YouTube home page,” they are less likely to rely on YouTube’s referral algorithms to find content, once they come to know the channel, and instead focus on material recommended by the community.54 Another divergence from general media habits indicated by Hank’s survey is that Nerdfighters find their online content from sources that include print. In other words, Nerdfighters find the place represented by this channel, and many settle there. What van Dijck observes, however, is otherwise true of Nerdfighteria. At first, many are led to Vlogbrothers videos by referrals from YouTube, other YouTubers, and their friends who are already familiar with the brothers’ work. Mentions in varied places note the ways those paths were formed. One l­ong-­time Nerdfighter told me that he came to Vlogbrothers after hearing it praised on other YouTube channels, a pattern representative of others’ journeys. During one episode of Dear Hank & John, John remarked that Crash Course had “a much broader demographic than we were expecting,” as the series first conceptualized for ­school-­aged viewers gained audiences beyond the primary audience through their relationships with older people: teachers, parents, siblings, and so on.55 Another time, he expanded on this, saying, “There’s lots of adults who watch our videos and listen to our podcasts.”56 It seems, then, that Nerdfighteria’s media use is both created by and reflective of the community’s interests and their roles and identities.

The Greens’ Books Part of what the Census reveals is that within its contours, Nerdfighteria contains a sizable community of readers. John has described librarians and readers of his young adult novels as the initial Vlogbrothers audience, attributing the success of his fiction to YouTube, librarians, and booksellers alike.57 When the channel started, those readers were nowhere near as numerous as they are

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today, when lists of b ­ est-­selling and frequently challenged titles alike regularly feature his work. While the 2013 Census indicated that the most common means of connecting with Nerdfighteria was through YouTube shows produced by the brothers, books featured strongly. Goodreads was then a small but notable mechanism for community information, and “lots of people came to Nerdfighteria through John’s books,” according to Hank. Although this avenue decreased notably by 2016, years after the publication of The Fault in Our Stars the figure remained sizable. John’s 2017 Turtles All the Way Down, however, spent some sixty weeks on the New York Times ­best-­seller list, continuing to appear there in late 2019.58 While readily available book sales data lack the specificity of the Census, what we know about how readers get their books tells us more about who Nerdfighters are. Readers of young adult novels span an age continuum, and the audience for speculative fiction like that written by Hank includes younger readers as well. As might be expected, teens read young adult literature, but data collected in publishing and related fields demonstrate that adults purchase and read at least half of the young adult novels sold.59 Another less commonly noted way of conceptualizing the readers of young adult novels extends this readership. For years, teen librarians have observed that they serve users as young as eleven and that many of those p ­ re-­teen readers are interested in the stories about adolescent life that unfold on the pages of young adult novels. Younger readers want to be seen reading seemingly more sophisticated stories than ones intended for their age group, meaning that they, too, seek out John’s work.60 These larger patterns of novel sales and library use indicate that readers of many ages could be drawn to Nerdfighteria through the brothers’ books. That said, teens were more likely to figure in the surge of interest in Vlogbrothers and Nerdfighteria on social media following The Fault in Our Stars. Both book and movie versions of this story had a wide, international reach. Forbes took note of the movie’s predominantly young, female audience during opening weekend, providing b ­ ack-­of-­the-­napkin calculations to show that the movie would be profitable, even if audience interest was not sustained. While the Forbes writer failed to mention Vlogbrothers, he drew attention to the movie’s origins in a “beloved book” and its appeal to “an audience that already existed,” concluding that “20 million people didn’t stumble onto the trailer on

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YouTube by accident.” Before the summer of 2014 was over, international ticket sales would exceed U.S. revenues, and together these audiences made the movie “easily one of the most profitable titles of 2014.”61 The audiobook version of The Fault in Our Stars also ranked on lists of popular titles, congruent with an overall increase in sales of recorded books.62 The Fault in Our Stars, then, resonated across media formats and Nerdfighteria’s platforms. Its appeal is another signal that Nerdfighters’ interest in stories is stronger than their preference for a particular medium. Hank has acknowledged that John’s success as a writer factored into his own ability to move from nonfiction science to contemporary science fiction. The first public inklings of Hank’s fiction might have been on the stage at the 2016 NerdCon: Stories, when he admitted to losing the text he’d generated ­ ard-­drive crash. While John seemed bafduring NaNoWriMo as the result of a h fled that his younger brother could allow tens of thousands of words to vanish, Hank apparently recovered. When An Absolutely Remarkable Thing was published in 2018, it was marketed to adult, rather than young adult, readers. The American Library Association’s Young Adult Library Services Association has recognized that novels for adults might suit teens, with, for example, its Alex Award, and Hank’s publisher promoted the book to Nerdfighteria, creating a sponsored Facebook post that began, “Calling all Nerdfighters!”63 Hank, too, acknowledged that he wrote the book with his YouTube audience in mind.64 While adult fiction has long been a mainstay of young adult reading, this marketing decision indicates that Nerdfighteria is not, more than a decade after Vlogbrothers began, simply a young teen population.65 Younger readers enjoy the brothers’ fiction, but their largest readership is adults. This conclusion, informed by data about book purchasing and borrowing, augments Census results, suggesting we give more emphasis to Hank’s conclusions about demographic shifts in the community. Nerdfighteria’s bookishness plays a role in its connections as well as its media consumption. In 2017, the Turtles All the Way Down book tour was the most common of the “in real life” Nerdfighter m ­ eet-­ups, as reported by 3,686 people or 7.37 percent of those who answered this Census question.66 The live experience that Nerdfighteria shared was the ­nineteen-­city book tour that ran from October 10 to November 2 of that year, where tickets to the show included

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a signed copy of John’s new novel.67 In 2019, at least one public library in Texas had begun planning onsite book discussions for participants in Life’s Library, a digital subscription book club started by John and his production partner, Rosianna Halse Rojas, earlier that year.68 Collectively, these events and activities reveal the ways that books bring Nerdfighters together in real places as well as digital ones.

Writing the Pod The brothers started their Dear Hank & John podcast in 2015. In this weekly dialogue they read aloud and then respond to letters from listeners seeking advice about any number of often distinctively idiosyncratic dilemmas. As of this writing, more than 216 episodes of the Dear Hank & John podcast have been recorded. John and Hank’s spontaneity, warmth, and humor have generated considerable listener loyalty, as well as a number of inside jokes. If the “intimate” audio format of podcasts is akin to allowing listeners to “hang out with” hosts, then Dear Hank & John affords Nerdfighteria another chance to spend time with the brothers.69

This audience both overlaps with and differs from those for other media cre-

ated by the brothers. As Rebecca Mead observes in her discussion of the rise of podcasts, these audio recordings represent “a new means of reaching demographically targeted consumers,” though at least one Nerdfighter compares listening to podcasts to “the revival of old school radio shows.”70 Further, the podcast also contrasts with the early adopter status the brothers have had on other platforms, as Dear Hank & John began in 2015, a year after the tandem forces of Apple’s podcast app and the popular Serial podcast produced a “podcast boom.”71 In 2018, when the pioneering public radio station WNYC partnered with the Green brothers to produce and distribute Dear Hank & John, no fewer than half a million podcasts were available to listeners. Still, evidence indicates keen listener interest in their effort: by the time the brothers recorded their one hundred and s­ ixty-­fourth episode later that year, listeners had submitted some fifty thousand questions.72 Further, a Wikipedia entry on the podcast points to listings that document Dear Hank & John’s international reach, a feature shared with their other print and new media productions.73

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I wanted to see what the episodes themselves might tell us about the broth-

ers’ correspondents. To do so, I examined transcripts provided by the Nerdfighter transcription project and listened to podcasts that had not been transcribed. I assessed the letters from ­t wenty-­eight episodes (1 through 20 from 2015, and 107 through 110 and 116 through 119 from 2017) for indications of writers’ ages, sorting them into three broad categories: under eighteen, eighteen and over, or no indication of age. If a letter writer mentioned being in high school, for example, the letter was categorized as under eighteen, but if the writer had a job that requires a bachelor’s degree, it was placed in the ­ on-­age-­specific category was used when ­over-­eighteen category. The third, n the descriptors or problem presented in the letter might pertain to someone at any stage of life and lacked further information. Less than half of the letters used in these episodes provide cues about the writer’s ages. While the letters in each episode are a small portion of those submitted to hankandjohn@gmail. com, with perhaps younger writers’ letters less frequently making it into the podcast, John and Hank—­and their occasional guest hosts—­appear to use more letters written by people over eighteen, the legal age of adulthood, which is congruent with other information about podcast listeners. More interesting than the numbers, however, are the comments that offer cues about where Dear Hank & John’s correspondents are from, either geographically or in their lives. Mentions range from Ramadan to Mork and Mindy, and from getting pizza in Sweden to managing kitchen containers in the United States. Writers have raised questions about potential Christmas gifts, mentioned their work on graduate degrees, and described the difficulties of holding down multiple jobs simultaneously. Marriage, children, and blind dates are among the conditions shaping their lives. Math homework is, too. One letter came from someone who had followed Hank’s work beginning with his EcoGeek blog; another expressed anguish about being the oldest attendee at a Nerdfighter event (John assured her she wouldn’t be). The people who share their stories with John and Hank and their listeners evoke a range of lived experiences, unfolding all around the world.

