Picture this: It’s 2014. Zayn has yet to leave One Direction, Vine is still kicking and “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift constantly plays on the radio. I, however, have just gotten home from school and am impatiently awaiting to unlock my fourth-generation iPod touch and open the Wattpad app to check if a new chapter of my favorite story has been uploaded. (Despite some earlier exaggeration to set the mood, the iPod part is true — my mom didn’t let me get a phone until I was 13.)
If you’re unfamiliar with Wattpad, you either live under a rock or are probably a normal person. If you’re like me and at age 12 were boy-band crazed and desperate for a Tumblr-esque middle school experience, you understand the phenomenon.
Wattpad is a free and highly interactive online reading and writing platform that establishes a community between content creators and readers. Users can directly interact with creators by commenting within stories, and in turn, creators receive immediate feedback, chapter by chapter, and are encouraged to keep writing. It’s every reader’s dream to discuss the intricacies of storytelling, character motivations and plot development with the authors of their favorite books. With Wattpad, that dream is possible.
At a young age, Wattpad enhanced my love of reading and writing. I devoured whole stories in a single night, and I remember the rush of excitement I would feel when a creator uploaded a new chapter of a story. Wattpad was just like Instagram or Twitter to me — I would check it as if it were any other social media platform.
Except Wattpad isn’t like other social media platforms. Users aren’t required to reveal their real names or personal information unless they choose to. For some, anonymity is appealing. Creators can freely express themselves regardless of race, gender or socioeconomic background. With a variety of genres available, there is a story for everybody, whether Fantasy, Sci-Fi or the highly popular Werewolf. Yes, Werewolf is its own genre. I gravitated toward Teen Fiction, a testament to my current literary taste, and of course, fanfiction.
Like most people way back in 2014, I was obsessed with One Direction and 5 Seconds of Summer, but I was also in Love (with a capital L) with R5. Again, if you’re unfamiliar with R5, you’re probably just a normal person who didn’t watch Disney Channel until you were much too old. R5 was a pop-rock band consisting of Ross Lynch, three of his siblings and their family friend (Lynch and his brother now make up the band The Driver Era). They gained popularity after Lynch starred on Disney Channel’s “Austin & Ally.” As an enthusiastic fan, I went to two of their concerts when they came to Detroit, had every poster of them imaginable on my bedroom walls and yes, wrote fanfiction about them that has — thankfully — been deleted. Fanfiction wasn’t the only thing brewing in my mind. I would often ride in the car and draft plot lines about my life that I could somehow incorporate into fictional stories. Or, I simply daydreamed about stories that might one day come to life. I certainly benefited from the anonymity of it all. It’s embarrassing looking back and realizing the quality of content my 12- and 13-year-old self was putting out for the Internet and my two best friends at the time to see. Still, Wattpad was a form of escapism and I’m forever grateful for it.
I only had positive experiences with Wattpad, but I can’t say the same for everyone. I can’t even imagine the difficulty faced by those whose stories weren’t well received. It takes a lot of courage to share your writing with others. Writing in itself is such a vulnerable thing, and honestly, people on the Internet, who have nothing better to do than to hate-read something, can be cruel. However, the harmful effects of Wattpad aren’t exclusive to a negative reaction to a creator’s story. Sometimes, stories have mature themes or explicit content, not meant to be read by younger users. The age requirement for Wattpad is 13, although I most definitely used a fake birthday when I first created my account. If I was that clever, I’m sure others were too. According to Wattpad’s content guidelines, stories rated “Mature” may contain sexual content, depictions of self-harm, suicide and eating disorders or graphic violence. Even if “Mature” stories are intended for users 17 and up, there’s no way to control the circulation of those stories because creators are responsible for marking their stories Mature, not Wattpad.
But, if we’re being honest, Wattpad as a whole is highly successful despite, and perhaps because of this. With over 90 million users, it’s no wonder the app and website have remained popular for so many years. Wattpad has monetarily supported creators by incorporating Paid stories (these require Coins, which are bought through an Apple or Google account, and allow users to unlock whole stories or single chapters at a time). Like most apps, Wattpad incorporates ads in between stories just to stay afloat. It also has subscriptions, like Wattpad Premium, to enhance a reader’s experience without the interruption of ads. Wattpad’s goal has always been to support creators and their creativity. With writing contests and the annual awards program, the Wattys, Wattpad also sets creators up for success within the platform and beyond it.
