Young people often start writing online fan fiction out of a love for fantasy worlds—and wind up connecting with mentors who shepherd them from novice to accomplished writers. Researchers Cecilia Aragon and Katie Davis had a hunch that this was the case and proved it after undertaking a detailed research study in which they interviewed hundreds of fan fiction contributors and presented detailed findings about unique mentorship patterns in the fan fiction community.
If today’s tech-focused kids are less literate, why are so many busy writing and reading fan fiction? That was the question that launched Aragon and Davis’s study, propelled by their observations of youth in their separate research projects and daily life. Meeting at a University of Washington faculty event, Aragon, associate professor in Human Centered Design and Engineering, and Davis, assistant professor in the Information School, recognized an opportunity to collaborate and find answers. Their resulting interdisciplinary research team discovered new patterns of learning and mentorship for young writers.
Although fan fiction can be considered to have roots as far back as Virgil and took off with the original Star Trek, opportunities to create and consume fan fiction—stories that involve characters, settings, or elements from existing works or famous real-life situations—have increased exponentially, thanks to the Internet. Websites like Fanfiction.net and FIMFiction.net host millions of stories and are visited by overwhelming numbers of school-aged fans who want to continue experiencing their favorite fictional worlds. For nine months during the 2013–14 academic year, the research team focused on three fandoms—Harry Potter, My Little Pony, and Doctor Who—and conducted extensive interviews with fan fiction authors, observed online group discussions on fan fiction sites, analyzed reader reviews, and tried their own hands at fan fiction.
This last task was probably the most daunting—and informative—for the academics. “Having my story picked apart by others was definitely beneficial, but it was also a really nerve-wracking, and sometimes disheartening, experience,” says team member David Randall. “Nevertheless, it was great to truly understand the ups and downs of the writing experience first hand.”
Team member Julie Campbell, who has written fan fiction before, still finds the process exhilarating. “When I write fan fiction, I obsessively refresh the page for the first 24 hours after publishing because I am so excited to read comments,” she said. “Reader feedback is just so motivating and addictive!”
As the team shared data from fan fiction communities in their weekly research meetings, three themes emerged: fan fiction authors are learning 1) about writing, 2) about life, and 3) how to give and receive mentorship. “They say every writer has to get past a million words of writing before he really starts,” one author interviewed by the group said. “My fan fiction has been another step in that road, and the help and advice I’ve received from others within the community, as well as the writing I’ve been exposed to in others’ works, has definitely helped me improve in all sorts of ways.”
Another believed that his fan fiction work provided him a significant advantage in college: “I started in middle school with Naruto fan fiction, and now I’m a freshman in a college that approved an application that had been sent in with clippings of my online work,” he said. “Workshopping with a larger community, which might be an alien experience for many entering [the creative writing] department, is almost a daily routine for me by now.”
The creative thinking involved in writing fan fiction helped another author become more open-minded, he believes. “If anything, thinking of premises for stories that can fit inside of [a fictional universe] has taught me to think outside of the box and expand things,” he said.
Many cited emotional benefits. “I’ve received literally thousands of positive reviews and some truly wonderful letters and messages from people who have been genuinely touched by my writing,” one observed. “It’s been a massive confidence boost that helped me get through university without quitting and still helps me today if I’m feeling down.”
All the authors agreed that giving and receiving feedback is one of the most valuable aspects of the experience. “It’s sort of come full cycle for me,” one reflected. When [one] girl [private messaged] me asking for advice, I [realized] that I used to be her. Back in the day, I wrote so badly that people flaming and trolling me would’ve been perfectly viable. Luckily, I had people to push me up and advise me to turn me into the author I am today, so I found it really important to do exactly the same for her.”
As their research continued, the team recognized a new kind of mentoring in which people of all ages and experience levels engage with and support one another through a complex, interwoven tapestry of interactive, cumulatively sophisticated advice and informal instruction. Drawing on University of California, San Diego cognitive science professor Ed Hutchins’s concept of distributed cognition, they called this new model “distributed mentoring.”
The team defined its seven unique characteristics:
Aggregation: Authors receive mentorship from multiple other individuals.
Accretion: Information shared by multiple individuals accretes over time, as authors build a cumulative repository of knowledge.
Acceleration: The active discussion of specific, nuanced elements accelerates the learning process.
Abundance: This attribute refers to the sheer quantity of comments and reviews received in openly networked environments like fan fiction forums.
Availability: Stories and reviews persist indefinitely, allowing reviewers and authors to have long-term relationships, with easy reference to past material.
Asynchronicity: Authors and reviewers can communicate back and forth with each other despite being on different schedules or even in different time zones.
Affect: The great number of positive reviews generates encouragement and inspiration for authors, offsetting the far smaller number of negative reviews.
As the team share their findings with academics, educators, and librarians, it is the last characteristic, affect, that raises the most questions. People tend to associate online reviews with angry comments seen on YouTube and news websites. But in their analysis of 4,500 fan fiction reviews, the research team found that less than one percent of reviews contained nonconstructive negative comments (i.e., flames), while over 50 percent contained substantive feedback and positive comments occurred in 70 percent of reviews. In fact, when flames do appear, the community often drowns them out. For example, one controversial fan fiction story contained several flame reviews but even more reviews like this one defending the author: “Just ignore the stupid [reader] who is leaving those horrid reviews. She can take all her stuffy little remarks and shove them where the light don’t shine. This is a fantastic story, I just had a [terrible] day and this story has really helped me smile.”
Based on their interactions and observations, the team believe it is distributed mentoring that makes fan fiction sites such effective training grounds for writers. This year, they will expand their research by investigating how authors’ writing quality changes over time based on experiences with distributed mentoring. They believe that more research into these communities can provide valuable guidance for designing curriculum and learning environments that will sustain engagement and motivation through difficult tasks. It all starts when young people connect to and learn from real people within fan fiction communities in aggregate who can transform their writing and their lives.
The authors are faculty and graduate student members of the Distributed Mentoring research group at the University of Washington.
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