Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Book Nook: Writers in the Secret Garden

Writers in the Secret Garden is a new book that examines fanfiction websites and it was “eye-
opening” to co-authors Cecilia Aragon and Katie Davis.

In 20 years, 61 billion words have been written on fanfiction.net by kids writing fanfiction, that is, fiction building on characters or settings from another person’s work. This phenomenon is the subject of Aragon and Davis’ book, WRITERS IN THE SECRET GARDEN: Fanfiction, Youth, and New Forms of Mentoring (October 2019). Sparked by a conversation in 2013, about news stories claiming young people couldn’t write, Aragon and Davis extensively studied what was happening on fanfiction.net from both education and human-centered data science perspectives.

Q&A with Cecilia Aragon

What inspired your book?
Katie Davis and I met by chance over lunch at an event at the University of Washington. She’s a professor at UW's Information School who specializes in digital youth, child development, and education; her interests dovetailed well with my expertise in human-centered data science and the study of very large text data sets. Over lunch, we happened to discuss recent news stories in which “experts” claimed that young people couldn’t write – and agreed that we didn’t believe it. My teenage children and Katie’s young sister all defied this stereotype, writing lengthy stories, sophisticated essays, and actively participating in fan communities. This contradiction struck us as fertile ground for research, and so our collaboration began.

Over the next several years, we extensively studied what was happening on fanfiction websites from both education and human-centered data science perspectives. What we found was eye-opening and also very encouraging.

The findings discussed in our new book include:
• Most adults either have a negative view or are unaware of fanfiction, and the impact it is having on the lives of many young people today.
• On Fanfiction.net alone, 1.5 million authors have published over 7 million stories and shared over 177 million reviews of those stories.
• The median age of authors on the site is 15 1/2, with over 82% between the ages of 13 and 21.
• 73% of authors on the site are female; and more fanfiction authors identify as gender-nonconforming (13%) than male (11%).
• Young people are teaching each other how to write through the feedback they give. This new type of mentoring is unique to networked communities. Called distributed mentoring, it is described in detail in the book.
• The quality of the writing improves in response to the amount of distributed mentoring the author received. (650 reviews predicts as much growth as one year of maturation).
• Despite the fact that readers post reviews anonymously, comments are overwhelmingly positive, with less than one percent gratuitously negative.

Is there a message/theme in your book that you want readers to grasp?
We should trust young people more. They are teaching each other how to write on their own. Maybe we should support them and provide them guidance with learning rather than creating artificial structures and standardized tests.

Also, fanfiction doesn’t deserve its bad rap! We talk in Writers in the Secret Garden about the important role fanfiction can play in society.

What was one of the most surprising things you learned when writing?
First, the breadth and depth of the fanfiction community. We had no idea that millions of young people were writing and reading fanfiction, and what’s more, that they were finding their identities and teaching each other how to write.

It also surprised us to find a new type of mentoring among young people in online communities, what we ended up calling distributed mentoring. Rather than traditional one-on-one mentoring, young people are mentoring each other in small pieces that all together make up much more than the sum of the whole. We describe distributed mentoring, how it arises, and why it works in detail in the book.

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