One of the central animating idea behind the New Media Literacies movement has been the observation that young people often learn better outside of schools — through their involvement in informal communities, such as those formed around fandom or gaming — than they do inside the classrooms. Researchers have sought to better understand these sites of informal learning and the often unconsciously developed pedagogical practices by which they communicate skills and information to newbies. James Paul Gee has used the term, “affinity space,” to describe such sites of grassroots creativity and learning. Kurt Squire and Constance Steinkuehler deploy the “affinity space” concept to talk about communities of gamers. I’ve used the same concept in my discussion of young fan fiction writers.
Rebecca W. Black, one of Gee’s former students, has recently released an outstanding new book, Adolescents and Online Fan Fiction, which uses the study of anime fan fiction as the focus for a consideration of informal learning. Her central focus are on how fandom helps students for whom English is a second language refine their linguistic abilities and sharpen their expressiveness. She argues fandom has allowed many young people — especially those from Asia — to find their voice and gain greater social acceptance because the community is so eager to learn what they know about the cultures where anime is produced and circulated. This book reflects some of the best thinking in the current field of educational research on the value of participating in popular culture and will be of interest to parents, educators, policy makers, and fans.
I had a chance to meet Black some years ago when she was at the beginning of her research; my early conversations with her and with Gee helped to inform my own writing about “Why Heather Can Write” in Technology Review and Convergence Culture. I am proud to share her insights through the following interview.
The central claim of your book is that the practices and processes around the writing and sharing of anime-related fan fiction show many of the signs of a very robust and effective learning community. What aspects of fandom do you think support this kind of learning?
Well, for one I think that the openness and scope of the fan community really fosters learning. And, I should clarify that I don’t just mean traditional school-based forms of learning but rather learning in a broad sense. For instance, in terms of openness, you don’t have to pass any kind of a test, and there aren’t any requirements for gaining access to all the sections of Fanfiction.net. Therefore, youth at all different skill levels have the opportunity to tackle any sort of communication or writing task that they choose. However, in schools the activities that students participate in are often determined by ability level. And while I think it’s important to make sure that curricular materials are accessible, I also think that lessons are often oversimplified for certain groups of students, such as English language learners (ELLs) and struggling writers and readers, to the extent that these students aren’t offered many opportunities to use language in rich and creative ways or to participate in challenging literacy activities. In contrast, ELL youth participating in the fan community often take on challenging tasks, such as writing stories with multiple chapters or creating their own fan-based websites. In addition, they’re able to draw on an array of resources in the community for support. Other fans are available and happy to peer-review their fictions, they visit other websites to receive tips on how to compose their texts or to build their websites, to name just a few examples. Interestingly enough, schools often seem to discourage activities with these distributed forms of knowledge and resources, instead focusing on testing for what students have “inside their heads”. However, I think it’s just as important to recognize, evaluate, and help develop students’ strategies for learning, collaborating, and accessing knowledge that they don’t already possess, as this seems to be much more aligned with what we do as adults. I mean, I don’t know all sorts of things, but I have pretty good strategies in place for finding them out.
You deploy James Paul Gee’s concept of an “affinity space” to talk about FanFiction.net. Can you explain this concept and share some of your thinking about FanFiction.net?
Well, this is related to the previous question. For Gee, there are several defining features of affinity spaces that make them particularly effective sites for informal learning, and many of these features can be seen in fan fiction writing communities. For example, one defining feature is that experts and novices participate in the same areas and activities in affinity spaces. So, as I mentioned previously, novices aren’t prevented from engaging in creative activities that they find interesting, even if these activities are challenging for them. And, through working in the same space as experts, novices are able to benefit from this exposure, by asking questions, collaborating, and by observing how experts go about certain tasks.
