Writers in the Secret Garden
MIT Press, 2019

Writers in the Secret Garden is available in print and Kindle editions.

Writers in the Secret Garden

Fanfiction, Youth, and New Forms of Mentoring

by Cecilia Aragon and Katie Davis


Praise for Writers in the Secret Garden

“A significant book” that “offers a bold new model for how mentorship operates in a networked community.”

—Henry Jenkins,
coauthor of By Any Media Necessary

“Crucially important.”

—James Paul Gee, Regents Professor, Arizona State University

“Offers [the potential] for transforming how we think about and design formal writing experiences.”

—Rebecca Black, author of Adolescents and Online Fan Fiction

Distributed Mentoring in Fanfiction Communities

Can young people today write? Or do they only post selfies on Instagram and download cat videos?

Cecilia Aragon and Katie Davis, professors at the University of Washington, explored this question in detail and discovered some surprising answers.

In the past 20 years, amateur fanfiction writers, often young people between the ages of 13 and 25, have published over 61.5 billion words of fiction in online repositories. For contrast, the Google Books English fiction corpus, covering the past five centuries, contains 80 billion words.

A single online repository alone, Fanfiction.net, included nearly 7 million stories, more than 176 million reviews, and over 1.5 million authors in January 2018.

Far from mere shallow collections of pop culture, fanfiction sites such as Fanfiction.net, Archive Of Our Own, FIMFiction, Whofic, and many others (including venues not exclusive to fanfiction such as Wattpad, Tumblr, Livejournal, and Reddit), are accumulating significant evidence that sophisticated informal learning is taking place online in novel and unexpected ways.

Niharika Treemap Fanfiction

Visualization of 7 million fanfiction stories written by young people from 2000-2017 (Niharika Sharma).

In this book, we explore how young people are utilizing new forms of technology to mentor each other and develop their writing skills. Over the past few years, we’ve been conducting original research about online fanfiction communities, combining Cecilia’s skills in data science with Katie’s expertise in education.

We include both qualitative and quantitative data, including unprecedented large data collection and analysis, a nine-month ethnographic study of two fanfiction sites, in-depth interviews with authors, the observation of online discussion groups, the analysis of reader reviews, and our experiences writing our own fanfiction.

The Seven Attributes of Distributed Mentoring

We discovered a new kind of mentoring, which we call distributed mentoring, uniquely suited to networked communities, where people of all ages and experience levels engage with and support one another through a complex, interwoven tapestry of interactive, cumulatively sophisticated advice and informal instruction.

The book details our theory of distributed mentoring, exactly how it occurs, its seven attributes, aggregation, accretion, acceleration, abundance, availability, asynchronicity, and affect, and how each of these attributes are being utilized by young people to engage each other in writing and learning.

Each of these characteristics is supported by networked technologies. Abundance, for example, describes the sheer volume of feedback accessible to the author. Availability refers to the persistent and public nature of reviews, which facilitates sustained exchanges and relationships among community members.

Informal Learning

This book will be of interest to educators in schools, afterschool programs, libraries and other community settings who want to apply the principles of distributed mentoring to collaborative learning experiences that improve writing skills and foster critical thinking; to scholars and students in education, digital media, digital humanities, and related fields; and to anyone with an interest in fanfiction or online youth communities.