The Multiliteracies of Fandom

The advent of the digital age has raised a great many issues regarding literacy: reviving ancient arguments relating to orality, questioning assumptions regarding cognition, raising concerns about the future of literacy, education, cognition and the fabric of society itself. Both those who believe the Internet is the great reformer and those who warn of its potential dangers seem sure of one thing: the digital age is going to change the world, somehow. Most of those ultimate changes are still unknown, as we can only speculate on how changes in communication may change us or the world around us. While some studies have been done and show shifts in cognitive practices, everything is still too new to know whether these changes are temporary shifts as we adapt to new technology or if they are more intrinsic and permanent shifts in how we think and communicate, akin to those ostensibly brought about by the shift from orality to literacy.

In truth, it is likely to be another generation or two before we can say for certain what the most indelible changes have been, and even greater retrospective investigation of the alterations in ourselves and our world will have to wait longer than that. Five hundred years from now, perhaps someone will be able to quantify how the digital age changed the world and the way humans operate within it. It seems likely, however, that just as scholars debate what the shift from orality to literacy actually engendered in human society and cognition, and academics attempt to define just what the print revolution allowed for in social change and human development, the digital debate will be no more settled in five hundred years than it is today.

That does not mean that it is not worth investigating, in the least, but it does require tempering some of the conclusions reached by those speculating on the vastness of the digital shift. We may speculate what will happen; we may back our speculations with current scientific studies; we cannot, however, be certain. Everything is too new.

What is certain, however, is that the world itself is changing (whether human beings are or are not at a biological and neurological level). Interfacing with this world, interacting within it, requires a shift in the way we think about communication and literacy. To really examine the way we think about communication and literacy, however, we must consider what we are privileging in that discussion: what forms of knowing, what forms of thinking, what forms of learning, what forms of being, what forms of communicating.

The problems of privilege in this sense predate the problem of the shift to a digital age. Without tackling the entire conundrum of racial, gender and cultural privilege, which is far beyond the scope of this paper, it is important to acknowledge that these problems of privilege in communication have been around from the beginning of recorded discussion of the preferred “better” form of communication. Plato’s written dialogues of Socrates’ privileging of orality over literacy contain many of the same concerns now levied at the shift to a digital world—Nicholas’ Carr’s concerns about our ability to concentrate and, most notably, remember in the shift to storing our data, our knowledge, externally (179-195) echo eerily Socrates’ concerns about writing itself destroying memory. Socrates, too, was concerned that man would no longer be able to remember, to think about knowledge, once he could store it outside of himself (Plato 61-63).

On the other hand, many literacy scholars argue that the shift from orality to literacy is what allowed for the modern age, and that the ability to store knowledge outside of ourselves, to examine it and question it and deepen it caused rational, logical thought to develop, leading to the Scientific Age (Goody and Watt 344-5). Similarly, some Internet evangelicals insist that the Internet will allow for similar leaps in humankind’s development (Shirky 190-191). What no one truly seems to question—on either side of the debate—is why the way things were, or why the way things could be are better. Or, if they do lay out a claim for why their way of cognition is good, they do not question the underlying assumptions and values which inform that conclusion.

That is what I want to do in this paper, focusing specifically on one subculture that is flourishing in the digital age which raises many of these issues of privilege in traditional literacy: online fandom. The past two decades have seen a lot of attention paid to the activities of fandom, examining them for cultural or communal significance. More recently, researchers in education have begun to examine the online practices of adolescent fans in hopes of finding an answer with which to bolster a flagging education system and an apparent decrease in literacy practices among youth. What researchers have begun to find is that these adolescents who are creating art works online are actually negotiating their way through several different literacies, some of which do enhance traditional notions of literacy, but which are devalued and not privileged by educators because of their construction of what literacy entails and means. Meanwhile, some who are less concerned with literacy than the powers of the Internet and the transformation of the digital age also devalue fan activities as inconsequential self-aggrandizement which is a step up from passive media consumption, but a very small step (Shirky 90-92).