Another defining feature of affinity spaces is that they are organized around a common interest or goal rather than around age, socio-economic status, ethnicity, gender, or ability. One of the ways that this is really salient in anime fan fiction communities is in how they provide points of contact for individuals from diverse backgrounds. For example, the participants in my study had people from over 20 different countries reading and leaving feedback on their stories. I used to write fan fiction when I was younger, and the only people who read my stories were my closest friends who lived in the same town, went to the same school, and had similar backgrounds. And even they only saw the stories that I wasn’t too shy to show them. Publishing on the web wasn’t really an option back then. But now, the internet really provides unprecedented options for either anonymously (or somewhat anonymously) sharing content, and for exchanging information and ideas with people from all over the world. As one example, if a fan fiction writer wants to write a story that’s based on high school students in Japan, s/he can post questions to a fan fiction forum asking for specifics about what everyday school and home life is like in Japan, and s/he can be pretty sure of getting some accurate responses from audience members who currently are living or have lived in Japan. And, the diverse and networked nature of affinity spaces also opens up a space for youth to discuss different culturally grounded practices and perspectives. For instance, one of my focal participants wrote a story that involved an arranged marriage between cousins. Now, this arranged marriage wasn’t even a big part of the story, but it was something that several of the readers reacted pretty strongly to. Her response to this was to write a couple of fan fiction stories that focused on anime characters and their arranged marriages as part of a cultural practice that is grounded in familial duty. This was her way of pushing some of these readers to move beyond their limited scope of knowledge and learn more about a practice that is very common in many parts of the world.
These points of cultural connection also are providing many youth with the incentive to learn different languages and to find out about different cultures. I think this is related to the “pop cosmopolitanism” that you discuss in your book Convergence Culture. Many anime-based fan fiction texts are linguistically hybrid, in that they contain more than one language, and, as I mentioned previously, they’re often set in Asian countries. But, it’s important to note that this isn’t limited to anime communities and Asian elements. Fan fiction authors use many different languages and cultural elements to enhance their stories. Sirpa Leppanen has some interesting insights into these hybrid language practices in the article “Youth language in media contexts: Insights into the functions of English in Finland”. I think that reading and trying to write these hybrid texts creates a cosmopolitan sensibility and a culture of interest in learning about new things. For example, online anime translation dictionaries have become very popular; there are forums specifically for fan fiction authors trying to do historical and cultural research to make their narratives more accurate; there are discussions about the historical, cultural, and linguistic accuracy of fan fiction narratives taking place between authors and reviewers on fanfiction.net. And these are just a few examples that come immediately to mind. On a related note, Eva Lam has pointed out that these points of contact in online communities don’t necessarily or automatically bring about empathy and acceptance, and the previous example about arrange marriages clearly supports this. Still, I think that the shared interest of the affinity space provides unprecedented exposure to other linguistic and cultural traditions that just wasn’t available before, and exposure is the starting point for moving toward understanding.
What led you to an interest in fan fiction as a space for understanding informal learning?
Well, I was actually a fan fiction writer as a child. It started when I read Tolkien’s trilogy for the first time. I was pretty upset that Arwen Evenstar had to give up her immortality to be with Aragorn. So, I came up with my own version of how this part of the story might go. I’d rather not go into detail about that particular fic, but I’ll at least say that it involved a magic immortality potion and a bird carrying letters back and forth between Middle Earth characters. Unfortunately, I didn’t really have any friends who were interested in this sort of writing; they were more interested in television and MTV, so I gradually abandoned these writing activities for others. Almost 20 years later I went to UW Madison to work on my doctorate with Jim Gee, and I started looking at the literacy practices of fans in gaming communities. This led me to online fan fiction, and to be honest, I was pretty excited to find that there were so many people like me, writing their own versions of popular texts. Also, my background is in linguistics and teaching English as a second language, so I became particularly interested in the communities where non-native English speakers were composing and interacting in English. At the time, there was very little discussion of fan fiction in relation to literacy–in fact, I think that only Kelly Chandler-Olcott & Donna Mahar and you had even remotely touched on the literacy aspect. So, I decided that a dissertation based on English language learners and online fan fiction might help us to understand how this literacy phenomenon might be impacting immigrant youth’s literacy development and language socialization and providing a significant venue for informal learning.
