Online fiction (that is fiction written specifically for online communities that are not literary journals) has two characteristics that set it apart from other genres. Of course, not every piece of online fiction will have these two characteristics, but the vast majority will. Almost all online fiction is written in the first person and has a framing device that allows the character to directly address the reader.
I’m trying to make a distinction between “fiction that happens to appear in online spaces” and “fiction written for the online space.” Online fiction is a genre distinct from the short story because it has much higher word counts and is serialized and from traditional novels because a single serialized volume typically contains many distinct plots, each able to be separated. The genre resembles short story collections in its form but is often presented as a longer or shorter work. There’s also the tendency of certain genres of online fiction to pretend to be nonfiction or otherwise disguise themselves (online horror fiction is a particular offender here), and the different communities that make up the larger picture. I feel confident in categorizing online fiction as its own distinct genre and within it characterizing several sub-genres. On their own, framing devices and first-person POV do not define the genre, but they are two of the common characteristics.
Framing Devices and First Person POV
Framing devices are common in fiction and literature, but they are far more common online than in traditional and self-publishing, where you may find books written as journals and letters, but not nearly as many written as blog and forum posts. Online fiction frequently takes these forms because the genre originated on early forum sites and blogs, and it still inhabits these places today. Even on web platforms that offer editorial support and a variety of genres, the vast majority of stories will be written as if addressing the reader. Dracula, Frankenstein, and Sherlock Holmes are all written with framing devices like those found in online fiction, but none of these works address the reader directly in the same way.
First Person POV is common in online fiction for the same reasons: writers are writing from a character directly to the reader. It would be very odd if a story written with a framing device then appeared in the first person. There are a lot of online fiction stories, however, that take the Sherlock Holmes approach. John Watson narrates the entirety of the Sherlock Holmes series from the first person, but the events very rarely center on him. Similarly, stories like “The Left-Right Game” by Jack Townsend and nearly all of the “Unsettling Stories” by Max Lobdell use first-person narrators that are not the main characters of the story. Rhetorically, a story framed like this is more believable than a first-person protagonist or a third-person narration, which is why it’s used to much online.
I believe that online fiction used first person and framing devices because it originally developed on forums, message boards, and blogs. Outside of fiction communities, all three of these platforms are used to communicate directly between users: the writer and the reader. Online fiction mimicked these formats because the writers were most comfortable writing in that style.
This is all good news for aspiring online fiction writers, especially those of us who are still young by writing standards. Most internet natives instinctively write in the style of online fiction already, and it’s a very simple style to use. Your narrator will define almost everything about how your story is written, and their perceptions of events will be the one the readers get. The readers get to enjoy an easy reading experience, written in a colloquial tone and style that makes the writing appealing and fun. There’s a lot to love about the form online fiction takes.