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The online free speech debate is raging in fan fiction, too

The conversation is as old as fan-fic itself

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Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

In 2007, a group of fans — many of whom were lawyers, academics, or professional writers in their day jobs — founded the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), a nonprofit that would preserve fanworks and protect the interests of fans in a rapidly shifting digital landscape. Its central project was a web archive for fan-fic where the servers would be owned by the fans themselves, funded through donations rather than ads or VC backing, and protected by lawyers who could push back against corporations, protecting fanworks under fair use. They named the project after A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf’s seminal feminist work, calling it the Archive of Our Own, or AO3.

Over a decade later, AO3 has become the predominant space for fan-fic on the web. It hosts 4.2 million fanworks, including fiction, art, videos, and critical commentary (or “meta”), but the vast majority is fan fiction. It preserves old archives while fans continually upload new works; the archive recently announced it had accumulated works from over 30,000 individual fandoms. It is an explicitly non-commercial space; users are forbidden from soliciting money, including linking to sites like Kickstarter, Patreon, and Ko-fi.

Staffed by more than 600 volunteers across OTW’s projects, the site’s maintenance and upkeep are funded by donation drives that seek out relatively modest sums of money (in the $100,000 range, compared to the millions Wikipedia and the Internet Archive take in during their campaigns). And those fan-owned servers host all kinds of work — including some things that previous commercial platforms wouldn’t support — since the archive is governed by a broadly inclusive Terms of Service. (Disclosure: I donate regularly to the OTW.)

“It just felt like we were being assaulted from all sides.”

During the most recent of these regular donation drives, a long-brewing conversation among fans flared up about AO3 and what belongs there. As donations ticked up toward the $130K goal, posts began circulating, which questioned why AO3 needed that much money and why anyone was financially supporting the archive at all.

The site’s detractors make up a relatively small but vocal part of transformative fandom — the catch-all term for people who create and consume transformative works like fan fiction — and the drive was a flashpoint in a debate that’s been simmering in the fannish corners of Tumblr and other social media platforms. While some of the financial complaints were founded in ignorance — yes, servers really do cost a lot to maintain — others leveled more sinister accusations like embezzlement and fraud, despite the OTW’s nonprofit status and transparent budget reporting. But digging beyond initial callout posts, the fiscal complaints often masked users’ deeper, long-standing issues with AO3’s content: what kinds of stories the site allows and what it protects.

What should an individual be allowed to publish online? It’s a complicated question in 2018 and within the wider conversation across the web about the limits of speech, from privately owned social media platforms to entities explicitly protected by the First Amendment. Yet, despite similarities between the AO3 debate and conversations about speech on Twitter or Reddit, the subversive nature of fan fiction — as well as the actual functionality of AO3 as an archive rather than a social media platform — means that in the fan-fic world, the discussion gets even more complicated. Where many social media free speech debates have been about literal speech, fandom’s version involves creative work, which exists within the contexts of both fannish history and the longer history of how sensitive topics are handled in fiction overall.

In the decade before AO3 and OTW were founded, fandom and fan fiction online were becoming more visible and more popular than ever, but they were still subject to the whims of litigious rights holders and capricious web platforms. Publishers and studios issued takedown notices with enthusiasm; platforms like Tripod and Yahoo Groups would sweep entire fan communities from their servers at the behest of entertainment companies. In 2002, conducted a mass purge, banning NC-17 content and any story about real people (also known as RPF, or “real person fic”). LiveJournal, which, by 2007, had become one of fandom’s main hubs, was deleting fannish accounts, while startups like FanLib were clumsily trying to monetize fan-fic to benefit rights holders, not fans.

“It just felt like we [were] being assaulted from all sides,” says Cesperanza, an OTW co-founder and prolific fan-fic writer. “We were afraid that this exposure would lead to lawsuits, and that the people who got sued would just sell us out.”

“Using the Archive may expose you to material that is offensive, triggering, erroneous, sexually explicit, indecent, blasphemous, objectionable, grammatically incorrect, or badly spelled.”