These anecdotes, along with general demographics about podcast listeners

prepared for marketers and advertisers, suggest differences in the audience

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for Dear Hank and John and those on other platforms. Those data indicate that the majority of podcast listeners are adult, male, educated professionals with discretionary income, the inverse of the demographics resulting from the Nerdfighteria Census.74 John and Hank clearly understand that teens aren’t the main audience for the podcast: in 2015, they commented that the Dear Hank & John audience was “mostly adult listeners, they just don’t send in as many questions.”75 This is one instance of how listeners’ behavior stands to make them visible beyond their immediate environs and how what we can observe may obscure substantial, if quieter, engagement.

Complexly and More If Nerdfighteria is an imagined and created space, one that rests upon metaphors and media, it is essential to recognize that these days, Vlogbrothers forms a small, though core, part of the community’s story. The channel that began as the work of two brothers, each with a video camera of his own, has become a vastly more involved undertaking. Hank and John’s additional video projects and products have resulted in the development, not just of prominent and successful educational works like SciShow and Crash Course, but of a video production company that makes these and other series. The company, which returns as the top result in a Google search on the word complexly, announces on its home page, “We are developing a rich idea of ourselves and the world.” It is in the staff at Complexly, and among the hosts and other creators involved in producing this media, that we also see evidence of the diversity of Nerdfighteria.

These efforts, however, continue to be critiqued. Following Ahsante Bean’s

2015 video raising questions about whether Nerdfighteria welcomed participants of diverse backgrounds and expressing concern that recent efforts at representation were limited, a commentator noted, “The one thing that keeps me even slightly invested is that the vlogbrothers have, on occasion, promoted and supported awesome POC youtubers—­i.e., gunnarolla, Akilah, etc.” This viewer objected that “compared to the number of white youtuber friends in that same circle,” these faces and voices are only “a minuscule number.” Yet when the

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brothers hire staff, engage with partners, and recommend other YouTubers to the millions of people who read their books and watch their videos, they align themselves with diverse individuals. Staffing at Complexly and for associated media, programs, and events brings talented individuals together to produce strong, ­high-­profile work. The team includes people of color, like Dr. Danielle Bainbridge, who hosts PBS Digital Studio’s Origin of Everything YouTube show, Jay Smooth on Crash Course Media Literacy, and Andre Meadows, who created the Black Nerd Comedy chan­ rt-­related nel on YouTube and hosted Crash Course Games. Some men work on a productions, and some women work both in front of and behind the camera on science shows. John’s production partner and YouTuber Rosianna Halse Rojas, although not part of the Complexly staff, works on multiple Nerdfighteria projects and has discussed how her Mexican heritage has shaped her interests in books and culture.76 Presenters at events like NerdCon: Stories have included ­self-­described “transgender advocate” Jackson Bird; Dylan Marron, who created “Every Single Word, a video series that edits down popular films to only the words spoken by People of Color,” including TFiOS; and the 2016 Young People’s Poet Laureate, acclaimed novelist Jacqueline Woodson.77 Woodson’s If You Come Softly was the first novel for the collective reading event in Life’s Library. Further, comparison of the Complexly staff in 2012 with the staff in 2019 reflects change.78 One of the most recent endeavors, the Ours Poetica channel on YouTube, regularly features writers of color, whether sharing their own works or favorite poems by other authors. The brothers’ novels and the way John’s books have been translated onto the screen also frame the community’s attitudes toward diversity. Hank’s An Absolutely Remarkable Thing is told by a bisexual protagonist whose girlfriend, as the book begins, is an African American with dreadlocks “in some fancy updo” and a deep weariness—­and wariness—­about expectations that she will speak on behalf of “every black person.”79 John’s An Abundance of Katherines, although nearly its every other facet attracts attention, revolves around an interracial friendship whose principal characters are warmly accepted by each other’s families. The same is true of Paper Towns. While John makes a point of saying that he “does not cast movies,” it nonetheless seems worth noting that when the movie version of The Fault in Our Stars was made, casting transformed

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Hazel’s male general practitioner into a female doctor played by a Hispanic actress.80 Netflix’s movie version of the coauthored Let It Snow novellas further transformed the three interconnected stories to include numerous people of color, interracial relationships, and a budding lesbian romance. John and the other authors who wrote the original stories were excited by this reenvisioning of stories they’d written ten years before, particularly the inclusive ways that love and romance were now depicted.81 These elements of the narratives that matter to Nerdfighters, which include race without always being about race, represent earnest efforts to create a more inclusive vision of the community and its canon.

Choices To understand Nerdfighteria as a community means seeing the traits and figures that describe its members in dialogue with its values and interests. Clusters of viewers, listeners, and readers emerge because, as John once said, “Online communities are a place where I can get really excited about stuff that not many people in my real life get excited about.” He found not only shared passions but media formations of “people . . . who were also making really interesting creative work in response to the stuff that I could also appreciate and participate in.”82 While sharing his interests with people he wouldn’t otherwise meet is his focus, I want to draw attention to the word place in this account of the value of communities that meet online. This word, especially its recurrence throughout so many descriptions of this community, suggest that the particularities of where community members begin, coupled with the affordances and the limitations of platforms, transforms the online world into a place that reflects and shares members’ intentions of interacting in specific ways. The resulting media formations reveal the way people invested in particular kinds of creative work come together to share and celebrate that work. For Nerdfighters, stories are central to those interactions. Because one can read and enjoy a book like Looking for Alaska or An Absolutely Remarkable Thing or view a Vlogbrothers video without developing a stake in the community, thinking of oneself as a Nerdfighter means something more than consuming texts created by John and Hank. The choices Nerdfighters

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make extend from expressions of identity to locus or place; they decide, as they enter Nerdfighteria, which sites within it they want to become parts of their world. They also choose how their places and identity will be represented in Nerdfighteria. This might mean how (or even if) they construct avatars that represent their participation in online outposts of Nerdfighteria or whether they—­as the vast majority of YouTube viewers do—­prefer to observe without commentary or activity that would make their engagement visible to others on the internet.83 It has to do with whether they want to (or can) respond to the Nerdfighteria Census. It could also be reflected in a decision to join a local Nerdfighter group and whether that entity marks its existence on the digital map revealing where Nerdfighteria exists in the world. Because the conditions affecting people’s s­ elf-­disclosure remain largely opaque, what we can know about Nerdfighteria’s ­make-­up, particularly its potential diversity, remains limited. When a Road to Nerdfighteria video by an ­African-­American artist and Nerdfighter generates a discussion about the discomfort of being “the only black person in the room,” we learn, however, that more effort is required to make the ideals and aspirations of inclusiveness a shared reality.84

Synthesizing information about the audiences for multiple media products

hints at the complexity of Nerdfighteria’s demographics. Inevitably, limitations on how we might enumerate and describe the community arise, despite use of composite sources, in part because the shape of online communities is, as Murray commented in her study of the digital literary sphere, “always mutating.”85 While the audience profile—­the average age, gender, or nationality—­differs by medium or platform, what seems unvarying and unifying are the values and ideals of the community. Nerdfighters’ passions include reading and the enjoyment of narratives, along with working together to support global change and charitable giving.


