Rebecca W. Black

To cite this article, use the following information:
Black, R. W. (2008). Publishing and Participation in Online Affinity Spaces. New Literacies: A Professional Development Wiki for Educators. Developed under the aegis of the Improving Teacher Quality Project (ITQP), a federally funded partnership between Montclair State University and East Orange School District, New Jersey.
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It only takes a quick look around to see that new media and technologies play a central role in how contemporary adolescents socialize, express themselves, and make sense of their worlds. New forms of literacy, such as texting, instant messaging, and multimodal online publishing, emerge in tandem with new technologies, as new media offer novel opportunities for communication and self-expression. Moreover, participation is one of the defining features of popular new literacies and technologies. As Jenkins points out, rather than acting as “passive recipients” (Jenkins, 1992, 2006) of the content received via these mediums, contemporary youth are accustomed to engaging with media and technologies in a creative, productive fashion. Along these lines, this article focuses on the participatory nature of popular online publishing environments, with a particular emphasis on how multiple options for creativity and participation relate to learning and literacy development in these so-called affinity spaces.

Participatory Cultures, Affinity Spaces, and New Literacies

Online writing environments provide particularly compelling contexts for exploring the sort of literacy and social activities that youth find to be motivating and engaging. In addition, many online writing environments are compelling examples of what Jenkins (2006) calls participatory cultures or what Gee (2004) calls affinity spaces. According to Gee,

"It is instructive to compare affinity spaces to the sorts of spaces that are typical in schools, which usually do not have the features of affinity spaces. This comparison is particularly important because many young people today have lots of experience with affinity spaces, and thus have the opportunity to compare and contrast their experiences with these to their experiences in classrooms" (2004, p. 83).

Gee’s assertion about the level of youth participation in affinity spaces is supported by a recent Pew Internet and American Life study suggesting that adolescents spend a great deal of time producing their own content and engaging in a variety of creative activities online (Lenhart & Madden, 2007). Understanding the features of participatory cultures or affinity spaces that are popular with youth can help us understand how to create classroom cultures that are similarly motivating and engaging for students.

According to Jenkins, Clinton, Purushotma, Robison, and Weigel (2006) a participatory culture is one in which there is/are: (1) “relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement,” (2) “strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations,” and (3) “some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices” (p. 3). Additionally, in participatory cultures, “members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another” (Jenkins et al., 2006, p. 3). These characteristics of participatory cultures are closely aligned with the paradigmatic features of affinity spaces described by Gee (2004) and the ethos of new literacies described by Lankshear and Knobel (2007).

One of the most salient features of affinity spaces (as well as of participatory cultures) is the shared interest or affinity that compels individuals to participate in the space. In addition, all participants — language learners, struggling writers and readers, straight-A students, newbies, and masters alike — all work in the same space and are able to participate in the same challenging activities. There is no one “master,” "expert," or individual who holds all the knowledge in affinity spaces, but rather different kinds of knowledge are valued for different kinds of activities, and this knowledge is accessed across a range of resources, thereby providing many different options for participation and ways for participants to achieve success, recognition, and status in the space.

The ethos of new literacies also emphasizes these same principles, such as collaboration, distributed knowledge, and multiple perspectives, over the “’individuated,’…’author-centric’” and “expert-dominated” emphasis of more traditional literacies (Lankshear & Knobel, 2007, p. 9). In the following section, I discuss some online writing environments in which participants engage in and/or ontologically new types of literacies — meaning that these literacy practices either have recently emerged with the advent of new technologies (chronologically new) and/or have unique properties that correlate with their online contexts of use (ontologically new) — as a means of prompting consideration of the relationships among participatory cultures, affinity spaces, new literacies, and options for classroom-based literacy practices.


Fan fiction is a fascinating form of writing that involves building on the characters or plotlines of existing media. It is worth noting that as a genre, fan fiction itself is not chronologically new. Fans andacademics alike have explored historical examples of literary fan fiction texts ranging from John Lydgate and Robert Henryson’s expansions of Geoffrey Chaucer’s texts (Supercat, 1999; Pugh, 2004) all the way to the myths, oral traditions, and folktales that maintain a primary cast of characters even as their narratives grow and change over time (Derecho, 2006; Pugh, 2004). Contemporary fan fiction authors productively engage with forms of media and popular culture, drawing from existing narratives, characters, and settings to create new plot elements and develop unique textual characteristics that make these texts distinct from the original media productions.