While I side more with the researchers who advocate for the multitude of literacy practices taught and the value of fan activities, the resistance to this conclusion by educators mixed with some of the unquestioned assumptions of the researchers relating to privilege in a post-colonial world is troubling to me. What are we privileging when we praise the literacies of these adolescents? What are we valuing? What are we devaluing? Likewise, those who dismiss the work done by fans as meaningless also do so with a failure to grasp the culture, for one, and a failure to recognize the deep levels of learning and connection and community developed within fandom. Here, the privilege seems to be toward a certain kind of contribution to the new digital world, based on a different set of values than those of the researchers and educators.

In the middle, fandom participants and the actual literacies in which they engage (as well as their own active social constructions of privilege and values) get lost. So, too, do questions of fans’ own acknowledgment of the privileges from which they operate—even as they value recognition of other sorts of privilege. Privilege is, in and of itself, a slippery concept to deal with. Even the ability to have a discussion of privilege inevitably comes from a privileged position, likely with many unrecognized layers. To question especially the less obvious instances of it can be a frustrating exercise. But a recognition and naming of the values underneath the argument can lead to a more productive, or more interesting, discussion—i.e. rather than debate whether or not writing (and now digitality) will change our brains, it could be more interesting to examine why we think that the way our brains work now is better; to interrogate what it is that we value in the way we see cognition working; to own up to a fear of the unknown. On the other hand, can we examine why some are so excited to race headlong into the future, gleeful about any change, without a moment to consider what might be lost?

These are questions which plagued me through the semester, and they are questions which I see implicit in examining research and discussion of the literacy practices of fandom and the way in which they are discussed and studied. They may not be questions with a definitive answer, but this paper at least begins the exploration and offers some thoughts on how to begin to address them. For purposes of this beginning exploration, I will be limiting my analysis to one product of fandom activity with the most connection to traditional literacy: fan fiction.

From Orality to Literacy to the Digital

            Fan fiction is a written text which uses characters and settings from other texts to create a new work of art. Most often the texts drawn from are mass media texts making up popular culture: novels, movies, television shows, comics, anime and video games. For all of the wide-eyed wonder scholars seem to demonstrate when they stumble upon the “phenomenon” for the first time, it is not anything new. Instead, fan fiction draws on a tradition of storytelling which predates literacy. “For most of human history, the storyteller was the inheritor and protector of a shared cultural tradition. Homer took plots, characters, stories, well known to his audiences, and retold them in particularly vivid terms” (Jenkins “Digital Land Grab”). Until the advent of copyright law and the notion of the Original Author, the borrowing of other writers’ plots and characters was often seen as homage, a way of continuing the shared culture. Only when fences began to be erected around intellectual “property” did this sort of creativity begin to be frowned up on—to lose its privilege, as it were.

This loss of privilege meant a great shift in the writing of these texts. While it seems unlikely that the practice ever truly stopped—human creativity and imagination being what it is—the “discovery” and naming of the practice as “fan fiction” as a communal activity reemerged with the fanzines devoted to Star Trek in the 1960s. When the textual practices of the fan community attracted academic attention in the early 1990s, research showed that the majority of fans writing these fan fictions were white, middle class women in their twenties through forties (Jenkins, “Why Heather Can Write”). For some time, this was seen to be the norm, this demographic the norm to be studied. As such, fandom received a great deal of study as a community, a subculture and as instrumental in the foundation of participatory culture, but little attention was paid to the elements of learned literacy and education research.

However, in the last ten years, the world of published (online, not professionally) fan fiction has been inundated with enough adolescents that researchers new to the area are categorizing it as an adolescent practice and evaluating it for insight into the ways teenagers are suddenly learning in this new digital age. On the other hand, other researchers see the focus on teenagers and the fandoms which form themselves around young adult fiction, and dismiss the greater artistic and communal value, as well as the literacy potential. Both sides have problems inherent within them, but, in my mind, the both simpler to deal with and more potentially damaging is the position of dismissiveness entirely, so it is to that which I will turn first.

Consumption vs. Production – The Privilege of Usefulness

In his book Cognitive Surplus, Clay Shirky makes the argument that since the Industrial Revolution and post-World War II standardization of the work week, humanity is dealing with a surplus of free time. This free time has, regrettably, been spent watching far too much television (Shirky 5). However, thankfully the Internet is here and new media is going to be the thing that saves us from this black hole where we compulsively “under invest in relational activities” – i.e. spend less time with friends and family (8). With the advent of the Internet and social media, Shirky argues, we are being pulled out of our shells and engaging in online social behaviors with people around the world. Shirky believes that we should take all of the free time of the world’s educated citizens (why just these people, he does not say), and consider it to be a cognitive surplus (9). This cognitive surplus can be, and should be, channeled away from television and the passivity of consumption of media, and instead toward the production of media for the betterment of the world (22-23).