Some stories get picked up by traditional publishers and are turned into print books like “The Kissing Booth” by Beth Reekles, the “After” Series by Anna Todd and “My Life with the Walter Boys” by Ali Novak (of which I have a very vivid memory of standing in Barnes and Noble begging my mother to buy me). If authors are lucky, the book will be adapted into a Netflix movie or shown at theaters near you. Additionally, Wattpad’s publishing house, Wattpad Books, takes stories originally posted on the writing platform and publishes them in traditional print form.
One notable piece being published by Wattpad Books is “Float,” a contemporary young adult novel by Kate Marchant set to release on Feb. 22. Since “Float” was originally published on Wattpad, it has accumulated 26 million reads and is currently in the process of shooting an aged-up film starring Robbie Amell (“Code 8”) and Andrea Bang (“A Small Fortune”).
“Float” follows 17-year-old Waverly, who has just been shipped to Florida from Alaska to stay with her aunt — a result of her parent’s indecision over who she should spend the summer with. When Waverly first arrives, she meets Blake, the attractive boy next door. He graciously takes her under his wing by introducing her to his friends and teaching her how to swim. As the summer unfolds, she spends her days working at the local bookstore, having an ongoing battle with the ocean and drooling over Blake. Waverly comes to realize that she doesn’t want her summer, or her new life, to end.
The premise is a bit juvenile, but aren’t all young adult novels? To be blunt, yes, but this one lacks nuance. In “Float,” the titular plot inconsistency, which the story is supposed to revolve around, left a bad impression on me. Blake volunteers to teach Waverly how to swim, but she only needs two lessons. I’m only assuming because, on the page, that’s all we see. Similarly, Waverly lies to her new friends about not being able to swim. She’s 17 and it could be seen as embarrassing — I get that. In the end, her lies have no real consequences; her friendships remain intact even though she cannot swim. But the senseless nature of the story is what got to me. Waverly and Blake’s romantic endeavors (or lack thereof) aren’t satisfying, and the sole reason Waverly likes Blake is that he is conventionally attractive, or in Wattpad Books terms, “built like a Greek god.” Otherwise, he is often rude to Waverly for no reason — he has his own issues — and he treats her like a child during their swim lessons. Not to mention, Waverly herself is a one-dimensional character because her excessive self-deprecation leaves little room for any character growth. She doesn’t learn anything at the end of the story, which again, left me unsatisfied.
I read “Float” when it was originally on Wattpad and loved it, so it was very nostalgic to re-read. I’ll re-read other books I loved when I was younger and most of them still hold up, in part because nostalgia makes me love them even more. My favorite contemporary young adult novels go past the superficial and dive into the real angst that comes with being a teenager. “Float” just wades into the superficial. Sure, it explores themes of friendship and found family, but with very minimal emotional impact. I guess time or being traditionally published didn’t improve the story.
Let’s just say “Float” didn’t exactly break new grounds, but I had very low expectations, considering it’s a reformed Wattpad story. Some of the credibility and authenticity of Wattpad stories are often questioned. With stories like “The Bad Boy Stole My Bra” and “The Bad Boy’s Girl,” it’s difficult not to judge a story by its title. I like to think Wattpad’s existence created a new brand of writing, because I frequently say “this reads like a Wattpad story” when reading certain books, especially young adult contemporary romances. Most of the time, I’m referring to the quality of writing. It usually lacks style or is simple enough to make me believe the mastermind behind the story is indeed a 12-year-old girl. Some stories are formulaic. There’s no use in anticipating what’s to come because I already know. Other stories have overused plot lines that rely too heavily on high school stereotypes (e.g. jock, popular girl, nerd). These types of stories are enjoyable but only to a certain point. Or, maybe some stories are just so bad they’re good.
At the ripe age of 12, Wattpad had me in a chokehold. Even though no one needed R5 fanfiction, to me, Wattpad was an escape from the turbulence of middle school and a place of self-expression. I’m sure others who grew up with the platform understand. In theory, Wattpad seems great. It creates an online reading community, and many creators have had success within the platform and outside of it. At the same time, Wattpad sets such a low standard for their stories that readers are left praising mediocre writing. In turn, traditionally published books, especially young adult fiction, drown in clichéd and recycled plot lines. “Float,” is just one example of a lackluster contemporary pushed as the next great young adult novel. If Wattpad continues to be a voice for the younger generation, then those in charge of the platform need to be held accountable for the quality of content they promote.
Wattpad is far from perfect and shouldn’t be closed off to criticism considering it has the ability to not only reach millions of people, but also influence the quality of writing future authors aspire to have. Do we really need another “After” on the New York Times Best Seller List?
Daily Arts Writer Ava Seaman can be reached at email@example.com.