The Circle of Archive of Our Own
As the Circle’s point person for transparency, May was recently tasked with cracking the code on something referred to as a “fanfiction website.” On its surface, the site seemed like a place where blogger and writers, and aspiring types thereof, recycled ideas from published authors and primetime television shows and stamped them as original. And crazier yet was that the site was anonymous. Users don’t even have to identify themselves; rather they can post work under pen names, or altogether ridiculous user names like fanficwriter01.
May couldn’t help but think that, as a Circler, she was above this sort of work. For one, the community seemed to be built entirely of fangirl types. But the more time she spend trying to understand the community, the more she was drawn into it. Every so often, she’d be reading a piece, trying to gain insight to a community member, and she’d think have I gone to far?
She was supposed to be writing a report for her boss — one that would uncover why the community members were so keen on anonymity, an idea the Circle was trying to extinguish. Each time, she’d go back to what she knew for sure about the community: it was comprised of more than 170,000 anonymous users. These members wrote pieces for more than 12,000 fandoms, from books, to television, to movies, to manga. She discovered that it wasn’t possible to search the site by “most popular” whether it was for the most hits (which essentially just meant views) or bookmarks (which meant that other users planned to go back to that work or author to read more at a later point).
The thing that bothered May the most was that some of the writing was really good. Why, then, did people post it unsigned? What was the big deal? Why wouldn’t you author posts identifying yourself?
It seemed, to her, nonsensical that people would write legitimately good stories — stories worth reading — for no monetary gain or name recognition. It seemed, to her, like a contradictory concept. She had no idea how she was going to report on such a community for a work presentation.
Since that was the case, May thought back to all of her prior Circle training on how to evaluate a web community.
The site clearly resembled principles explored in the documentary “Generation Like.” But this seemed to be a community of Ceilee’s, not Tyler Oakley’s. None of these fanfic (as they refer to themselves) writers were in the business of money. But similar to Ceilee’s “sparks” as a Hunger Games fan, users wanted to be the most bookmarked or have the most hits.
Moreover, fandom was definitely the name of the game. Popularity is gained by successfully writing about the things that other members of the community like. May presumed that some members of the community wanted to gain popularity, but not monetary compensation, simply so they could appear to be the biggest fans of said fandom.
Not everyone shared that philosophy though — for some, it couldn’t be about being the biggest fan, or at least there wasn’t always evidence in support of that idea. For some, the individual stories were clearly the most important. Some of the fanfic writers just seemed to focus on their writing — installment after installment, they remained faithful to their characters and plotlines. For those writers, it sure came off like a labor of love, and those were the writers to whom May found herself most drawn as an outsider looking in.
That reminded her — when May first created her own Archive of Our Own account, she thought back to danah boyd in her Circle training. May had only to check a box noting that she was over the age of 13 to gain access to the site. There were extensive terms and conditions to agree to, and she found it was cleverly formed so that you at least had to scroll through the extensive conditions before proceeding with the registration process.
But she’d have to report that it was ridiculous you simply needed to check a box to claim you were over the age of 13. You didn’t have to be 13 to read, and if you could read, you could check that box without proving your age. Her boss would not like that. May was especially shocked because the site openly contained tons of explicit content. Though each post was notated as such, users had access to everything once they were in.
May was rudely alerted to the fact of the abundance of explicit content when she was sifting through fanfic posts for Sherlock and navigated to an erotica fanfic. Even if users were 13, should they be reading this? The idea brought about a whole hour of internal argument about transparency, morals, privacy, and obscenity in May’s head. She wished she could ask danah boyd what she thought about that.
Those pieces seemed to harbor an air of privacy in and of themselves — what if everyone knew what users were reading? What would be the implications of that? Would writers cease pursuing the creative expression that was erotic fanfiction (let’s not forget that erotica is also a huge market in the print literature world) and would people stop reading it? Maybe not — after all, May saw plenty of people reading Fifty Shades of Grey (which started as fanfiction, she recently learned) on the subway, very much in public. The author didn’t stop writing, though she did use a pen name on her novels. May’s boss would definitely be interested to hear about that.
Next, May had the brilliant idea to cross-check some usernames on Archive of Our Own with Twitter usernames. The idea came to her when she thought back to Nancy Baym’s studies on musicians and social media. Did fanfiction writers use social media to leverage their work? Theoretically, users could maintain their anonymity on Twitter as well by just inputting their AO3 username, rather than their real name. This certainly wasn’t TOR-proof, or even popularity-proof though. May knew plenty about Big Data and using IP addresses to track “Anonymous” web users back to the machines they worked from. These writers weren’t as anonymous as some of them surely think they are.
May was disappointed by her findings on Twitter. It didn’t seem like fanfic writers wanted to expose themselves too much on different forms of social media. She began to get a sense that AO3 was a closed community. Users only interacted using the interface, specifically. Their work or thoughts on the things posted there didn’t seem to leave the realm of the interface itself.
