Nerdfighters, Paper Towns, and heterotopia

Lili Wilkinson

University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia

[0.1] Abstract—Socially and politically controlled teenagers find emancipatory spaces in young adult (YA) literature, spaces where institutions can be challenged and individuals can gain agency and empowerment. Drawing on Foucault's theory of heterotopia, I examine the literary spaces in John Green's YA novel Paper Towns and examine how Green's online social networking community Nerdfighters shares an ideological common ground with the novel.

[0.2] Keywords—Activism; Fandom; Social networking; Young adult literature; YouTube

Wilkinson, Lili. 2012. "Nerdfighters, Paper Towns, and Heterotopia." In "Transformative Works and Fan Activism," edited by Henry Jenkins and Sangita Shresthova, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 10. doi:10.3983/twc.2012.0374.

[0.3] What belongs to me becomes more interesting, and more awesome, once it also belongs to you.

—John Green, Interview with John Green

1. Background

[1.1] Young adult (YA) literature explores fictional spaces that allow the teenage characters (and by extension teenage readers) to see the world (and each other) differently. Readers who vicariously experience the literary heterotopia's process of transformation and transcendence are compelled to spend more time in the fictional world, to push the characters into new situations. This is the genesis of fan fiction: it is a heterotopic space that is "in relation [to the diegetic text], but in such a way as to suspect, neutralise, or invert the set of relations that [it] happen[s] to designate, mirror or reflect" (Foucault 1986, 25). The fans' desire is to not only extend the diegetic heterotopia, but also to invite others to experience it with them—and it is from this point that online networks of fans are born. Online communities take this extension of the fictional text one step further—laying the diegetic heterotopia over the real world, and creating a new heterotopia in the space between, where teenage fans can experience the kind of empowerment, agency, and transformation they have vicariously participated in, within the novels they love.

[1.2] I will perform a close reading of John Green's YA novel Paper Towns using Foucault's six principles of heterotopia, and examine the connections between the novel and the Nerdfightars (, a primarily adolescent online community created by Green and his brother, dedicated to philosophical thought, play, and activism.

[1.3] Paper Towns is the story of Q, a graduating high school senior who suffers from an unrequited love for his enigmatic next-door neighbor, Margo Roth Spiegelman. After Margo enlists Q as an accomplice on a dead-of-night revenge escapade that ends up with them breaking into SeaWorld, she disappears. Q is convinced that Margo has left him a trail of clues to find her and embarks on an adrenaline-fuelled road trip with three friends that ends with them finding Margo living in an abandoned barn in Upstate New York. Margo is surprised to see them—she hadn't left clues at all, and Q realizes that the real-life Margo cannot be contained by his fantasies of her, and that it is "treacherous to see a person as more than a person" (Green 2008, 326).

[1.4] The Nerdfighters community began in 2007, when author John Green and his brother Hank, concerned that their relationship had devolved to purely text-based communication, started the Brotherhood 2.0 project, where they each posted a YouTube video on alternate days, every day for a year. The project was instantly popular with viewers (mostly adolescents) who had come across it via Green's novels. These viewers were quickly integrated into the project, and the idea of Nerdfighters was born (note 1).

[1.5] Nerdfighters are not about you and me. Nerdfighters are about a made of awesome book, made by a woman in Australia, going to a made of awesome baby in the United States. Nerdfighters are about raising money and awareness for important causes. Nerdfighters are about building a supportive community of friends…in my pants. Nerdfighters are about stupid beautiful projects and making each other laugh and think with T-shirts and pocket protectors and rants about the situation in Pakistan which sucks right now. In the contemporary world where things fall apart and the center cannot hold you have to imagine a community where there is no center…A lot of life is about doing things that don't suck with people who don't suck. (Green 2007b)

[1.6] The Nerdfighters community is not solely focused on activism. Its creative output is varied, incorporating music, fiction, video, art, education, craft, and many kinds of play, including amusing challenges, punishments, pranking, and games. Green explains that he and his brother decided early on that the community needed a kind of mission statement or purpose, something that was broad enough that members could take it in whichever direction they chose, but neologistic and therefore specific to their community. They settled on "decreasing WorldSuck" (John Green, pers. comm.).

