Emily S. Whitten: G.I.S.H.W.H.E.S. – A Culture of Positive Fandom

Robert DowneyThis weekend, on the way back from the wedding of one of my longtime best friends, I took a loooong train ride home. Naturally, I was riding in high style, in a Deadpool shirt and my handmade Deadpool symbol earrings. During the trip, I happened to be standing in the Amtrak café car line when a guy waiting with me complimented my geeky attire. This led to a several-minute conversation about Deadpool and the upcoming Deadpool movie; the X-Men movies; and (yarrrgh) the Wolverine: Origins movie. It was a great little comics nerd conversation, which I guarantee could have continued for hours were we hanging out at a convention rather than standing in a line for food on a train.

I realized afterwards that this conversation was particularly refreshing because after the initial “So you’re a Deadpool fan?” question, I didn’t encounter any of the attitude that I often get from men in comics fandom – the attitude that immediately questions or is at least taken aback by My Commitment to Sparkle Motion, i.e. my legitimate knowledge of and appreciation for comics fandom as an entity independent of any dude or some imagined desire to falsely pass myself off as a geek.

This still baffles me. If I was going to try to lie to random strangers about who I am, I think it would be way more fun to pretend to be fabulously wealthy and eccentric. I fail to see the advantage of pretending to be a geek.

It was nice to have a conversation that was not tempered by a feeling of defensiveness about the legitimacy of my geekdom in the eyes of my co-conversant, and it made me realize just how frequently I have encountered an attitude that, instead of accepting how I represent myself, continues to question the validity of my enjoyment of a certain brand of entertainment until I manage, basically, to out-nerd the other person (which, not even kidding, happens pretty much every time. If you challenge my geekdom I will pull out the big guns and quote esoteric nerd facts at you with the best of them). It’s so commonplace an experience that I barely notice it anymore; until I notice the lack of it, as in my pleasant conversation with a stranger on a train. As small an element as it may seem, for that component to be missing felt like someone had suddenly lifted the weight of Establishing My Geek Cred from the ingredients necessary to have a normal conversation about fun geek stuff.

I know that change can be slow, but I like to hope that encounters like my little train chat are a sign that geek fandom is gradually transitioning from some of the isolationist, unwelcoming attitudes I have railed against in previous columns (like the attitudes of geeklitism, or of Gamergaters) into a more understanding, celebratory camaraderie of mutual and group enjoyment of genre entertainment without snap judgments or prejudices.

I also suspect that social media, where one can generally interact on one’s own terms, is playing its part as a driving engine for change; and that some of the positive fan-interactive movements started by prominent celebrities in geek fandom, such as Supernatural star Misha Collins and his G.I.S.H.W.H.E.S. (Greatest International Scavenger Hunt The World Has Ever Seen), and Zachary Levi and his Nerd HQ strongly contribute to the changes I’m seeing in geek culture. I’ve already talked about how great Nerd HQ and the attitude it projects are, and more recently have celebrated the feeling of camaraderie in geekdom conveyed by the new Syfy Geeks Who Drink show and its Twitter interactions. Both of these have a strong positive and geek-celebratory social media component.

G.I.S.H.W.H.E.S., started by Misha Collins in 2011 is another such interactive social movement. The scavenger hunt, which wrapped on August 8 this year, consists of 15-person teams (which you can choose to be randomly assigned to, and which has led participants to meet new friends all over the world and have great experiences) working together over a week to complete a list of over 200 tasks, documented and submitted to the competition via photo or video. The submissions are judged and points awarded, and based on the overall points awarded to the teams, one team wins a Grand Prize all-expenses paid trip to an exotic locale with Misha Collins – which sounds abnosome.

The hunt, which is now a worldwide phenomenon with tens of thousands of participants in over 100 countries, had over 14,000 participants last year and is so successful that it has been categorized by Guinness World Records as the largest scavenger hunt of its kind. It has also broken several other world records through completion of some of the challenges issued to participants. The Gishwhes site describes the hunt as “part silliness, part art, part kindness and 100% fun” and notes that Gishwhes is the single largest contributor to the charity Random Acts.

About the tasks, the site notes, ”We try to create a list that is challenging, thrilling and absurd. We like to have participants break out of their comfort zones, re-awaken their inner artist, and do a bit of good in the world.” According to Collins, the primary reason for developing the competition was that he “loved the idea of thousands of people from all over the world connecting to create incredible things.”

Gishwhes is a great example of a celebrity both following his own personal inspiration for a project and using his status in fandom for good. I also believe its encouragement towards geek teamwork and outreach through fun and passion for the fandom, and the way it began and is maintained via social media and online interactions, is a contributor to a transition in genre entertainment fandom attitudes towards a kinder, more inclusive and positive fandom. Gishwhes encourages fans to branch out, join forces, and put their enthusiasm for their fandom towards creativity, social interaction, and helping others instead of focusing inwards or dwelling on themselves. I applaud celebrities like Misha Collins and Zachary Levi for leveraging their celeb status with fans for good in this way, and hope to see more from-the-heart fan interaction phenomenons like Gishwhes and Nerd HQ.

I also just plain love the cool stuff that’s come out of both; and particularly, some of the fun creations I’ve seen from this year’s Gishwhes. Favorites of mine include this gorgeous salt-and-pepper portrait of Robert Downey Jr. / Tony Stark; this portrait of Princess Leia (and her famous buns) in bread (there were prettier ones, but this won my heart for the punny speech balloons); and this lol-worthy video of “another boring trapeze teleconference. Business attire required.” You can see even more cool and crazy things accomplished during Gishwhes in this video from Misha Collins.

Other than all of the nifty things accomplished due to Gishwhes, I think the biggest thing I take away from it is the warm and positive attitude of the competition and everyone involved. It’s encouraging and inspiring to see all of the people who have chosen to celebrate and express their fandom in a fun and inclusive way; especially because, in the end, it is always our own personal choice as to how we want to move through the world; and how we choose to put ourselves out there can have bigger consequences for change than we can ever imagine. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.”

From what I have seen, Gishwhes is contributing to changing the attitude of the world (and fandom) in a positive way. Here’s hoping that it continues to do so; and until next time, Servo Lectio!