I think the basics of this argument are sound, if you take Shirky’s assumptions at face value. Spending all of your free time passively watching television is not physically healthy and can definitely reduce the quality of interpersonal relationships. I have some arguments with his conclusion that this is what Americans have been doing since World War II, but for purposes of this paper, let’s take his hypothesis and general argument as correct and sound. It is where Shirky starts talking about how to use this cognitive surplus that I begin to be troubled.

Shirky begins with the premise that new media give people more freedom to act as a community and to make their actions public (171). He believes that any creating and sharing is better than passive consumption. I do not disagree with him there. However, Shirky’s argument then begins to place value on the type of sharing done by those now engaging in participatory practices. He labels certain sharing activities as “banal,” while admitting that even these uses of “our creative capacity…are still more creative and generous than watching TV” (172). defines banal as “so lacking in originality as to be obvious and boring.” How anything “banal,” then, can be better than passivity seems unlikely, but that is the beginning of the valuation Shirky places on activities. Increases in personal satisfaction, he argues, are all well and good, but they are not all that is “at stake” (172). “At stake” is interestingly critical language, a rhetorical move designed to highlight something of crucial importance, when what we are talking about here is use of free time—not the work we do in the world, not the careers we pursue. How we use time that is ours alone. “In terms of social, as opposed to individual, value, we care a lot about how our cognitive surplus gets used” (172). Who is “we”? Shirky goes on to mention projects worked on by people around the world, collaboratively, in their spare time, which created greater social value. No argument, these projects are very useful, but it is the moral judgment that comes along with the privileging, then, of the communal, the social, over the individual. This can seem to be a somewhat liberal stance, politically, and one which I agree with, at least in part. Shirky lays out a hierarchy, a scale of value, for activities we do in our free time. At the bottom of this scale are those things done for personal satisfaction. Above that is communal, then public, then civic (172).

It is not Shirky’s valuation scale I take umbrage with, either. On the surface, it seems sound, though the moral judgment going along with it bothers me—perhaps because it is never blatantly addressed. The projects Shirky lauds as having great civic value are, indeed, amazing sounding projects that the world likely needed and which took stands with which I can agree—many of them were social justice movements, and I can applaud that. However, in his attempt to evaluate particular Internet or communal activities, Shirky makes a misstep which, for me, cast a suspicious light on the rest of his argument, in terms of what he privileges and what he devalues.

The creation of open source software is seen as offering public value. To his credit, Shirky does rank this below social justice movements (173). However, the creation of art is placed, in every form, at the level of personal value. Not even communal value, mind you—solely personal. Within this “personal value” arena, Shirky places the “banal” activities of the Internet—among them the creation of LOLcats, the writing of “bloviating” blog posts, and art and fiction created by fans (172). Shirky does not stop there with his slap at artistic hobbyists. Barely worth a mention, because they do not solely involve “new media,” but still relegated to just personal value are photography, crafts and other “hobby” activity (172).

While Shirky acknowledges that these banal arts are shared via the Internet to reach an audience, he fails to acknowledge the communal value, or the public value, even, of the activities. With his clear delineation of art as solely personal, he seems to miss the goals of the humanity—the way we respond to art, the way we talk about it, use it to gain deeper insight into ourselves and our world, the way we use it to change the world, to spark debate over issues that are being ignored. He most certainly does not mention the educational potentialities of these activities, and he seems to take particular aim at fans communities, and fan fiction. To be honest, it was in this complete lack of understanding about that which he spoke which made the rest of his argument suspect. If his research and understanding is so lacking here…how can I trust his presentation of things he deems of “civic” value, either?

When fan activities are first mentioned, Shirky seems to be using them as a positive of social media. Before the advent of social media, it was hard to find people of like interests, at least to communicate with regularly. His beginning commentary is sympathetic:

People who care passionately about something that seems unimportant to the rest of us are easy to mock. The satirical publication The Onion sometimes runs opinion pieces by a nerdy know-it-all named Larry Groznic, who defends sacred works of geek culture…Part of the joke is that the internal concerns of any particular community appear picayune to the outside eye; but to be a member of a community of shared interests is to care, deeply and in detail, about things the general public doesn’t spend much time thinking about (89).

