How Archive of Our Own Revolutionized Fandom

For many, AO3 was the advent of fandom coming together.

A brief snapshot of fandom in early 2007: The first Naruto series had wrapped, and Naruto Shippuden had just started airing. Supernatural was wrapping up its second season with a shocking finale in “All Hell Breaks Loose.” Kingdom Hearts II and Final Fantasy XII came out only the year before, and Final Fantasy 7 fandom was back with a vengeance with the release of Advent Children. The world waited breathlessly for the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

And fandom on LiveJournal was on fire.

By and large, in those days fandom was split between two major places: FanFiction.net and LiveJournal.com. FF.net was the only major centralized archive, and LJ.com had become a social media platform because of the way blog follows, entries, and linkable archives could be organized by tags. Tagging was relatively new on the internet at the time, and previously, fic readers relied on word of mouth, personally maintained website archives, and scattered personal fic archives across Geocities and Angelfire.

It had been some years since the first great purge of FanFiction.net in 2002 with the banning of NC-17 or explicit-rated fiction from the site. Much of fandom had settled into their homes and had developed entrenched communities on LiveJournal. FF.net seemed to have forgotten they ever banned explicit fiction, and many users were still uploading them. Some newer fandoms were centered almost exclusively on LJ, including a great deal of explicit fiction for Harry Potter and the relatively new but absolutely explosive Supernatural fandom. Things had been quiet, without many real shake-ups in the fandom community as a whole.

The first ripple of discontent came with a site called FanLib, which up until early 2007 had been a marketing site for fans of popular television shows. They got their start offering small writing contests and fill-in-the-blank scenarios where fans would get to decide small tidbits that might make it into an episode. With internet speeds on the rise and production companies able to offer streaming trailers, clips, and interviews directly to their fans, there wasn’t as much need for FanLib.

In late April, the site put out a press release announcing the opening of a new arm of their site, a fanfiction archive. Some fans were contacted directly via email and invited to join FanLib. Concerning to many of these fans were the site’s Terms of Service, especially the section on intellectual property:

“You hereby grant FanLib a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free and transferable license to use, reproduce, distribute, prepare derivative works of, display, and perform the Submissions in connection with the Website.”

Responses to the invitations were mostly of wary distrust. Well-known fans spread the word about the Terms of Service, warning writers that it amounted to a loss of control of their fanfiction. The legality of fanfiction was still murky and untried, and FanLib was known to be a for-profit site beholden to advertisers. Fans were largely concerned that this was an attempt to monetize fanfiction and place it in the control of the original content creators—a death knell for then-controversial fiction such as slash, explicit, or RPF.

In mid-May, only a couple short weeks after the archive portion of FanLib was announced and just a day before the archive officially opened for business, a prominent fanfiction writer and fandom organizer Astolat proposed a fan-run, fan-operated central fanfiction archive.

“We need a central archive of our own, something like animemusicvideos.org. Something that would NOT hide from google or any public mention, and would clearly state our case for the legality of our hobby up front, while not trying to make a profit off other people’s IP and instead only making it easier for us to celebrate it, together, and create a welcoming space for new fans that has a sense of our history and our community behind it.”

The post, on astolat’s LiveJournal blog and still viewable, gained immediate and widespread views and provoked a flood of conversation across fandoms all over LiveJournal. She proposed to address several problems fic writers had with the two major platforms all at once: the censorship of content on FF.net, the difficulty of finding new authors or posting long fiction on LiveJournal, concerns about advertiser and original content creator control on FanLib.

On the morning of May 29th, hundreds of LiveJournal users woke up to find that their personal journals, fan communities, or writing journals had been suspended and deleted without warning. Immediate outrage followed. SixApart, LiveJournal’s parent company, was bombarded by angry comments. News about the deletions spread rapidly as several large fandom communities and well-known writers were among the deleted.