[1.7] Nerdfighters is not the only online literary community that incorporates activism. Much has already been written about literary/activism/fandom organization The Harry Potter Alliance (HPA,, and I won't add to that body of writing in this article, except to say that the connections between the fictional events of the Harry Potter novels and the activism of the HPA are explicit—even literal. Members identify real-world parallels to the Dark Arts of the novels, and then look to characters like Dumbledore and Potter as role models, trying to emulate their goodness and heroism through activism (Slack 2010). The connections between a novel like Paper Towns and the activities of the Nerdfighters community are more subtle—but no less profound.

[1.8] Unlike the Harry Potter Alliance, the Nerdfighters don't form a bottom-up community—it's created and curated by the Green brothers, and is largely driven by their values and interests. A fan community headed by the subject of fandom is rare, and implies a fundamental conflict between Green's utopian, collaborative vision for the Nerdfighters, and the actual realities of the community. This conflict is worth exploring, as it also reflects a contradiction within literature for young people—namely, in writing for and about children, we are positioning them as other, and by attempting to teach them to be like us, we imply that they are currently less than human. This concept is explored by Perry Nodelman in his seminal article comparing children's literature to Orientalism. Nodelman states: "Our attempting to speak for and about children…will always confirm their difference from, and presumably, inferiority to, ourselves as thinkers and speakers" (1992, 29).

[1.9] Paper Towns is not a children's book, and it is important not to apply children's literary theory to YA fiction, as they serve significantly different purposes. In many ways, YA is a reaction against the "impossibility" of children's literature as discussed by Rose and Nodelman (Rose 1984; Nodelman 1992). Most YA fiction is about the journey away from a position of relative innocence (childhood) to a place where one understands one's position within a social and political landscape (note 2). In many ways, Paper Towns is making the same argument as Nodelman—that it's dangerous to see people as a fixed and knowable other.

[1.10] Nodelman argues that "in the act of speaking for the other, providing it with a voice, we silence it" (31). I'd like to make the case that the Nerdfighters do the opposite—if Green speaks for and to adolescents in Paper Towns, then the Nerdfighters project is an invitation to reply and participate, to open up a dialogue between self and other, between author and reader. Despite its top-down construction, the technological aspects of the Nerdfighters community allow for genuine collaboration and individuality—the community supports many offshoot projects and groups created solely by teenagers.

[1.11] Some Nerdfighting activities have very strong links to Green's writing. The Positive Pranking Project (in conjunction with fellow YA author Amy Krause Rosenthal) has clear ties to the class pranks played out in both Paper Towns and Green's Printz Award-winning Looking for Alaska (2005). The Positive Pranking Project, however, seeks to subvert the traditional mischievous intent of pranking with gifts and positive messages (Green 2010a) (note 3). To find more connections, though, we must dig a little deeper. Green's books and the Nerdfighters share an ideologically (if not explicitly political) common ground—creating spaces that foster mutual respect, intellectual and philosophical thought, linguistic play, and a fundamental desire to make the world a better place.

2. Literature and reading online

[2.1] The rise of social networking has changed the way we read fiction (Wilkinson 2009). Although book clubs and reading circles existed long before the dawn of new media, reading has traditionally been a primarily solitary activity. New media has enabled the collaborative aspects of reading to expand greatly, transforming it into a creative and community building activity. Green explains, "you read and love a book, and then you get online and find other people who read and loved it, and those connections create communities with surprisingly strong bonds that are capable of accomplishing a lot more than just talking about books" (Green 2011). If a book (especially a YA book) is popular, it's probable there are online activities involving it, whether they be forum-style discussions, fan fiction, fan art, video, or craft. The link between these fan communities and social activism, however, is not guaranteed. Green comments that he hasn't seen any activism-focused fandom surrounding the Twilight novels, commenting that "this may be because of the values in the books or because some lack of momentum within the community, but I don't think it's a universal or even very common phenomenon" (Green 2011). He sees literature as a kind of conduit—a space where people with shared sensibilities can come together to discuss and address the issues they identify as being important (note 4). I employ Foucault's theory of heterotopia to explore this common ground and make explicit these ideological links, and their measurable, real-world impact.

