I worked on a year-long research project at the University of Washington investigating informal learning in online fan fiction communities. Because I became so engaged in the amazing learning experiences I saw in my participant observation, I was one of the driving forces of this research project. After I graduated, I was hired by my department to continue working on this project and write a paper about our findings. The result of this research was the development of the concept “distributed mentoring.”
Emerging adults produce phenomenal amounts of creative writing in the form of fan fiction. The abundance of this type of writing led us to question why so many young people are involved in literary production via fan fiction considering the poor reputation of today’s youth in terms of interest and achievement in literature at school.
The quality of fan fiction varies widely. Some authors write novel-length, sophisticated stories while others struggle with very short pieces. We set out to ascertain how mentoring plays a part in the development of writing skills via participation in fan fiction communities. What we discovered was not the typical one-to-one mentoring relationships where more experienced writers aided the less experienced. Instead we discovered that fan fiction writers were experiencing mentoring from the fan fiction community at large, which we termed “distributed mentoring,” as it built on the concepts of Edwin Hutchin’s theory of distributed cognition.
Carried out digital ethnographic work including participant observation in fan fiction groups and interviews with fanfiction authors.
Conducted thematic analysis of thousands of fan fiction reviews after developing a coding scheme based on the content of these reviews.
Wrote a paper about our findings, which involved substantial literature review on learning theory in a digital age.
Young people worldwide are participating in ever-increasing numbers in online fan communities. Far from mere shallow repositories of pop culture, these sites are accumulating significant evidence that sophisticated informal learning is taking place online in novel and unexpected ways. In order to understand and analyze in more detail how learning might be occurring, we conducted an in-depth nine-month ethnographic investigation of online fanfiction communities, including participant observation and fanfiction author interviews. Our observations led to the development of a theory we term distributed mentoring, which we present in detail in this paper. Distributed mentoring exemplifies one instance of how networked technology affords new extensions of behaviors that were previously bounded by time and space. Distributed mentoring holds potential for application beyond the spontaneous mentoring observed in this investigation and may help students receive diverse, thoughtful feedback in formal learning environments as well.