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Leveraging Participation in Online Fanfiction Spaces to Collaborate in Writing

By Jayne C. Lammers
 | Jun 24, 2016

ThinkstockPhotos-450746287_x300Much of what we know about the powerful literacy experiences youths can have when participating in online fan communities comes from studies of exceptional cases—highly engaged youths with passion, access to technology, and specialized interests that lead them to “geek out” in digital spaces. From this work we know about Jack, a 13-year-old Australian boy, who developed technical and literacy design skills as he participated in Hunger Games fan sites, and about how Heather, a teenager in the United States, who rallied her global network of fan writers to defeat Warner Bros. studios as it threatened legal action against Harry Potter fans. My own research has relied on exceptional youths making recommendations for how teachers might support their students in writing for and with online audiences.  

But what about a more typical young writer? What else might we learn by digging into the experiences of a less exceptional case? Answering these questions motivated my analysis of one teenager’s participation in The Sims Writers’ Hangout, published in Research in the Teaching of English in February.

Though The Hangout has since shut down, for more than 18 months, Angela, who at the time was in 9th and 10th grades, was a regular participant on this site for fans who used The Sims videogames to write stories. In its online discussion forums, Hangout members shared their Sims fanfiction—multimodal, digital texts that pair images taken in the game with narratives that authors write (see an example of Sims fanfiction created with The Sims 4)—and readers posted feedback. I observed and interviewed Angela as she joined The Hangout, started sharing her Sims fanfiction, received critical responses, and then shaped her stories to meet the expectations of this online fan community.

Unlike past fanfiction research findings that illustrate how participating in an online community connects writers with a passionate audience or gives them access to identities as writers, one unique insight from my research was that Angela needed the other members of The Hangout to even be a Sims fanfiction writer. She leveraged her participation in this fan space to access people who helped her design Sims fanfiction in a variety of ways. Here, I share how Angela outsourced part of her Sims fanfiction design work as one illustrative example.   

Although she came to The Hangout with an affinity for The Sims and for writing, Angela ran into challenges meeting this community’s expectations for high-quality digital images because of her technology limitations. She did not have Adobe Photoshop and acknowledged that using freely available software made “image editing…really tedious.” Angela’s solution was to outsource this aspect of designing Sims fanfiction; she posted messages in the forum asking other Hangout members to provide her with pictures for her stories. In one such message, she shared a blurry image, saying “I'm going to need some help.” Two Hangout members volunteered, and Angela had a clearer, more stylized cover image when she finally shared the completed story.

What relevance do Angela’s experiences have for literacy teachers? As the standards governing many literacy classrooms now integrate digital literacies into curriculum expectations, it has become more important for teachers to consider how to support students’ writing for online audiences. I continue to advocate for educators to find ways to connect youth writers with online audiences who can shape their work. Although many already share students’ writing on a classroom website or blog, those audiences rarely extend beyond readers already connected to that class (i.e., other students, teachers, parents). Instead, I argue that teachers design digital writing tasks to ask students to share with existing, authentic online audiences, such as those in online writing communities. Doing so will connect young writers to collaborators who may shape their writing in meaningful ways.

Jayne C. Lammers is an assistant professor and director of the secondary English teacher preparation program at the University of Rochester. She can also be reached on Twitter.

This article is part of a series from the Technology in Literacy Education Special Interest Group (TILE-SIG).

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