[2.2] A heterotopia is, according to Foucault, "a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which the real sites, all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted" (1986, 23). A heterotopia is, unlike a utopia, a real space—although, for the purposes of this article, I will expand the definition of "real" to include physical spaces within fictional worlds, online spaces, and indeed literature itself as a kind of heterotopia. The worlds within YA fiction are often heterotopic—spaces that operate under different rules, existing outside the established order of things. Heterotopic YA ranges from the realistic—such as Cory Doctorow's Little Brother, in which the characters step beyond the borders of governmental control to operate a massive online social protest movement, to the fantastic world of Harry Potter, where the characters literally inhabit a world that is outside and invisible to the order of ours—still located in England, but with its own system of government and its own laws of physics and nature.

3. Crisis and deviance

[3.1] Foucault describes six principles of heterotopia. The first is that heterotopias occur in all cultures, throughout history, but they can take varied forms (1986). Foucault divides the heterotopia into two main categories, the first being the crisis heterotopia—where individuals in a state of crisis such as adolescents, menstruating women, or the elderly are placed until their situation normalizes (into adulthood, for teenagers, or death for the elderly). Foucault argues however, that the crisis heterotopia is being replaced in our society by the second category, the heterotopia of deviation, a space for "individuals whose behaviour is deviant in relation to the required mean or norm" (1986, 24). Foucault suggests that psychiatric hospitals, prisons, and nursing homes are all heterotopias of deviation.

[3.2] Joan Gordon argues in an analysis of China Miéville's novel Perdido Street Station that crisis heteretopias and deviance heterotopias are in fact the same space, viewed from different vantage points: "As people are cast off from society, they form a counter-society, a counter-site of their own. To the society that casts its deviants aside, these institutions are deviation heterotopias. To the residents of rest homes and psychiatric hospitals and prisons, their isolation from society links them to others like themselves. No longer deviant in this countersuit, they undergo the transformative experience of the crisis" (Gordon 2003, 466).

[3.3] Cyberspace and feminism scholar Rhiannon Bury concurs, arguing that "defining such spaces in terms of deviance alone fails to accord agency to those thought of in such terms" (2005, 17). She redefines the heterotopic space as not just a site of deviance, but also of "resistance, inversion, subversion or perhaps simply a space in which active consent to normative practices is suspended" (2005, 18).

[3.4] Adolescence is positioned in our society as a state of crisis and deviation. Children's literature scholar Kimberley Reynolds argues that despite the emergence of the teenager as a major advertising market, the political and social power of teenagers has been considerably diluted since the 1960s. She argues that the cultural and social terrain traditionally assigned to teenagers has become congested—with tweenagers at one end, and liberal parents, aging rockers, "kidults," and "cultural necrophiliacs" at the other (2007, 77). US cultural critic Henry Giroux argues that the cultural impact of teenagers is managed largely by a media trying to sell teenage culture to adults and preteens: "Prohibited from speaking as moral and political agents, youth become an empty category inhabited by the desires, fantasies, and interests of the adult world" (1998, 1).

[3.5] Media education specialist David Buckingham links adolescent cultural disempowerment with young people's perceived lack of interest in current affairs and politics. He asserts that "young people are not defined by society as political subjects, let alone as political agents," and that even in the areas of political and cultural debate that specifically concern them—such as education—the discussion takes place 'over their heads'" (2000, 218–19).

[3.6] Green sees this denial of political agency as a major factor in the success of the Nerdfighters community (note 5). He explains that the combination of political disempowerment and financial restriction exclude most teenagers from philanthropic activities. "But we say to them 'Hey, $5 is a big deal,' because we want to introduce them to the idea of philanthropy, the idea that your money goes further when someone other than you spends it" (John Green, pers. comm.). Through various projects, Nerdfighters have helped to get Democrat Daniel Biss elected to the state legislature in Illinois in a formerly Republican district; purchased clean drinking water for villages in rural Bangladesh and Haiti; and loaned tens of thousands of dollars through microfinancing organization to mostly female entrepreneurs in the developing world. Engagement in this community of (predominantly) politically disenfranchised teenagers, therefore, enables participants to experience the subversive power of the heterotopia, enabling development and transformation.