This seeming understanding about the depth of emotion of a community, and the focus on finding others that share your interests seems to indicate, perhaps, that Shirky would find fan activities, at the least, communal. He even takes as one of his first examples a group of fans dedicated to raising money for charitable causes…but he immediately points out that these fan groups are looking for others like them, not intending to communicate with the public. He begins to talk about altered shared cultural norms that differ from the “outside” world—and he never mentions the charitable work, which should arguably be for the public good, not the communal, again (90).

From there, Shirky takes on fan fiction writers. Despite his comments just a page before, that communities of Others can be easy to mock, but we should understand how deeply they care, he spends the next two pages mocking fans. Perhaps that is not his intent, but his presentation of the foibles of communal norms read as such. Fan fiction communities are not just collections of stories but a community “in conversation with itself.” He claims “attention” is the coin for fan fiction—the thing that writers of these stories seek (90). Fan’s concerns about giving credit are held up for ridicule, even as he tries to explain a situation with a particular fan as a violation of cultural norms of fandom (91). Shirky tries to maintain some sort of sympathetic voice, talking about ethical norms and the fan community’s distinctions between world of money and the world of love, but his continued use of phrases like “Lawyers would laugh till coffee came out of their noses” in regard to fan’s copyright disclaimers, and comparisons of the disclaimers to “children staging a wedding,” and claims of distinctions made by fans being “meaningless in a court of law” ultimately undermine the sympathy he thinks he is trying to portray (91-92). Worse than that, from a rhetorical point of view, he is just plain wrong on several points, both about the motivations of fan writers, the clarity of the legal issues and the facts of the controversy to which he alludes.

Most egregious within the scope of this paper is Shirky’s inability to attribute value to fan fiction beyond the personal. At one point, he calls LOLcats “the stupidest possible creative act” (18). Already, this statement is problematic given the high level of enjoyment intelligent people get out of the LOLcats (I have no research for this, but the anecdotal evidence of their popularity in several law offices and among graduate students). How is throwing blobs of paint on a canvas more “intelligent” than navigating communal and normative standards for the elements of a creative form and producing something both clever and funny? Not that I am arguing that LOLcats are high art, or even particularly intelligent—it is the value statement, the privileging statement against which I argue within the scope of his argument about how we should be spending our free time. Having called LOLcats “the stupidest possible creative act,” Shirky then puts fan fiction on the same level, if not explicitly, then rhetorically: “Participating in Ushahidi creates more value for society than participating in ICanHasCheezburger; making and sharing open source software creates value for more people than making and sharing Harry Potter fan fiction” (172).

It is possible the above statements could be categorized in Shirky’s equation as “civic > personal; public > communal,” and thus, Shirky does value the fan fiction higher, but the valuation still feels the same—in a rhetorical mirroring, Shirky has put civic projects and software creation above LOLcats and fan fiction. Again, I cannot really argue that a project which saves lives probably does deserve to be at the top of the list (though I recognize, then, that I, too privilege civic over personal endeavors and accept that this is part of my worldview, and may not be shared by everyone). However, I do dispute the privileging of software over fan fiction as a categorical statement. Open source software is not always helpful, often is flawed, can be malicious. Even when it is extremely useful (like Open Office), to privilege that over artistic expression bothers me—we are privileging the utilitarian over the humanitarian aim of using art as an expression of identity, over a creative expression with great educational value. Also, given any particular software program versus fan fiction written in the Harry Potter universe…I would dispute his claim factually that software is more “public” even by his definition. Fan fiction may often be read within a community, yes, but it is also there for the public and can serve many public functions in linking various communities. The art of it, the writing of it, is a valuable training ground from literacy, and, despite Shirky’s claim that fan fiction authors have no desire to be professional authors, fan fiction writing often does serve as a training ground for writers who go on to pursue successful professional careers as writers—including the infamous Cassandra Clare.

