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Online Fanfiction: What Technology and Popular Culture Can Teach Us About Writing and Literacy Instruction

by Rebecca W. Black

Across the globe youth are growing up with digital and interactive media technologies as an integral part of their lives. This generation of learners, often called the 'Net-Generation, spends a great deal of free time engaging in online literacy-related activities such as instant messaging, gaming, surfing, and publishing on the web. Such media and technology-literate students can pose special challenges for educators who grew up with and value more print-based forms of literacy. However, because these youth often find digital literacy activities to be more engaging than the print-based ones associated with classrooms, it seems important for us, as literacy educators and researchers, to take an in-depth look at some of these media and activities that young people find so engaging. One such activity that warrants a closer look is online fanfiction—that is, fan-authored texts stemming from popular culture and media such as books, music, movies, and video games. While paper-based fanfiction has been around for years (Jenkins, 1992), in recent decades, fans have started "meeting" in online spaces to publish, share, and critique each other's texts.

As a longtime fanfiction author, I was fascinated to find other fans publishing or posting their work on the web. As a fan, I spent hours surfing through sites, reading and posting reviews of my favorite fictions. A few years ago, however, I noticed something that piqued my interest as a literacy educator and researcher: There were scores of school-age children writing and reviewing fictions on these interactive websites. One particular site, fanfiction.net, houses an overwhelming number of youth-authored fictions. For example, there are approximately 31,000 Yu-Gi-Oh!, over 25,000 Final Fantasy, and over 170,000 Harry Potter fictions (as of 1/15/05). I was even more fascinated to find that there are many school-age English Language Learners (ELLs) participating in these sites, both in English and in their primary languages. As such, I decided it was worthwhile to take a closer look at this online community to find out what made it so compelling for the youth that were enthusiastically writing, reading, and socializing in this space.

In this article, I focus on a subsection of fanfiction.net that contains approximately 16,000 fictions based on Card Captor Sakura (CCS), an animé (Japanese animation) series popular with children and adolescents in a number of countries. The plot centers on the adventures of a Japanese girl named Sakura Kinomoto. I chose this series because it is not English language-based, and there are ELLs living in the U.S. and other countries writing and reading fictions in this section of the site. While there are countless aspects of fanfiction.net worthy of further exploration, I will focus mainly on the interactive elements of the technology and online community that help ELLs and struggling writers display and build on personal strengths as they affiliate themselves within the fan community. I will also introduce some of the literate practices and community resources that scaffold ELLs' success with writing, and promote their use of various literacies as they establish and enact their identities through interactions on the site.

Writing Curriculum and Fanfiction

At the middle school level, a key aspect of teaching narrative writing is helping students to develop believable characters, realistic settings, and complex plots (Atwell, 1998). A related aspect of fanfiction that I find to be particularly compelling is how fans, of their own accord, choose to engage in these same literacy practices as they rework and extend the original media. For example, young writers create highly complex characters and insert them into the world of CCS, such as one young girl writing in the U.K. who created a younger sibling for Sakura Kinomoto and then posted an intricate genealogy that explains her relationship to other characters. They also dream up new settings to support alternate plotlines, such as one fan who created a company called Kinomoto Industries where the CCS characters could work after graduation. Most fascinating of all though, is the way that fans take up characters from the animé series and use them to express concerns from their daily lives through writing. For example, many texts use animé characters to elaborate plots based on themes such as peer pressure, popularity, friendship, and family. Other fictions depict characters dealing with difficult issues such as teen pregnancy, school violence, and suicide. Moreover, readers respond to these issues in their reviews, offering advice and support, and often sharing relevant personal narratives from their own lives. Such practices illustrate how identity and social interaction are integral parts of the writing and reading practices taking place in this community.

