The site’s long history still has lessons for the internet today
In May 2007, fanfiction and traditionally published author Naomi Novik wrote a post on LiveJournal. “We are sitting quietly by the fireside, creating piles and piles of content around us, and other people are going to look at that and see an opportunity,” she wrote, referring to LiveJournal’s booming fanfiction community.
She feared that the community was open to exploitation. Where fanfic was a primarily female hobbyist space, a group of men had stepped onto the scene promoting FanLib, a commercialized site that would be populated with fan content. Though it garnered 25,000 members, it was also the subject of intense criticism by many people involved in fandom at the time who felt stung by having a group of perceived outsiders attempt to profit off work they had always provided freely.
“The people behind FanLib don’t actually care about fanfic, the fanfic community, or anything except making money off content created entirely by other people and getting media attention. They don’t have a single fanfic reader or writer on their board; they don’t even have a single woman on their board,” Novik wrote. She was clear about the solution to prevent their potential exploitation by these outside forces: “We need a central archive of our own.”
The Organization for Transformative Works, or OTW, a nonprofit with many arms all dedicated to preserving and advocating for fanworks, was founded a few months later. Archive of Our Own, now probably the best known and most popular fanfiction site on the web, was fully launched by 2009.
When I speak to Novik, she starts the story much earlier, around 1997. Fanfiction archives were common at the time but were hosted by individuals and often subject to technical difficulties, the worst of which could erase people’s hard work for good. Novik was a self-taught programmer, and when a friend’s The Sentinel fanfic archive started breaking, she bought a suite of Perl scripts to be able to help out.
“That formed a lot of my initial ideas of what things are important in an archive,” she says. Much of this was described in the now-famous “archive of our own” post and made it complete into the site now commonly referred to as AO3, like highly searchable pages, a robust tagging system, and an easy-to-use recommendation method.
Now familiar with the scripts, Novik began running Yuletide, a holiday season fanfiction exchange program that began in 2003, using the same software. Her visibility within fandom grew, and she gained what she refers to as “a kind of reputational credit,” which would go on to be crucial in getting volunteers involved in forming the OTW.
“I met a lot of people doing this,” says Novik. “I don’t think I did any of these projects even remotely alone … After a while the community you keep around yourself are the people who are reliable. Who care enough about fandom that fandom is a way of life. That [are] willing to invest some time not just in reading the stories and writing the stories but in … the building of the infrastructure.”
Two of those people were Francesca Coppa, an English, performance, and fan studies scholar, and Rebecca Tushnet, a legal scholar who had served as a clerk in the Supreme Court. Both were heavily involved in conversations about the future of fandom at the time as well as fanfiction’s social and legal status.
Nowadays, writers and readers of fanfic are happy to appear in TikTok videos speaking openly about their work and their recommendations. But from the proliferation of Star Trek fanzines in the ‘70s through to the time that Novik wrote her post in the late 2000s, it was a far more clandestine hobby.
Primarily written by women, and often featuring erotica and / or queer relationships, sexism and homophobia both played a part in its denigration. Coppa, who hosted archives at the time, would sometimes have to delete stories at the request of its writers, who feared retribution in their jobs or relationships. “I would get frantic emails from people saying, ‘I’m going through a divorce and my husband is going to take my fic and tell the judge I’m an unfit mother and try to take my children. How fast can you make me disappear from the internet?’”
Coppa herself felt pressure to keep certain aspects of fandom secret. At a talk she was giving about fanfiction, an audience member pressed her: weren’t there people writing about Kirk and Spock having sex? “I remember taking a breath and saying quite consciously, ‘Yeah, there is, and it’s amazing, you should read some.’ And it was the first time I had ever done that. It was the kind of thing we all skated around.” She had nightmares about her fanfic costing her tenure track at the university she worked at and would frequently imagine how to defend herself against a hypothetical complaint about her having written sex scenes.
“But the only way through that is to lean into it,” she says. Though she still sometimes has people imply fanfic writing is a strange hobby, she responds differently. “‘Are you dead inside?’ is sort of my answer,” she laughs, comparing it to hobbyist painting, music, or knitting. “‘But isn’t some of it erotic?’ Yes. Yes, it is. It turns out women have a sexuality.”
