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  Alternate Universes

The Fan Fiction Universe:
Some Statistical Comparisons

This is substantially the paper I presented at the Carnegie Mellon conference One Hundred Years of Mass Culture: Beyond Good and Evil on September 30, 2000.


Fan fiction, stories produced by fans using characters and situations from mass culture, began among Star Trek fans in the mid-1960s; by 1990 it had grown enough to be the subject of several academic studies, of which Henry Jenkins' Textual Poachers is the best.

One striking characteristic of fan fiction from its earliest days in print is that most writers and readers are female. It's probably because fanfic is a women's genre that its most notorious subgenre has developed: slash. Slash is erotic fiction about two media characters of the same sex -- originally, Star Trek's Captain Kirk and Mister Spock. Slash was deeply controversial when it first surfaced in the mid-70s, and remains a hot-button topic for many in the fanfic community. It is also extremely popular, encompassing a range from soft-focus romances to bluntly explicit smut.

I have been involved in online fan fiction for about 2 years. In 1999 I became one of the organizers of the Foresmutters Project, an effort to put stories and commentary from the earliest days of slash online. Because the FSP is the only slash history site on the Web, a lot of people contact me asking for information or interviews about slash, and fanfic in general. One question that always comes up is: how many fanfic stories are there?

Other common questions include: how many people are doing this? Are we talking about a few nutcases, or is this some kind of mass movement? Which sources (TV shows, movies, comics, etc.) generate the most fanfic? And how much of it is that weird slash stuff?

These are all good questions, and at present they cannot be definitively answered. But it's possible to gather some preliminary statistics, to get a feeling for the shape of the fanfic landscape even if we cannot yet hope to fully map it.

The easiest question to address is, how many stories are there? Online media fandom, like Star Trek fandom and science fiction fandom before it, is self-organizing -- fans expect to work together on large projects such as running conventions. Online, one of the largest projects in most fandoms is to organize archives, sites where many stories from a fandom are kept together.

Since archives from different fandoms rarely overlap, the sum of the stories from the largest archives represents a lower bound on the total number of stories available online.

Table 1 shows statistics from most of the largest fanfic archives. Many, many fandoms are too new to have a central archive, while others -- like Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and Xena: Warrior Princess -- are "cat-herding" fandoms, where many characters and romantic pairings have their own mailing lists and archives. The extremely limited subset of archives listed here represents over 130,000 stories.

Given this number, and the hundreds of smaller archives and fandoms, I conservatively estimate the total number of online fanfic stories to be 500,000; it could easily be higher, since some fandoms have no public archives and restrict their activities to private lists.

This leads to questions about how the stories and fans are distributed. Which fandoms are the largest; which are growing the fastest?

I've taken two approaches to this question. First, I went to the most comprehensive collection of online fanfic links, Karen Nicholas' "Fan Fiction on the Net". I counted how many sites she has for each fandom in the "regular" (also known as general interest, or "gen"), "adult" (aka "het" or "heterosexual fiction"), and "slash" divisions. [Table 2a]

The thing that first struck me is how few of the highest-rated, most popular shows on TV are represented in fanfic. Instead, the list is heavily weighted toward shows (popular or otherwise) with a fantastic element. The only major exception is General Hospital, which may be on the list because it's the soap opera that is on latest in the afternoon, when teenagers are home from school.

The hegemony of science fiction and fantasy is only slightly less complete for slash fandoms (Table 2b). In slash, there is a higher percentage of shows without a fantastic element. Such shows are almost universally police dramas with intense interpersonal relationships. The major exception is "Sports Night," which was a half-hour comedy. They tell me, though, that it would probably have become one of the biggest slash fandoms if the series had continued for another two seasons or more.

I had hoped to use Karen Nicholas' site for longitudinal studies, but she has been ill and the site has not been updated in some time. I then decided to try a different approach: counting hits collected by a search engine. Table 3 shows the results of Google! searches. The first column is the number of hits on "fan fiction" plus the name of the source; the next column is the subset with the word "slash"; the last column is the percentage slash.

I do not imagine that these numbers tell how many web pages are dedicated to each of these fandoms. Among other things, it's estimated that no search engine covers more than 17% of the Web, and they're falling further behind all the time. Nor do these figures reflect how many stories there are in each fandom, since most archive sites (especially those with slash) are deliberately set up to be search-engine resistant: you can get a hit for the index page, but not for individual stories.

I suspect that the number of hits, especially their relative rankings, correlates with the current level of interest in the fandom -- with the number of fans, rather than the number of stories.

For instance, when I collected these figures and showed them to the Fanfic Critics Association mailing list, we were all surprised at how few hits there were for "The Professionals," a British secret agent show from the early 80s that has never been broadcast in North America. But the chemistry between the two leads is so compelling that the fandom has spawned hundreds of slash stories over 20 years: the Pros Circuit Archive alone has over 500 stories. I think what's going on is that Pros fans are few -- so I get few web page hits -- but dedicated and persistent, so the fandom is still creatively important.

On the other hand, Table 3 shows that there are two types of fanfic high up on the Hits Parade that don't even appear on Table 2a: (A) anime-, game-, and manga-based, and (B) music-based.

No one has really examined this phenomenon yet, but there are a few points that stand out:

1) Both these types of fanfic are based on something other than live-action TV or movies. Anime, games, and manga are drawn media: the characters are clearly and obviously not human beings.

At the other extreme, the members of a music group like the Backstreet Boys or NSYNC look very much like real people, not characters. This is very different from the situation in more traditional fanfic, where is a clear distinction between Captain Kirk and William Shatner. Indeed, fanfic writers have maintained loudly for years that we're writing about the characters, not the actors, and "actor fic" is very strongly deprecated -- many long-time fans are frankly horrified at the amount of "real-person" fic being produced these days. It is notable, however, that these stories are not exactly about real people -- they're about entertainment personas.

2) The fans for these stories appear to be much younger than traditional fanfic readers. The carried out in 1984 , gave a mean age of 34; the survey in October 1999 of members of the "Master and Apprentice" (Star Wars: The Phantom Menace slash) mailing list showed a mean age of 30.

By contrast, a large number of the anime/game/manga-based and music-based stories are hosted at fanfiction.net. Fanfiction.net is the biggest single fanfic site on the Web, and has been doing an (extremely haphazard) survey of its readers, most of whom turn out to be under 18. It is no coincidence that fanfiction.net now houses more than 7300 Harry Potter stories.

3) Anime/game/manga- and music-based stories are extremely common in Japan. In Japan, most fan work is in the form of amateur manga, doujinshi, not text-based stories. These are produced in enormous numbers: Comiket, a twice-yearly doujinshi sale/con, has 45,000 dealers and from 200,000 to 400,000 attendees per day. To my knowledge, no one has yet done any detailed analysis of the extent and kind of Japanese-language fan work online.

In Textual Poachers, Henry Jenkins said: "Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk." The data I've collected suggest that this work of cultural repair, in which amateurs take mass media entertainment and transform it, using it for personal creativity and even art, is one of the fast-growing activities on the Web. Whether it has larger cultural effects will only be clear with time.

My thanks to Laura Jacquez Valentine and to the members of the Fanfiction Critics Association and Aestheticism mailing lists. Consider yourselves co-authors.

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by Mary Ellen, "Doctor Science, MA"

 


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