Prewriting Fanfiction

In his groundbreaking work surrounding fan culture, Henry Jenkins points out that fandom is "a complex, multidimensional phenomenon, inviting many different forms of participation and levels of engagement" (1992, p.2). Fanfiction.net enables fans to draw on personal strengths to support meaningful participation in the community, even before they are ready to begin posting their own fictions. To begin, each member receives a personal page for writing biographical information and for putting up links to homepages or personal fan websites. Best practice in teaching writing, as well as in teaching English as a second language, emphasizes the importance of recognizing and building on students' abilities and experiences in the classroom (Atwell, 1998; Freeman & Freeman, 2001). With ELLs and struggling readers and writers, this often entails providing options for meaningful participation that are not wholly dependent on language skills. The digital medium of websites allows for the easy incorporation of elements such as images, sound, color, and shape that can be integrated with text to convey meaning. Such links serve the dual purpose of enabling fans that are not yet posting fictions to display their expertise in areas such as fan art, web design, and video production, while at the same time facilitating communication with other members of the site in ways that are not solely based on English language and writing skills.

Many new members of the site also participate in the community by reading and reviewing fictions before they post texts of their own. This allows them time to become familiar with fanfiction-related terms, official and unofficial rules of the site, and conventions of fanfiction writing. Such reading activities also scaffold writing development by helping ELLs to learn the organizational patterns and structures of the English language through engagement with a range of authentic texts (Piazza, 2003). Moreover, one of the unofficial codes of conduct on fanfiction.net is "you review my fiction, I'll review yours." Thus, in reading and posting reviews of texts, new members not only are becoming familiar with the conventions of fanfiction writing, they also are developing an audience of friendly readers before they begin posting their own fictions.

Peer-review and Fanfiction Writing Resources

Once fans being posting, there are several aspects of the online medium that provide support and motivate them to continue writing. On fanfiction.net, authors post fictions with the express purpose of receiving feedback in the form of reviews. Effective approaches to teaching writing, such as Writer's Workshop, emphasize the importance of peer-to-peer discussion and review in helping students to develop meta-knowledge of their own writing processes (Piazza, 2003). The online medium of fanfiction allows for immediate response from and interactive discussion with a diverse group of peer-reviewers. While classroom peers are often determined by age and location, online peer groups encompass a range of ages, locations, socio-economic groups, education levels, and linguistic backgrounds. In spite of this diversity, because CCS fans share a love for animé, they come to the activity of reviewing with a shared point of reference, meaning writers can be confident that the general topic of their writing will be known and of interest to the audience. This is not always the case in classrooms, as writers are often composing texts for teachers and peers that may not share their knowledge of or interest in a topic.

Another significant aspect of online fanfiction that supports the highly social and interactive nature of writing is the array of community resources devoted to composition. On fanfiction.net, members can find links to countless fanfiction-related help sites. These sites are devoted to meta-discussion of elements of writing such as plot development, characterization, adherence to genre, and grammar, to name just a few. Additionally, there are sites devoted to "beta-reading"—the fanfiction term for editing. The Laundromat (2004) is a site where authors submit fictions to a beta-reader by filling out a form specifying genre (e.g. poetry, narrative, romance) and particular fandom (e.g. Harry Potter, Pokémon) of the fiction, as well as indicating what aspects of composition they would like help on. This form illustrates how the site attempts to match beta-readers that are well versed in a genre with fictions from that same genre. This facilitates more focused review and helps authors work on genre-specific skills. Many authors pair with a beta-reader over time. Such collaborative efforts highlight the social nature of writing and emphasize the importance of focused, substantive feedback from peers and colleagues.

Fanfiction: A sample

Now that we have covered some of the ways that fanfiction.net provides a supportive community in which many ELLs and students who claim English as their "worst subject" voluntarily spend hours engaging in school-related practices, we should look at some examples. The following excerpt is by an adolescent ELL writer, a native Mandarin Chinese speaker, who, over several years, has posted fifteen separate CCS series and has received a staggering 6000 reviews. When this author, who we will call Sakura Gurl, posts her fictions, she begins by self-identifying as a non-native English speaker and openly states that she is trying to improve her English language skills.