| Connections, Commerce, and Philanthropy

Living—­and Reading—­in a Material World It is undeniable that multiple facets of Nerdfighteria are entwined with money. Books are both commercial and artistic objects, and although Nerdfighteria is not confined to a single platform, for media environments like YouTube, the number of viewers, the number of minutes they watch, and related aspects of consumption factor into creator revenues. Relationships exist between major publishers and the entities behind YouTube and the activities it fosters, such as VidCon, now owned by ViaCom, which had acquired Simon & Schuster earlier in its corporate history.1 André Schiffrin, as have others, presents the case for understanding “what was being published . . . and what new ideas, whether in fiction or nonfiction,” emerge or fail to emerge because of these kinds of ownership changes in publishing.2 Further, in addition to engaging with digital and textual sites, Nerdfighters have, for as long as the community existed, gathered for book tours, conventions, and related m ­ eet-­ups, endeavors requiring no small monetary or logistical commitment. This chapter examines the commercial media environment surrounding Nerdfighteria and what we should understand about how money accrues from Nerdfighteria’s interest in narratives and community. Nerdfighteria doesn’t naively accept or reject the terms of contemporary digital engagement. It negotiates relationships with the monetary systems of the larger world in ways that involve members’ attentional and emotional resources. This attentional economy, or one where revenue is generated by using ­platform-­based content, is redirected and translated into benefits for others. Two key tensions shape this subject, but a third voice, with its mitigating values, eases what could be a fraught discussion. First, because commodification and affective labor, or the way fans’ feelings translate into actions that enhance a brand, are consistent themes in scholarly research on fandom, an anticipato-

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ry history of an online community of readers and viewers must respond to critical concerns about whether Nerdfighteria’s shared enthusiasms are innocent or exploited.3 Then, in recent years, we have also seen increasing questions about what users surrender in exchange for access to the social media platforms that enable their friendly exchanges and enjoyment of online content.4 I would argue that the framework of the “double economy” conceptualized in Lewis Hyde’s The Gift, which acknowledges that art and ideals may motivate transactions or even require commerce for survival, offers insights into how Nerdfighteria negotiates tensions inherent in the larger, enabling systems that factor into its environment.5

Hyde’s concerns about values are intrinsic to how Nerdfighteria works, be-

cause it developed as a place where feelings and creativity matter. Hyde expresses considerable reservations about whether art, understood as fine arts and literature, can exist in a world where it is bought and sold like any other commodity. As he asks, “How, if art is essentially a gift, is the artist to survive in a society dominated by the market?”6 Here, although both terms refer to making as a means of expression, we replace artist with creator, the preferred term for people who make online media, regardless of distribution platform. Further, many online creators also produce artistic material in other forms, whether books or merchandise, made attractive through the work of graphic artists, yet another way that aesthetics and expression factor in digital microsystems. Where Hyde rather reluctantly concedes that “the gift exchange and the market need not be wholly separate spheres” and that “the boundary is permeable,” enabling “trade between the two spheres,” Nerdfighteria’s answer to this conundrum, in part, is to recognize that money accrues from creative work, whether novels or YouTube videos, and to make a gift of it to others.7 Instead of allowing commerce to detach art and values, other values, including individuals’ agency, are brought into the conversation, reshaping its terms.

We can see this in the community’s early link with the ­Chicago-­based Beck-

onings of Lovely. These events, which brought strangers together in a spirit of benevolence and goodwill, may have helped to inspire Nerdfighteria’s collective support for microfinancing, the Project for Awesome charity fundraiser, the Bank of Nerdfighteria, and other charitable endeavors. There are both commercial and nonprofit entities affiliated with Nerdfighteria, like Complexly’s

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merchandise outlet,, and the Foundation to Decrease World Suck, which are also part of this picture. Despite these varied elements, a few governing conditions are clear: First, YouTubers do not have full control over the ability to make money from their channels. That said, Nerdfighteria’s shared fiscal practices are increasingly oriented toward funding for charities, along with ensuring that the individuals who support the content on which the community thrives earn a living wage. These aims, in tandem with a larger, commercial media market, result in a complex environment. To understand it, we might remember that this is the kind of world that authors and books have long occupied.

Darnton has demonstrated that popular access to books has almost always

depended on multiple kinds of work, not all of them involving higher motives. He has outlined how, in earlier times, a network of operations among loosely coordinated individuals brought the words of authors to their audiences. Books, he writes, “written by authors who belonged to an international republic of letters,” depended on the efforts of “printers who did not work in their native tongue, sold by booksellers who operated across national boundaries, and read in one language by readers who spoke another.”8 This pattern persists as the Greens’ work reaches across borders and other boundaries.

What follows is a glimpse at newer, contemporary means that bring books to

readers and provide videos to viewers, an essential part of the anticipatory history of how stories are shared in the ­t wenty-­first century. Instead of tracing the international republic of letters, we now illuminate the culture of connectivity.9 At the same time that its elements sustain creators, the surrounding community, and the causes they embrace, much of the essential, b ­ ehind-­the-­scenes work does not directly lead to the narratives that orient their interests. This work makes Nerdfighteria’s reading and sharing possible, and it offers perspective on what it means to share words, books, and videos.

Revenues for Online Creators How the Vlogbrothers YouTube channel and a more recent partnered project, the Dear Hank & John podcast, became outlets capable of generating revenue, along with the challenges of making money this way and where this money goes, represents an entry point for understanding the economics surrounding

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Nerdfighteria. Hank has observed that YouTube is one of few online outlets that pays creators for their content.10 The Vlogbrothers channel, then, operates on a platform that has committed to sharing its earnings, even if it does so imperfectly, with the people who bring viewers to its site. Especially since the Project for Awesome grew out of Vlogbrothers and plays out primarily on YouTube, it would be all but impossible to separate content that sustains livelihoods from that which generates funds for charity. The development from the channel’s Brotherhood 2.0 identity to its more contemporary iteration is relevant to this discussion. Importantly, that history includes the move from daily videos and sporadic attention to charitable causes to fewer videos and more sustained giving.

Not every annual event that focuses on goodwill, however, relates directly to

funds and fundraising. Esther Day, for example, celebrated each August 3, remembers Esther Earl on her birthday by celebrating a sort of caritas, or abiding ­ ouTube-­based love for family and friends.11 That said, Nerdfighteria’s major Y events include the livestreamed Project for Awesome (P4A) and the annual return to daily video releases during Pizzamas, both of which drive funding to charitable nonprofit entities. Gatherings like VidCon, where it is part of a larger gathering of YouTubers, and the s­ hort-­lived NerdCon and PodCon, grow out of and reflect the audience for Vlogbrothers yet take place in cities rather than online. Each of these events has different monetary implications and with them, constraints on participation, yet reflects connections between the real world and literary and online culture. Among the resources describing how one might earn a living via YouTube, Lucy Moon, herself a sophisticated videographer whose eponymous channel has made her a ­well-­regarded fashion and lifestyle creator, offers a cogent, contemporary overview that structures the discussion that follows. She notes the existence of multiple potential revenue sources for YouTubers, each with its own advantages and drawbacks.12 Some apply to new media content on different platforms as well. Importantly, the model she describes rests on intermediation, or creating and distributing content across platforms and media outlets and accounts for much of what Hank and John have done over the years. It is an approach that recognizes, at least tacitly, statistics showing young people’s reading occurs “with the simultaneous other use of other media.”13

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Her overview of strategies involved in making a living on YouTube, versus simply making YouTube videos, doesn’t address demonetization and related threats to a creator’s income, which Hank has discussed.14 Demonitization, the loss of advertising revenue because the platform’s algorithm determines that content might be controversial or inappropriate, can afflict creators unexpectedly. It is a problem, by way of example, that Annika Victoria encountered after sharing a “DIY Satin Shorts” sewing video as part of her Make Thrift Buy series, indicating that platform algorithms that flag content may be as likely to target creators unfairly as they are to uncover intended content. (Not infrequently, YouTubers who find themselves targeted by algorithms and policies take their case to social media, letting their viewers know what has happened in hope that a community will mount a pressure campaign for redress.)15 A different sort of demonetization occurs when a copyright holder claims revenues from a video that makes use of their intellectual property.16 On the whole, however, Moon provides an effective guide to how YouTube can make money for creators, including authors, who share their work via this platform. The ways John and Hank have responded to these dynamics often parallel the conclusions Moon has formed about doing business via new media, and John’s 2015 discussion of YouTube ad revenues anticipated some of its elements.