The Mulitliteracies of Fan Fiction – Academic Privilege

            The writing of fan fiction does not serve merely as a means of personal satisfaction, nor does the motivation of attention-seeking and popularity sum up the reasons why someone writes fan fiction. Those, instead, are both multiple and personal. The communal aspects of fan fiction, and its assistance in identity formation are valuable, as well, and should be taken into account when considering the medium and those within it. However, for purposes of this essay, I am focusing on the literacy aspects of the writing of fan fiction. These, as much as the rest, can serve as a valuable counterpoint to Shirky’s devaluation, on one hand. Literacy and education can hardly be considered “personal” goals—indeed, the majority of the reason or educating our citizenry is to produce people capable of contributing to the capital and civic welfare of our society. Even Shirky privileges this, considering that the cognitive surplus he is concerned with is not that of the great unwashed but the “educated citizenry” of the world (Shirky 9). Ergo, education must be important and valuable, and so things engaged in during “free” time which contribute to a more educated citizenry ought to be valued more highly, by his own terms.

A recent trend in education research has been the consideration of reevaluating the valuation of fan fiction as a practice. Multiple researchers and educators have concluded that fan fiction practices increase multiple literacies in adolescents and thus should be encouraged both within and outside of educational institutions. Instead of seeing teenagers fandom activities as something to be dismissed, devalued or delegitimized, these educators are, instead, evaluating the work which goes into the creation of fan fiction, examining the literacies involved in creating a successful fan fiction, and determining that “writers of fan fiction can be described as active manipulators and designers of original texts, using given cultural artifacts as a scaffold and launching point from which to develop considerable and worthwhile originality” (Thomas 227, emphasis mine). Hardly a “banal” activity (Shirky 172). One of the most important aspects education researchers are finding with fan fiction writing is the depth and breadth to which it enhances both traditional and 21st century literacies that classroom performance sometimes seems to indicate students are failing in.

            A great deal of work is being done within the education and business communities to develop frameworks and proficiencies which will make be valuable in future work and educational communities. These proficiencies are generally seen as a new 21st century literacy, and they include traditional print literacy, visual literacy, information literacy, technological literacy and multi-cultural literacy. Instead of defining literacy as the ability to just read and write, these frameworks instead consider writing and reading to be “communicative practices rooted within certain social, historical and political contexts of use” (Black 689). There is a strong argument that the writing of fan fiction and the involvement within the communities centered on such activity can assist students in mastering these literacy skills in a way in which formal educators should take note (Black 688). Teens who are participants on digital networks in general are developing these skills across borders as they communicate with other teens around the globe, share information and negotiate meanings within these communities, and this is particularly clear within the context of fan fiction (Black 689).

Before writers can begin to write fan fiction, they must first engage with the source material. Indeed often the assumption to even begin to write fan fiction is taken as an indication of not just enjoyment but a critical response to a text (Thomas 235). To be able to discuss the source material intelligently, and moreover, create a new work of art from it to be offered to others who are familiar with the source, writers then must not just watch a television show, for instance—they must rewatch, they must parse, they must decode, they must, in literary terms, give it a close reading (Thomas 235). Failure to do so often leads to significant errors in stories and while fandom is generally forgiving of grammar errors, especially in non-native speakers—they will skewer you alive for mistakes in canon, and your identity as a “fan” is deeply called into question by such. Misspell a big word, you will be forgiven. Repeatedly misspell a character’s name and people will stop reading your story, flame you and move on, annoyed at you for wasting their time.

This depth of knowledge requires not just a close reading of the text, but of other materials surrounding it. Fans often do as much research as they do writing, consulting sites maintained by other fans, wikis on the show, IMDB, actors biographies (for correct physical description), transcripts of the show and reading commentary on various characters and episodes. Failure to do so can lead to what seems like shallow stories with flat characterization (Chandler-Olcott and Mahar 562). Fan literacy, then, is media literacy, drawing on multiple media sources, both official and fan-created, and constructing a cohesive knowledge and narrative out of fragmented research and review. Given that one of the components that educators and businesses consider indicative of digital literacy is the ability to read visual and multimodal texts, engagement in fandom activities proves a fertile teaching ground for this type of literacy (Black 691).

