Fan Fiction and Blogging - Building Readership Through Common Interests

Digital Communities-

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In the world of literature a relationship between the author, audience, and text has always existed. While this correlation has been shifting and adjusting with advancements in literary criticism for centuries, in the last five decades technological advancements have created new spaces that have drastically altered the way audiences respond to different medias. The two mediums I will be juxtaposing are both products of this modern age of technology. The first digital community we'll dissect is fan fiction. Communities of all stripes are built in these online spaces where common interest and response to popular culture take the lead in the social setting’s exigence. As users gravitate towards their favorite stories they are selectively placing themselves inside a genre and canon that comes with expectations about both the authors and the audiences they write for. Some of these assumptions include: background knowledge of characters and plot line, shared goals about how characters and narratives are developed, and a connected desire to move the role of the audience past viewership and mere evaluation and criticism towards a more active role in the mediums they are discussing. The draw of readers through popular culture and shared interests is perhaps the most glaring commonality between fan fiction and the second digital community, blogs.

When one determines that they wish to join one or both of these online communities, choices must be made. Deciding which site to use of the thousands providing spaces for users to create and indulge in fan fiction at all levels of specificity, as well as the endless list of bloggers posting on any topic around the clock, is not an easy decision. To narrow my own analysis I interviewed members of a sub-community of fanfiction.net where all aspects of fandom coalesce in a limitless arena. The home page of fanfiction.net has a generic list to categorize and direct their users to a place where their interests, be it media ranging from Books, Movies, Plays, Anime, Character Crossovers, “Butterfly-Effect” Alternate Universes, or everything in between, are already in motion. The process for selecting a blogging site one wishes to follow is a far different procedure The blogging community has become far more prominent over the past few decades, that is to say that in general society has seemingly paid more attention, given more merit, and acknowledged the existence of the world of blogging opposed to their counterpart of fanfic communities. If someone is looking for a specific blog, say a food blog for example, there is not only an entire search engine dedicated to food blogs but an actual blog created as a directory for other food blogs like this. The eventual effect of these two distinctive practices for selecting a blog site compared to a fanfic forum is a distinguishing characteristic of these online spaces. Where coming to a site and being directed to a page of interest makes a fan fiction community more close-knit and easy to follow, searching through the wide ocean that is the world wide web for a particular blog of interest sets up a more distanced relationship between the author and their audience. The differences that are shaping this relationship don’t stop once a user has found his or her desired community to join.

Once a user has located his or her desired place on a fan fiction site, they begin to contribute and help shape the community through reading, reviewing, and communicating through writing of their own. The Harry Potter universe is one of the most frequently visited and heavily populated spaces on fanfiction.net, and it is in these HP forums where I conducted my most extensive research. These bands of writers who compile the community have placed value in creativity, originality, honest and constructive criticism, and symbiotic coexistence that encourages all members to improve. The very structure of the space, and the shared idioms of practice for those functioning there, manages to exclude unwanted members, and potential tensions, by simply ignoring them. When discussing the users’ idioms of practice I’m referring to the general expectations people using the site have with regards to how they and everyone else should operate on the site. Understanding what idioms of practice you, as the author, have and being aware of the idioms of practice your audience shares are crucial factors in establishing an online reader-based community. As far as I could surmise, the consensus expectation for members of the fan fiction community is quite simple; just follow the golden rule.

What most fan fiction writers expect from a reviewer is honest and helpful criticism that will serve his or her purpose of bettering themselves as a writer. The user can then go onto other stories and strengthen his or her writing practices via the critiquing and evaluation of another user's work. Therefore, the role members of a fan fiction community play is constantly changing from a writer to reviewer and then back again while the purpose and goal remain the same. The exact opposite is true of the blogging community. The role that members on blogging sites play is always stagnant, with the author producing material and the audience providing feedback in the limited comments section. The purposes for those participating in blogging communities are, on the other hand, varied dramatically from author to author and blog to blog. Some people blog in order to obtain a high enough volume of users visiting their blog off of hits to start earning revenue, where others on the polar end of the spectrum only blog as a vehicle for self-expression. This point is well illustrated by two sporting blogs, Eagle Addict and the Philadelphia Eagles Blog, that, at first glance, are nearly identical. While both authors have overlapping content, similar site set-ups, and essentially the same intended audience, with some closer examination it becomes evident that the purpose of each blog is incredibly different. The Philadelphia Eagles Blog is part of a larger network of sporting news blogs and has links at the top of the page to blogs for nearly every professional sporting team in existence. Along with that the Philadelphia Eagles blog also provides links for readers to share their favorite posts through their Facebook, Twitter, or Google+ accounts. On the other side of the coin, the Eagles Addict blog is produced by only a crazed Eagles fan who orients his content with subjective opinions around team news, as well as fervent bashings of other teams in the Eagles division. To the audience the producers of the professional Philadelphia Eagles blog come across like