It was also received wisdom at the time that fanfiction was illegal under copyright laws. Even many of those involved in creating and sharing it simply believed that was true. “Rebecca [Tushnet] was sort of the first person who started saying, ‘Stop saying that. Stop saying it’s illegal,’” says Novik. “Because nobody actually knows. And in fact there are very good reasons to believe that the vast majority of fanfiction is in fact completely legal.”
Within this atmosphere, the outcry against FanLib was a catalyst. Novik, Coppa, and others were concerned that newer members of fandom would now be finding these commercialized efforts before the more community-driven fandom that they had built over decades. “I am not in a fandom where you put little toys on a shelf,” says Coppa. “I’m in a fandom where somebody is hurt and another fan drives two states over [to help]… And so there was a sense of urgency that we had to build something before somebody else built something shiny that would make new people who’ve come to fandom think ‘oh, that’s what fandom is.’”
That sense of urgency was amped up just a few days after Novik’s post. LiveJournal permanently — and without warning — suspended more than 500 accounts that had mentioned sexually explicit topics. The bans were poorly explained and affected many users who had not posted anything illegal or against LiveJournal’s terms of service. Users called the banwave “Strikethrough,” referring to the formatting used to indicate an account had been suspended. Several days later, CEO Barak Berkowitz wrote an apology for “a total mess” and promised to reinstate unfairly suspended users.
However, in August, more suspensions occurred. Fan communities were concerned about how they could sustain themselves when members or whole groups could be banned without warning or apparent reason. Other sites like fanfiction.net had similar problems, and many didn’t allow adult content at all. “You wouldn’t go, ‘Oh, here’s a place that has had 30 earthquakes in the last six months. Let’s build a house on it,’” says Novik.
Novik’s original post stated that she wasn’t interested in creating the archive herself — she was too busy. But as the comments flooded with people willing to help but who didn’t necessarily know how to organize themselves, she changed her mind. “In retrospect I should have known,” she laughs.
She knew she had to make a nonprofit, something that could not itself get sold when its founders wanted to move on. Sites changing hands and trying to make themselves more profitable were often perceived as the catalyst behind content purges and even shutdowns. For example, FanLib was bought by Disney and closed only a little over a year after leaving beta.
Novik had coded archives and run events both online and offline. She knew how to coordinate a worldwide team long before the pandemic and Zoom made it commonplace. And she knew people who had skills that might be useful, including Coppa and Tushnet.
Volunteers also stepped forward with knowledge of the law, coding, server maintenance, design, accessibility, and more. AO3 was built by and for fans, but those fans knew what they were doing. “It turns out fans are everything. Fans are journalists, fans are librarians, fans are graphic designers, fans are lawyers, are accountants,” says Coppa. “Fangirls do absolutely every job there is.”
“You often see people talking about the archive as this triumph of amateurism,” says Michele Tepper, who was a founding board member and head of design for AO3. “It absolutely was not. It was a triumph of professionals having the opportunity to do it right.” Tepper herself, for example, had been working at a design firm for clients like MTV and the BBC at the time.
That’s not to say that amateurs weren’t involved. Many volunteers learned to code through programs that the team put together. One of these volunteers was Lucy Pearson, who eventually moved on to chair the accessibility, design, and technology committee. The program began as a test to see whether the archive would run on Ruby on Rails or Python. (They ended up choosing Ruby on Rails, which Novik laughs was “the wrong call,” as Python went on to get more support over the following years.) Pearson participated with a friend and enjoyed it enough to do more training when it became available. She went on to write code for AO3 and train other newcomers.
“Part of the original premise for building the archive was that we would not only be building the archive but also building the community that could support [it],” she says. “So the aim was to train people and support people, including people like me who’d never done any coding whatsoever before.”