The first and perhaps most usual way YouTubers make money is through pre-

roll and midroll ads, which appear before a video starts or part way through, interrupting the narrative arc with commercial content. Although these ads’ placement resembles that of commercial television advertising, YouTube ads don’t pay for content in the same way. Moon pronounced advertising “really unreliable,” and the brothers have stated the same opinion repeatedly throughout their online careers. It takes a substantial number of views to realize income from ads, and Moon observed that the ­so-­called Adpocalypse of 2017, when advertisers withdrew from YouTube after their brands were aligned with questionable and even disturbing content, further destabilized this revenue stream for creators. Hank once stated that he “started paying [his] bills with YouTube money around the time [he] hit a million views” and that a regular monthly viewership of one hundred thousand yields “about $2,500.”17 It should be observed that these concerns about pay from advertising are not universal. Despite the difficulties of funding through ads based on viewer counts, for example, oth-

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er online creators discuss the importance of news coverage and press interviews in providing publicity that could bring more viewers and listeners to their work.18 The shortcomings of these evolving revenue systems can leave YouTubers feeling disadvantaged by the way their content is assessed for its earning potential. Some creators’ descriptions of how they realize income from YouTube ads suggest that while media and scholarly portrayals of prominent online personalities focus on their power, the mechanisms YouTubers rely on for visibility and income can leave their peers, particularly new or smaller creators, financially vulnerable. Moon argues that for advertising to serve as a creator’s sole source of revenue would mean more videos with glittery c­ lick-­bait, rather than the thematic content on which people like her have built their channels. In 2015, John claimed that “even though our subscribers and views have grown ­ten-­fold in the last three years, less than twenty percent of our company’s revenue comes from advertising.”19 He elaborated on the channel’s move away from conceptualizing ads as a revenue stream: It used to be that most of our income came from, or a lot of our income, came from ads, but we’ve found that it’s just such an inefficient way to support YouTube creators and it ultimately . . . introduces . . . someone into the conversation who I don’t really want to be in the conversation. And so we’ve found other ways . . . to make a living, and now all the ad revenue from Vlogbrothers just goes to support educational projects and to the charity The Foundation to Decrease World Suck.20

Around the same time, Hank compared advertising with other models for funding digital content that seem more likely to result in innovative, ­high-­quality content.21 The shift, however, has yet to occur, and advertising on YouTube and other platforms prevails, despite these and other critiques. When Vlogbrothers gained sufficient viewer statistics to begin earning money from ads some years into its production run, John and Hank asked Nerdfighters how they would feel about the presence and the potential uses of ad revenues.22 The results of that survey led the brothers to begin reinvesting those gains in new video productions and in charitable contributions.23 Some money that comes from the community’s subscriptions and attention to videos, then,

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helps to create more content, a practice now extended to other creators through annual grants.

For some time, the challenges inherent in revenue streams for online media

have led John and Hank to joke about funding, imagining potential sponsors for their work. As a result, one theme of their podcasts has been its fake sponsors, which have included death, the “Orlando Solar Bears, a defunct international hockey team from the 1990s,” “Your Thirties,” and “Reading Too Much Kerouac,” in addition to real corporate entities that don’t actually sponsor the show. While the Dear Hank & John podcast has since acquired genuine sponsorships—­a move that listeners were asked about in advance, before Audible, an Amazon company that sells recorded books, became one of the first real corporate backers—­Moon indicates that the prevailing reality, for many creators, is that a sponsor’s money is not always an asset.24 A sponsored post, a brand deal or “spon” in the language of the terrain, typically offers what she describes as a “large lump sum” payment in exchange for an endorsement. Yet there is “risk every time you do a sponsored post,” she observed, because audiences could “lose trust” if endorsements overtake other content or if the deal is not congruent with a channel’s values and themes. Now, as new technology and production techniques mean that ads can be joined to content algorithmically instead of integrated into podcast content, further dissociation and artifice enter the relationship between content and the promotions that help make it feasible.25 John has indicated that the brothers consider these issues, admitting, “We’ve made . . . mistakes along the way.”26 Choices that prioritize revenue over a creator’s own voice and content could “damage the relationship between YouTuber and the audience,” Moon explains.

Despite reports that a ­high-­profile celebrity like Kylie Jenner earns as much

as a million dollars per sponsored Instagram post and that someone “with 100,000 followers can command $5,000 for a post made in partnership with a company or brand,” there are barriers to making money this way.27 This type of marketing remains something of a novelty, regardless of the growth in social media audiences. Most YouTubers and Instagram personalities with significant audiences recognize the value that their viewership represents and charge accordingly; yet, Moon says, many companies don’t have a marketing budget for

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this type of placement. Moon indicates that another problem is time. Reaping the rewards of these deals can take a year and a half, she said, thus making them l­ong-­range rather than immediate means of sustaining one’s work. Further, too many sponsored posts can make it hard for a creator to control the brand.28 It would seem, then, that potential sponsors that align with the channel’s ethos and offer sufficient rewards for creators are not necessarily abundant, but even if there were more, creators with a firm sense of purpose and audience might hesitate to draw on them. These factors certainly figure in the abundant jokes on Dear Hank & John about products from Snickers to green Sharpie pens. Affiliate links, when a video’s description (or ­doobly-­doo, in l­ong-­standing Vlogbrothers patois) recommends a product, pay the referring YouTuber if viewers purchase products through that link. “For some, it’s a huge source of income,” Moon said, before noting that if a channel’s audience has limited disposable income, this revenue mechanism will not yield the creator much financial support. The brothers are not known for using affiliate links, except for their own books. While they link, sometimes prolifically, in conjunction with a video, most often those referrals are to information resources rather than to external commercial entities.

Given that researchers argue that brands benefit more than fans from sales

other than for a movie ticket or a book, Moon’s assessment of the value of merchandise, a fourth revenue source, is significant. She asserts that most YouTubers sell “merch,” and she acknowledges that it “can be very lucrative,” although profits can vary considerably because of the time needed for product development, the cost of materials, and ­profit-­sharing when a creator outsources production or sales. In the end, Moon concludes that it is “hard to make good merch,” not least because of the challenge of producing things that people actually want. Hank and John have indicated that branded merchandise offers more returns for a YouTuber than do many other options. Hank has encouraged those who “want to support a YouTube creator” to “buy their things.” He emphasizes, however, that viewers should prioritize their own financial security over supporting the channel in this way.

In this context, it is useful to recognize that the online platform,,

which sells products such as T­ -­shirts, posters, postcards, and pencils for the

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Green brothers and “more than eighty” other authors, creators, and shows, is a multifaceted operation.29 The associated physical space, the DFTBA warehouse, even has its own YouTube channel, and the brothers sometimes highlight the availability of goods, like their books and those of other authors.30 and its r­ eal-­world warehouse, though, are not the sole sources of ­Nerdfighteria-­themed merch. At the same time that the physical and online infrastructure exists to promote Vlogbrothers merchandise, the Greens neither copyright nor trademark protect the Nerdfighteria terms and images on those products. Much like the community’s norms mean that anyone who wishes can be a Nerdfighter, anyone who wants can make their own fan apparel rather than buying it. The brothers have discussed their decision not to license key elements of the community’s visual and verbal vocabulary and their intention of allowing Nerdfighters to create their own media without restrictions, a sharp contrast with many major media companies’ efforts to “define what types of merchandise might be considered fannish.”31 In an unrelated context, John has argued that “I don’t think art exists for only one reason, or that a work of art should seek to serve only one master.”32 His statement further opens the door to the possibilities of how people might perceive and reinvent his work to their own ends. If readers want to wear words uttered by one of his characters or during one of the brothers’ videos or podcasts, they can do so without a commercial commitment to the creators whose media they admire. This possibility demonstrates the further resonance of gift culture in Nerdfighteria, the idea that evocative themes and memes become the community’s property. The virtues of books and music—­both of which Hank and John developed independently, rather than as an effort to promote their channel—­include advances from publishers and royalties.33 Moon characterized these extensions of YouTube creators’ work as “time consuming” yet with the potential for “enormous rewards,” not least because these media can develop audiences beyond extant viewers. She also discussed the point at which it can be advantageous for YouTubers who start their own companies to crystalize their channel’s themes and purposes, and in this vein, Complexly is now a ­well-­established offshoot of the Vlogbrothers channel. Hank once described the Complexly endeavor by saying, “I have this company that aims to celebrate nerdy things in the world by

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taking them off the internet for a little time and into the real world.”34 That business and its relationship to other incorporated entities he has created reflect the evolving nature of the shows and products, along with the philosophy that guides their production.35 It also, apparently, represents an ideal of a financially sustainable online creator’s career.