For example, a fan fiction author might use the students from the Harry Potter series to enact a drama based on the death of one of the professors. Or, many fans develop romantic relationships between characters, such as the well-known slash pairings of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. Other fictions extend the plotline of the original media, such as creating a sequel to Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice to explore what might have happened to Jane Bennett and Mr. Bingley after their marriage. Other fans create what are known as OCs, or original characters, and give them prominent roles in their texts, or construct AUs, or alternate universe fictions, in which the characters from one media series are inserted into an entirely new setting.

While fan fiction has existed for quite some time, the advent of the internet has really propelled this form of writing to a new level of popularity and prominence among online literacy practices on the web. To illustrate, a google search using the terms “fanfiction” and “Harry Potter” returns 553,000 hits (update), “fanfiction” and “Inuyasha” returns 1,020,000 hits (update), and “fanfiction” and “World of Warcraft” returns 529,000 hits (update) in July, 2008. In addition, there are numerous websites that are devoted to particular media canons. For example, The Sugar Quill, Fiction Alley, and Harry Potter Fanfiction are all sites devoted to Harry Potter fan fiction. Lord of the Rings Fanfiction is devoted to fictions based on Tolkien’s writing, and Star Trek Fanfiction only contains texts based on the Star Trek television series and movies. Another type of fanfiction site is what is known as a multi-fandom archive, meaning that it hosts fictions based on multiple media canons. For example, the site hosts fictions based on numerous Japanese animation or anime series.

With well over a million fictions in thousands of different media categories, (FFN) is by far the largest multi-fandom archival site on the web. The Harry Potter section alone has over 360,000 fictions. The FFN site has over 1.3 million users from across the globe and supports fictions in over 30 different languages. Attesting to its global popularity, in 2007, FFN added servers in Europe and Asia to handle the extraordinary amount of worldwide site traffic and the great volume of fictions hosted on the site. Texts are organized into the media-related categories of anime, books, tv shows, movies,games, and cartoons, with hundreds of series in each section. It’s worth noting that the vast majority of texts posted on FFN were composed by adolescent authors, some of whom claim to dislike writing and reading in school. Thus, it seems worthwhile to explore FFN (and other popular websites that promote learning and literate engagement in some form or another) as a means of understanding what adolescent writers and readers alike find so engaging about this space.

One of the most unique and compelling aspects of FFN and other fan fiction websites, is the strong focus on informal mentoring and learning. Scaffolding for composition comes in several distinct forms, including reviews, beta-readers, and columns. Reviews are exactly what they sound like — the audience reads and then posts feedback or reviews of a fiction — and most online publishing sites have a built-in mechanism for leaving comments for authors. Reviews come in many different forms ranging from simple expressions of appreciation for the plot of the story, to complaints about the romantic pairings that authors have chosen, all the way to more pointed feedback on how to improve grammar and spelling. Thus, reviews are one form of informal mentoring in which the audience provides writers with feedback on what they do and do not like and offers suggestions on how writers might improve their stories.

In addition, before making their stories publicly available, fan authors often will give their texts to a beta-reader, or a member of the fan community who reads over and edits a fan fiction before it is posted online. Thus, beta-readers offer a more structured form of peer-mentoring. Finally, another brand of scaffolding for fan writers comes in the form of columns and forums. Some typical examples of fan fiction columns can be found on the Fanfiction Symposium with topics related to grammar, composing, fan culture and politics, to name just a few. Other sites, such as Holy Mother Grammatica’s Guide to Good Writing, may have a series of columns focused on a single topic.

One particularly salient difference between the informal mentoring and scaffolding that takes place in affinity spaces, such as fan communities, and the sort of teaching and learning that goes on in many classrooms is the open and participatory nature of these activities. As mentioned previously, there are relatively low barriers to participation in affinity spaces and participatory cultures. Moreover, a wide range of expertise is valued, thus providing multiple options for individuals with diverse skill sets to achieve success, status, and acceptance within the community. As an example, within U.S. based anime fan communities, there are many English speaking authors who choose to write texts set in Asian contexts and wish to incorporate Japanese language into their fictions. This provides an opportunity for ELL fans of Asian heritage to display knowledge in these areas, either by acting as beta-readers, reviewers, or as consultants on the writing of the text (Black, 2005). Such individuals may also choose to write a column or contribute to a website related to these topics, such as anime-related Japanese/English translation sites. These are just a few of the many ways that youth receive informal mentoring and are able to display diverse forms of expertise in participatory cultures. (FPN), a sister site to FFN, is an online publishing space that hosts original rather than media-based poems, stories, and plays. With nearly one million users and over a million texts, FPN closely follows FFN in terms of prominence and popularity for online publishing venues. Texts on this site are organized generically, with categories such as historical, biography, essay, action, andmythology, as well as thematically, with categories such as war, politics, friendship, family, and nature. Sites such as FPN and FFN are also particularly compelling for adolescents because of the great amount of agency that users have in this space. For example, rather than being bound by pre-assigned categories and topics for writing, youth are able to choose topics to address in their texts. This enables students to practice their composing skills through self-selected content with which they feel some measure of comfort.