Being built by volunteer fans and with feedback from many others, the team was able to put together many features that AO3 users today may take for granted. The tagging system, in particular, is a point of pride among many. Users can tag their works for easy searching, but the system balances what Tepper calls “taxonomy and folksonomy.” To borrow her example, if you want to find fics about Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Buffy and Spike getting together, you don’t have to worry about whether the writer calls it “SpikeBuffy” or “Spuffy” because volunteers (known as “tag wranglers”) will make sure they all end up in the same place. Conversely, writers are free to go ahead and call it by their preferred term without losing searchability.
It also accounts for writers using tags editorially, which is something Tepper says she didn’t foresee but now loves. “I actually have saved on my phone the tag page for ‘feels,’” she says (i.e., emotional stories). “You can just scroll through and [see] all the different versions of ‘feels,’ ‘FEELS!’ ‘all the feels,’ ‘so many feels.’ I am like, ‘This is the greatest thing that I ever helped make happen in my career.’”
A sense of pride, both personal and communal, was a common theme among people I spoke to. “It was really quite exhilarating coming in on the coding side and doing something that I’d really never even considered doing before,” says Pearson. “It really made me rethink who I was and what I could do.”
“It was formative for me in some ways. It taught me that we could do almost anything,” says Maia Bobrowicz, who was on the ADT committee and led the testing team for some time. Equally, she says, the fact that the development relied on volunteer enthusiasm led to some issues. “I ended up taking over the lead of the testing team because the person who was doing it was overloaded and needed to step down. Which was pretty normal, unfortunately.”
With the nonprofit established, things moved quickly as the team prepared to launch AO3 into alpha in 2009. Bobrowicz recalls the sudden realization that they didn’t have a way to invite people to join, while Pearson put together a 5,000-word FAQ page in two nights to have it ready in time. They ran Yuletide on AO3 soon after launch, and Pearson recalls answering support tickets on Christmas Day. “It was pretty intense,” she says.
Bobrowicz, who lives in Australia, would coordinate between teams in the UK and the US by having twice-daily meetings at 7AM and 7PM. She expanded the testing team to try to mitigate the exhaustion that she saw happening within it, but the problem was a cross-organizational one, recalled by many of the other interviewees. “I’m glad we did it. I’m glad it’s there. I’m sad that we burned out so many people,” summarizes Bobrowicz.
And though it was international, the volunteer team did have a clear predominant demographic. “We’re very much a product of our time and place and the people who did it,” says Kristina Busse, co-editor of the journal Transformative Works and Cultures, which falls under the Organization for Transformative Works umbrella but is editorially independent. It was, she says, “mostly white, middle class, middle aged, [American] coastal ladies … That brought in a whole bunch of prejudices that we were not necessarily aware of.”
Criticisms of AO3’s handling of race had existed from the beginning but gained more traction as the organization grew. In 2020, the discussion intensified as the OTW addressed racism in fandom spaces for the first time but without addressing concerns that fans of color had about AO3’s own policies. In particular, they cited the work of two scholars, Rukmini Pande and Stitch, without acknowledging their criticisms of the site. “I found this to be quite jarring, considering that AO3 itself has never reckoned with its own embedded whiteness,” says Pande, who has also experienced continual harassment since the post two years ago.
“I think the OTW has done a lot of very important things for fandom spaces but at the same time has not been very open to ideas of how to engage with concerns of fans of color because racism in transformative fandom spaces has never been taken very seriously,” she says. Fandom’s perception as being particularly driven by women and LGBTQ-plus people can make it seem somehow inherently progressive, which can, in turn, obscure the systemic issues that it still faces. “There is a marked lack of willingness to acknowledge how deeply whiteness structures [AO3’s] operations,” says Pande.
Following AO3’s post, a group of fans and academics wrote an open letter to the OTW. “We strongly urge the Board to take immediate steps to help make fandom a space where all fans, particularly Black, Indigenous, and ethnically marginalized fans from all over the globe, can thrive,” it reads in part.
