Three Reasons It’s Difficult to Connect in the Fanfiction Community – Jenna Frens

Posted by Human-Centered Data Science Lab on October 29, 2022

Originally posted on August 26, 2019 at


Online connection changes lives. Authors we interviewed found support, feedback, friendship and even lifelong partnership from people they met online through fandom. People online can help authors develop their writing by providing feedback both in public spaces like AO3 and in private chat. But getting connected is not always easy. Several authors encountered difficulties with making new connections, turned away from their communities, or never connected much with others online at all. Feelings of social anxiety stopped people from reaching out, communities that didn’t feel like safe spaces turned people away, and a culture of fear towards internet strangers made others difficult to trust. In this post, we’ll describe the barriers that can make it difficult to connect in the fanfiction community. 

Social Anxiety

Talking to people is hard, and talking to people you can’t see on the other side of the computer screen can be even harder. An experience shared by many of our interviewees was a feeling of social anxiety. Social anxiety is a fear of judgment from others  that manifests in many ways, for instance, the perception (without any particular evidence) that the person you are considering reaching out to is not interested or welcoming towards being contacted.

“I’m a shy person, so usually I may not [reach out]. I just say I feel embarrassed in speaking to people that seem cooler than me, more experienced… maybe I’m bothering them. Maybe they don’t see me as a friend, they have just been polite, this kind of thing” (P11).

Contacting someone with a higher profile, such as a prolific author or fan celebrity, amplified social anxiety. Interviewees held the perception that these folks are likely overwhelmed with contact already and therefore would be unwelcoming.

“I wouldn’t want to reach out to them because they’re on a different level than me in terms of popularity and probably get hundreds of messages all the time” (P18).

Authors who were reluctant to reach out oftentimes waited for others to contact them first. Or, instead of reaching out online, they relied on irl friends outside of the fandom for writing feedback. As a result of social anxiety, people don’t take that first step of reaching out to an online stranger, and therefore they don’t receive the benefits of a potential connection.

Unsafe Spaces

Writing and posting fanfiction in a public space is, in a way, baring your soul to complete strangers, and one sure way to stifle the soul-baring process was the institution of discriminatory rules that disproportionately affected a subset of the fan community. Restrictions on free expression created the feeling of an unsafe space, and it is this feeling that drove authors away from the community. During our interviews, authors discussed situations where they left communities because they felt the space was unsafe. The ban of NSFW content from Tumblr after its acquisition by Verizon, widely viewed as an attack on sexual expression that disproportionately affected queer people, was a recent example.

“When Tumblr banned not safe for work, it was really distressing for a bunch of us who don’t really fit on the very heteronormative sexual scale. So there was a lot of trying to figure out where we were going to go now, where we were, how would we stay connected, how would we continue to figure out and find stuff that we enjoyed” (P25).

Long-time fandom authors told us of similar exoduses from LiveJournal and after similar content bans and mass content deletions. These actions by platform owners divided fan communities and forced authors to find connections elsewhere.

In addition to institutional actions, individuals who made personal attacks or used hate speech also made authors feel unsafe. These antisocial actions happened in prominent fandom spaces.

“P27: There are people who write things that a fandom may consider controversial. This could cause them to get unhelpful criticism, rude and discouraging comments, so they will be constantly discouraged from writing.

Interviewer: That would happen on AO3?

P27: Both AO3 and tumblr, that’s where I know it happens.

Interviewer: And you’ve seen other people treated like that?

P27: Yes.” (P27).

One author spoke of an experience where she was berated for years by a reader because she wrote about drug addiction.

“Because [my fic is] about drug addiction, that brought a reaction that I really didn’t expect… sometimes [readers] impose their views. I got bullied for a couple of years, and even when I went on hiatus that person came back… they were imposing what they thought on me” (P7).

A single bully discouraged and pushed away this writer, even as they received an outpouring of messages from readers who connected with the story.

Another author discussed how controversy over a gay character sent them elsewhere:

“At the time I was writing about neon genesis evangelion. And it turns out at the end of the show, the main character Shinji Ikari is gay. Well, it’s revealed he has a thing for this guy. And I was writing this kind of thing too, and people got super angry. So they’d leave because, oh my God, he’s gay and that was terrible at the time. So, uh, yeah, I quickly left” (P8).

Fanfiction authors tackle difficult, important and controversial topics, and they need a space where they can find others to relate to without fear of harassment. If personal attacks, hate speech, or discriminatory rules are present, they may feel they can’t stay connected and will be forced to go elsewhere.

Personal Disclosure

Navigating personal disclosure can be difficult for authors when they’re interacting with internet strangers. Although authors disclosed deeply personal facts about themselves through fanfiction writing itself, some preferred to avoid connecting their fanfiction identity to their offline identity. Others wanted to protect themselves and their families from potential exposure on the internet. Identity and safety concerns associated with online personal disclosure slowed relationship building between authors and online friends.

Is this faceless individual actually a murderer, merely feigning deep interest in Star Trek and waiting for an opportunity to strike at unsuspecting fans?

Being raised to fear internet strangers was a shared experience among several participants in our interviews. Authors chose different degrees of disclosure they were comfortable with, and made nuanced decisions about who to reveal information about themselves to, where and when.

“There’s not any set guidelines. I think it really depends on who you talk to… how long have you been with the person? What type of things do you talk about? Do you feel like it’s safe to give that information?” (P21).

Oftentimes, the decision of whether to reveal a piece of identifying information had to be on-the-spot. P21 had to decide whether this person who wanted to be co-author was someone who could be trusted.

“… You kind of have to sometimes make a snap judgment and ultimately it worked out fine in this one case… it really does have to come down to instinct, gut, sometimes, there’s no kind of set formula to be sure” (P21).

Personal disclosure and relationship-building go hand-in-hand. But In an environment where personal disclosure requires caution and nuance, building connection and relationships becomes much more difficult.

To Be Continued…

There are powerful isolating elements like social anxiety, unsafe spaces and stranger danger keeping fanfiction authors apart. How do authors overcome these barriers to make connections, build relationships, exchange feedback and change lives? Stay tuned for the next part of our series on connection and feedback in fanfiction communities.

About This Series

This series is a breakdown of findings from an interview study run by a fanfiction research group within the department of Human Centered Design & Engineering at University of Washington. In January and February 2019, we interviewed 29 fanfiction authors to understand how they connect with each other, build relationships, and seek out writing feedback. We learned profound lessons about the importance of building connections, the reciprocality of relationships and feedback, and the intersection of fandom with real life identity.