The actual writing of fan fiction involves processes that would make any English teacher proud. Writing the story requires research, pre-planning, in-time editing via discussion with collaborators, post-writing revision, often reflection upon feedback from others and further revision and peer criticism (Thomas 234). The peer feedback and criticism is an often overlooked element of fan fiction writing. Shirky claims that fans write for recognition, and it is true that comments on a story are something that is intensely validating to writers image of themselves as writers (Ito, et al. 31 and 34). However, that recognition is hardly all just pats on the back. Instead, fan fiction community participants engage in a level of comment and criticism which mirrors workshop groups of college campuses and professional writers.

Before publishing their story, most fan fiction writers have it evaluated by another writer known as a beta-reader, often a proven good writer usually knowledgeable about the fandom the story is written within. This beta-reader reads the story and offers corrections where necessary to spelling, grammar and usage errors, like a copyeditor. However, the beta-reader goes farther and functions truly as a peer reviewer, as well, interrogating the story for internal consistency, canon coherence or believable canon divergence, plot development, consistent and correct characterization and effective use of dialogue and description (Thomas 230; Black 692; Ito, et al. 32). These peer reviews are of great use to not only English Language Learners, helping them learn the nuances of written English in an environment where they are engaged, but also for native speakers. Most fan authors attribute fan writing to the strengthening of their writing across all genres and spaces, because of the intensive peer review often involved. Beyond the systemic aid received, writing fan fiction also aids young writers in the development of their story-telling skills. That this feedback comes from readers who are deeply engaged in the work and often writers themselves and thus truly peers who “get” the writer makes the feedback more valuable in the writers’ eyes than that which is evaluated by a disengaged authority figure (Ito, et al. 31).

Some detractors find the writing of fan fiction to be lazy, because writers are “stealing” work that has already been done on characterization and setting. However, to be able to write someone else’s characters and places requires a depth of reading not required in one’s own, and also, often, a deeper degree of thoughtfulness and insightfulness into what has been provided. On the other hand, it allows young writers to examine how these characters and settings were constructed, but gives them the space to work on elements of fiction like voice, narrative style, dialogue and description, as well as characterization and plot, without having to establish a world, yet (Jenkins “Why Heather Can Write”). Sometimes getting someone else’s world “right”—to meet the standards of other fans—is actually far more challenging intellectually, even as it does help students learn writing before worrying about world-building. The two challenges are connected, but not the same. While school literacy often privileges traditional narrative technique, allowing for the differences within fan fiction (like the ability to start in media res, because the world is already established for one’s readers) can actually lead to productive discussions of genre and literacy and become a teaching point for teens (Chandler-Olcott and Mahar 564). In fact, the level of meta-cognition fans already bring to their writing would be a valuable resource in a writing classroom—if only teachers would allow for it.

Beyond systemic and generic literacy skills, fan fiction also engages more complex literary principles. By its very nature, fan fiction is intertextual. This is, of course, true for most writing—we all engage with, reference, draw upon and rework other texts in our own creations, both creative and scholarly. Fan fiction, however, makes that intertextuality visual, even as it draws on not just references from the source material, but other literature and media and the experiences of the writer, as well (Thomas 233; Chandler-Olcott and Mahar 562). Intertextuality is vital to the ability to construct meaning in the digital and modern age. The construction of meaning truly occurs in a process of cognitive (and sometimes textual) designing which uses “available designs” (resources already created in the world) in order to create “redesigned” texts. The resources include not just written texts, but linguistic, visual, audio, gestural special and multimodal frames and works (Chandler-Olcott and Mahar 560).

Fan fiction also allows for the creation of hybrid works and a multi-modal literacy involved with that. Within the hybridity, fan writers can explore genre and mode (inserting art, or writing in a romance genre from a science fiction source). To successfully do this, the fans must understand each piece and how it works together. Song lyrics or video may frame a story, art may illustrate it, hypertext may activate it—all of this requires a digital literacy that is rarely taught in the classroom, but which is necessary to success in the new century. Fans create new meaning from old material by their hybridization, and through this new meaning, they are able to explore social and identity issues surrounding their lives and their narratives (Chandler-Olcott and Mahar 563). Writing fan fiction can allow writers to explore multiple points of view, both as reader and writer, and planning and completion of a story often can involve a critical discussion of issues within the source text and a subjective positioning of the writer as Other in the text, allowing for exploration of gender, sexuality and identity which is crucial for adolescent self-formation (Thomas 232-235). These stories then can branch outward, as participation in fan fiction communities involves discussing the stories, and stories with issues often provoke further discussion both of composition and the topics addressed within the stories (Black 690). In this way, writers are not only engaging in a construction of self, but a discussion of social roles and norms and often a reevaluation and reconstruction of norms which reflect a far more just position than the current societal norms (Ito, et al. 34).