Journalism after Snowden made May reconsidered this perceived lack of accountability. Some of the fanfics about assault or sexual violence could use trigger warnings beyond the standard warnings offered by Archive of Our Own, May thought. Such occurances made her wonder anew if writers should have the right to anonymity (or perceived anonymity) when writing explicit content or deeply psychological content. Snowden happened because of a lack of transparency. There’d have been nothing to show out of the ordinary if there had been transparency. Would it have been possible for Snowden to anonymously reveal the information he uncovered? Probably not without great difficulty or without TOR, whereby someone else probably would have had to come forward, identifying him or herself by name. May might just leave out of her comments to her boss that she was beginning to agree with anonymity, to some extent.
Sometimes it was good, sometimes bad, she decided.
In continuing her research, May was thrown when she came across a piece written in a non-Germanic nor romance language. She couldn’t identify the language, nor did she really care to. She was already thinking about how this directly signaled Duncan Watts and web interfaces as global communities. AO3 might be a somewhat closed or niche community, but clearly it was still a global one. After all, AO3 was clearly connecting people from all over the world through the popular culture categories they were fans of.
Shortly thereafter, May noticed one distinct individual having posted across three of the last five fandoms she looked at. Aha, she thought, there’s definitely a presence of Networked Individuals. It was clear to May that numerous AO3 users were networked individuals in the sense that few belonged to exclusively one fandom. Rather, users were partial members to a number of different fandoms. And what’s more was that you could be a networked individual simply by reading widely. If you read works from numerous fandoms, you were by nature participating in a number of different groups even if you didn’t write for multiple fandoms, or any fandoms at all.
May wished she had big data to determine what percentage of users had written at least one post of fanfiction. She was curious about who, like her, participated only by registering and reading. This idea she would definitely bring up to her boss.
May also wished she had big data to help her get her hands on contacting the site’s moderators. She was grateful that they existed in order to prevent postings of particularly sensitive or violence materials, like a suicide note. But she wanted to make sure that when posts like such were attempted to be posted, that these moderators were actually doing something about it. With a site in beta, May felt like she would be the catalyst for some transparency, if she had to. She just really wanted to know that the people who were writing suicide notes or personal accounts of sexual violence were getting help. These moderators had the power (or Big Data) to help — by simply calling the police and tracing the IP address of the post.
After looking more closely at the data visualization employed on the site, May wondered why on a site the so successfully uses visual data, there aren’t clearer markers for trigger content. Otherwise the graphic representations of data were strong — icons for the different types of relationships in the work, the recommended age range/maturity, some basic content warnings, and whether the work is complete. Good for user experience, but not great for victims of sexual assault or readers with PTSD from myriad traumatic events.
May also thought it was hard not to notice how image-free the beta site is, apart from the small graphics for data visualization. She saw Henry Copeland guest speak in her first week at the Circle, and she thought he’d have a good reason for that fact that being ad-free also prevents earning the necessary funds to create a site that’s better developed and less buggy. To AO3’s credit though, it was reputable, or so May thought, that the site was powered solely by donations, like the Wikimedia foundation, per Luis Villa’s word. Judith Donath, however, would probably be disdain the basic web interface that consequently results from this lack of funding. The no-frills site is also glitchy as a result, but May found no evidence that this deters users — thousands of users still come to the site on a daily basis.
May recently read a Pew Research study that explored how present-day Americans interact with their libraries. Turns out many teens don’t even know where their local library is located but they are more likely to read in any format than are their Baby Boomer parents. While ebooks aren’t all prevailing, May couldn’t help but wonder from her meeting with Ethan Zuckerman why AO3 isn’t used to leverage a writer’s ability to get paid for their work based on how widely disseminated and read their fanfiction is. Whether the production and dissemination is in print or online, May felt like there was substantial room for writers to find ways to cash in on the work they religiously update and post.
Andrew Sullivan, May thinks, would have substantive solutions for how these writers can turn their hobby into a for-profit venture. But how can a nonprofit platform serve as a place for writers to turn a profit. May does some research and finds that for these blogger-esque types who are really writers of fiction tend only to profit when they take their talents elsewhere. In rare cases, literary agents seem to pick up writers with the most popularity for book contracts. But May notes that most of these cases occur based on less private fanfiction websites, such as Live Journal. Because AO3 does preserve a bit more of privacy, there are lots more hurdles to agents discovering AO3’s biggest talents. Apart from the barriers to entering the community, which are a sign-up wait period, there’s also the aspect of anonymity and the challenge of sifting through all of the material to find the most popular posts. Andrew Sullivan would probably suggest that the biggest talents of AO3 take their writing elsewhere, or at least to an additional fanfiction community that has more public traction.
But then, May thinks, does that abandon the idea that the medium is the message? Yes, it must. If writers take their work elsewhere, they’ve taken it to a different medium. So the message of AO3 must be different. These writers are specifically NOT looking for public recognition or popularity. Rather, this is a safe sphere, where loyalty is valued but work is written, disseminated, and shared a will. It’s not a constant popularity contest as can be seen with Generation Like.