From Barbaro Fandom to Political Activism

You may have heard about the online websites that sprang up around beloved racehorse Barbaro. Delaware Online recently posted a profile of Alex Brown, the man charged with providing continuous online updates about Barbaro’s condition:

Since May 2006, Brown also has overseen the popular Tim Woolley Web site, It was started to keep fans updated on the progress of Kentucky Derby champion Barbaro after he shattered his leg in the Preakness. Barbaro’s fight for life ended last month when he was euthanized at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center in Kennett Square, Pa.

One might wonder what happens to a community born of a shared concern after the object of that concern is gone. The answer so far seems to be that it goes on:

“After Barbaro was hurt, I was on the Web site five hours a day,” Brown said. “We created the Web site for you, the public. We did updates, even blogged about things that might be happening. When Barbaro first passed, the traffic went up considerably. It’s gone down a good bit, but we still average about 8,000 to 9,000 hits a day.”

What keeps it going? As this article spins it anyway, it’s shared commitment to the shared political cause of eliminating horse slaughter in the US:

Brown said the Web site remains popular because of a recently formed group of people around the country known as “Fans of Barbaro.” They continue to spread the word about the slaughter of horses in the United States and the anti-slaughter bill currently before Congress. Human consumption of horsemeat is rare among U.S. residents, but is an accepted practice in some countries.

“The fans of Barbaro are growing and growing,” Brown said. “We are hosting this group on our Web site. These people have become active on a variety of horse issues. They encourage each other to lobby their representatives and senators on the anti-horse slaughter bill. Just this week, they raised $3,500 in 24 hours on the Web site to save six horses and a mule.”

Fandom launches shared practices that go way beyond fandom. This is a good example of an online community spurring offline civic engagement and, I would bet, spurring new opportunities for offline interaction with one another and with new people as well. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, many people still think of online community in opposition to offline community and worry that people who spend time doing things like hanging out in a website for a horse who has passed are passing up some kind of rich meaningful face-to-face interaction that they would be having if they logged off. John Robinson and colleauges have studied how people spend their time for several decades. The only really big differences they find between people who spend time on the internet and people who don’t is that net users sleep a lot less.

Update note: This post is generating a lot of traffic from — Welcome! This blog (Online Fandom) watches trends in how fans, industries, artists, and sometimes horses, are relating to one another in new ways using the internet.  Click on the header up there to browse around and explore some other interesting fan phenomena.

Comments (9) to “From Barbaro Fandom to Political Activism”

  1. I’m curious as to why any fan group would shift their shared interest rather than becoming a group of “cult” fans (like the fan communities surrounding TV shows that get cancelled).

    In the case described above, maybe it’s because the object of fandom is perceived to be more real (as an actual, living being, representing a real situation or problem) rather than an imaginary character or world. If Harry Potter were to ultimately die at the hands of his classmates, would those fans be as likely to start a campaign to end school violence?

  2. Jason, an interesting question. The site has basically followed Barbaro for eight months and continues his legacy. Why ? I think because as we were following Barbaro I was able to add content related to other horse and horse racing issues AND Barbaro’s co owner, Mrs. Jackson very publicly addressed what she hoped would be Barbaro’s legacy. Fans of Barbaro have united around this legacy and I continue to provide content on horse and horse related issues.

    Also interesting to note, the first meeting of this group on any real scale is now scheduled for April 29 (Barbaro’s brithday) at Delaware Park:

  3. Barbaro has marshalled us to go forth for horses everywhere….to put an end to horse slaughter, to decrease the amount of over breeding. So many horses are auctioned to who knows where because they weren’t as perfect or didn’t throw enough color. We also are working on more horse rescue and retirement facilities, and funding for laminitis prevention and its much needed cure.

    I am proud to work for these goals….

    Because of Barbaro,


  4. Before Barbaro was injured, I was never involved in any “fan” site, or really any other internet site. What Alex did on the Tim Woolley site really helped establish a community that was not just “obsessive” or “worshipful” as the name fans may sometimes imply. Usually fans are united by the object of their affection, and they stay focused on the personalities and ongoing life events of that person/group. And often the celebrity in focus is often not really a hero in the truest sense.

    But with Barbaro it went beyond that. The web site provided a way to learn about other issues, while also expanding our knowledge of Barbaro’s life and journey and what he began to represent. He wasn’t just in the spotlight – he was also a symbol of an innocent, pure and courageous life. Many people from the site have pursued related interests and relationships both on the board and off of it. I think the way Alex handled the site, by focusing on many related matters, really set the tone. It does show that a group brought together in shared admiration or narrow focus can grow into a real shared force on other topics. Perhaps because there was an element of tragedy that brought people together, that also helped them take some things seriously and see beyond Barbaro to more needs everywhere.

    In this case “Fans of Barbaro” have really become “Friends of Barbaro” which implies the desire to support and share the weight of common goals. I applaud the group for not simply being fans, but taking an active role in positive change of all kinds. Amazing that the internet can be such a catalyst and help build community!

  5. I’m getting all kinds of comments on this post that I am not letting through moderation, so let me just state explicitly that Alex’s leaving a comment here and linking to this post does not make this an appropriate spot to take him on over injustices you feel have occurred on that board or to learn about horses from him. But if you have comments about the Barbaro online community, I’d love to hear them.

  6. Alex’s website and updates helped bring together a community of concerned fans who longed for information on an injured racehorse. It also networked and galvanized a growing group of people who learned about America’s dirty little secret of Horse slaughter in America. I had no idea this heinous practice existed. Now, we are committed to carrying on Barbaro’s Legacy, as asked by his owner Mrs. Gretchen Jackson. We will advocate against slaughter and for safer racing conditions. Our dear horse lost his battle, but we will carry on and make things better in this country for all horses. Nothing will deter us.

  7. Fans of BARBARO — Thoughts presented on this website today are beautiful, thoughtful, and full of spirit and good ideas. Barbaro would be proud (as I am sure Gretchen Jackson is. It makes me want to be an integral part of FOB’s and your goals. I also dream of owning horses and a farm “across” the country. I live on the West Coast and am too old for this activity, so armchair involvement will have to do. My wish for today is to have East Coast racing televised here. I depend on your reports for who’s hot.

    Thanks so much.

    Mary S.

  8. BARBARO and what led to his ultime demise, no accident, NEGLECT!

    It will take many years for me to overcome the tragedy of Barbaro, but with the Preakness, I have watched my last race. It is purely for man’s profit that these magnificent, fragile creatures are pushed beyond their limit. George Vescey (“Racing Can’t Afford More Tragedies,” The Times, June 6) asks when animal rights’ group are going to speak out against this human (NOT humane) narcissism. I ask the same question and mourn the loss of Barbaro.

  9. I have loved Barbaro ever since I saw him race. I wish he could have lived, but let our love go up to him in Heaven. We all love and miss you Barbaro. Enjoy the afterlife.