OTW Guest Post: Federico Pianzola

Every month the OTW hosts guest posts on our OTW News accounts to provide an outside perspective on the OTW or aspects of fandom. These posts express each individual’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the OTW or constitute OTW policy.

Federico Pianzola is Assistant Professor of Computational Humanities at the University of Groningen (Netherlands) and Principal Investigator of the GOLEM project. He’s especially interested in how people read and discuss fiction online, and he uses computational, qualitative, and quantitative methods to study it. Today, Federico talks about a new project involving fanfiction.

How did you first find out about fandom and fanworks?

I think it was during my undergraduate studies, when one professor mentioned the novel Mary Reilly, by Valerie Martin, saying that it was a rewriting of the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Stevenson, told from the perspective of a maid working at Dr. Jekyll’s home. I found it mind blowing that you could retell someone else’s story from a different perspective. I was probably surprised because I was thinking about stories in idealistic and capitalistic terms, as something owned and copyrighted by an author.

I thought that taking the story and the characters created by someone else was a sign of poor creativity. But, to my eyes, Mary Reilly was at the same time a cheap trick and a fascinating move, because it was reopening a narrative universe that I thought was closed. Stevenson’s story was closed, but there were so many other things that could be said about that house and those characters!

You plan to study the evolution of online fanfiction. What initiated this project?

The idea matured in the last 3 years. At first, my colleague Gerhard Lauer introduced me to Wattpad and I realized that millions of people are reading via media that are not tracked by official statistics about reading. I thought this was another untold story that needed to be revealed, because teenagers are often blamed for being less acculturated than the previous generations because they don’t read books.

We published an article that showed that young people read a lot, just not in the way in which older cultural gatekeepers think people read. Another colleague, Alberto Acerbi, read the article and asked me to collaborate to test some hypothesis about cultural evolution, which is the research field studying how cultural traditions and behavior are copied and transmitted. I suggested using data from AO3 because the tags and the reading metrics allow us to look at thousands of stories “from a distance”, without actually reading them.

We published a pilot study and that’s when I started thinking about expanding the scope of the project, which is now called GOLEM (Graphs and Ontologies for Literary Evolution Models).

What discoveries do you hope the data will bring?

It’s a 5 year project (2023-2027) that will collect from various platforms data about millions of stories in 5 different languages (English, Spanish, Italian, Korean, and Indonesian). AO3, FFnet, Wattpad are only some of these.

We will record in a database information such as the genre of the stories, their narrative style, the progression of the emotions throughout the narrative, their tropes, but also ratings, and readers’ emotional response expressed in comments. We will use these stories’ metadata to reconstruct phylogenetic trees of the evolution of online fiction. You can think about the metadata as the “genes” of a story. The amount of shared “genes” suggests if two stories belong to the same or in different families/species, (for example, we can group stories based on their themes or types of characters).

Once we have clustered the stories according to the selected shared traits, we can then look at which other cultural traits are shared by the various groups of stories. For instance, we could find that 70% of the stories about romantic_relationships (theme) also share the trait teen_romance (genre), and then 55% of these stories also share the trait strong_female_lead (type of character). Looking diachronically at how the ratio of shared traits varies within and across clusters of stories will allow us to trace the evolution of fiction.

For instance, we may find that the trait strong_female_lead became much more present in Korean stories after the 2018 #metoo sexual scandals. This is an example of branching, i.e. diversification of a new recognizable lineage. And maybe we could find that the trait strong_female_lead starts combining with the trait queer and Korean stories start featuring for the first time many characters with the traits queerand strong_female_lead.

You are currently looking for people to join the project. What qualifications will they need?

Yes, I’m looking for 2 PhD students interested in fanfiction and with some familiarity with computational methods for the analysis of language (NLP). To start a PhD in the Netherlands a Master’s degree is required. I’m also looking for a postdoctoral researcher that will help create the graph databases that will store all the metadata about the stories. The official announcements with the links for PhDs and for Postdocs to apply can be found on the website of the University of Groningen. The deadline is January 16, 2023.

How did you hear about the OTW and what do you see its role as?

I started doing some research after reading Henry Jenkins’ book Convergence Culture and then I found out about the legal support that the OTW was offering to fanfic authors. I thought that’s very righteous and needed.

Moreover, as a scholar coming from traditional literary studies, I know the importance of libraries and archives in preserving our cultural heritage. The AO3 is an amazing example of a lively archive and I admire the complexity and efficiency of its tagging system. I particularly admire the efforts for importing and preserving collections from websites that otherwise will be lost.

What fandom things have inspired you the most?

I’m only an occasional reader of fanfiction and I don’t have a favourite fandom. I like all “meta” stuff because I like to understand the details of things. Relatedly, I’m a big fan of projects like Fanlore and fandom wikis. It’s amazing how the collective intelligence of fans can organise the knowledge of whole narrative universes in such an organised and detailed way.

We encourage suggestions from fans for future guest posts, so contact us if you have someone in mind! Or you can visit our Pinboard account to catch up on earlier guest posts.

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