Moon mentions fan funding, or regular contributions through an entity like

Patreon, as an alternative that can provide, among other benefits, stability. The intersection with Hank and John’s work is clear, given their inception of Subbable, a funding source that did just this and which was acquired, in turn, by Patreon. Moon regards this approach as a strong option, despite Patreon’s repeated recent attempts to restructure its fees and service costs, first in November 2017 and again in spring 2019. Moon noted that most YouTubers don’t simply profit from monthly contributions; they also typically make more content to reward financial contributors. Patreon supporters of Dear Hank & John—­where the entry point is a dollar per month, which goes to pay interns and production staff—­get access to a monthly h ­ alf-­hour livestream with the brothers and occasional posts of related content, like images discussed in a podcast. Other perks are reserved for those who contribute higher amounts. Dear Hank & John, however, is by most metrics successful; a recent ranking of P ­ atreon-­supported podcasts listed it as ­thirty-­eighth in backing gained.36

According to Moon, appearances at conventions or independent tours (such

as the one undertaken in 2019 by Dr. Lindsey Doe’s Sexplanations channel) provide another funding mechanism for creators striving to turn their channels into businesses. She notes that while audiences pay to attend these events because they want more direct contact with creators whose ideas and personae they normally experience only through short, ­on-­screen episodes, the task of making the experience a rewarding one for them is no small commitment. While Hank has seen both success and failure in organizing these types of events, Nerdfighters’ responses to gatherings like NerdCon and PodCon tend to be positive. As one person wrote in the 2017 ­Nerdfighter-­to-­Nerdfighter comments, “Attending NerdCon: Nerdfighteria was the highlight of my 2017.” In some ways, this comment suggests that while Moon has focused on the interaction between creators and consumers, the ­real-­world events of Nerdfighteria de-

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pend, too, on how community members engage with one another through these opportunities. The implications of this dynamic, that the community helps to sustain its interactions, matters in other areas as well.

Participation Nerdfighteria has been involved with a long and varied list of charitable efforts over the years, and the examples that follow highlight the directions of Nerdfighters’ compassion and advocacy before the brothers and the community became aligned more fixedly with the Project for Awesome. While some of these activities continue and new ones emerge, P4A has acquired an increasingly central role in Nerdfighteria’s philanthropy. Although much reporting and scholarship focuses on the amounts garnered through the community’s fundraising, it is also important to see these activities as communal. These efforts implement the values embedded in the brothers’ books and stories, and they can be seen as a form of reader response that reveals how the community understands the places where we live. Early in Vlogbrothers’ history, viewers contributed funds to help another Nerdfighter, identified as Shawn in the channel’s videos of the era, work with children in Bangladesh.37 John characterized the work undertaken by Shawn and Save the Children, with whom the former had some collaboration, as “profoundly difficult and complex,” a situation where money mattered tremendously but was insufficient to solve what might seem like a ­ ll-­too-­evident problems. He noted that it was too easy to end up “[thinking] that the poor are in some way fundamentally different from us” and indicated that reframing our perspective on poverty, particularly poverty in distant and unfamiliar places, was an essential part of activities like Shawn’s.38 Contemporaneously, the group was supporting microlending in developing nations through In 2008, not long after the Kiva project began, John created a video titled “How to Be a Microfinancier” in which he estimated that Nerdfighters had “loaned more than $1,400,000 to entrepreneurs in the developing world”; by 2015, that figure had grown to more than four million dollars.39 Two years later, the tally had more than doubled, and all indications are that Nerdfighters maintain their efforts in

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this arena.40 Attention to the needs of people in developing nations, then, has historically been part of Nerdfighteria’s ­community-­based charitable work and continues to figure in its current activities.

In 2010, support for the Harry Potter Alliance’s bid for a grant from the Pep-

si corporation involved advocacy rather than direct contributions.41 A summer 2014 Nerdfighteria Newsletter provided an overview of multiple additional fundraising efforts, like “The Nerdfighteria group on Tab for a Cause” with “2,500 nerdfighters” joining and opening “more than 6 million [Internet browser] tabs in their Tabbing lifetimes.” The newsletter’s author, Valerie Barr, concluded, “Rough estimate, but they probably raised over $5,000 for charity!”42 Like others who rally a community on behalf of a cause, she observes that many small actions, taken together, have a significant and powerful effect. Nerdfighteria was also invited to vote to determine which team the brothers would support in that year’s World Cup by contributing to Sarcoma Foundation of America through the Foundation to Decrease World Suck. The newsletter estimated that ­ ind-­blowingly amazing” and “Over $100,000 has been raised so far, which is m reminds its readers that “100% of donations raised will be given to the SFA.” Additionally, AFC Wimbledon began to benefit from ad revenue from John’s online ­g ame-­playing videos, the prelude to his status as an official sponsor of this ­fan-­owned English soccer club.43 These activities, it might be said, are in addition to any more local needs individual Nerdfighters respond to through donations or volunteering. Some newer initiatives invest in the community of educational YouTubers, who may or may not consider themselves part of Nerdfighteria. The brothers began offering small grants to newer educational YouTubers. Beginning in 2015, these sponsorships went to “help creators make awesome things.”44 As many as sixteen creators were awarded funding annually, with a span of topics that included psychology and physics and work from at least some ­non-­English language creators. Funding that supports this project is intrinsically linked to the brothers’ existing audiences, and publicity around the grants bring these creators to Nerdfighters’ attention.

Despite this history, the Project for Awesome can easily be seen as the apex

of Nerdfighteria’s charitable activities. Now described as a ­“ telethon-­style online fundraiser,” the P4A has existed, in different forms and with different

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goals, since 2007.45 Its duration, its fundraising, and its numerous participants would be notable in any context. It both represents the efforts of a dedicated community and brings more people to it. As John and more than one P4A livestream commenter have mentioned, P4A advocacy videos appearing on YouTube’s front page have enabled some people to find Nerdfighteria. Its constants and its evolution represent a core part of the community’s history, and the presence of groups like the Harry Potter Alliance and National Novel Writing Month among the awardees is just one way that the community’s interests in books and stories are reflected in this annual event.46 In the initial iteration, P4A videos promoted charities, rather than raising money for them, and the event was about interacting as an online community. Although its origins have been labeled a “somewhat rebellious ‘take over’ ” of “YouTube’s front page for a day” because of Hank’s 2007 launch video, the aim, more pragmatically, was to use the site’s own algorithms to populate YouTube’s home page with content endorsing charities, a visible extension of the community’s interest in bringing about positive change in the world.47 At the same time, Kyle Barr explained, “Because, initially, every video that was uploaded as part of the project had the same thumbnail” or cover art, the idea of “taking over YouTube” was a lot more literal back then.”48 Hank called the first of these events, on December 17, 2007, the “Secret Project Day! Welcome to the 2007 Nerdfighter Power Project for Awesome,” but in subsequent years, “secret” and “power” would be dropped from the name, a step toward the P4A that many readers and viewers know and support today.49

Different technologies and platforms organize and create each P4A. In 2008,

for example, “P4A was organized via mailing list and a blog.”50 When it existed, the Nerdfighter Ning also supported event preparations. YouTube has not always enabled what we see today, and the oldest of the P4A livestreams happened in 2009, before it was possible to record and preserve live video on this platform.51 In 2011, that livestream recordings became possible, though occasionally glitches interfere with preserving the full ­forty-­eight hours of activity.52 It seems likely, then, that P4A could continue to change as technology changes and as the community’s story changes. The initial P4As brought a dispersed Nerdfighter community together on YouTube for a short but intense period of interaction to achieve a common

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goal—­visibility for their messages about improving the world around them, regardless of their geographic locations. The event has always required logistical planning, particularly after its run time expanded. Within two years, P4A went from one to two days; in 2009, John characterized it as “48 hours . . . of fun.” As Kyle explained, “The plan was for everyone to upload videos, everyone watches everyone else’s videos, and everyone likes or comments on all the other videos, and then all of YouTube’s various lists (most liked, most viewed, most commented, whatever else) are entirely P4A.” Vlogbrothers videos indicated the timing of uploads and provided other directions, like strategies to heighten the visibility of P4A videos to ensure maximum effect.53 In 2007, making P4A videos was conceptualized as involving “seeding these videos with questions” that viewers could respond to in comments, facilitating the commenting process that would trigger the platform’s algorithms.54 John’s 2009 directions to Nerdfighters expressed it this way: The Project for Awesome is an annual tradition in which lots of people make videos for the charities they care about, and then lots of other people rate and favorite and comment on those videos over and over and over again, so that for one day, the most popular videos on YouTube [are] . . . about decreasing world suck.

