How Wattpad changed the way we think about writing

II started reading early, and I spent my childhood hungry for stories. For the first half of my life, I was sustained by my small public library, finding solace in old, ratty copies of Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. It wasn’t until I was 14 that I felt the limits of my library’s bookshelves and started to look online for new, brave, curious protagonists.

That’s when I stumbled onto Wattpad. When I found it in 2012, the site functioned as a microcosm of teen popular culture, reflecting the platform’s large contingent of Gen Z and millennial users. Every scroll, regardless of genre, brought users book covers largely adorned with Photoshop edits of notable teenage heartthrobs of the time (think: Dylan O’Brien in his Teen Wolf fame, or a younger, long-haired One Direction Harry Styles). Some stories even included popular song recommendations (mostly Taylor Swift) and a cast filled with A-list celebrities, in the hopes of creating an immersive experience for readers.

Founded in 2006, Wattpad has grown far beyond the scale of my local library. The platform currently boasts 94 million users and more than a billion uploaded stories, ranging from historical tales to outright fanfiction. In its 15 years of existence, Wattpad stories have gained a reputation in the online literary community — a landfill of self-insert fanfiction to some, and a treasure trove of hidden gems to others.

As a 14-year-old, I found Wattpad’s saturation of teen popular culture exhilarating; it promised to appease my quickly shifting reading preferences. My digital library became a hoard of historical fiction and supernatural romance novels, where I surrendered to my teenage angst and lived vicariously through questionably written characters. For four years, I religiously followed the satirical but romantic Storm and Silence series, treating the Wednesday chapter uploads like morning church service.

I was amazed by Wattpad, not only for its riveting content, but also for its ability to shatter many traditional barriers and expectations for writing. For one, authors seemed to balance their professional and personal personas on the platform, retaining sometimes thousands of readers under pen names like “dontstealmypoptarts” or “iheartonedirection.” Where I had previously only viewed authors as elusive and mysterious, these usernames instead suggested that anyone could write a book — even people who liked Pop-Tarts and One Direction.

I also loved how authors often addressed their readership directly. They would spotlight a reader of the week, offer bonus chapters, and communicate any changes to their uploading schedule. Chapters contained author’s notes, a nexus where the personal and professional came together. Sometimes there was a note about upcoming exams, at other times a tragic comment about a pet’s passing.

Readers also bridged the divide, offering words of encouragement or criticism. They would share their excitement, amusement, or worry in a chapter’s comment section, and interact with other users in the comments. Readers and writers developed a collaborative relationship and a sense of community, as writers are able to refine their stories with this feedback.

In 2014, I began to publish my own poems and books on the platform. My poems spoke about love and betrayals that I had not yet experienced. My books were enemies-to-lovers romance novels with bad dialogue that my 16-year-old self mistook for wit. A few of my books were ranked by the website’s popularity algorithm in broad categories, but most remained largely untouched by readers. Still, I kept writing for the joy of it. Eight years later, those pieces are like a time capsule of my teenage self.

Wattpad has changed drastically since 2012. Book publishers have started to take notice, and the company has rolled out professionalizing features like content from established writers (“Tap Originals”) and pay-to-access works (“Paid Stories”). In January, Wattpad was acquired by a South Korean tech conglomerate, Naver Corporation, for $600 million. Like any online community, Wattpad writers are hostage to the profitability of their platform. The introduction of Wattpad coins, in particular, threatens to isolate or separate readers who aren’t able to buy them and access these new Paid Stories.

As someone who joined the website for its expansive, accessible, and free content, I have mixed feelings about the new features and the emphasis on monetization. It’s a familiar turn for tech platforms, and while it’s alarming, it’s better than the site shutting down entirely. As a retired Wattpad user, I can’t help but feel nostalgic for all the time I’ve spent on the platform. I hope it can survive for all the 14-year-olds still looking for a bigger library, as a space where individuals can read, write, and form community.