[3.7] These notions of subversion and empowering the disempowered permeate Paper Towns. Q's friend Radar, for example, lives in a house that contains the world's largest collection of black Santas. Green states on his Web site that Paper Towns is a novel about "how we imagine people, places and stories" (2010b), and the dangers in doing so. He argues that the traditional cultural depiction of Santa (or God, or Jesus) as white indicates a lot more about our society than it does about the real-life Saint Nicholas (who was Russian), and that in collecting black Santas, Radar's parents are trying to encourage people to imagine Santa differently—an alternate order of Santas.

[3.8] Novels about adolescence inevitably visit the high school—a true space of crisis and deviance. Paper Towns is set in that strange, liminal period of senior year where college offers have already been made, but students must continue to attend and sit their final exams. On the last day of school, Q finds himself overwhelmed with unexpected emotions. His general ambivalence towards school evaporates: "All the things I'd done here, all the love and pity and compassion and violence and spite, kept welling up inside me. These whitewashed cinder-block walls. My white walls. Margo's white walls. We'd been captive inside them for so long, stuck in their belly like Jonah" (Green 2008, 264).

[3.9] Q feels like he is drowning in "perverse nostalgia." He is desperate to leave, but cleans out his locker, discarding everything except a photo of him and his two best friends. When he finally leaves he is suddenly liberated, exultant. He realizes that "it is so hard to leave—until you leave. And then it is the easiest goddamned thing in the world" (266). As he runs towards home, he experiences a glimpse of the transformative power of the heterotopia: "I felt myself for the first time becoming Margo" (268). Q experiences a series of these transformations as he moves through the heterotopic spaces of the novel toward an understanding of individuality, imagination, and identity.

4. Changing functions of space

[4.1] Foucault's second principle of heterotopia is that the function of an existing heterotopic space can change over time. As Paper Towns takes place over the space of only a few weeks, this is arguably the least useful principle in this analysis; however, the heterotopic spaces that Q explores do contain elements of this changing function: the increasing environmental focus at Sea World; the evolution of the minimall from shopping destination, to ruin, to urban exploration site, to exile, to sanctuary; the change in high school before and after graduation; and the slow decay of the abandoned planned subdivisions (or pseudovisions, as Q calls them). It is, however, these transitions of function that facilitate Q's own evolution, from someone who views Margo as an empty vessel for his own fantasies and desires, to a whole individual person with desires of her own.

[4.2] The Nerdfighters project, too, is a product of evolution. The shift from Brotherhood 2.0 into Nerdfighters was, according to Green, a natural one. "Internet-based communities," he explains, "can only gaze at their navels for so long before they want to make something out of their improbable connection to one another" (2011). Green claims that activism in the Nerdfighters community is a mix of encouragement from him (and Hank), and organic growth. Many individual Nerdfighters have started projects stemming from their own interests/concerns—such as Shawn Ahmed, who quit college and used the money he'd been saving for an X-Box 360 to move to Bangladesh and start the Uncultured Project (, which, with the help of Nerdfighters and other supporters has, over the past 4 years, provided lasting clean water to an entire village, rebuilt a cyclone-ravaged high school, provided emergency relief in multiple disasters, and helped over 10,000 children through a long-term health worker program. How this and other projects merge to form the basis of the Nerdfighters community will be discussed below.

5. Juxtaposing incompatible sites

[5.1] Foucault explains that the third principle of heterotopia is that it is "capable of juxtaposing in a single real space several spaces, several sites that are in themselves incompatible." The Internet, and all the millions of sites it contains, is profoundly heterotopic—it operates under different rules and exists outside the established order of things. Geographic scholar Kevin Hetherington describes the Internet as not "located in one place, but an endless and multiple set of relations between sites constituted through a myriad of ever-changing connections" (1997, 146). Similarly, architectural scholar Kathleen Kern also claims that the Internet is developing "alternative semi-public spaces and realms" and that online spaces are where any and all scenarios and social orders can be suggested and enacted, whether utopic, dystopic, or heterotopic (2008, 114).

[5.2] Literature offers a space outside of the public/political realm, where profound ideological difference can be set aside and a shared understanding of "goodness" can be fostered. Green explains:

[5.3] I really value the idea that Nerdfightaria is a big tent inclusive of conservatives and liberals, atheists and Muslims, Americans and Australians and Egyptians…. All kinds of people like my books: People who think gay marriage is immoral, people who think it is a human right to own assault weapons, etc. I'm grateful to have those people as readers, and I'm grateful that through literature I can have a kind of conversation with them, but we'll never reconcile politically. (John Green, pers. comm.)