One of their key demands was a change in policies to ensure that racist content is dealt with in the same way as other potentially objectionable content. On AO3, almost any content is permissible. “We want to host up to the limit of what we can host legally,” says Tushnet, or more poetically, borrowing from Robert Frost: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” This has its roots in the organization’s origins as a permissive space in the wake of Strikethrough and similar crackdowns. To disallow any legal content would be an “anathema to its whole purpose,” says Cathy Cupitt, another early volunteer.
On the other hand, AO3 is designed with the understanding that this includes a lot of content that many users will not want to see. Writers are therefore asked to use warnings if their story contains graphic depictions of violence, major character death, rape, or underage sex. Readers can then use these to exclude stories from their searches or just to know not to click. But these categories reflect the priorities of those who created them and their perception of the values of the community they were creating them for. Many fans have since argued that the exclusion of explicit racism from the categories indicates a blind spot that AO3 has never fixed. “It makes us look like we’re not committed to that in the same way,” says Busse. “And I think we are not committed to it in that same way.”
The way that AO3 is run has limited its ability to change, many interviewees admit. Another issue is the potential for harassment on the site itself. “AO3 has been used as a platform to target me,” says Pande. “[They have] refused to do anything about this targeting.”
“Because we are run by volunteers, we’re never gonna have software that automates the search for bullying,” says Tushnet. “Not that I think that software works very well. But we’re artisanal. And we’re gonna remain that way. And that is a constant challenge.”
During the reporting of this piece, AO3 announced users would now be able to block other users (as long as they are logged in), calling the move “the first part” of increased measures against harassment. This was one of the measures they committed to in response to the open letter in 2020, along with measures like giving writers the ability to turn off comments on their works, which was implemented in August of the same year.
Pande calls the blocking feature “a welcome addition to the site.” However, she says that these changes have not addressed the wider problem. “[They] are not supported by any specific revisions of the [terms of service] of the site to address such issues,” she says. The OTW’s statement said that they would be reviewing these and would “potentially” revise them, but the last update recorded on the website was in 2018. The statement also says that there was a “possibility” of implementing new content warnings, which hasn’t yet happened.
Fans of color say these issues aren’t prioritized because of the continued perception of fandom as a predominantly white space. Criticisms of AO3’s handling of race are dismissed as coming from “outsiders, rather than long-time participants,” says Pande. “There has never been a good faith effort by the organization to even try and remedy very evident issues of racist abuse on their platform. At this point, I can only accept that this is their implicit policy and most of fandom is okay with that.”
In 2021, Transformative Works and Cultures published an article stating that “some form of action toward the unmaking of structural racism within AO3 is urgent and necessary” although it also detailed the many difficulties in doing so in practice. (TWC is also undergoing a change in editors, Busse says, deliberately designed to more fully incorporate fan studies done by scholars of color.)
But implementing even relatively simple changes at the OTW can be slow. Busse recalls internal discussions around changing AO3’s front page when she was on the board. “Nothing ever happens. It’s now four years later and we still don’t have a new front page. So we still have pages from 2008 and 2009 on our website. It is so embarrassing.”
Criticisms of AO3 have varied over its 15-year history. And its current popularity wasn’t guaranteed, particularly at the beginning. Its launch was marked by hostility from some within fandom spaces who didn’t want it to exist at all. “We were all low for a couple of days, but I just reminded everyone that every single fannish thing I’ve ever worked on… there’s always fan blowback,” says Cupitt. The Archive and the OTW, she says, looked professional, even though it was fan-run, and got some of the same hostility as sites like FanLib as a result. “I said, ‘Look, within a year, once we’ve launched, it’ll just be taken as a fannish institution and people will forget that there was ever any issue.’”
And it is. For example, when the OTW was first getting started, early finance committee member Cat Meier spoke on a panel at Wizcon, relegated to a 10:30PM slot, which she and the other panelists colloquially referred to as “Fanfic: Threat or Menace?” The panel description asked whether fanfic should be “accepted as a legitimate creative activity” at all. Ten years later, she got to do another panel about fanfiction at the same convention, which was in the middle of the day and completely full. “So many people were completely shocked to hear that Wizcon had not always been welcoming to them,” she says.
