How the once-obscure literary genre is giving voice to the voiceless and inspiring a new, more diverse generation of computer scientists.
Casey Fiesler was a precocious 14-year-old with, as she recalls, “not much of a social life,” when she switched on her parents’ boxy IBM PC, logged onto AOL for the first time and slipped into the comforting rabbit hole that is fanfiction.
The year was 1996, and she’d already been unknowingly writing “fanfic” for years — dreaming up new adventures for her favorite characters from The Baby-Sitters Club books and quietly scrawling them in her spiral notebook. But with her discovery of new online message boards in which fans share and review remixed versions of their favorite literature, her solitary pastime took an exhilarating turn.
“I realized that there were other people out there doing this too, and they were sharing their stories with each other,” recalls Fiesler, who went on to devour Star Trek fanfiction during undergrad, remained a prolific Harry Potter fanfic writer through law school and credits the experience for inspiring her to become a social computing researcher. “I felt like something clicked into place for me. Through sharing my stories, I found my community.”
Today, the once-obscure fanfiction subculture has evolved into a literary genre in its own right, with the fast-growing fanfic website Archive of Our Own (AO3) now boasting more than 5 million stories posted by 2 million registered users and drawing 200 million views per month.
In August, AO3 won a prestigious Hugo Award for science fiction, a milestone some view as validation that fanfiction — long looked down upon by literary critics — has finally arrived.
Now a CU Boulder assistant professor of information science, Fiesler has shifted her focus from writing it to studying it, exploring what she sees as a powerful role the unique genre can play in helping isolated teens, LGBTQ youth, people with disabilities and other marginalized communities find their voice.
“Fanfiction is fundamentally about writing outside the lines of traditional media, so it often becomes a place to increase representation of people we often don’t see in stories,” she said, pointing to fanfiction in which Kirk and Spock are lovers or in which all the characters at Harry Potter’s Hogwarts have physical disabilities. “It’s about speculating over how things could be different and pushing back against harmful stereotypes.”
And despite its reputation as a den of scandalous adult content (yes, there is some of that too) it’s one of the least-toxic corners of the internet, Fiesler contends.
“It’s a hugely positive community compared to many of our more negative online spaces,” she said. “There’s a lot we can learn from fanfiction.”
From Sherlock Holmes to Fifty Shades of Grey
As far back as the 1880s, frustrated Sherlock Holmes devotees, anxiously awaiting the next installment, would often write their own.
But many trace the true birth of fanfiction to the 1960s, when Star Trek fans — mostly women who felt left out or misrepresented in the series — would create self-published hand-stapled “fanzines” and distribute them at fan conventions.
The internet fueled further growth, providing would-be authors a way to easily test their writing chops outside the cutthroat publishing world. Because they were portraying characters that people already cared about, they often found a large, ready-made audience awaiting their work.
Fanfiction is one of the least-toxic corners of the internet.
“I would write something, and within an hour have 100 people telling me I am brilliant. It was very validating,” recalls Fiesler.
According to the new book Writers in the Secret Garden: Fanfiction, Youth, and New Forms of Mentoring (for which Fiesler wrote the foreword), fanfiction writers were contributing 80,000 new narratives per month to the site fanfiction.net by 2013. By comparison, 3,600 traditional books were published per month that year.
Today, the flourishing community is more diverse than ever. According to recent survey data from Fiesler’s research group, the vast majority are women, only 25 percent identify as heterosexual, and the way they practice their craft is equally eclectic.
Some pluck characters from popular works like The Hunger Games, Marvel comics or Breaking Bad and place them in an alternate universe (a modern-day coffee shop; a distant planet). Others fill in scenes that never happened or develop characters that had only minor roles in the original. In the case of E.L. James’ blockbuster Fifty Shades of Grey, which originated as fanfiction, the author took Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series and gave it an erotic twist.
“It’s about spending more time in the worlds you love and exploring characters beyond the page,” said Fiesler.
Giving Voice to the Geeks
Fiesler believes fanfiction is beginning to emerge from the shadows in part due to what she calls “the mainstreaming of geek culture.” Even she would have been reluctant to discuss her love of fandom a decade ago; today, comic book conventions are cool, superhero movies are dominating the big screen and fantasy TV shows like Game of Thrones are the subject of water-cooler conversations.
But she and her students are most interested in what the genre does to support groups that, even today, don’t see themselves in mainstream literature.
“You can make everyone have a disability, or everyone be queer or everyone be a person of color — just something different than the stencil we so often see,” said Brianna Dym (PhDInfoSci’22), a PhD student in Fiesler’s lab who’s leading research about how marginalized communities utilize fanfiction, funded by a $250,000 National Science Foundation grant. “That can be a very empowering act.”
Growing up queer in remote Alaska, Dym herself found her way to fanfiction as a way to connect with other LGBTQ teens. Through 56 interviews for her research so far, she has found that for many, fanfiction sites serve as a safe, anonymous space — away from critical eyes — where they can explore their LGBTQ identity.
“You can make everyone have a disability, or everyone be queer or everyone be a person of color.”
“They might find stories about Captain Kirk marrying Spock after he retires or Hermione Granger realizing she’s in love with Fleur Delacour, and they might recognize something about their own identity within those characters,” she said. “The stories become a community resource, and their authors mentors to help guide readers through the coming out process.”
Fanfiction has also become a rich resource for youth with autism, with numerous Harry Potter fanfics featuring autistic wizards describing what it feels like to be diagnosed, experience sensory overload or know that they’re different.
“People will often reach out to the writer and say ‘Hey, this is really amazing. It reminded me of what I’m going through,’” said Dym, who believes fanfiction can serve as a valuable tool for therapists.
A New Generation of Coders
Fiesler said there’s another often-overlooked reason to celebrate fanfiction.
At a time when only one in five computer scientists are female, and even fewer work in open-source development, it’s inspiring a new generation of women to get interested in the field.
In order to create Archive of Our Own, its all-female team of founders had to learn to code and plan, build and design the platform from scratch, creating a welcoming online space where users could find what they were looking for (or avoid what they don’t want to see) amid an ever-changing collection of stories derived from more than 30,000 original works.
“AO3 is successful as a platform in part because the people who use it are the ones who built it,” said Fiesler.
She uses that example often with her students, stressing that if they feel excluded or offended by existing online offerings, they can learn the tools to build their own.
In doing so, as in writing fanfiction, they’ll be able to write their own story.
“There have been times when, as a woman, I’ve felt out of place in science fiction communities, gaming communities or computer science communities,” said Fiesler. “Fanfiction is a place where everyone can come as they are.”
Illustration by Hanna Barczyk