The internet can be a dark and scary place, especially for teenagers. But in fanfiction communities, teens explore their creative sides and work together to improve their skills, usually without fear of ridicule.
“There is a very low incidence of flaming or hate speech in these communities. They’re very supportive,” said Katie Davis, an associate professor at the University of Washington Information School. “They’re overwhelmingly positive and supporting of identities that are not always accepted in mainstream contexts.”
In their new book released this month, “Writers in the Secret Garden,” Davis and lead author Cecilia Aragon shed light on this phenomenon and explain how the mentoring that occurs in fanfiction communities could apply in other settings.
Aragon, a professor in the UW Human Centered Design & Engineering department, said the title is an allusion to “The Secret Garden,” a 1911 novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett in which a lonely girl finds companionship and purpose in a hidden garden.
“I thought that was a wonderful metaphor for these lonely young people who are writing and cultivating their expertise as authors — and their identity as human beings — on this site that is still kind of secret,” she said.
That site is FanFiction.net, which boasts 1.5 million authors who have contributed more than 61 billion words. Writers create their own works of fiction based on established characters and then share them to the site for others to read and critique. While there are other fanfiction websites, Aragon and Davis were interested in the youthful users of FanFiction.net, which Aragon said has a median age of 15.5.
Aragon and Davis studied those 61 billion words using data science techniques and found that, even after accounting for age and other factors, writers used a greater variety of words as they learned from one another using the site. A higher diversity of words is commonly correlated with better writing.
The way youth use the site to mentor one another is of particular interest to Davis, whose research focuses on the role of technologies in young people’s learning and personal lives. In the book, she and Aragon explore the concept of “distributed mentoring,” which they introduced in previous research papers. Where traditional mentoring usually involves an older, more experienced person bestowing advice on a younger person, distributed mentoring happens among peers who may not even know each other’s names. In online fanfiction communities, it happens through user reviews, private messaging and group forums that offer feedback, and it’s distributed across time, space and technological platforms. The book explores how this mentoring method could be used in educational settings.
“We think there could be a potential for distributed mentoring to arise in a school context,” Davis said. “That could be really cool because often in school environments, most of the time only the teacher really sees what the student creates.”
The book is written for a general audience, so readers with an interest in fanfiction or education won’t have to dive into the data science methods or academic concepts to enjoy it, the authors said. Even parents who have misgivings about their teenagers interacting with an online community might find reassurance in the book.
“Young people are teaching each other how to write, and they’re improving their writing by mentoring each other,” Aragon said. “It’s something more parents should know.”