Fanfiction (fanfic) existed long before the internet, and nowadays there are plenty of places where they can be hosted – social media, blogging sites, and particularly, fanfic sites. But what makes fanfic so widespread is its fandom – comprising mainly women – that embraces the idea that fanfiction is a fully legitimate, literary craft in its own right.
To cater to the fanfic community, you had websites like FanFiction.net (FFN), LiveJournal, Tumblr, Wattpad, and Archive of Our Own (often called AO3). To be successful, each had to address a unique niche – FFN was the early adopter and thus has a huge database of older fandoms, while Wattpad has a younger audience looking for shorter fiction, and AO3 caters to a more mature audience producing longer, quality works that are broader in content range.
As of December 2020, there were over 7 million works in over 40,000 fandoms hosted on AO3, posted by 2 million registered users and read by untold millions more, generating an average of 179 million views a month. What makes AO3 stand out from the sea of fanfiction sites is that it’s entirely owned and operated by a female-led nonprofit as a repository for fanfiction.
The birth of AO3 and its feminist roots
When Archive of Our Own – an homage to Virginia Woolf’s feminist work A Room of One’s Own – was conceived in 2007, its founders wanted to give creators ownership over their work and freedom of expression. And it all started with the formation of the fan-run (mostly women) non-profit Organization for Transformative Works (OTW) devoted to protecting, preserving, and defending fanworks and their legal right to exist.
The world of fanfiction already had a lot of issues with restrictions by this point – some sites banned specific subjects, restricted certain ships, and rejected explicit content in all its forms so as not to attract criticism from potential investors or conservative groups. Even long-standing fanfic sites began to self-censor – FFN (established in 1998) banned NC-17-rated content on real person fiction in 2002.
In addition, many fanfic authors were vulnerable to DMCA takedowns by publishers and studios, content purges, and general exploitation. By shunning these kinds of works, it only served to drill shame into many these writers who tend to be mainly women, queer, and genderqueer members of fandom.
The creation of OTW (and subsequently AO3) was actually triggered by fanfic community uproar over a company called FanLib in 2007, which was a fanfic site backed by venture capitals (VC) trying to monetise fanfic to benefit rights holders and exploit fans for their work. The company didn’t have a single fanfic writer or reader (or women) on their board.
In response, AO3 was built from the ground up by a mostly-female mix of coders, accountants, librarians, and UI designers, as well as lawyers, academics, and professional writers – it was a massive undertaking during an era where women were still shunned as designers and coders in Silicon Valley. It was to become a web archive for fanfic owned by the fans themselves, independent from corporate oversight, funded through donations rather than ads or VC backing, and protected by lawyers who would push back against corporations and protect fanworks under Fair Use.
AO3’s free speech maximalist approach to fanfic ensured that all fanworks were protected on the basis of simply being fanworks. In fact, the most quoted section of their ToS was: “You understand that using the Archive may expose you to material that is offensive, triggering, erroneous, sexually explicit, indecent, blasphemous, objectionable, grammatically incorrect, or badly spelled.”
Because of its feminist stance, AO3 wasn’t backed by corporations. They could’ve gone the way of Tumblr which was sold to Yahoo for USD1.1 billion, or Wattpad which recently announced its acquisition by Naver Corporation (of LINE fame). “But we were [feminists], so we built a nonprofit so that it could not be sold,” says AO3’s co-founder Francesca Coppa.
We have to remember that AO3 was created by dedicated fans who spent years facing stigmatisation, censorship, deletion, and legal issues simply because of the generally negative cultural view of fanfic – especially the queer, slash, multi-fandom genres that are especially prevalent among women and the queer community.
AO3’s recipe for success
Over a decade later, AO3 has become the predominant space online for fanfic by not only hosting new content regularly, but also preserving old archives. Part of its ToS for writers – and the reason it’s been able to host a wide array of content – is that it’s an explicitly non-commercial space, so users are forbidden from soliciting money, including linking to crowdfunding sites like Patreon.
The site is staffed by over 700 volunteers across its projects, and remains fully supported over the past decade by fans who’ve kept AO3’s site maintenance and upkeep via donation drives to seek out modest sums of money (in the USD100,000 range).
Much of AO3’s lasting popularity is attributed to its sophisticated tagging system – users have ways to filter out exactly what they do and don’t want to see – designed by librarians, accessibility managers, and coders who helped found AO3. It’s complemented by over 350 volunteer “tag wranglers” who each spend a few hours a week curating the many user-generated tags added daily.
Changing the way we think about fanfiction
While Fifty Shades of Grey in 2011 opened the floodgates on mainstream acceptance of fanfiction, it’s still dismissed as a serious literary genre – partly because it’s still considered the realm of teen girls (even though some grow up to become award-winning authors).
With AO3, fans were sending a public message to outsiders as well as to their communities that their work was legitimate and not something to be ashamed of.
AO3’s 2 million registered users and counting are a testament to the determined women who saw a vision to create a safe haven for the fanfic community; not only is it a successful platform for the fandom, it celebrates the achievements of the women who planned, designed, and hand-coded the site from the ground up, all by themselves – and did so simply with the support of fellow fans.