This particular example, one of Sakura Gurl's early fictions, is what is known within the fanfiction community as a crossover, meaning that the author essentially "crosses over" between two genres or forms of media to create hybrid texts such as songfictions or moviefictions. In this instance, Sakura Gurl uses characters and setting from the CCS series, but loosely bases her plot on the movie You've Got Mail (Ephron, 1998). Crossovers are very common in fanfiction, and these intertextual connections are helpful for ELLs and beginning writers for several reasons. For one, they provide writers with a preexisting framework of action or plot to follow. This also means that authors do not have to create an entirely new setting or cast of characters unless they choose to. Additionally, if spelling and grammatical errors make the piece difficult to understand, readers will still be able to follow or at least have a sense of the plot if they are familiar with the original text that the author is drawing from. Such composition practices help ELLs to compose popular texts and to develop their identities as successful writers in the community.

Sakura Gurl frequently inserts what are known within the fanfiction community as Author's Notes (A/N). She uses A/Ns in several different ways: to clarify meaning, to insert personal comments, to ask readers for input on specific parts of the plot, to ask readers for help on spelling and grammar, and to point out areas where she is specifically taking up or not taking up audience members' suggestions in her story. It is clear from the responses to her posts that readers do respond to her A/Ns and often offer constructive feedback or specific responses to her insertions, as in the following reviews.

This immediate and interactive response from reviewers promotes affiliation with writing in two very salient ways. First, the dynamic interaction between author and reader helps the writer develop a strong sense of audience and practice revision through fashioning and refashioning texts to address input from the audience. Second, the immediate feedback provides writers with a good reason to keep writing, as they receive encouragement and support from an audience that is eagerly awaiting the next chapter of their story. Moreover, this sense of a reading audience helps the fan to take on and enact the identity of a successful writer and user of English and language.

Conclusion and Implications for Education

In presenting these brief examples, it is not my intent to hold this writing community up as a pedagogical model that we, as teachers, should aspire to. Nor am I suggesting that fanfiction should be incorporated into classrooms as part of the curriculum, in fact, I am certain that importing fanfiction into schools would detract from its appeal for many fans. Instead, I suggest that exploration of such sites can provide valuable insight into the sort of literacy-related activities that youth find meaningful. Members of fanfiction.net engage in activities that are congruent with what we already know about best practice in writing instruction: that it is important to integrate multiple modes of meaning-making into literacy activities, that collaborative activity and discussion between peers enhances writing ability, and that language use is social and intimately tied to identity. What makes this space remarkable though, is the amount of time and effort that ELLs and native speakers alike are willing to put into academic literacy practices in an out-of-school space. Understanding how technology, popular culture, and identity are related to learners' eagerness to read, write, and communicate in such indigenous online spaces is a first step toward developing the sort of technology-rich, interactive writing activities that 'Net-Generation students will find motivating and meaningful in the classroom. It is also a step toward understanding how the computer can be used as a basis for helping ELLs and struggling writers to develop the sort of literacies, digital and otherwise, that are vital for success in their future academic and work endeavors.

References

Atwell, N. (1998). In the middle: New understandings about writing, reading, and learning. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook.

Ephron, N. (Director). (1998). You've got mail. [Motion Picture]. Burbank, CA: Warner Brothers.

Freeman, D.A. & Freeman, Y.S. (2001). Between worlds: Access to second language acquisition. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Jenkins, H. (1992) Textual poachers: Television, fans, and participatory culture. New York, NY: Routledge.

Laundromat, (2004) Retrieved April 04, 2003 from http://laundromat.iamsleepy.org/ authorform.php

Piazza, C. (2003). Journeys: The teaching of writing in elementary classrooms. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill/Prentice Hall.

About the author

Rebecca W. Black is a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Her work focuses on digital literacies and popular culture, second language learning, and the social contexts of language and literacy development.

Rebecca W. Black
112A Teacher Education Building
225 N. Mills Street
Madison, WI 53706
rwblack@wisc.edu
www.rebeccasresearch.com

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