[5.4] While literature—particularly YA literature—is not always explicitly political, it is almost always inherently political (see Trites 2000; Lesnik-Oberstein 2004; Mickenberg 2005). YA literature explores the ways in which we are shaped by the institutions surrounding us, whether they be school, family, church, or state (note 6). But YA is not merely political. Nerdfighters have opened up a space between the politics of literature and the linguistic pleasures of narrative, and built a community there, an interstice of fictional, social, political, and virtual space, where individuals can communicate their own definitions of "Worldsuck," and promote varied methods of decreasing it.

[5.5] During Q's nighttime adventure with Margo, she takes him to the top of a building in Orlando's financial district, where the whole city and its suburbs unfolds below them. Q finds the view beautiful, impressive. "You can't see the wear on things, you know? You can't see the rust or the paint cracking. You see the place as someone once imagined it" (2008, 63).

[5.6] For Margo, however, the city can never be beautiful.

[5.7] It's not even hard enough to be made out of plastic. It's a paper town. I mean look at it, Q: look at all those cul-de-sacs, those streets that turn in on themselves, all the houses that were built to fall apart. All those paper people living in their paper houses, burning the furniture to stay warm. All the paper kids drinking beer some bum bought for them at the paper convenience store. Everyone demented with the mania of owning things. All the things paper thin and paper frail. And all of the people, too. I've lived here for eighteen years and I have never once in my life come across anyone who cares about anything that matters. (63–64)

[5.8] Q doesn't know that Margo is planning to leave. He doesn't even imagine the possibility—he is too busy imagining fantasy scenarios where he and Margo become romantically entangled. Q's way of imagining the city is incompatible with Margo's—just as his way of imagining her is incompatible with the real-life Margo. At this point in the novel, both Q and Margo have not yet experienced the transformation of the heterotopia, and so they remain isolated, locked into their own imaginings. They cannot bring their separate ideologies together and find a common ground.

6. Slices in time

[6.1] After Margo disappears, Q follows a trail of clues to a building on the outskirts of town. After breaking in through a boarded up window, Q finds himself in an abandoned minimall. "The papers on the floor are pages from an old day-to-day calendar, the days scattered through the room, all of them yellowing and mouse-bit. I wonder if this might once have been a little bookstore, although it's been decades since these shelves held anything but dust" (166).

[6.2] At first he finds no sign of Margo—no sign of anything other than decay. But on a subsequent visit, small pieces of evidence emerge—thumbtack holes on a wall, a bottle of nail polish, painted-over graffiti on the walls, a blue blanket that holds Margo's scent. Q decides to try and truly be Margo, to spend the night in the minimall, holding her blanket. It is the night of Q's senior prom, but he doesn't wish to attend. This is the fourth principle of heterotopia—spaces that are "linked to slices in time" (Foucault, 1986, 25). Foucault argues that the heterotopia begins to "function at full capacity when men arrive at a sort of absolute break with their traditional time" (4). Inside the minimall, time and coming-of-age milestones (school, prom, college) cease to matter: "On each calendar, it is perpetually February of 1986" (169).

[6.3] It is here in that Q experiences the first of his two major transformational realizations. He imagines Margo holed up there: "It all struck me as so lonely and so very unMargo. But all the evidence of the past ten days accumulated toward a surprising conclusion. Margo herself was—at least part of the time—very unMargo" (196).

[6.4] Q realizes that the Margo of his boyhood and adolescent fantasies doesn't match the Margo of reality. He starts to understand that he has mis-seen Margo, and that there are endless ways of imagining her—"an infinite set of Margos." Later that night, Q hides in an empty bathtub with Margo's friend Lacey at an after-party for a prom he didn't attend, and thinks that everyone—himself, Lacey, Margo's mother—have all been "looking at [Margo's] reflection in different fun house mirrors" (214), and that perhaps none of them have seen the real Margo.

[6.5] Q wonders if for Margo, the minimall was a place of comfort because she always felt like she was in an empty, abandoned room with blocked-out windows—even when she was surrounded by her friends and family. Because everyone mis-saw her, and nobody imagined that she was real. And Q understands his mistake: "Margo was not a miracle. She was not an adventure. She was not a fine and precious thing. She was a girl" (231).