By 2013, Time magazine had named AO3 as one of the 50 best websites. “It blew my mind,” says Meier. AO3 won a Hugo Award in 2019. Novik accepted it onstage as a representative of the team. Coppa’s university — the one she had had nightmares about losing tenure at because of her fanfics — put her on the front page of the paper.
The degree to which the OTW itself contributed to this cultural change is a matter of opinion, one that varied among everyone involved. Many people wanted to give a significant amount of credit to the legal team. “There was a lot of fear in the fan community and there were in fact media companies that were threatening to sue people,” says Tepper. But the OTW was willing to step forward and deal with amicus briefs, DMCA exemptions, test lawsuits, and reply to cease-and-desist orders.
“You will notice there are no court cases,” says Novik. “When you think you’re sending a cease and desist to a woman writing fic in her backroom on the weekend who has no money and is gonna be freaked out, you are happy to threaten that person. When you get a letter back like ‘hey, we’re supported by Stanford and the [Electronic Frontier Foundation] and we’re ready to go to court with you, and we expect to get our court costs back,’ then you start being like ‘maybe I don’t believe it’s that illegal.’” Over time, that reduced fear of lawsuits in the fan community.
Tushnet also points out the usefulness of the term “transformative works” itself. “We were conscious of the attempt to supply fans with the terminology they needed. But the common sense justifications for fandom pre-existed us. We just tried to give them a place.”
Others pointed to the availability of the OTW to journalists and the sheer fact that so many volunteers have been involved over the last 15 years and have been able to share their enthusiasm and understanding online, creating a snowball effect. “Every so often somebody posts like ‘why isn’t the AO3 [running] ads?’… And immediately 20 people sail over to tell them why,” says Novik.
But no one credits the acceptance of fanworks to the OTW alone, and some see the wider shift as much more important. Geek culture itself has become more mainstream, as has romance and erotic fiction targeted at women. (It helps that Fifty Shades of Grey itself began life as a fanfiction, points out Cupitt.) In general, better attitudes toward women’s sexuality and queer people have meant there’s less fear in admitting to reading or writing fic.
That increased acceptability has caused AO3’s numbers to boom, particularly during the pandemic. But they’re not the only fanfic site out there, either. Fanfiction.net still exists and is still the preferred platform for some, although many crosspost to both sites. Social writing platform Wattpad is also extremely popular for fanfiction, which is its third-largest category after romance and teen fiction. Many of the stories cross over between these; where AO3 fics tend to focus on the relationships between characters, Wattpad has a reputation for reader-insert romance fic written by and targeted toward teens, no doubt fueled by its growing acceptability in newer generations of writers and readers.
Yet, while fandom and fanfiction might have found a less precarious position, so much of the story of the OTW’s founding remains relevant to this day. During the process of reporting this story, Tumblr went through another wave of content bans that could see blogs deleted for mentioning, among other things, transphobia, racism, or the word “girl.” And while that seemed to echo Strikethrough, another community was experiencing an echo of FanLib, this time among knitters who are rejecting the perceived encroachment of a commercialized website into their world. “It’s exactly the same story!” says Coppa. These repeated patterns across the internet are simply why she’s so confident about the future of the OTW. “We’re going to outlive them all,” she promises.
There might, then, be lessons to be learned among both the successes and problems of the OTW’s last 15 years — but not for everyone. “What can we learn from AO3 for Facebook?” Casey Fiesler, a member of the legal committee, asks rhetorically. “Nothing.” Because Facebook does not have a community that cares enough for what it facilitates to keep it running.
But the OTW does, fueling its longevity and its celebrated status both in fandom and, increasingly, in wider culture. Even still, members of that community with valid criticisms are often treated as outsiders; the organization’s origins and slowness to change hampers its ability to be fully inclusive of all fans.
“The reason that AO3 worked is because of the number of people behind it who immensely love this thing,” says Fiesler. “I think it’s inevitable that over time that there would be more critique, and I think a lot of the critique is founded, [but] I’m still just constantly impressed that it worked. And it all started with a ‘hey, what if…?’ blog post.”