Despite the societal shift to online text and work and the construction of areas mediated by technology, print literacy is not going out of style. If anything, it is more important than ever. Employers have repeatedly stated how important written communication is to them. In addition, they value the ability to collaborate and to think critically (Black 695) Writers of fan fiction engage in all of these activities. Writing within fandom has been show to: improve traditional print literacy through peer review and revision; teach effective collaboration and communication skills through the reading, revising, discussion and critique of stories; provide teens with experience in leadership roles in fan maintained  communities; allow many to learn to  develop and maintain content on websites and forums; encourages good communication skills across linguistic and cultural barriers given the international nature of fandom; teaches teens how to participate in the mediation of disputes; enhances work ethics as beta readers, authors, artists and webmasters all work to keep readers satisfied; and encourages self-motivated forms of content creation (Black 695). All of these skills are those which are prized in the “real” world today, and which often are not taught within traditional education systems. Therefore, Shirky’s claim that fan fiction is written for little more than personal, and possibly a small communal, experience has little merit.

All of this work being done by teens involved in fandom is fragile. Statements like Shirky, involving a devaluation and shaming of their work can have a chilling effect. Lack of appreciation by the adults in fan writers’ lives or stigmatization by their peers for “geekish” activities can inhibit their learning (Ito, et al. 36). However valuable the learning and literacy is, though, there is also a need to not privilege its productive qualities too much, for fear of also stifling it. Instead, educators and adults should recognize that participation in digital age means more than just serious online work. It also means being part of social and recreational activities, as well. These recreational activities are not something to be devalued as “useless,” either, because they are jumping off points for media creation and self-expression—which is crucial for creating an engaged and educated citizenry (Ito, et al. 38).

Conclusion: What are we privileging?

Online fan fiction writing has been the subject of a great deal of academic and social inquiry as of late. While this is cheering for those of us who have long suspected it to be worthy of academic study, some of the scholarship has problems of its own. Beyond those referenced, I have not even addressed the issues of the Lingua Franca of fandom—that the majority of the discourse takes place in English and requires others to learn English to be full participants in the world of fandom outside their country. Of course, this is something that is worrisome on many levels, as English already serves as the language of business and, in many ways, education, spreading beyond the Western world to impose itself on the rest, as well. There are practical reasons this is necessary in a global society, but the colonial implications of Western essentialism which can be carried with language—and with our media products—deserves far greater investigation than this paper allows.

The recent surge in scholarship relating to fandom and fan fiction as an adolescent activity is interesting in the relation to digital literacy, but the concept has problems in and of itself. These lie mostly in the failure to understand that the subculture is not necessarily a new “teen” culture or a youth-driven phenomenon, but an already established culture with norms which the Internet has made accessible to teens previously unable to travel to conventions or with access to the underground sharing of fanzines with strangers. Fan fiction, therefore, is not a teen “phenomenon,” but a cultural, artistic and literacy activity to which teens are being admitted—occasionally somewhat grudgingly.

The problem with the new research is that even as it seeks to value the writing of fan fiction as an educational practice, it then dismisses the practice from an adult standpoint by framing it that way. The message is being sent from researchers, loud and clear, that writing fan fiction is something teachers should be sensitive to, because it can help teenagers with their writing skills and give them other valuable life skills, but the subculture of fandom is then infantilized. The practice is all right for learning, but the inherent implication is that once the craft has been learned, teens will grow into more productive members of society, better able to translate their skills learned into ones which benefit their employers . The enthusiastic advocacy of those who see the potential for literacy, then, becomes just a counterpoint to Shirky and his ilk’s dismissiveness of fan fiction as little better than LOLcats.