While P4A dates are now announced well in advance and its artwork and online media reflect a strategic infrastructure, in the first few years the dates might be announced three weeks or less before the event.55 The once brief horizon for creating P4A videos makes its effects and sustainability all the more notable.

For the first few years of its existence, P4A did not do the very thing that most

coverage of it now sees as its essence: raising real money for charities. A gradual change in P4A’s workings augmented the project’s focus on visibility and connection with generating financial support for charities as well. As Kyle Barr explained, “While the 2009 P4A didn’t have fundraising, there were some direct donations.” He quoted archived content from that year that told the community: “Some YouTubers have pledged to give to the charity portrayed in their favorite video of the year.”56 The emphasis shifted further during the next few years. Kyle outlined the trajectory toward significant fundraising, now the hallmark of P4A: “In 2010, they added a PayPal you could donate to, and the funds would

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be disbursed to charities by voting. This was also the year they introduced rewards, in the form of a raffle. In 2011, they used eBay for the rewards. In 2012, the raffle became the Indiegogo campaign, which it’s been ever since.”57 The transformation of P4A into an event that provides tens of thousands of dollars in small grants, along with larger contributions to designated groups including Partners in Health, Last Mile Health, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), resulted from changes in technology as well as community size and goals. By 2015, P4A had raised $1.2 million through thousands of video uploads and “21,000 different donors”; a year later, the amount raised came to “more than $2.1 million,” and the upward trend in contributions has been sustained in part by large amounts that match, sometimes multiply, the pledges of numerous small donors from around the world.58 The combination of P4A contributions and matching funds came to $5.8 million during the fi ­ ve-­year period that ended in 2016.59 In 2019, a highly successful fundraising year, P4A was able to increase how much it contributed to Partners in Health. Nerdfighters’ ability to dominate YouTube, even for a couple of days, is no longer as straightforward as it once was, so raising funds and awareness through the platform is now more challenging and involves multiple social media platforms. Maia Ledesma explained that, “Nerdfighteria had a lot more influence on YouTube in 2013.”60 Kyle Barr outlined that dynamic this way: “Even though Nerdfighteria was a lot smaller back then, YouTube was (proportionally) even smaller, at least compared to today. It probably only took a few hundred views to get a video trending back then.” With ever more uploads—­four hundred hours of content are uploaded to YouTube every minute, according to 2019 estimates—­and viewers, P4A has become part of a much larger online environment. Further, we now see competing claims about how the platform’s algorithms work and whether they direct users toward certain kinds of content, adding to the challenge of making P4A as visible there as it once was.61 Nonetheless, P4A and the charitable giving it inspires endure more than a decade after it was first conceptualized.

In subsequent years, Hank has offered ideas about how to make P4A videos,

informing and shaping newer creators’ ability to communicate with audiences both during the fundraiser and afterward. Hank sees the people who make P4A

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videos as possessing skills and the potential to effect change by using communications strategies and technologies effectively: “For one day a year, you become the ad agency and production house for a nonprofit that can’t probably afford to have its own,” he told Vlogbrothers viewers, offering advice about how to do this well. Cautions about time led his advice: “You always want to respect the time of your audience, so pack information in and make it entertaining and make every second count.” He also told creators that they must consider an audience’s perspective, asking themselves, “What do I want people to feel when they’re watching this video?” Another dimension of ­audience-­centered production, one particularly suited to Nerdfighteria, was the mandate to “try to be different.” Because “getting people to watch online video is hard,” Hank concluded by reminding people that they would have to tell others about their videos and encourage them to watch and vote for the charity it endorsed.62 This advice video, clocking just short of three minutes and f­orty-­five seconds, essentially serves as an overview of how he and his brother shape their digital content. His guidance effectively constitutes a tutorial on the Greens’ highly successful house style for telling stories online and sharing information in ways that a community will find meaningful. The focus on audience continues during the digital livestream. During the event, Nerdfighters contribute to the funds that the Foundation provides to nonprofit entities by contributing monetarily to P4A or by giving their time and attention to the YouTube videos that others share to advocate for funding. The brothers and other hosts remind viewers that audiences for P4A videos, who react to what they see and hear, are essential to the event.63 In a 2019 video, though, Hank acknowledged rumblings that some Nerdfighters nonetheless felt alienated by seeing others’ giving, despite messages that participation is inherently valuable.64

Online Nerdfighter events like P4A now operate in tandem with the irrever-

ently named Foundation to Decrease World Suck, the nonprofit entity created by the brothers to manage and distribute money that Nerdfighters raise for charity.65 The Foundation operated informally until 2012, when it “was incorporated . . . and was designated a 501(c)3 charitable organization by the IRS on January 23, 2013” (2012 was also the year in which contributors began matching funds contributed by small donors).66 Following voting, viewing, and board review for

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congruence with the community’s goals, the Foundation allocates funds raised by Nerdfighters to selected charitable organizations.67 The amounts given by the declaredly nonpolitical Foundation have varied from year to year, reflecting contributions during P4A.68 The corresponding Bank of Nerdfighteria, which John describes as “the giving arm” of the Foundation, is a more metaphorical entity.69 The multiyear existence of the Bank of Nerdfighteria is part of Nerdfighters’ educated involvement with digital media and the practices that raise money based on attention and affection, rather than naive consumption of media or simple acquiescence to the ideas espoused by popular figures. The Greens’ fundraising connects digital platforms and real places, much like narratives do. The resulting environment is replete with the language of Nerdfighteria itself, with events named for individuals known only within the community and themes unlikely to have much resonance beyond it. With revenues from ­Pizzamas-­themed merchandise going to Partners in Health (PIH), and P4A’s proceeds distributed to designated nonprofits, including PIH and others Nerdfighters vote for, these activities reflect coalescence around and between giving and community.

Recently, a prominent columnist for the New York Times argued that online

culture erodes civic life and genuine human feeling, replacing kindness with commerce. Goodwill, he would have us believe, is entirely absent from online communities. He goes so far as to contend that “Attention and affection have gone from being private bonds to being publicly traded goods.”70 Scholars, too, have dismissed fans’ engagement as part of a “reputational economy” and a kind of “competitive popularity.”71 These responses to online activities, particularly those that stem from interest in a w ­ ell-­known person’s advocacy, seem unduly cynical and unaware of the ethos of Nerdfighteria as well as of Hyde’s assessments of the role of gifts. While it is impossible to speak for the motivations of every individual in a community, the sustained online conversations and commitments that deploy resources and attention to solving problems counter these writers’ critiques of online culture and fandom. I would argue that this difference results, in part, from a sense of place as a shared way of thinking about Nerdfighteria and what it represents, together with the community’s mutual investment in the stories that drew them together.

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Journeys and Memories Susan Orlean has written that when she was young, her family held the opinion that “The reading of the book was the journey. There was no need for souvenirs.”72 Book tours and other facets of Nerdfighteria, however, take the opposite perspective: both the experience and the souvenir have value. (These tours, it seems worth noting in the context of Darnton’s communications circuit, move both authors and readers, not just the books once handled by shippers. Given the long existence of fairs where books were bought and sold, however, this kind of mobility has a history.)73 How value is created around books and performance, however, has changed in the years since John’s first book, the first Vlogbrothers’ videos, and the subsequent tours that took books, songs, and Hank and John on the road.

