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An Archive of Our Own: How AO3 built a nonprofit fanfiction empire and safe haven

Contributed by
Feb 12, 2019

When the fanfiction site Archive of Our Own was conceived of and founded in 2007, its creators had one goal in mind. Yes, they wanted to give creators ownership over their own work and freedom of expression, but, most importantly, they wanted to create a space independent from corporate oversight.

Archive of Our Own, often called AO3, is the best-known arm of the Organization for Transformative Works, a nonprofit organization created "to serve the interests of fans by providing access to and preserving the history of fanworks and fan culture in its myriad forms."

In simpler terms: AO3 is a fanfiction hosting site run and operated by over 700 volunteers. The site exists solely on the backs of those volunteers — board members, organizers, coders, public relations professionals, lawyers — and the money raised through two yearly fundraisers. It boasts 225 million page views a week, according to OTW Communications staffer Claudia Rebaza, on a library of over 4.5 million works written in languages that range from English to J.R.R. Tolkien's fictional Sindarin. With a tagging system advanced enough to filter works based on what a reader doesn't want to look at and over 1.8 million registered users, AO3 is a sort of safe haven for every kind of fic-loving fan.

Building the Archive and the Organization was a labor of love for the women who set the course and the hundreds of fans (also mostly women) who've built it up for 12 years.

Fanfiction existed long before the internet, but when websites capable of hosting fic — social media and blogging sites, mainly — realized they could turn its users' original fanfiction into profitable user-generated content in the early and mid-2000s, the outcry was immediate. Suddenly there were rules. Perhaps most significantly, explicit content in all its forms was banned to make fanfiction something advertisers might want to sponsor. Even long-beloved fanfiction-hosting sites began self-censoring, including FanFiction.net, which was first launched in 1998 and banned NC-17-rated content in 2002.

"You couldn't have stuff that was too explicit, you couldn't have stuff that was too erotic. A conservative Christian group might complain and be like, 'Oh my God, Harry Potter is having sex in this story,' and then all those stories would be gone," Francesca Coppa, an English professor at Muhlenberg College and one of the women identified as founding the Archive, told SYFY WIRE.

Dismayed by the situation, Coppa and her co-founders, sci-fi and fantasy author Naomi Novik and Rebecca Tushnet, a First Amendment rights professor at Harvard University, decided to do something about it. They worked together with the other members of the founding board, a group of seven passionate, "incredibly collaborative" fans and creators, to make a new kind of archive. That they had the wherewithal and resources to do so speaks to the wide demographic drawn to fanfiction.

"There's a misconception that people who write fanfiction are all like 12-year-old girls," Coppa says. "And there are 12-year-old girls [who write fanfiction], and, by the way, they are fantastic writers… I will fight to the death for those 12-year-old girls who are writing fiction. They are going to run the world someday. But it's not only them."

They found their team — a mostly-female mix of coders, accountants, librarians, user interface designers, and other professionals who understood the intricacies of such a task — in the various chat rooms and blogging sites such as LiveJournal where the fanfiction community already existed. Within the first two months of exploring the idea, the founding board had gathered over 100 volunteers, a mix of fanfic writers and readers; they started committees to oversee everything from building the site from the ground-up to public relations. Because of the work these volunteers put in, Coppa says she, Novik, and Tushnet feel they could never take full responsibility as the sole "founders."

AO3 was a partnership from day one, Coppa explains, and that partnership knew how to leverage a global workforce. They also knew how important it would be down the line to keep the Archive as independent as possible. So, to keep the Archive intact and running, they founded the Organization for Transformative Works, which Coppa calls "a nonprofit island in the middle of an incredibly commercialized landscape."

"If it was a for-profit organization, we would have been bought in 2011. The bad news is... for me, I'd be totally rich," Coppa says, laughing. "Tumblr came out at the same time as us and if we had just been like, 'yeah, we're just making a company,' somebody would have offered us millions and millions." Tumblr, the fandom-oriented blogging site, was acquired by Yahoo! Inc. in 2013 for $1.1 billion, a figure that only makes Coppa laugh harder. "If we were not feminists and we were not committed to a nonprofit experience, we would have been bought by Yahoo! or Verizon or somebody like that. But we were [feminists], so we built a nonprofit so that it could not be sold."

She continues: "I am more grateful for it every single day. It is a space that belongs to us and to the community and is not subject to the commercial pressures that so much of the rest of the Internet is subject to."

That's where the name comes in — an "archive of our own" that belongs to the fanfiction community. Yes, the reference to Virginia Woolf's "A Room of One's Own" is intentional.

As the Organization has grown, it's reached new heights. Along with raising money to help keep the Archive alive, Rebaza points to the Open Doors Committee, the Organization's partnership with the University of Iowa's special collections library. Together, they work to preserve existing fanworks in both physical and digital form. And just like on the Archive, "fanworks" is a broad, non-judgemental term.

AO3 enjoys a sort of open-door policy with regard to what users are allowed to post. Because membership is partially determined by invitation and runs on a queue system, the Archive is a bit less susceptible to spam than other hosting sites. Nothing is considered taboo, either, resulting in some truly creative and often polarizing works.

Beyond what's allowed on the Archive (everything, as long as it's fanfic in some form), Coppa and Rebaza attribute much of the Archive's lasting popularity to its tagging system. AO3's tagging system runs on what Coppa calls a "curated folksonomy," one that allows users to create their own tags as people work behind the scenes to connect the dots and keep the library organized. Unlike others of its kind, Coppa says the Archive boasts "the best library tagging system in the world. You can ask any professional librarian… every library's card catalog wants to be the Archive of our Own for searching and tagging."

The Archive's tagging system was designed by the librarians, accessibility managers, and coders who helped found the Archive. The result is a sprawling, user-friendly tagging system, equally customizable for individual users and rigidly organized behind the scenes. Seven people run the Tag Wrangling Committee, overseeing how the system runs and the 300 or so volunteer "tag wranglers" tasked with corralling the community's enthusiasm.

It is, by all accounts, a huge number of tags. AO3 boasts 312,000 fandoms (and counting) and adds, on average, 3,000 new users per week. That results in a lot of new, constantly-adapting ways to talk about often hard-to-define topics. Often, the only connective tissue is every fan's enthusiasm for their topic of choice. There's a good reason why the site's "like" button, the "Kudos" button, is a heart.

"People are often very snotty about amateur things," Coppa concludes. "But to be an amateur is to do something for the love of it, which is not only opposed to money but it is a giant love fest in that way. The whole project was made from love — for other fans and… the properties that we write fanfiction about. So this whole thing is a giant love fest."


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