But fans have also long disagreed about what content any given space should host. Some early archives banned specific subjects, while others put restrictions on certain characters or relationships. AO3’s free speech maximalist approach to fictional content was founded in direct response to corporate censorship as a way to ensure that all fanworks were protected on the basis of simply being fanworks, rather than meeting a standard of literary merit or adhering to thematic guidelines or restrictions.

“One of our most quoted sections from the ToS is: ‘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,’” Matty Bowers, AO3’s policy and abuse chair, tells The Verge. The recent AO3 dustup, Bowers says, has been embedded in the conversation from the start. “Even back then, there were complaints that if ‘x’ was hosted, certain groups [that were against ‘x’] wouldn’t support the Archive. It pops up periodically over the years, and often gets more traction during drives.”

Some of fandom’s content wars are about preference: hating a particular character, for example, or preferring one ship over another. Simple disagreements in taste can get ugly enough, but in some corners of fandom, morality, activism, and shipping have become irrevocably tangled, and it can be challenging — even impossible — to untangle them. Some fans just don’t like the idea of Kylo Ren getting together with Rey, others say that writing about their relationship romanticizes abuse, and some still speculate that they’re siblings, and shipping them is condoning incest, regardless of who Rey’s parents are. While most people who don’t like a given ship ignore it — or just complain about it — some fans believe AO3 should be in the business of banning content altogether.

The conversations echo everything from 20th century obscenity trials to the feminist porn wars of the 1980s

Recently, the loudest opposition to AO3’s “maximum inclusiveness” has centered on sexual acts that are often considered taboo or are illegal, like whether writers should be allowed to depict things like rape, incest, statutory rape, or pedophilia, regardless of whether the stories are marked with clear warnings.

Thornier still, some fans want AO3 to police the way these sensitive topics are depicted, including whether sexy depictions of unhealthy relationships encourage real-world abuse or the difference between a depiction of rape and writing a “rape fantasy.” The conversations echo everything from 20th century obscenity trials, the feminist porn wars of the 1980s, and the long-standing debates within fandom itself.

Across the web, platforms and their users are grappling with what digital speech should be protected and the potential links between rhetoric and action. On Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube, tech companies are struggling with where to draw lines around free speech and how to moderate and enforce those boundaries. How to limit speech in fiction, however, is a bit more nuanced: do TV shows about serial killers encourage people to commit murder? Does depicting fictional rape create real-life rapists?

When it comes to fan fiction, arguments are usually about the sex, not the violence. When fan-fic readers and writers make moral arguments about disallowing depictions of sex acts, they’re talking about obscenity and all its legal precedents. And because the fight for the legal legitimacy of fanworks — which, if they are noncommercial, are protected under fair use — has been such a challenge, it’s even more difficult to moderate content within fan-fic when you’re still having to defend the cultural belief that fan-fic holds value in and of itself.

Do TV shows about serial killers encourage people to commit murder? Does depicting fictional rape create real-life rapists?

“The definition of obscenity requires courts to consider if the work has no ‘serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value,’ [and the] OTW thinks fic has value as a creative endeavor,” says Stacey Lantagne, assistant professor of law at the University of Mississippi School of Law and volunteer for the Organization for Transformative Works Legal Committee. “Beyond that, we are not qualified to decide which fics (if any) have more value than others, and I don’t think people actually want us to start down that road. The OTW’s mission is to advocate on behalf of transformative works, not just the ones we like.”

There’s a fundamental clash of expectations at the heart of these conversations: the difference between an archive and a community. Every social media platform struggles with speech questions, but most are balancing shareholder interests, user growth, and ad sales. AO3, meanwhile, remains an archive run by a nonprofit organization. Its users may have different expectations, but from AO3’s perspective, a repository for a community’s works — or, in this case, many communities’ works — isn’t a community at all. You can comment on a story, communicating with the author and potentially other fans that way, but the platform doesn’t allow messaging between users. It isn’t a social network; direct fandom conversations happen elsewhere on sites like Tumblr, Twitter, and Dreamwidth.  