You offer detailed accounts of how and what several young fans learn through their participation in the world of fan fiction. How was the world of fan fiction able to facilitate and support their different goals and styles as learners?
My focal participants were all in very different situations as English language learners, and they had very different goals for and outcomes from their participation in the site. For example, Grace lived in the Philippines, and she learned English as a third language there. Most of her experience with English had been in writing academic texts in her classrooms. In an interview, she explained that participation in fan sites helped her learn how to “speak American” and that made her feel more comfortable developing the texts for her own websites and interacting with people online. So, for Grace, the value of writing these texts in English was that it provided her with feedback and input on how to “Americanize” her existing English skills. Nanako, on the other hand, didn’t learn English until she moved from China to Canada with her family when she was about 11. She used to start many of her fictions with an Author’s Note explaining that she was just learning English and really wanted to improve her language and writing skills. And, the audience was pretty receptive to this. They would comment on her grammar and spelling errors, but in supportive or constructive ways. Some readers would give her very specific feedback on grammatical errors that were common in her writing, and she would take note of this and actually go back and correct these errors in her writing. The audience also would give her a lot of positive feedback about her plotlines which helped bolster her confidence enough to continue writing in spite of her early struggles with grammar and spelling. As a very different example, another focal participant, Cherry-chan, found it taxing to write the sort of long, narrative texts that Grace and Nanako would write (for example, Grace has one fan fiction that’s 30 chapters long, and Nanako has one that’s 14 chapters long). So, she got into Role Play (RP) Writing, which is a type of fan fiction that takes place on a synchronous medium such as instant messenger. RP writers will take on the personas of different characters and then take turns constructing the narrative from each character’s point of view. Cherry-chan liked the social aspect of this collaborative kind of writing. RP writing also gave her immediate feedback on how her co-author was responding to her text, and it more or less forced her to continue writing.
Angela Thomas has done some interesting work interrogating adolescents’ identity construction in RP writing that helped me think about how this form of composition was a way for Cherry-chan to extend her social relationships and use the anime characters to “ventriloquate” some of her own identity issues and perspectives. I think this is a common element of both RP and traditional fan fiction– in that the authors use the characters to represent issues that they are struggling with in their own lives. As one example (that might be a little bit off topic), while I was conducting my study, I came across a “suicide fic” in which the teenage author depicted the anime protagonist committing suicide. The author concluded this fiction with an Author’s Note stating that this would be his final story. Basically, he was implying that he was considering suicide himself. What was so powerful about this event was the outpouring of support he received from the audience of readers. There were youth and young adults alike offering up supportive advice, encouraging him not to give up, and providing their instant messenger addresses so that he could contact them at any time when he felt like giving up. Now, I’ve had some people ask me if it was actually harmful to have all these untrained people offering this young man encouragement and wouldn’t it be better for him to reach out to a suicide hotline or a counselor where someone trained in such matters could help? This is where I think the affinity space aspect of fan communities comes into play again. Specifically, I think a lot of youth who are in crisis might have a difficult time approaching total strangers with whom they have nothing in common. However, in the anime fan community, they feel at least some point of affiliation and contact with the people that they’ve been sharing stories and feedback with. This might make it easier for them to reach out within the affinity space where they feel comfortable, when they might otherwise not reach out at all.
Rebecca W. Black is an assistant professor in the Department of Education at the University of California, Irvine. Her research centers on the forms of literacy and social engagement that are emerging in online environments. In particular, Black has focused on the ways that popular culture-inspired environments, such as fan communities, provide adolescent English language learners with opportunities to develop their language skills, establish social connections with global networks of youth, and construct powerful identities as successful authors and knowledgeable fans. Her work has been published in journals such as Reading Research Quarterly, TeacherÂ’s College Record, and the Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy. In addition, Prof. Black ‘s book titled Adolescents and Online Fan Fiction was recently published in the Peter Lang series on Digital Epistemologies.