Before Fifty Shades of Grey, early fanfiction authors carved out their own little homes on the burgeoning internet.
Between the Twilight fanfiction turned stand-alone novel Fifty Shades of Grey selling over 125 million copies, and a One Direction fanfic with over a billion views getting a movie deal, it's safe to say that fanfiction has gone mainstream. Fanfiction.net has 40,000 Star Wars stories, 114,000 Supernatural stories, and a staggering 743,000 Harry Potter stories. There are multiple websites dedicated exclusively to One Direction fanfic, and Tumblr's fanfiction community is a sprawling labyrinth that hosts countless stories that range from squeaky clean to unspeakably filthy. If you're looking for fanfic your choices are endless, and the sites that host the stories are slick and comprehensive. And, most notably, talking about fanfiction doesn't make you look like a weirdo anymore. It's just a hobby, not a perceived refuge for awkward, obsessive fans.
But in the late '90s and early '00s, fanfic was a niche interest. Instead of all-purpose sites like fanfiction.net, fans carved out their own little homes on the burgeoning internet. Star Trek fans here, X-Files fans there, Frasier fans somewhere else. Most of those early fanfic sites are dead now, accessible only with sporadic snapshots taken by the Way Back Machine. The sites that still exist lurch on—one X-Files site founded in 1995, for example, promises an update every 60 days, yet hasn't been touched since 2012.
While no doubt stylish at the time, most of these sites have never updated their now laughably out of date design, and their once dedicated fans have largely drifted off. They're internet time capsules, kept on life support but slowly vanishing as their owners look to save time and money, or simply lose interest in doing even the most basic maintenance on something that was once a huge passion. These communities are dying and largely being forgotten just as the medium they were pioneering is making its mark on pop culture history.
Fanfiction existed before the internet, of course, getting published in fanzines and making the rounds at conventions. Peg Robinson, who got into Star Trek fanfic on Usenet in her mid-thirties, knew about fanfic since her high school days in the '70s, where stories were passed down from older students to newcomers.
"I discovered Star Trek fandom online because I knew it had to be there," she said. "I know that sounds odd, but I was married to a computer engineer, trying to develop typing and writing skills. When at last my husband got us online, I went to the one place I already knew: alt.callahans; a [Bulletin Board] patterned after Spider Robinson's Callahan's Bar [a long running series of sci-fi stories about a bar frequented by time travelers] stories. That told me all I needed to know: Usenet had to have some kind of Star Trek bulletin boards."
Robinson's biggest obstacle wasn't finding a fanfic community—it was getting her typing skills up to speed. That's a reminder of how the computers we all take for granted were new and novel not all that long ago, as was the concept of going online and sharing your creations.
"I was stunned the first time I got fan mail from someone in Germany, or was asked for an interview by someone in France," she said. "The slow realization that my partner and I had managed to create something that had the weight of owning a readership was unnerving."
Fanfic is an act of creation—even if the only thing being created is a horribly written story about Harry Potter having sex with Hagrid, its creator still wants it to be read as widely as possible. While older online fanfic is dwarfed by what you can find today, at the time it felt massive compared to photocopies passed between friends. And that scope and permanence can be either wonderful or horrifying, depending on your perspective. Dave Tremel, who's run trekfanfiction.net since 1995, sometimes gets messages from regretful authors.
"Most of the time it's someone that posted a story when they were in their early teens and are now out in the real world looking for a job and don't want anyone to come across what the 13-year-old version of themselves was in to," he said.
Modern fanfic is dominated by teens, but Robinson pointed out that they were rare in the early days.
"We had a lot of college-age writers thanks to college connections, but relatively few [teens]," she said. "Modern fandom to me looks amazingly young, and more focused on fandom as a counter culture than on any one series or product."
Tremel was one of those college enthusiasts. A Star Terk fan since the late '70s, he stumbled across fanfic while reading news groups and eventually launched his site to serve as a repository for fans. "At the time there were no sites dedicated to Star Trek fanfiction," he said. "The problem I had was that if I read a story by one person, it was almost impossible to search out any other stories they had done."
It was also almost impossible to find people in real life who knew what fanfic was. This was the bleeding edge of nerdy pursuits. "I don't recall any mentions of fanfiction outside of the community. Back in 1994/5, if you were on the internet you were in a different group. We were the hardcore geeks. Talking about things on the internet was definitely not something I could relate to other people. Going to Star Trek/comic book conventions in the '80s and ;90s was something nerds did. Telling people you read or wrote fan fiction put you in the super geek category. I feel today that fandom is much more accepted as normal."