[6.6] This fourth aspect of heterotopia has obvious links to the Internet—from YouTube to forum posts to blogs to Twitter—endless slices of time displayed asynchronously. Once a year, the Nerdfighters take advantage of the Internet's flexible relationship with time, and its obsession with metrics, for the Project for Awesome. Green explains that "In 2007, Nerdfighters hijacked YouTube's algorithms to push videos about charities onto the front page of the site, which is usually reserved for, you know, cats on roombas videos. By 2010, the P4A—which had begun with basically hacking YouTube for charity—was sponsored by YouTube" (2011).

[6.7] The project has generated over 5,000 videos, tens of millions of views, and in 2010 raised over $150,000 for charity in 48 hours, mostly, Green reports, from small donations from teenagers. The P4A videos are now used by organizations like Save the Children and Heifer International. It is with projects such as this that the Nerdfighters community display the true potential of the heterotopia—using a site of exile, crisis, and deviance to hijack time and virtual space, transform disempowerment to empowerment, and gain a genuine global voice.

7. A system of opening and closing

[7.1] Foucault's fifth principle of heterotopia is that it "presuppose[s] a system of opening and closing that both isolates [it] and makes [it] permeable" (26). It is possible to see evidence of this space throughout Paper Towns—when Q and Margo break into Sea World at 3 am; the compulsory attendance then post-graduation exile of high school; the minimall with its locked doors and boarded up windows; the minivan that takes Q and his friends across the country to find Margo. But perhaps the most profound example from the novel is Margo herself. Q's series of transformations is mirrored by the three sections of the novel: The Strings, The Grass, and The Vessel. In the beginning, Margo and Q both see identity as like a musical instrument—and once the strings have broken, they can never be mended again. Later on, Q takes inspiration from Walt Whitman and sees identity as being like grass—that we are all infinitely connected, and can use our common roots to understand one another, and even become one another. But Q's final realization is that a broken identity isn't irreparable, and that we can't become one another or even accurately imagine one another.

[7.2] Each of us starts out as a watertight vessel. And these things happen—these people leave us, or don't love us, or don't get us, or we don't get them, and we lose and fall and hurt one another. And the vessel starts to crack open in places…. But there is all this time between when the cracks start to open and when we finally fall apart. And it's only in that time that we can see one another, because we see out of ourselves through our cracks and into others through theirs… Before that, we were just looking at ideas of each other… But once the vessel cracks, the light gets in. The light can get out. (350)

[7.3] Green respects his teenage readers. He invites them to see the world differently, but not necessarily to see it his way. It is this respect and emphasis on intellectual thought that forms the cornerstone of the Nerdfighters community. Green and his novels were the genesis for this community, but not the ongoing impetus for one. Green doesn't believe that he is making apathetic teens political—more that the Nerdfighters community gives teens a forum to be respectfully heard and a community with which to share ideas.

8. All the space that remains

[8.1] Foucault's sixth and final principle of heterotopia is that it has a "function in relation to all the space that remains," that it either exposes 'real' space as somehow fake or illusory, or creates a space that is "other, another real space, as perfect, as meticulous, as well arranged as ours is messy, ill-constructed and jumbled" (26).

[8.2] Nathan Rambukkana's paper on the heterotopic role of slash fiction argues that online fan spaces "offer a potential as zones where other practices, discourses, and consciousnesses can form or circulate with partial autonomy from the constraints upon those practices, discourses and consciousnesses in other societal spheres" (2007, 68). He stresses that the various ideologies that compete for attention within online spaces are not always compatible, forming instead an alternative or radical public sphere where ideology and protest combine with humor and emotion, thereby drawing the attention of the general public (2007, 69).

[8.3] Political change and ideology is discussed on Nerdfighters in a unique, playful-yet-serious way. For example, John has made videos discussing Maoist rebels in Nepal while eating toilet paper (Green 2007a) or discussing the Georgia-Russia war while letting a puppy lick peanut butter from his face (Green 2008). These subversions of typical news reporting are not intended to detract from the seriousness of the issues at hand, but instead to subvert the nature of civic discourse and make it accessible to audiences traditionally excluded from politics. Green is acutely aware of the dangers of politicized, jargon-laden discourse, and finds it condescending. He argues that young people "are tired of seeing black-and-white photographs of sick or poor children, and they're hungry for more complex understandings of what it means to live in poverty. They're tired of hearing dichotomous discourse that denies what I think is the essential fact of human existence, which is that the truth resists simplicity" (2011).