The event became known to fandom as Strikethrough ’07, in reference to the strikethrough placed over the names of deleted journals. No information was forthcoming from LiveJournal about the deletion, until users privately communicating with LJ’s abuse team discovered that they had been the target of a crusade by a religious watchdog group known as Warriors for Innocence.

The group had contacted LiveJournal and SixApart with claims that communities on their site were hosting illegal content: child pornography, incest, and reference to other illegal activities. LiveJournal, in response, cast a wide net on any user or community with “incest” or “underage” listed in the interest tags. Along with legitimately illegal blogs were caught fanfiction writers, fan artists, role-playing blogs, and survivor communities. There was no way to recover any content lost in the purge and no way to access the journals or communities to back it up.

Two major, populous fandoms were impacted by the move: a Harry Potter LJ community for NC-17 rated fiction and fanart was banned in the initial sweep and prominent Supernatural fan artists were hit by a subsequent ban in August (nicknamed Boldthrough as LJ had changed the code from striking out usernames to bolding them when a journal was deleted). There were many other fandoms affected by the bans, but those two communities were the largest and most vocal. Suddenly, what had started as a hypothetical project that intrigued fans became vital to many fan communities as a place to host their work without risk of censorship or deletion.

In the years following, the team surrounding Archive Of Our Own, now abbreviated among fandom communities as AO3, slowly developed the infrastructure of the website. At the same time, organizers were developing a legal arm to back the website known as the Organization for Transformative Works. The stated goal of the OTW was to clarify the legality of fanfiction, champion fan-created works whenever they were legally challenged, and provide fans with legal resources in case they were targeted by copyright claims.

Initial reactions to the OTW and AO3 were mixed. Fandom had become used to their fragmented, individualized spaces and questioned the need for both a central archive and a formal organization. Some argued that the OTW was inherently elitist for their focus on legal issues and their concern about the legitimacy of fan works. Some were resistant to the idea of one organization representing disparate fandoms, fans, and ways to create content. Throughout the rest of 2007, into the closed beta in 2008, and all the way up to the public beta launch of the archive in December of 2009 (coinciding with Yuletide ’09), fans continued to debate whether the OTW and AO3 were necessary, whether they would be welcomed, or whether they would succeed at all.

Adoption of the Archive after its launch, however, appeared to be without major complaint. The Kudos system, where users can leave the equivalent of Facebook likes on works, was introduced less than a year after launch. In the first two years of the Archive’s open beta, its total user base increased fivefold. Since its foundation, the OTW has worked to define fan works as a legally protected form of speech and has even submitted briefs to the Supreme Court in recent copyright law cases. The most recent user count as of 2013 boasted 183,000 registered users, and AO3 saw its one millionth work posted in February of 2014.

Now, AO3 has eked out a seemingly permanent place for themselves among the fic-writing and fic-reading fandom communities. There are authors who still post to FF.net, authors who post to AO3, and authors who post to both. The content on AO3 seems to be weighted more heavily toward adult content, the likely reason being demographics, lack of censorship, and the types of fandoms active on the site.

Regardless, AO3 has accomplished the goal Astolat laid out in that seminal post back in May of 2007: It’s a place by fans, for fans, where fans can gather and archive their work without concern for legality or censorship. It was born from a desire not to be beholden to original content creators or advertisers, and it has always been true to that goal, staying afloat primarily through charitable donations from users. Fandom has fragmented across social media—some users remained on LiveJournal, while others migrated to Dreamwidth or Tumblr or JournalFen.

For many though, AO3 was the advent of fandom coming together to defend their hobby and preserve their history, a place where the principles of fannish creativity would outweigh watchdog and advertiser concerns about controversial content. Six years and over a million fan works later, they’re still going strong.

About Farasha Silver (4 Articles)
Farasha Silver grew up in a small town in Texas in the early days of the internet and has since become a multi-fandom writer. Hard at work on her original novels, she still lives in Texas (although no longer in a small town) with her husband, stepson, and a zoo of animals.

