The “secret garden” of the internet: How fanfiction transforms lives
This piece appears as the foreword to the book Writers in the Secret Garden: Fanfiction, Youth, and New Forms of Mentoring by Cecilia Aragon and Katie Davis, out now from MIT Press.
It’s easy to focus on all the terrible things that networked technologies have brought into our lives — misinformation, harassment, polarization, automated inequality. These are all things that pull us farther apart rather than bring us together, but it doesn’t have to be that way. This book describes one such counter-narrative, an example of how the same affordances of the internet that allow for those negative experiences have also created and nurtured a positive community that has touched countless lives — including mine.
When I first logged on to AOL as a teenager in the mid-nineties, one of the first things I remember searching for in this exciting new online world was “Star Trek.” From AOL I stumbled onto Usenet, and then alt.startrek.creative, and that’s where I discovered fanfiction. It felt like something clicked into place for me; through sharing my own Star Trek stories I found a writing community, and in fact, a learning community. I didn’t have the words to describe it then, but the positive feedback that helped me grow as a writer was an example of the distributed mentoring described in this book.
As the internet became a more and more important part of our lives, it also became an important site for scholarly research that teaches us not only about technology but about ourselves and our world. From communication to education to computer science and beyond, a variety of academic fields have explored how online platforms like Wikipedia, Stack Overflow, and Scratch serve as communities for people to share, learn, and connect. As I moved through research communities myself, I was surprised not to see more people paying attention to fanfiction writers and readers as another remarkable example of an online community — one that might even have lessons for how to make our other networked spaces more welcoming and positive.
So when I first saw Cecilia presenting some of her and Katie’s first work on this topic, a detailed ethnography subtitled “Thousands of Positive Reviews,” I wanted to jump up and down for joy. They had captured precisely what I thought everyone needed to know about fanfiction communities — the positivity, the learning experiences, the social benefits, and more. The type of mentorship they describe was something I experienced myself, improving my own writing with the help of constructive feedback and even more importantly, encouragement. I have a number of friends who are now successful, published authors and got their start in fanfiction — and more still who are writing fanfiction read by tens of thousands of people.
The concept of distributed mentoring described in this book captures what makes online fanfiction communities such ideal spaces for informal learning. The sheer abundance of feedback, the variety of perspectives, the cumulative nature of learning, the persistent availability of experiences to learn from, and the positive norms surrounding critique have all evolved from the combination of the culture of fanfiction and the affordances of networked technologies. Taken together, those “thousands of positive reviews” have contributed to the education and support of countless young people who have both improved their writing and made important social connections.
Additionally, the social norms that Cecilia and Katie describe in the context of distributed mentoring impact not just feedback around writing, but the entire culture of the community. In my own work, I have done extensive research around the fanfiction platform Archive of Our Own, which is itself a wonderful example of what fanfiction communities can create. They built their own platform from scratch, and today it has almost 2 million users. They also designed with the values of their community in mind — values of respect, positivity, and inclusiveness. Just as Cecilia and Katie’s research participants describe fanfiction as a “labor of love,” the same is true of the archive itself. Even developers I interviewed — all women, a stark contrast to other open source projects — described the learning environment (this time for coding, not writing) as “loving.” Similar to the stories of young people who found that supportive encouragement from the fanfiction community spurred them on to improve their writing, the same kind of social relationships helped more women learn to code.
As you will learn in this book, fanfiction communities also include a large number of young people, who are creating and learning and even teaching. They are proof that young people can accomplish amazing things — not just through their creativity, but through collective action. For example, the fan activist group The Harry Potter Alliance has mobilized tens of thousands to advocate for causes like human rights and literacy. Fanfiction writers also advocate for themselves; the nonprofit Organization for Transformative Works has helped shape copyright policy to support fair use.
These communities are also inclusive spaces where young people can be themselves and geek out about the things they love in a place where they’ll be celebrated for it. Fanfiction communities can even function as important support spaces for LGBTQ teens who may not have this support elsewhere in their lives. The story in the introduction of this book of an isolated teen who found a vital social outlet in fanfiction communities is just one of countless more. Over the course of my research, I’ve heard multiple stories about how these communities literally save lives.
Fanfiction, fan communities, and “geek” culture are becoming more mainstream, and fan studies, an interdisciplinary field that crosses media studies, literature, cultural studies, gender studies, and social science, is also beginning to touch fields like computer science. This book builds upon a long history in fan studies of drawing attention to the depth, appeal, and power of both fanworks and the communities that create and surround them. However, the concept of distributed mentoring is something new. By combining ethnography and data science, Cecilia and Katie have been able to rigorously establish and detail something that will ring true to anyone familiar with fanfiction. However, they also provide new insights that will make even fans see their communities in a new light, while also illustrating how much the rest of the world can learn from them.
This book is a wonderful example of such a cross-disciplinary learning opportunity. Fanfiction communities might showcase the power of distributed mentoring, but as readers will discover, this concept could have much broader applications. Creativity bubbles up from every corner of our networked spaces — from artwork (DeviantArt) to knitting (Ravelry) to modding games (Minecraft). When you combine these creative projects with a community of people with similar passion and knowledge, the result is a community of learning as well. This book provides deep insights into one organically successful example — and thus a roadmap for how designers might better support distributed mentoring in other online affinity spaces.
As someone who spent some time as a teenager in the “secret garden” of fanfiction communities myself, I can attest to their transformative power. I hope that many more young people get to have that same experience. Maybe they’ll find it in the new kinds of affinity spaces — ones that bring us together rather than pull us apart — that this book can help inspire.
Fiesler, Casey. 2019. Foreword. In: Aragon, Cecilia & Davis, Katie. Writers in the Secret Garden: Fanfiction, Youth, and New Forms of Mentoring. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, xi-xiv.