Another compelling aspect of sites such as FPN and FFN is how, as in many effective affinity spaces, users are also able to play a part in shaping the content of the site (Gee, 2004). For example, many authors engage in initial forms of civic engagement as they create petitions to protest various site policies, such as banning real person fictions, and allowing biblical fan fictions, or administrative actions, such as account deletions. Moreover, these petitions and other forms of communication with site administrators actually have an effect on how the affinity space is structured, as site administrators often make changes, such as reinstating deleted accounts, and alter policies, such as allowing users to report signed flames, in response to user input (Black, 2008). Users are also able to exercise agency in shaping the site content by requesting that certain generic, thematic, and/or media categories be added to the organizational structure of the site.

Another way that authors on FPN and FFN are able to exercise creativity and agency is through experimenting with genres and even developing new forms of and formats for writing. For example, rather than adhering to one standard genre of writing, many fan fiction authors create texts that are hybrids or mixtures of one or more forms of writing. For example, chatfics are “stories which are written like an instant messaging or chatroom conversation between characters, usually as a comedic exercise” (Wikipedia, Fan fiction, 2008). Much like epistolary novels, or texts that are composed of a series of separate documents such as letters or diary entries, chatfics are made up of instant message exchanges between characters. Through this medium, fan authors combine narrative with new online registers to represent the realities of living and socializing in a technology-saturated culture.

Another common example of hybrid texts are songfics or “a work of fiction interspersed with the lyrics of a particular song” (Wikipedia, Songfic, 2008). The act of combining the lyrics of a song with narrative text can serve several purposes for authors. First, it is a way of indexing their affiliation with certain musical genres and social groups. Next, the interspersion of lyrics can support the narrative itself by conjuring up specific images and emotions associated with the song. This sort of narrative support is especially helpful for English language learners or writers who are just developing their composing skills, as the song lyrics can provide a framework for the story text and can convey sentiments and ideas that the writer is not yet able to convey in traditional print format. This serves the dual purpose of helping authors to compose and readers to interpret the text (Black, 2005). The sense of agency and choice that many youth experience in online publishing spaces—for choosing their own topics, shaping activities and site content, and experimenting with new genres—can be juxtaposed with the lack thereof that many students experience in school-based assignments.


Cleary, the affinity aspect of many online publishing environments is an important component of what motivates adolescents to participate in such spaces. These youth share affinities for certain media, genres of writing, thematic topics, and/or composing itself. However, as described in the earlier Gee (2004) quote, they also are accustomed to and likely feel an affinity with the participatory and agentive forms of writing and reading that they are engaging with in many extracurricular online spaces. Moreover, these sorts of interactional features, such as informal mentoring, active learning, shared spaces for novices and experts, distributed sources of knowledge, recognition of a wide range of expertise, and the incorporation of user input, are aligned with social constructionist approaches to learning and potentially could be integrated into planning for classroom activities in ways that youth might find motivating and meaningful.

Taken together, the aforementioned characteristics of these online publishing venues point to what might be two of the most compelling aspects of affinity spaces and participatory cultures: that “members believe their contributions matter” and they “feel some degree of social connection with one another” (Jenkins et al., 2006, p. 3). In affinity spaces, youth have multiple opportunities for teaching and learning from others, for enacting agency and change through activism, and for exercising their creativity in ways that reflect their identities and affiliations; moreover, their endeavors are rewarded by recognition from and greater social connection with others who share their interests. While it is crucial that students receive access to the high stakes genres and materials associated with testing and academic success, it is also crucial that schools recognize and attempt to address the growing divide between classroom contexts and their accepted forms of learning and literate interaction, and the online participatory cultures or affinity spaces in which youth are increasingly being socialized into new ways of engaging with and making sense of the world. If we continue to ignore youth practices, we are essentially sending the message that students’ activities and preferred forms of literate engagement are useless and meaningless and we run the risk of further alienating students from classroom activities. As such, a first step toward bridging the disconnect between youth’s in- and out-of-school learning and literacy practices is to explore and engage in frank discussions (with teachers, students, and researchers) about the merits and drawbacks of both contexts — with the underlying goal of harvesting the most effective and meaningful features of both in order to help students become active and successful participants in our technology-mediated, twenty-first century society.


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