In the '90s, being a geeky superfan was pop culture shorthand for being a loser—Frasier had a character whose entire personality was "Star Trek fan with no social life" and he, of course, got his own fanfic written about him. Robinson noted a gendered element as well, as fanfic was, and still is, dominated by women.
"Star Trek fans had been used as shorthand for 'stupid smelly loser' for a generation," she said. "Any convention ever mentioned in any form on the news was mocked, and the costumed fans trotted out as a sort of carny-style freak show. Being a [fan]fic writer was a bit different—so many fic writers were and are women, it got tangled into the largely male fandom's uneasy discomfort with women in fandom in the first place."
Kem, who created the Daria fan site Glitter Berries in late 1999, also noticed a bit of stigma, although she inadvertently found a way to cut through it.
"I really wanted to see more of the characters, so I discovered fan fiction and started reading a lot," she said. "I remember talking to my mom, who didn't really 'get' fanfiction or understand why I would want to spend so much time reading these stories. One day, I had just read a particularly moving fanfic, so I started telling her the story. I recounted the entire plot, and she was completely riveted. Only after I was finished did I reveal that the whole thing was a work of fanfiction. I think she had a slightly better understanding after that."
Kem also alluded to the fact that, while the fanfiction community has evolved in many ways, there are some elements that will never change. TVTropes, a Wikipedia-esque site where fans dissect pop culture cliches, has a huge section dedicated to "Ship-to-Ship Combat," or the practice of fans arguing over which characters should hook up. Those debates, and other seemingly innocent discussions, can get heated, to put it mildly. "There were legions of fans that were die-hard Daria/Trent 'shippers, and there were just as many anti-shippers. There were also some especially vocal writers that were very strict about sticking to canon, and really looked down on any writers that dared to steer away or delve into serious topics. That caused some tension. Some went so far as to say that script format was the only way to go and writing in prose went against canon. They were basically saying 'You're wrong and the way you choose to write is wrong.' Writers really don't like to hear that!"
She found the Daria community civil on the whole, though, as did Tremel with the Star Trek fandom. Robinson also found the community "pretty gentle," although she did feel compelled to write a lengthy guide on how to leave constructive criticism without being a jackass about it.
But perhaps the biggest difference Robinson has noticed is how the sheer explosion in scale has affected the feel of the community.
"The Usenet groups were tighter, and more exclusively focused on the source material," she said. "The concept of geek fandom is so wide and nebulous these days: so many products to draw from, and so many areas drawn into the classification. These days it's not about loving Star Trek, or Harry Potter, or whatever: it's about entering a community.
Like any hobby that suddenly explodes, there are pros and cons. "The downside is that much of the joy of being part of a small, intimate little world is eroded," Robinson said. "You need search-engine mojo to find out anything about your own fandom in all the uproar. The upside is you no longer feel the need to defend yourself for loving what you love. Fewer and fewer people will treat you like a freak."
Robinson's, Tremel's and Kem's lives have changed just as much as the communities they helped launch. Tremel's gone from a college student with lots of free time to a married man with kids and a busy job that keeps him from updating his site, which is struggling to find new writers. Kem still keeps an eye on the fandom, but has lost interest in writing fanfic. Her life is "almost unrecognizable now"—she moved halfway across the country, got a new job, and got married, to someone she met through a Daria fan forum. Robinson watched her daughter grow up, got divorced, and sold some non-fanfic stories professionally, although she never quite got the pro career that she was hoping for.
But Robinson still dabbles in fanfic, and Tremel and Kem both intend to keep their sites running indefinitely. Tremel sees it as "a time capsule from the dawn of the Internet," and as a passion project with too much time and love invested to kill off. Kem's site has served as a life raft for content from other Daria sites that went dark. She noted that, even though the show ended in 2002, new fans discovering the show continue to drift in.
"There was a lot of buzz in the community that the fandom would implode and cease to exist," Kem said. "Years went by and that didn't happen. You try to leave, and it pulls you back in."
Meanwhile, fanfiction continues to grow. It's even studied academically now—researchers have looked at its relationship with feminism, disability, the LGBTQ world, and much more, which is a far cry from when it was dismissed as a subculture for weirdos not worth the time of day. And now, whenever there's a new hit franchise, it's safe to say that reams of fanfiction will appear in its wake. Robinson pointed out that that's admirable, even if you don't plan on reading a word.
"Much of fandom is either quite passive, or is active in largely non-creative ways," Robinson said. "Fic writers, though, create. That seems worthy of praise, no matter how tacky you think the outcome.