“Our mission is to advocate on behalf of transformative works, not just the ones we like.”

“We really go out of our way to not define community standards,” says Bowers, echoing Lantagne’s legal stance. “Sometimes we can’t help but influence them a bit — for instance, with the occasional tag-wrangling,” (a term referring to the descriptive standardization of subject tags implemented by moderators) “but otherwise we do our best to curate fandoms, not define them ... This, of course, is not what some parts of fandom want to hear. They feel like it should be our job to set standards for their communities. However, AO3 wasn’t designed this way, nor do we have any intentions of changing our policies.”

Within the archive, users have ways to filter out exactly what they do and don’t want to see: the platform’s vast network of tags, labels, and warnings allow users to filter and curate what they see to a degree that’s impossible on most websites. AO3 isn’t a community, but it gives users the ability to create a community within it. Fans can create or collaborate on collections, contribute to challenges and festivals with clearly defined rules, or publicly bookmark and recommend the fanworks that best suit their tastes.

While no archive is truly neutral, Cesperanza emphasizes that AO3 is an archive and not a curation. “Curations have points of view, and the Archive must withstand multiple curations,” she says. An archive’s creators make decisions about what gets included and what doesn’t, and those decisions are shaped by individuals’ experiences, preferences, and biases, but like many libraries, AO3’s free-speech maximalism means the archive houses a vast array of fictional content — including stories that plenty of people find offensive. Of the thousands of stories users reported to AO3’s moderators last year, only a small fraction (1,150) were flagged by readers as “offensive,” alongside “plagiarism” (1,110) and “non-fanworks” (3,500).

When censorship and staunch opposition to limiting speech in fandom spaces take center stage, it often overshadows and even shuts down good-faith critical discussions about systemic bias, like fic writers’ focus on white characters at the exclusion of characters of color, for example, or the way fanworks can reinforce internalized misogyny or the fuzzy lines between writing about gay male characters and fetishizing gay men. These critiques often push for collective introspection rather than the removal of any given work, though some fans do call on the archive to draw lines around what’s offensive and what’s not.

“This is a conversation no one in white-centric fandom is particularly interested in having.”

Ironically, campaigns for censorship often “shut down all other concerns about how AO3 handles problematic content, especially around issues like race,” says Rukmini Pande, a fan studies scholar and assistant professor at OP Jindal Global University in India whose book on race and fandom, Squee from the Margins, is out next month. “I’ve come to the depressing conclusion that this is a conversation no one in white-centric fandom is particularly interested in having, and that’s unfortunate.”

While the archive is vocally against setting standards, Pande explains that community norms inherently change and will continue to evolve with time. “Historically, there have been very vocal disputes about content tagging,” Pande says. “Then too, the idea of tagging was seen as the first step as to censorship, but now most fans see it as a vital part of how they navigate their reading experience. So why can’t we imagine a way forward with issues like racist fanwork?”

As these conversations evolve, the archive’s critics and defenders will continue to spend time on a platform designed to house nearly all parts of speech, understanding that what users want to see varies a great deal. Within the past year, the site has rolled out search filters that let users hide terms, characters, or ships as an alternative to filters that helped readers seek out specific topics. Alongside a robust culture of tags and in-story content descriptions, all works must be marked with “major archive warnings,” including rape, underage sex, or major character death. An author can “choose not to warn,” which signals to the reader that they enter at their own risk.

The archive operates on a system of mutual trust. It tells you to publish what you want, but it asks you to be thoughtful about it. For the most part, whether users read a story about a given topic is largely up to them.

“A thing I always tell my students about free speech is that you have a right to speak, but you do not have a right to be heard,” Lantagne says. “I have a right to select which speech I am exposed to; you cannot force me to read your white-power narrative, for example. I think AO3 does this better than almost anything else in the modern world: our tagging system is better at helping you avoid what you don’t want than almost anything else I can think of.”