OTW Guest Post: Katie Davis and Cecilia Aragon

From time to time, the OTW will be hosting guest posts on our OTW News accounts. These guests will be providing an outside perspective on the OTW or aspects of fandom where our projects may have a presence. The posts express each author’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the OTW or constitute OTW policy. We welcome suggestions from fans for future guest posts, which can be left as a comment here or by contacting us directly.

Cecilia Aragon is a Professor of Human Centered Design and Engineering at the University of Washington, and a long-time science fiction, fantasy, anime, and manga fan. She teaches and studies human-centered data science, computer science, and data visualization. Katie Davis is an Associate Professor at the University of Washington Information School and a founding member and Co-Director of the UW Digital Youth Lab. Her research explores the role of new media technologies in young people’s personal, social, and academic lives, with a particular focus on the intersection between networked technologies, identity development, and well-being during adolescence and emerging adulthood. Today, Cecilia and Katie talk about discovering fandom and their research on fanfiction communities.

How did you first find out about fandom and fanworks?

Cecilia: I wrote my first fanfic when I was ten years old, but as an isolated first-generation Latina growing up in small-town Indiana, I had no clue that’s what I was doing. I’d read The Lord of the Rings and fallen in love with Tolkien’s world, but was upset that there were so few female characters. I thought, couldn’t girls have adventures too? So I rewrote the story in a spiral notebook, re-gendering a few of the main characters and adding some adventures I thought were missing. But I never
showed that notebook to anyone, and it didn’t occur to me at the time that anyone else might enjoy doing the same thing.

I first became aware of fandom as a community in the mid-1970s when I became a teenager and an avid fantasy and science fiction fan. Unfortunately, I was an extreme introvert, too shy and anxious to go to cons. Fanfics weren’t posted publicly in those days (at least nowhere I knew of), so I never read fics or got involved in any of the communities where fics were shared. It’s really too bad for me the web didn’t exist at this time, because I know now that online fandom communities would’ve helped me through an extremely difficult adolescence.

It wasn’t until about 2007 that I was introduced to the modern proliferation of fanfics on the web. My then-teenage daughter and I had been watching a long-running anime together, and she showed me some fics on Fanfiction.net. I ended up binge-reading many fics on this particular anime, and became completely enthralled that so many young people in their teens were writing lengthy stories and contributing to an incredible outpouring of creativity. Around this time, there was a lot of hand-wringing in popular media that “young people can’t write” and “kids these days are the dumbest generation.” That was a complete contradiction to what I was seeing online.

When I met Katie at a lunch at the University of Washington in 2013, we immediately bonded over our recognition of this seeming contradiction, and we realized that both my daughter and her sister, intelligent and avid readers and writers, were actively involved in online fandom.

Katie: I first discovered fandom and fanworks when I was conducting my first solo research project as a doctoral student at Harvard Graduate School of Education. It was an interview study exploring the practice of online journaling among teen girl bloggers on LiveJournal (this was way back in 2007). I came to the study interested in how teens engage in self-reflection, self-expression, and self-exploration in online contexts. After my first few interviews, I quickly discovered that a big part of LiveJournal’s draw for teens were the thriving fan communities. They could connect with other people who were similarly passionate about Harry Potter, Doctor Who, or Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

For someone who had originally thought of LiveJournal as an online form of journaling (it was certainly that for many users), I was totally (and, I admit, naively) unprepared to find an entirely different purpose for the platform, one that was more grounded in community than in personal reflection. Through my interviews with the teen bloggers, I learned a lot about the support, friendship, and personal growth that young people can experience through their participation in fandom communities.

What do you see as unexplored areas that fandom studies could help address?

Katie: Oh boy! It’s a daunting task to identify an area of research that is truly unexplored. Perhaps I can hedge somewhat and identify one or two areas where I feel fandom studies have unique insights to offer.

One topic that we touch on briefly at the end of the book relates to teaching and learning. It’s a very tricky business taking insights from voluntary, passion-driven activities, like fanfiction writing, and applying them to mandatory, externally-rewarded activities, like school. Nevertheless, I do think it’s worthwhile to look at the qualities of young people’s fanfiction participation that support their commitment to writing and growth as writers, and explore whether and how these qualities might be replicated in a more traditional learning context. School represents a decidedly dull and unrewarding enterprise for too many students. How great would it be if teens brought the same passion to studying polymers and Shakespearian sonnets that they bring to writing and reading fanfiction!

Another area I’m interested in is civic engagement, which I know scholars like Henry Jenkins have already thought a lot about. In the context of our work on distributed mentoring, I’d love to explore how the distinct forms of mentoring that youth give and receive in fanfiction communities could be leveraged to support their participation in the issues affecting their neighborhoods, cities, and countries, such as climate change. I’ve already started to give some thought to this question.

Your research focused on young writers to better assess changes in their writing. What led you to choose Fanfiction.net rather than Wattpad, and how did you gather data on the users?

Cecilia: Katie and I initially discussed the possibility of studying several fanfiction sites, including Archive of Our Own, Fanfiction.net, Wattpad, and other single-fandom repositories. However, our focus on young writers and how they learned led us to Fanfiction.net because of its demographic (also, there was good scholarship already available on AO3, and we wanted to explore something new). We ruled out Wattpad simply because it wasn’t publicly available to readers — you had to create an account even to read the stories. On AO3 and FF.net, anyone can read without registering.