Nerdfighteria has grown and changed since the day when four hundred teens

turned up at the Harold Washington Library in Chicago in 2008 to listen to John read from his newest book.74 It has changed since the day in 2012 when John told Hank, near the end of a Tour de Nerdfighting, “the last three weeks have really been like the Internet became IRL . . . but also like the Internet, it went by really, really fast,” so fast that “we don’t really remember what it was like or how it felt.”75 In a moment of anticipatory history, an effort to combat the blur of words and emotions and changing places, John’s video captured moments from their tour to preserve the sensation of being surrounded by Nerdfighters whose enthusiasm for books and the brothers’ performance resulted in a joyous, boisterous gathering. That video also shows that, rather than relying on professional production management and staff, as they do to make recordings now, this video was possible in part because an audience member helped by holding John’s camera while he was on stage. These days, the brothers’ book tours are still multicity events, and recent incarnations have included live recordings of the Anthropocene Reviewed and Dear Hank & John podcasts, with questions submitted by audience members. These tours are another component of Nerdfighteria’s ­real-­world gatherings, ones convened by the brothers rather than by Nerdfighters themselves. While the two most recent book tours were titled with the names of the books that the brothers were on the road to promote—­Turtles All the Way Down and An Abso-

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lutely Remarkable Thing—­in the past, Tours de Nerdfighting were aligned with new releases. Always popular, these events are now routinely held in ­sold-­out auditoriums rather than on library lawns. Since the book tours are often arranged in conjunction with local independent bookstores, the economic effects of these events take on multiple, imprecisely defined aspects; buying a book from a small business to attend one of these presentations means Nerdfighters’ purchasing decisions affect the local economy, not just mass market publishing and the author’s success.

Similarly, Kyncl offers a historical sketch of VidCon’s founding, a 2010 event

attended by fifteen hundred people that has grown to more than thirty thousand attendees in the United States and a handful of international venues.76 In the initial planning stages, Hank had hoped to call the convention TubeCon and felt that making the event ­non-­YouTube specific was essential.77 Now, despite critiques of its level of inclusiveness, VidCon brings together a broader YouTube community than Nerdfighteria.78 Yet this event, according to Kyncl, goes back to books. He writes that Hank arrived at his ideas about the importance of connecting creators and viewers in real time and real life by “going on a book tour with his brother.”79 VidCon, then, as well as Nerdfighteria, is a gathering that owes much to books. Books, beyond telling stories, can be sold. The cost of books, as well as of the merchandise that endorses and promotes them, and where that money goes, are topics that have faced increasing scrutiny in the ­t wenty-­first century.80 The nature of that scrutiny varies with the type of book; John, for instance, followed the lead of the Gates family in critiquing the cost of textbooks as a barrier to learning and indicated that he hopes Crash Course content might supplant those kinds of books.81 At the same time, data from the Nielsen Bookscan showed that in the week TFiOS was released as a movie the original version of the novel sold 171,946 copies, a new ­movie-­themed imprint sold 94,147 copies, and John’s other books reemerged on the t­ op-­ten list of books sold in the United States that week. Harry Potter readers helped propel interest in Vlogbrothers, ­ est-­seller lists and 2014 saw all of John’s books dominate the New York Times b for young adults, much like Harry Potter had before the Times created its initial list of popular children’s titles that recognized the market power of books for young people.82 This turn of events was regarded as “a victory for female pro-

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tagonists and book adaptations alike” and was seen as the result, in part, of John’s commitment to being “involved in the making of and promotion for the film.”83

It also means, in the context of Nerdfighteria, that people witnessed the de-

velopment of these stories via YouTube before they emerged on the page and on the big screen. Being part of the community means traveling some part of the distance from idea to finished product, encouraging and supporting authors with YouTube views, likes, and comments along the way. How we think about reading in this sort of environment, one in which authors preview not only cover art but selections from the story, must acknowledge reading as a multimedia phenomenon not entirely dependent on the codex. If for years librarians and teachers have piqued potential readers’ interest by reading a cliffhanger passage aloud, a practice known as book talking, authors now regularly dole out snippets of forthcoming releases via YouTube, Twitter, and Instagram to the people eagerly awaiting the full story. The possibilities of ­fiction-­oriented fandom factored into developing the community that is Nerdfighteria, and Nerdfighteria, in turn, is now in the business of using its resources to aid communities in need. As their success has shifted from reputation and viewer counts into dollars, John and Hank have increasingly turned to philanthropy. For John, the newest phase of this endeavor is Life’s Library, a subscription book club the profits from which aid health clinics in Sierra Leone. Led by John’s determined efforts to support people without access to resources that so many of us can take for granted, whether clean water, schools, or health professionals, Nerdfighteria participates in a concerted effort to see that books and stories truly make a difference in the world beyond the individual reader.84 John has said, “If you have an audience, you help to shape their world view.”85 Those embracing the world view being shaped and financed in Nerdfighteria contribute to the material care of others in faraway places. These elements of Nerdfighteria, of participants’ feelings for books leading to concern for people they’ve never met and to the desire to help make the world better for everyone, signal something new in the dynamics of selling books and, at the same time, in the value of books to this community.


| A Community of Readers

Nerdfighteria’s National Imagination Benedict Anderson has written, “Fiction seeps quietly and continuously into reality, creating that remarkable confidence of community,” and there is no better description of how Nerdfighteria forges connections through narratives. Belief in books as dynamic, meaningful forces in people’s lives has informed Nerdfighteria since its beginnings and continues to shape its more recent activities. It is a community where “the process of reading” is capacious and accommodates new texts and new ways of thinking about them.1 That books and stories are central to this community is significant at a time when statistics suggest that people in the United States are less likely to read for pleasure than they were a decade ago.2 Nerdfighters are different not simply because they are among those who choose to read, sometimes voluminously, rather than among those who, for whatever reason, do not. It is the way books facilitate a sense of belonging and togetherness, a shared worldview, that is distinctive, reflecting a confluence of ideas about texts and the people who write and read them. They detail these convictions in the Nerdfighteria Census, opening a window onto what they read and why.

Anderson linked reading and the development of “a national imagination,”

arguing that we make sense of books in part through shared identity and beliefs.3 Literature, conceived broadly, forms part of the collective imagination of Nerdfighteria. At the first NerdCon in 2015, actor Mara Wilson and activist Jackson Bird expressed a conviction that stories spark conversations and help people construct worldviews that bring them together. Wilson told an audience that “Art is a useful way to get people thinking. . . . You can translate that into something that means something.” A ­long-­time affiliate of the Harry Potter Alliance, Bird agreed with this sentiment, saying, “Fiction can be that gateway.” The connections that emerge when the same characters and voices are “held in

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readers’ minds,” according to Anderson, enable readers to form a shared story in turn.4 Stories, he contends, unite the people who know and value them in common, creating relationships, even in the absence of direct, personal knowledge of each person who identifies with a large group. As Nerdfighteria has grown from a small set of individuals into a m ­ ultimillion-­person audience for the Greens’ videos and books, people’s potential to feel connected through reading is ever more enlarged.

Although many roads lead to Nerdfighteria, many readers join the communi-

ty after discovering books and bookish communications via the YouTube channel and other social media platforms. At times, Nerdfighteria focuses its attention on common texts either written or recommended by the Green brothers, but the multiplicity of the material the community reads and the community’s multimedia discourse around reading expand their shared imaginings. John and Hank’s books might anchor Nerdfighteria’s reading, but it is hardly bounded by those texts. For example, scholars and Nerdfighters alike have remarked on how the Harry Potter fandom prepared readers to forge a collective identity through books and how those who had invested time and energy in the fantasy series moved from it to new texts once the series concluded.5 Much like Anderson anticipated, in this community, books make “it possible for rapidly growing numbers of people . . . to think about themselves, and to relate themselves to others, in new ways.”6 The multiple ways books factor in forming and reshaping Nerdfighteria contributes to the “history of how we have shared reading.”7

The places that Nerdfighteria connects through books and stories are many.

Online book discussions proliferate, in addition to comments on Vlogbrothers videos and book tours that accompany new releases of John and Hank’s novels. Life’s Library, the ­six-­thousand-­plus members of which began their first online book discussion in late 2018, is the most recent. What we can know about these sites varies considerably. Because of this, the Nerdfighteria Census, despite some reservations about whether it offers a representative portrait of the community, is key to understanding what Nerdfighters read, along with how and why books are entwined with their use of other media. Their words reveal Nerdfighteria as a place where reading, construed broadly, matters. What Nerdfighters read, how and when they read, demonstrate that they value reading for its content and the connections it affords.

