Outside of the classroom, young adults are writing stories, creating art, producing songs, and engaging in role playing games to express their affinity for popular media franchises, such as The Hunger Games. Within and across diverse online spaces, they are connecting with others around this common interest and finding global audiences for their creative work.
According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 80% of adolescents use online social network sites, 38% share original creative work online, and 21% remix their own transformative works, inspired by others’ words and images (Lenhart, Ling, Campbell, & Purcell, 2010; Lenhart, Madden, Smith, Purcell, Zickuhr, & Rainie, 2011).
Recent research indicates that out-of-school writing has a tangible and positive influence on in-school writing. In fact, a survey of Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers found that 96% believe that technology offers students a wider audience and 78% agree that digital tools foster student creativity and personal expression (Purcell, Buchanan, & Friedrich, 2013).
As literacy researchers, teacher educators, and former classroom teachers, we are interested in understanding how writing in the wild shapes young adults’ writing processes and products (Curwood, 2013; Curwood, Magnifico, & Lammers, 2013). From FanFiction.net to Figment.com to Wattpad.com, fanfiction has emerged as a powerful way for adolescents to share their creative writing, connect with eager readers, receive formative feedback, and participate in fan culture.
As Henry Jenkins (1992) argues, fanfiction practices blur “any clear-cut distinction between media producer and media spectator, since any spectator may potentially participate in the creation of new artworks” (p. 247). More recent research by Angela Thomas (2007) shows how fanfiction can promote collaborative writing and role-playing across a range of online and offline spaces, while Rebecca Black’s (2008) research highlights how FanFiction.net can help adolescent English language learners develop identities as English writers.
In our own work, we explore how adolescent writers leverage the technology in spaces such as FanFiction.net (FFN) to interact with their readers in ways that shape their fanfiction writing, as well as the ways in which their reading and writing practices reinforce each other (Lammers, Magnifico, & Curwood, 2014; Magnifico, Lammers, & Curwood, 2013).
We have found that spaces like FanFiction.net, Figment.com, and Wattpad.com are designed to facilitate interaction between authors and readers across time and space. Writing is highly collaborative, and authors’ writing processes are significantly shaped by the private feedback they receive from beta readers and the public feedback they receive from a global audience.
Fanfiction writers directly engage with their readers through Author Notes and Postscripts, which often appear at the beginning and end of new chapters. Consequently, technology positions adolescent authors “among the audience” (Lunsford & Ede, 2009), and fanfiction sites promote both small-scale collaborations and large-scale collective collaborations (Kafai & Peppler, 2011).
Since its founding in 1998, FFN has become the most popular fanfiction website, with over two million users and stories in more than 30 languages. Alexa, one of our primary study participants, is a fanfiction writer (all names are pseudonyms), and she actively shares her creative work on FFN, Tumblr, and Deviant Art. She has been working on her main FFN story for two years, and it is currently over 170,000 words and has garnered 1,500 reviews from readers all over the world.
For Alexa, the FFN practice of having beta readers allowed her to see writing not as a solitary activity, but as a collaborative way of engaging in the writing process. In particular, Alexa was able to take on the identity of a writer in The Hunger Games fandom because FFN gave her the freedom to pursue the plots and characters in which she was most interested whenever she wanted to write (Lammers et al., 2014).
While classrooms are typically “vertical” writing spaces, in which teachers ultimately evaluate student writing, online peer review allows students to comment on each others’ work and can be instrumental in creating “horizontal” writing spaces in both out-of-school and in-class contexts (Kalantzis & Cope, 2012). Today’s fanfiction writers can readily access an authentic audience, directly engage with reviewers, and remix characters, settings, and plots from novels and films. Fanfiction is one example of how technology can empower young adults to attend to the craft of writing in new and powerful ways.
We propose teachers draw on the principles and practices inherent in fanfiction sites to promote writing that connects students to a wider audience while fostering creativity and personal expression. At the same time, we suggest that teachers are mindful of the dangers of co-opting fanfiction and popular culture into school spaces. Ideas for exploring more about fanfiction in K-12 public schools can be found in an online article series in School Library Journal:
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TILE-SIG will host a special session on Sunday, May 11 at 3:00 p.m. at the International Reading Association 59th Annual Conference in New Orleans. The session includes the presentation of the 2014 Technology in Reading Research Award, "Changing the Landscape of Literacy Teacher Education: Innovations with Generative Technology" with keynote Dana Grisham (National University, TILE-SIG 2013 Reading Research Award Winner), and 18 roundtable discussions about research findings and practical classroom ideas. Visit http://www.iraconference.org to learn more about IRA 2014 or to register.
Jen Scott Curwood is a senior lecturer in English education and media studies at the University of Sydney in Australia. Her research focuses on adolescent literacy, technology, and teacher professional development. She is online at jensc.org and on Twitter at @jensc3.
Jayne C. Lammers is an assistant professor and director of the secondary English teacher preparation program at the University of Rochester. She studies adolescents’ literacy learning and can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter at @URocProf.
Alecia Marie Magnifico is an assistant professor of English teaching at the University of New Hampshire. Her research interests focus on adolescents’ writing, audiences, and new literacies, and her work can be found at aleciamagnifico.org and on Twitter at @aleciamarie.