Guest blog by Juan Luis Suárez
In this guest blog, Juan Luis Suárez from the CulturePlex Lab at Western University in Canada discusses the implications of phenomena such as the digital literary platform Wattpad for Modern Languages research.
A few weeks ago the Spanish newspaper El País published the results of a ComScore report on the apps most used by millennials in USA. The report caught my attention for two reasons. Firstly, because the age group mentioned –18 to 34 years olds – largely coincides with that of students we get at university. And secondly, because number 8 in their ranking is a literary app: Wattpad.
It’s still common to hear that one of the negative things about digital culture is that literature has been displaced. Young people no longer read, ebooks are not ‘the same’ as ‘real’ books, and Youtubers or ‘Booktubers’ wade into bookfairs, pushing out real writers. However, phenomena such as Wattpad seem to prove that the human need to tell and read stories is as present as ever in the lives of young people.
Wattpad was created in Toronto in 2006 by two engineers, Allen Lau and Ivan Yuen. Lau and Yuen were conscious of two behavioural characteristics of their generation: they like reading and they are constantly glued to their mobile phones. What is more, they sensed that the technology which existed at that time did not satisfy the need to read on mobile phones. That’s how they ended up creating a platform for ‘mobile reading’ which today has 45 million readers and writers from all over the world - who spend 30 minutes at each session - and attracts 130,000 new users every day. The platform contains hundreds of millions of stories, most users access the site through the mobile app and there are Wattpad stars like Anna Todd who has around 1.3 million followers, and whose story After (2014) has been read over a billion times. The company announced recently, that in a few months, Spanish will be the language most commonly employed by its users.
A profile of Drake, made up of the most used words extracted from Twitter around the date he released “Views”
The potential offered by a platform like Wattpad for literary research is immense. The number of stories published, the vast geographic coverage – quite literally global – of its readers and writers, the variety of languages used and the evolutionary dynamics of themes, genres and users are some of the many lines which could be harnessed in the intersection between Modern Languages, digital culture and data analytics.
But not everything is positive. Wattpad is also a case study of the problems which researchers come up against in the digital space, and in particular, of the inversely proportional relationship between the value of data (I’m referring to its academic, rather than its economic, value) and the probability that they are the property of private enterprise. Personally, I dream of a scenario where we have free access to such a quantity and variety of data relating to one of the largest global literary experiences which humanity has experienced up to this moment in time.
My laboratory (The CulturePlex Lab) has had to ‘make do’ with analysing the million stories which Wattpad has generously given us access to and which has allowed us to open new research directions on the art of telling and reading stories in the digital age. There are many stories, a huge number of words and never-ending new ways to encode the digital experience of the generation which fills our classes. That’s why, in spite of the limitations, the balance is clearly edging toward the positive.
Wattpad doesn’t exactly meet the criteria of traditional literature. It is accessed on mobile phones; its community has almost global dimensions; it operates according to the characteristics of a social network; it represents the concepts of transmedia, intermediality and convergence, which Henry Jenkins and others have theorized about; it has developed a multichannel network through Wattpad Studios and it channels the stories which show most potential towards the traditional publishing industry, cinema and TV, respectively. However, all that lies behind all of this is the human desire to tell and read stories. I would say that Wattpad is not the future of literature, even though it is a step in the right direction. That is where, in the future, research into Modern Languages in the digital era should flow in my view. Simply because it is one of the spaces where stories, writers and readers coincide.
Translation by Paul Spence
 Henry Jenkins, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. New York: New York University Press, c2006.