[8.4] The Nerdfighters project exposes the "real world" of politicized discourse, as oversimplified, patronizing, and fundamentally false. Green explains that without the Nerdfighters community, and the social networking potential in YouTube, he wouldn't have been able to meet Bangladeshi villagers over video, and "come to know and care about them as people and not just two-dimensional images of poverty" (2010c). The transformative experience produced by the literary and virtual heterotopia is therefore leaking back into the real world, with concrete, life-changing consequences.

[8.5] There are three kinds of paper town in Green's novel: Margo's view of Orlando as being fake and shallow; the empty, abandoned pseudovisions; and fictional towns inserted into maps as a kind of copyright trap by cartographers. This final kind of paper town is where Q experiences his final transformation—the above understanding of identity as a vessel, the importance of vulnerability, and the danger of "believ[ing] that a person is more than a person." The paper town of Agloe, in upstate New York, has a population of zero. It contains an old barn that has so many holes in the walls that it is "simultaneously inside and outside." It is a no-place—identified on a map as having meaning and significance, but barely existing in reality. Margo explains that it's how she felt, back in Orlando.

[8.6] It's kind of great, being an idea that everybody likes. But I could never be the idea to myself, not all the way. And Agloe is a place where a paper creation became real. A dot on the map became a real place, more real than the people who created the dot could ever have imagined. I thought maybe the paper cutout of a girl could start becoming real here also. (340)

[8.7] Agloe exposes the illusion of the paper map—Margo travels there to expose herself, to reveal her true identity behind the paper high school girl that everyone—including Q—adores. The novel ends with closure, but no easy answers. We learn from Margo the danger of imagining things, but Q reminds us that if we don't imagine, nothing ever happens at all. Q understands the importance of metaphors—when you define yourself as the strings, the grass, or the vessel, each has different implications. The future must be imagined in order to bring it into being, and by doing so we render ourselves vulnerable, letting others in through our cracks. But we must not impose our imaginings upon other people—they have their own imaginings, and underneath them, their own vulnerable selves. Green's novel is a complex procession of complicated philosophical ideas, yet it doesn't impose any answers upon the reader, except perhaps a plea for mutual respect.

9. Conclusion

[9.1] What is the relationship between Nerdfighters and Paper Towns? Could Nerdfighters exist without the scaffolding of John Green's novels? Probably, although perhaps on a much smaller scale. Being a popular, successful author certainly adds legitimacy to the project, and allows its popularity to grow at a more rapid pace. Although the novel did not cause the community (or vice versa), they clearly inform one another and are connected through the principles of heterotopia. Paper Towns invites its readers to see each other differently and to acknowledge that we can never truly understand one another. The novel fosters a readership that supports and reinforces the values of the Nerdfighters community—respect, playfulness, intellectual thought, and generosity. The participation of author John Green within his own (self-created) fandom calls into question the distinction between self and other, inviting the reader to begin a genuine dialogue with the author. This heterotopic space between fiction and reality, creator and consumer, allows participants to be liberated from their normal social functions, and encourages collaboration, communication, and creativity.

10. Notes

1. There are 60,000 members of the Nerdfighters Ning, and one of Green's videos can receive up to 12 million views.

2. Roberta Seelinger Trites (2000) describes the YA novel as entwicklungsroman—a story of development, as opposed to the more romantic bildungsroman—a coming-of-age story where adulthood is attained at the novel's conclusion.

3. For example, "Ding Dong Ditching" becomes leaving chocolate Ding Dong cakes on someone's doorstep instead of just ringing the doorbell and running, and "TPing" becomes leaving Tootsie Pops instead of toilet paper.

4. It's important to note that despite its utopian, all-inclusive manifesto, the Nerdfighters community is not embraced by everyone. Some teens report feeling the same kind of isolation and exclusion as they experience in real-life social cliques—see,, and

5. Green comments that around 67 percent of his YouTube viewers are under 24, but that adolescent viewers are disproportionately likely to be active participants in the Nerdfighter community.

11. Works cited

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