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Researchers Use Algorithm to Mansplain Fanfiction and Miss the Whole Point


Finnpoe Finn and Poe

When you think of fanfiction, or even the broader field of fan studies, I bet the first thing that comes to your mind isn’t three middle-aged white guys in cardigans who want to crack the code of fic by … using an algorithm to find out how often fans use lines from the properties they’re transforming?

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Well, that’s what’s happened over at U Penn, where three researchers decided to use digital humanities methods to analyze fic to see where authors were using dialogue and where they were being original. Because this was something that needed to be the focus of a multi-year study?

As someone who writes and reads fic, this very idea is baffling to me. Going in, did they think fic was just people regurgitating the scripts of their favorite movies? Did they realize the social and emotional value of fic as a voice for marginalized people or a therapeutic outlet or a larger community? Do they … do they not get what fic is?

The study was spearheaded by English professor and cinema and media studies program director, Peter Decherney. He was assisted by his former grad students Scott Enderle, described as having the “rare combination of a Ph.D. in English and extensive mathematical and computer science skills” and James Fiumara of Penn, an “expert in language study and a former film studies professor.”

Steve Buschemi says, "How do you do, fellow kids?" on 30 Rock.

These three guys poured over scripts from movies like Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series and compared them to billions of words of fanfic to develop a “fan engagement meter” which you can actually look at here: But…it doesn’t tell you much just looking. You have to poke at it and thus find out if “quotable lines” or such get fans more excited.

Again, I’m not sure what they’re getting at here. Fans are not per se interested in quotable lines or specific moments (unless they’re analyzing queer subtext) it’s more about the world and the characters. Interestingly, the researchers purposely didn’t include the Marvel Cinematic Universe because “the team decided they were too fragmented for this project,” according to Peter Decherney. Also, no television was analyzed and I don’t know how they distinguished Harry Potter movies from books.


The article detailing this study perhaps can’t be faulted for approaching fanfic as new and different, that happens all the time. And Decherney helps them there with simple explanations like: “A common practice among fans is to take minor characters and explore their stories,” says Decherney.  Yes, is this … new?

Apparently it is, because the “fan fiction discoveries” section leads with the conclusion from Decherney: “Often what the writers do in fan fiction is take characters who aren’t well developed in a film and they explore them more.”

Further conclusions: They were surprised by how much fic was about Kylo and Hux after The Force Awakens (we’re with you, dudes, but you’re four years late) and they made the bold assertion that the relationships fans want to write about were: “the ones that had the least backstory. Fans really wanted to explore that. What about their emotional lives? What about their sex lives?  Those are all the kinds of things that fans want to know about, the things that are not represented for the most part in mainstream media.”

Yes. Duh.

The use of quantitative, data-based research isn’t new in fan studies. In fact, there are many academics and non-academics out there doing amazing work, such as DestinatotionToast on tumblr. The problem here is these men approaching fanfic like they’re the first people to analyze it. Fan studies is a big, beautiful place where some brilliant folks are doing really interesting work, but I’m not sure if these guys know it exists or really get fandom.

Many fan studies scholars had a lot to say about this. Alexandra Edwards, a fan studies scholar who also has PhD in English, tweeted the following critiques:

Edwards brings up many good points and flaws in this study: the erasure and ignorance of the queer history and nature of fic (something exacerbated by their exclusion of Marvel from the mix) and the creepy data mining going on.

Elizabeth Minkel, co-host of the podcast Fansplaining, who herself has a master in Digital Humanities, told The Mary Sue: “There are several things that frustrate me about this research, the first being the fundamental misunderstanding of fanfiction and its relationship to the source material. Anyone with even a passing knowledge of the fic world would have steered them away from their initial research question, and their conclusions were things that literally anyone who reads and writes fic could tell you observationally—or that amateur fandom statisticians regularly show using very basic data science tools and methods for free on a regular basis.”

I’m in strong agreement with Minkel here. It’s not that studying fic and fandom is bad, it’s just insulting that these guys used all this time and resources to do something they thought was new and would give them some special insight to figure out things any fan could tell them without breaking a sweat. Fandom statistics are very interesting and they can tell us interesting things. The Kylo and Hux number, for instance, tell us things about slash and race that are important, and can’t just be seen in a vacuum.

What these guys are doing is, in effect, mansplaining. It’s a group of men with the hubris to think they know something about an area where a lot of people, mostly women, already know a lot more than them. It’s as Minkel put it, also “Columbusing.” They think they’re discovering a new world because they never bother to consider we were already here.

I hope this tool can somehow be useful, but I also hope these researchers take the time to listen to the female, queer and POC voices in fan studies that are doing great work and see what they can learn.

(image: Disney/LucasFilm)

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Jessica Mason
Jessica Mason (she/her) is a writer based in Portland, Oregon with a focus on fandom, queer representation, and amazing women in film and television. She's a trained lawyer and opera singer as well as a mom and author.

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