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Fanfiction was the guilty pleasure that helped me unlock the internet

My taboo teenage pastime introduced me to the wide world of internet subcultures.

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Phone next to plants with the Archive of Our Own site displayed in a Google search
The hours I have spent on this site...

My affair with fanfiction started off as an English assignment. At the tender age of 12, my tiger parents forced me to spend every free moment at a local cram school. It was about 6PM on a Friday night in July. None of us had eaten dinner, and our English instructor knew she was losing us. Ms. L looked at us over the top of her reading glasses, lips pursed, and said, “Your assignment for the weekend is to write a one-page alternative ending to William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.”

At the time, I didn’t realize we were being told to write fanfiction, but that’s how the same medium that begot Fifty Shades of Grey ended up becoming a decades-long guilty pleasure.

Normally, I resented the extra homework cram school piled onto my plate. But for whatever reason, that Romeo and Juliet assignment sparked something in my academically fried brain. Cram schools revolve around brute forcing math and vocabulary drills until you can factor quadratic polynomials in your sleep. None of the 20-page homework packets ever asked us to ponder “what if...”

What if Juliet decided Romeo’s corpse was a sign she should run away from her abusive family and get herself to the nunnery Ophelia shunned? I stayed up late Sunday night writing, editing, rewriting, and reediting my one-page masterpiece. It got a B-plus, which in my family, was the equivalent of a double F-minus. I was grounded, but something deep and primal in my soul had changed.

It’s cringe to admit, but I spent most of that summer obsessed with Gundam Wing. I was raised on a healthy diet of Cartoon Network’s Toonami, and I have no defense other than being a weak preteen. In protest of my grueling homework load, I snuck into my living room after my parents fell asleep and prayed that the crackle of a 56K modem wouldn’t wake them up. Google was starting to pop off, and it led me straight to the horny world of Gundam Wing fanfiction. It was the first time I used the internet for anything other than homework or AOL games.

Ninety-nine percent of it gave me a heart attack. I hid my tomato-red face behind my fingers while browsing through fan-curated libraries. Yet I was equally thrilled as I was scandalized. Here were thousands of people reaching through the computer to ask “what if?” Granted, most of the questions were, “What if protagonists one and two boned in the most deranged way possible?” But they had the audacity to ask such a brazen question and write about it in excruciating detail. Publicly.

Here were thousands of people reaching through the computer to ask “what if?”

As an anxious preteen, that confidence was alluring. I wanted the freedom to ask unhinged “what if” questions and explore them. I stayed up late into the night on LiveJournal, lurking as smarter people than I created communities around fandoms they loved, wondering how I could tap into that. I clicked link after link until I ended up at Suddenly, I gained access to a free library full of thousands of stories that offered a glimpse into a world beyond the one my parents planned for me. It was the very first time I understood what made the internet and the subcultures it spawned so exciting.

Before I knew it, I started asking more of my own “what if” questions every time I finished a movie, TV show, or novel. Eventually, I started giving myself permission to scribble some answers down.

My English teachers disapproved. This was an unprestigious way to express creativity. True genius, they said, came from original work, and it was a waste of talent to ponder legally dubious what-ifs. (Ironically, this is how I learned about the fair use doctrine.)

I wanted to spit back that I was tired of only reading the stiff prose of dead men. I wanted to yell that there was an army of deranged authors online writing some of the most transgressive stories I’d ever laid eyes on. Sure, you can tell some of them are written by folks with a tenuous grasp of grammar (see: My Immortal, a Harry Potter fanfic that is widely regarded as the worst on the internet and has its own wiki). But I couldn’t find anything like it on the shelves of my local bookstores. I wanted to argue that, in 2001, this was one of the few online spaces that introduced me to the idea that queer people could have a happily ever after. But I didn’t have the vocabulary to say any of that yet, so I kept my mouth firmly shut.

Out of spite, I kept reading my uncouth fics on top of my more “legitimate” reading.

Fangirl novel next to some plants in a windowsill
Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell is a popular novel about a college student who writes fanfiction... that also spawned a spinoff series where you can read the fanfic featured in the novel.

Reading The Mummy fanfics led me on an ultimately fruitless yearlong attempt to read and write hieroglyphics. I learned more about the Civil War by reading a 130,000-word alternate universe fic written by a history grad student than I ever did from AP US History. The footnotes in that story rivaled the ones in Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire. I definitely learned about classism in French slang after a two-year stint lurking in the Les Misérables fanfic community. (Did you know author Victor Hugo had a 100-page digression in the novel about French slang?)

Fanfiction isn’t such a taboo pastime anymore. It’s wild, but since the early days of and LiveJournal, it’s crept into the mainstream. Fifty Shades of Grey is a Twilight fanfic that also got turned into a movie. Rainbow Rowell wrote Fangirl, an acclaimed novel about a college student who writes a megapopular fanfic about a Harry Potter-esque series. That was then spun off into Carry On and Wayward Son, an incredibly meta sequel series where you get to read the story the Fangirl protagonist writes. There is an entire Wattpad-to-movie pipeline, where a One Direction fanfiction with a billion readers on Wattpad got turned into Netflix movies. The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood, a romance novel that recently went viral on TikTok and got a movie deal, started out as a Star Wars fanfic. There are several more examples.

The genre is still met with plenty of derision, but it’s also openly celebrated in a way that felt impossible when I was 12. I don’t read as much of it as I did when I was a teen. Fandom has gotten a little too out there for me, and adult life leaves less time for guilty pleasures. But old habits die hard. I still have alerts set up for my favorite fics, and Archive of Our Own is the first site I open if I hate the ending of a story. I may have grown up a bit, but thanks to this delightfully weird internet subculture, I don’t ask myself “what if I had the confidence to write?” anymore.

Photography by Victoria Song / The Verge