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where the Eagles Addict author seems more like

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This example helps shed some light on the wide range of intentions a blogger can have when composing posts, even if they choose to write about the exact same subject to an almost indistinguishable intended audience.

When someone composes a piece of fan fiction on the site it is up for the world to read, judge, and criticize. This is something that every author knows before publishing a story, and for many users, what their audience will think is something that stays with them the entire time they’re writing. User lizaluvsdoggies, who’s been posting on the site for a little over a year, responded in this manner when asked about feedback, “I love writing for others, and so what people write in their reviews I take to heart. If somebody suggests an idea for a future chapter, or guesses what will happen next (if I have left a cliff hanger) I always take what they say into consideration, who knows, maybe I'll even use it.” All responses to the feedback question gave a similar sentiment that feedback is beneficial no matter how good or bad it is. The advantages of positive/negative peer review are well articulated by user T3hWh1t3P4nth3r in saying that, “positive reviews make you want to write more stories. On the other hand, though, negative reviews also deflate the ego you can tend to develop, which is also a good thing, though it doesn't seem like it at the time. It keeps you honest and humble and makes you work to improve yourself.” In essence, communicating with other members of the community is always welcomed just so long as improvement is at the heart of the criticism. This aspect of constant user-to-user interaction is a major influence on future material posted on the site, and it is an aspect that, for several blogs, is non-existent.

Connecting the Dots - Conclusions

After looking at the evidence gathered from these two digital communities, the challenge now is to extrapolate what those findings implicate about the spaces’ varied structures and then identify how bloggers can incorporate aspects of the fan fiction to meet their rhetorical needs. While the bulk of my evidence deals with distinguishing characteristics between the two mediums, the most useful takeaway from all that research hinges on a commonality in the rhetorical situations presented. Whether an author is composing fan fiction in hopes of improving his writing skills, or constructing a blog for any number of potential functions, it is what links all of those writers together that makes this juxtaposition worth looking at; everyone is trying to build strong readership.

As previously discussed, the structure and overall presentation of most blogs sets-up a constant relationship between the blogger and his audience that gives the blogger absolute control of the page’s content. While this can be viewed as an advantage in several regards, bloggers can talk about whatever they want however they want to, it does have its disadvantages as well. By having total control over everything that gets posted on a blog the author is relying only on his content to bring in readers and persuade them to revisit the blog. The limited amount of space provided for giving feedback, and the lack of incentive for readers to give feedback that may likely be ignored, restricts the number of potential followers for any given blog. For fan fiction communities the appeal to revisit and frequent the same sites goes far beyond just the content of the stories. Regular user interaction, a reversal of roles in the reader/writer position, and offering/receiving constructive criticism are some of the different ways members of fan fiction communities place value on their experiences within the community. Not only does this serve the purpose of writing improvement, but also the goal of building and strengthening readership through connected person-to-person communication.

Considering what blogs are and how they function, it is highly unlikely that members of a blogging community will ever achieve the same mutually beneficial coexistence as their fan fiction counterparts. However, there is something that bloggers should learn from the close relationships on fan fiction forums. Although a blog’s audience has far less influence on the material that gets posted, there is room for the audience to reply in the comments section. To utilize the comments section and connect with a broader and more invested following bloggers should have a general awareness of who their audience is and what their expectations for the blog are, find ways to encourage readers to comment and offer their insights, and take the time to read the comments and even directly communicate with some of your audience within the comments section. In short, perhaps the best way for a blogger to build readership is to convince his audience that the time spent reading his blog is valuable.

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