13 Comments on How Archive of Our Own Revolutionized Fandom

  1. The trouble is Ao3 has child pornography on it. You don’t have to be a christian warrior or whatever to want censorship of that one area. I am all for fic and all for anything goes once you are dealing with characters that aren’t children. But fan art that depicts substantially pre-pubescent characters like 8/9 yr old children receiving anal sex from adults is creepy. A03 is a toilet. Can’t we have freedom and protection of creativity without having to protect paedophiles? AO3 protects the rights of people who want to see and create material that glorifies, promotes and by default condones child abuse. Is that good? I would maintain that there still needs to be a ban on child pornography in transformative works.

    • I would counter that no children are harmed by writing fiction about them. The same reasoning you use to ban underage sex can be used to ban every other illegal subject, such as rape fics and murder in fiction. Why should we hold underage sex to a higher standard than all those other sensitive subjects?

      • FAN/FIC Magazine // November 13, 2016 at 4:17 pm // Reply

        “Underage fic” is such an interesting, nuanced, and sensitive topic in fandom. I might have to write an article about it one of these days… 😉

        Thank you both for reading and commenting!

  2. Thank you for such a well-written and informative article. I read and post fics to AO3 but I have never known the history of its creation ). AO3, in my opinion, is much more user-friendly than FanFiction.net.

    • FAN/FIC Magazine // September 13, 2016 at 10:39 am // Reply

      Yes, I’m also partial to the user-friendly and visually pleasing interface of AO3. The Organization of Transformative Works is God-like in my eyes. 😉

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Ah the memories. What a lovely writeup. I miss LJ – the community, AND the platform. Facebook will never be what LJ once was for us.

  4. Thanks for this, it brings back so many memories… I really like AO3, the whole idea behind it and the way it makes sharing and finding fic more efficient – but I loved LJ, loved the community aspect (probably because i managed to mostly stay in my little, sane corner of it), maybe because I never did get the hang of Tumblr, which strikes me as the heir of LJ in many ways.

  5. Great read. I didn’t know the history of AO3; I simply followed some of my favourite stories and authors over. Now I understand the importance of the site. Thank you

  6. It’s great to learn the history. I’ve only gotten into fanfiction in the last few years and I’ve noticed that there is a wide gap of talent between ff.net and ao3. While there are good authors on ff.net, there are also horrible ones and I have no statistics but I run into far fewer abysmal stories on ao3. I wonder if it has to do with the influx of experienced authors in the beginning of the site. Maybe having those knowledgeable fanfic authors gave the site a solid basis to rival ff.net. I do love the tagging system and the higher number of shippers on ao3.

  7. Rachel Smith Cobleigh // November 2, 2015 at 6:44 pm // Reply

    It’s nice to have a well-written history of the impetus behind AO3 and its evolution. I look forward to seeing where the OTW goes in the future! I’m glad there are people formally advocating for fanworks communities. The only way to improve our lot is to make our (collective!) voice heard. It’s been very encouraging to see the momentum gathering behind them, particularly with their recent successful fund drive.

  8. I’m having nostalgia flashbacks over here.

    This is such a great article. I’m a huge fan of Ao3’s existence and mission and now I have all the feels (although I do miss the heyday of LJ fandom an awful lot).

    • I miss LJ too, but not the fic posting there. Ugh, no. So much easier on AO3. Do miss the communities sometimes… but on the other hand the reason I moved to Tumblr was because then I could just not follow or unfollow people who annoyed me. On LJ you couldn’t really stop certain people from commenting on posts you made in fandom communities. There was just too much drama in the end.
      Tumblr does feel lonelier though! I don’t know how people make friends there, it seems impossible to me :/.

      • Love this writeup. @jaebailey, it is possible to make friends on tumblr but I can’t compare it to LJ as I was never active there. I have overcome my social awkwardness and chatted to people using the new message feature and it does help in feeling more connected.

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