Katie and I began a directed research group at the University of Washington in 2013 with several students. We chose to begin by collecting qualitative data, and took an ethnographic approach to understanding the experiences of young fanfiction authors in fandom communities. As ethnographers, we immersed ourselves in the online cultures we were studying as participant observers, hoping to understand more about the values, norms, and cultural practices in online fandom. We wanted to spend time learning about the different forms of participation in fandom.

We began by reading fanfics and their reviews, observing interactions in forums, emailing and messaging authors directly, and posting our own fanfiction online. In our author profiles, and when introducing ourselves to members of the community, we were always careful to introduce ourselves as both researchers and fans, since transparency and honesty is vitally important in conducting such research.

We decided to focus our studies on three fandoms: Harry Potter, Doctor Who, and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic because these were the fandoms our students were most deeply familiar with. We then focused on Fanfiction.net and two single-fandom repositories, A Teaspoon And An Open Mind (whofic.com) and FIMfiction.net (My Little Pony). Over a period of six years, the data we collected included interviews, surveys, our personal observations as participants in online communities, as well as sampled reviews. Later on, we collected quantitative data from Fanfiction.net, such as the full-text of stories and their reviews.

We always have done our best to conduct research in an ethical manner and respect authors’ privacy, keeping much of our data confidential and using techniques such as differential privacy to make sure any publicly released data is fully anonymized, and we always follow an institutional review board human subjects protocol in our studies and obtain permission from our participants. We also did our best to comply with the terms of service of each of the sites we studied. Finally, we try to give back to the community that has shared so much with us, by posting ongoing results on our Tumblr blog.

What in your results would you like to continue exploring, or would you have included in your book that you couldn’t at this time?

Cecilia: We’re currently applying the techniques of human-centered data science — the thoughtful merging of qualitative analyses with algorithms derived from human-centered approaches, combining human subtlety with computational speed—to study the structures of fandom communities. We’re asking questions such as: do mentoring communities online have similar structures to in-person networks? What leads people to reach out to others to help them learn?

When we wrote Writers in the Secret Garden, we intended to address it not necessarily to existing fandom participants, who may already be familiar with many of our conclusions, but to parents and teachers of fanfic authors, or to an academic audience, or to people not involved in fandom who might be hostile to or dismissive of the value of fanfiction. We hope that people will share it with teachers who might be able to bring our suggestions into their classrooms, perhaps offer it as a gift to baffled parents of fanfiction authors, or even give it to people who are disdainful of fanfiction. We hope that the clear evidence we provide for the improvement of young people’s writing skills through distributed mentoring will encourage a wider audience to support fanfiction reading and writing.

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

Cecilia: I became aware of the OTW sometime not long after AO3 was founded, and was immediately delighted by the organization’s role in validating fan-produced content as an important creative outlet and cultural phenomenon. By this time I was, of course, reading many fics on AO3 as well. I’ve also read many academic papers studying AO3 such as some of the excellent work by Casey Fiesler and Brianna Dym.

The OTW has a hugely important role as a voice for underrepresented and marginalized folks in the world today, and also as an advocate for the importance of transformative fanwork.

What fandom things have inspired you the most?

Katie: I’m inspired by the sense of community, passion, and commitment that I’ve seen in fan communities. Of course, it’s not difficult to identify examples of nasty, hurtful speech online related to fandom. However, the fan communities that Cecilia and I studied on Fanfiction.net and FIMFiction.net were overwhelmingly positive and supportive in nature. In our analysis of story reviews on Fanfiction.net, the number of positive, constructive reviews written by readers far exceeded the flames. In the rare case we did encounter a flame, it was typical for other readers to come to the defense of whomever was being flamed and disavow the flamer.

Something is going very right in these communities; they represent a stark contrast to the negative dialogue that one encounters in so many other online communities. I’m also inspired by the passion that individual writers and readers bring to their fanfiction writing and community participation. They love their fandom/s, they love reading and writing about them, and they love connecting with other people who are similarly passionate. As an educator, I see a ton of potential for learning and personal growth when young people are truly passionate about a subject. With this passion typically comes a commitment among fanfiction authors to produce an impressive amount of fanfiction (rivaling the Google Books English fiction corpus), improve their writing, and even support the growth of other fanfiction writers. I find that sort of commitment very inspiring.

Cecilia: Like Katie, I’m inspired by the astonishing explosion of creativity from young people today. I’m inspired by the fact that on a single site alone, Fanfiction.net, there are ten million users and seven million stories produced by young people with a median age of 15 ½. It’s simply amazing that these young authors have, over the past 20 years alone, written over 61 billion words of fiction and shared 177 million reviews and feedback on those stories. It inspires me and encourages me that young people are writing stories, learning about writing, mentoring their peers, and participating in the age-old human drive for creativity. And, of course, it inspires me that AO3 — a site created by women and where many young authors have grown into adult contributors — is now the fastest-growing fanfiction repository as well as a Hugo Award winner. I’m totally rocking my “Award-Winning Fanfic Writer” pin.

Catch up on earlier guest posts

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