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Nerdfighteria: A History in Books Nerdfighteria has always had bookish elements. When Vlogbrothers began, books featured frequently in the dialogue between Hank and John. From 2007 to 2011, some 225 different titles were mentioned, either fleetingly or more substantially.8 Some were written by John and his friends, like Maureen Johnson and Amy Krouse Rosenthal. Others were classics, like East of Eden, the Bible, The Sun Also Rises, and Everything that Rises Must Converge. Still others were children’s books, whether l­ong-­standing series like Nancy Drew and the ­Baby-­Sitters Club or newer picture books like Everyone Poops. There were substantial works of serious nonfiction, The God Delusion among them, and others were more esoteric, such as Everything You Need to Know About the Goth Scene or the New York Public Library Guide to Organizing a Home Library. Of course, there was Harry Potter.9 While John more frequently discussed literature and reading, Hank introduced the idea of the Nerdfighter Book Blurbing Club, a 2008 activity that encouraged the community to read a book every two weeks and share their reactions in “less than ten words,” trying “to capture the essence of the book, in a unique and interesting way.”10 Books clearly factored into people’s initial interest in Nerdfighteria and often in why they stayed. While not all Nerdfighters are prolific readers, an attraction to books provides a strong and steady stream in the community’s conversations across media and platforms. The range of materials that Nerdfighters read is appreciable. One respondent answered the question about her preferences by saying, “every book I can get my hands on.” What Nerdfighters had in front of them when answering questions about their current reading at times verged on the unwieldy.

Nerdfighters know books. They readily describe their reading material, not-

ing when they’ve got a signed copy or a library discard in hand or if they’re in possession of a prized advance reading copy, typically shortened to ARC. They differentiate between manga and digital comics, and they point out when they’re listening to a book rather than turning printed pages. The nature of those pages may be something they notice, like those in one reader’s “cheap, battered and delicate copy of Dorothy Parker’s short story collection Here Lies.” Where and how they read is part of how they talk about books; one respondent

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noted that he was reading “Our Lives Are Changing Lanes by Grim on AO3 on my laptop, I stopped in the middle to fill this out.” They mention books read on smartphones “when . . . camping or stuck in a long line.” They think about new media and how it changes books and reading, mentioning “web articles are performed by voicers/actors (like me!).” They offer reasons for preferring one medium over another, as in the case of someone who had recently finished Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls and recommended “hard/paper back so you don’t break ­ -­reader with tears.” Fanfiction is part of their literary experience, as indiyour e cated by one reader who found “Go Your Own Way by Zane something. (I read it as fanfiction forever ago and it’s kinda cool to see how it’s changed.)” One Nerdfighter mentioned owning a pirated copy of a particular title. They recognize, too, when their reading doesn’t conform, as in the case of a Nerdfighter whose reading consists of “Articles about presidential politics. I read like thousands of articles from reputable sources. I wish they counted as books.” These many energetic and passionate words represent the first signs of the range of the reading experiences occurring across Nerdfighteria, the bookish outposts of that vast terrain.

It is only the start. Nerdfighters know authors, too. One described a writer

who “is from my home town and writes about his cats.” They fill the fields of the survey with stories about having been to BookCon and of meeting novelists at other events. They include their friends’ work, ­self-­published or not, among their readerly activities. One wrote, “Four friends have books coming out [in the fall] so I’ll have plenty of reading material then.” They relish material by NerdCon and GeekyCon authors, too. Their comments show how the places they live and visit shape their lives as readers. The Nerdfighteria Census tells us a great deal about how, why, and what Nerdfighters read. It indicates, in both broad and specific ways, the nature of Nerdfighters’ interests in books. De Certeau has written that “words become the outlet or product of silent histories,” a concept that allows us to see Nerdfighters’ responses to the Census questions as a record of at least some moments in their histories as readers.11 Two ­book-­related questions that commonly appear on the Census are “What are you reading right now?” and “What stuff are you into right now?”12 Books naturally find their place in responses

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to the first of these questions and, not infrequently, make their way into the second one as well, particularly when the books mentioned are part of a series or have been reenvisioned as movies or television productions. While we might expect responses to these questions to offer the name of a book or two, this is Nerdfighteria, where defying norms is the norm. Perhaps inspired by themes in John’s Question Tuesday videos—­during one 2019 episode he was asked to identify “the most overrated fruit” and responded, “of the Loom”—people responding to the survey offer everything from heartfelt to humorously literal answers.13 More broadly, Census responses exhibit three tendencies: ones that simply answer the question with a single item, ones that answer the question with expansive lists, and ones that reply more discursively, talking back to the questioner or survey reader. Over the years, the percentages of respondents in each category has remained loosely consistent, with approximately half sharing lists and as many as a third producing discursive responses.

An example of the discursive nature of some Census responses also reveals

how books, particularly those written by John, have helped create the community. When Hank asked in an early Census what brought people to the channel, one impatient respondent who clearly saw John as the survey’s author, wrote, “Your books, dumbass.”14 That writer’s assumption that the answer should be obvious is perhaps not without merit. Answers to other questions make the same point, if less saltily. The ­Nerdfighter-­to-­Nerdfighter commentary from the 2017 Census likewise includes deeply felt testimonials to the role of John’s books in community members’ lives. In words that reflect c­ ommunity-­wide trends, one person wrote, “My adult life and success as a human being has been shaped by nerdfighters. Without this amazing community, I don’t know where I would be. And it all started with Looking for Alaska.” Year after year, high percentages of Nerdfighters report having read one or more of John’s books ­(eighty-­four percent in 2013, ­eighty-­eight percent in 2014, and ­eighty-­five percent in 2015, for example), and those novels appeared high in rankings of how people first heard about Vlogbrothers (third in 2014 and again in 2017).15 When Hank once asked about people’s interest in new Crash Course topics, literature emerged clearly and definitively at the top of the list or, as Hank put it after seeing the gulf between this and all other proposed topics, “Literature kicked everything’s ass.”16

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Nerdfighters’ interest in literature and books isn’t, however, unvaried. Nerd-

fighters talk about the role of reading in learning; they seek advice about what to read; they comment on the joy (and sometimes the dismay) of reading, particularly rereading. They enthuse about fanfiction and conventionally published works alike. These conversational threads may evince word play, but their earnestness shines through. The ways reading shapes relationships to people near and far, including other members of Nerdfighteria, feature in respondents’ discussions of reading in Hank’s annual surveys. These conversations reveal an international community of readers of John Green, of poetry, and of literary nonfiction. Comic books, audiobooks, and other ­book-­related media figure in their responses, as well. Perhaps because serious subjects have long been an important element of Nerdfighteria, those who admit to lighter, less demanding reading sometimes plead “don’t judge me” before identifying their preferred books.

Reading Green Certain titles and authors, of course, predominate when the Census asks Nerdfighters to identify their favorites. John ranks high among the authors that Nerdfighters want to talk about. In 2014, Hank asked Nerdfighteria to name favorite authors not already listed in previous survey questions. Although it might reasonably be assumed that Vlogbrothers’ viewers had some affinity for narratives crafted by one of its creators, survey respondents articulated their feelings for John’s novels and his importance to them; almost ten percent of the responses to this question identified John as their favorite author. While authors from Jane Austen (119 mentions) and Agatha Christie (410 mentions) to Rick Riordan and J.R.R. Tolkien (with slightly more and slightly less than five percent, respectively), also garnered respectable numbers, no other author was represented as strongly as John in the answers to this question.

Respondents’ connection to John’s books is further revealed by his titles’ ap-

pearance, year after year, among the items people are currently reading. Many respondents describe their affection for “all of John’s books”—sometimes expressed “ALL OF JOHN’S BOOKS!”—or “John’s books,” rather than for a particular title, and before 2019, some people included John’s social media channels

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in their regular reading matter. In 2014 alone, John’s books netted almost eight thousand mentions in the ­not-­book-­specific query about people’s current interests. These direct expressions of interest in his novels suggest that it is not just books that anchor this community; for many, John’s words are integral to the experience of Nerdfighteria.

While the primary pattern of the discussion of John’s work affirms its value

to people’s lives as readers, there are other, complementary elements of that conversation. Nerdfighters who have yet to read his work nonetheless affirm their interest in it. In 2017, a person who had read one of John’s books described his writing as “sooooo beautiful” and, as if speaking directly to him, said, “I’m working on getting to the rest, I just finally worked up the courage to read one of them.