The question of privilege remains—is something worthwhile only if it is socially productive?  How do we decide what is productive? What value are we placing on the bottom line versus creativity and art? Is the creation of a bonded community unimportant if that community is not working to end world hunger and war? Is creating new software more important than creating new art? Why? The assumptions underlying the argument bother me more than the arguments themselves. They’re the same assumptions that privilege literacy over orality, rationalism over emotion, objectivity over subjective positioning. For all Shirky argues that the highest goal of the Internet lies in creating civic value, his complete lack of value for the art and for “entertaining distractions,” for story and the value of community for community’s sake, is a highly colonial perspective. Ultimately, it’s very hard to argue that ending violence against oppressed groups isn’t more “important” than fan fiction and LOLcats. I don’t think anyone could make that argument with a straight face. But one does not have to preclude the other, and in devaluing creative communities simply because they do not save the world, we are making an implicit statement about what the world should look like.

That vision, that statement, seems fairly bleak to me and not the warmth implied in the concept of global community, but a robotic future of tireless automatons who disregard the importance of joy in creating a complete human experience. The Western, capitalist underpinning of that vision is frightening, as is the world the advocates of fan fiction sometimes point to, where our hobbies and joys should somehow lead us toward being better producers and citizens. I value people being good, thoughtful citizens in favor of working toward social justice, as well. I recognize the way society could crumble if no one was being productive toward a common good. But I think that such a rational, logical position can be cold, and that while we value it, we should also value the humanistic side of creativity, the parts of the humanities which ask what it means to be human, to create, to feel, to debate. The parts of art that make us think about ourselves and our world and what we want it to look like, and encourage us to dream and share and shape the world that way, as well.

Those are things which I privilege. I admit they shape my world view. I do not assume they shaped the worldviews of others. But to have a real discussion about the future, getting to the details of what the world we want to create looks like is going to be important, and as we potentially stand on the cusp of a cognitive and communicative shift, those questions are the ones on which we should focus, before we find ourselves swept along by a change over which we have no control toward a world and a state of humanity we never wanted. Instead, we should value art and education and literacy in and of themselves, and consider not just their traditional usefulness, but the way in which we can use them to create a better future. I’d like to end with the questions posed at the end of  “Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project” which highlight the problems with privileging cold public value or the usefulness of an activity. I do not have the answers, but I believe the questions are a better starting point than where we have been.

[R]ather than assuming that education is primarily about preparing for jobs and careers, what would it mean to think of education as a process of guiding kids’ participation in public life more generally, a public life that includes social, recreational and civic engagement? And, finally, what would it mean to enlist help in this endeavor from an engaged and diverse set of publics that are broader than what we traditionally think of educational and civic institutions? (Ito, et a. 39)

Works Cited

Black, Rebecca. “English Language Learners, Fan Communities, and 21st Century Skills.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 52:8 (2009): 688-697. Web. 20 Nov. 2012.

Carr, Nicholas. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2011. Print.

Chandler-Olcott, Kelly and Donna Mahar. “Adolescents’ anime-inspired ‘fanfictions’” An exploration of Multiliteracies.” Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 46:7 (2003): 556-586. Web. 17 Nov 2012.

Collins, James and Richard K. Blot. Literacy and Literacies: Texts, Power and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Print.

Goody, Jack and Ian Watt. “The Consequences of Literacy.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 5.3 (1963): 304-345. Web. 27 Oct. 2012.

Ito, Mizuko, et al. “Living and Learning with New Media: Summary of Findings from the Digital Youth Project.” The MacArthur Foundation. November 2008. Web. 1 Dec 2012.

Jenkins, Henry. Digital Land Grab.” MIT Technology Review.  March 1, 2000. Web.  First accessed 2004, checked for accuracy/still available 3 Dec. 2012.

—. “Why Heather Can Write.” MIT Technology Review. Feb. 6, 2004. Web. 3 Dec. 2012.

Mazama, Ama. “The Eurocentric Discourse on Writing.” Journal of Black Studies 29.1 (1998): 3-15. Web. 27 Oct. 2012.

Plato. Phaedrus. Trans. Christopher Rowe. London: Penguin Books, 2005. Print.

Shirky, Clay. Cognitive Surplus: How Technology Makes Consumers into Collaborators. New York: Penguin Books, 2010. Print.

Thomas, Angela. “Fan fiction online: Engagement, critical response and affective play through writing.” Australian Journal of Language and Literacy. 29.3 (2006): 226-239. Web. 20 Nov. 2012.