How Desire Built One of the Best Information Archives Online
CW: some of these links send you to sites that also contain porn.
The claim that pornography—or, rather, easy access to pornography—drives technological development has become a trope. Whether that trope holds true across technical fields is debatable, but it does seem to apply to fan-fiction writers specializing in erotica, who have expanded the borders of feminist human-computer interaction.
Human-computer interaction (HCI) examines how humans and computers interact with an eye toward improving those interactions. HCI relies on a variety of other research areas, from user experience to behavioral psychology. The goal of feminist HCI research is to design interactions between computers and humans that take gender, equity, and social justice into account. Feminist HCI scholars have also developed frameworks for critiquing interaction design and evaluating individual reactions. On feminist software design’s focus on users, researcher Justine Cassel says it “conceives of users as diverse, and their paths through technology as equally diverse. Feminist software design concentrates on the computer as a tool of expression or a mirror of the self. And, finally, feminist software design looks for ways to allow many users to collaborate.”
Exploring fan fiction through a user-oriented lens offers a perspective substantially different from many other types of content: Writing fan fiction is, by and large, a pursuit for women and other marginalized genders. Fan fiction falls into a larger category of works made by fans, and are also known as “transformative works” because the nature of fan creators is to transform existing media into something that meets a personal need. Fan fiction, especially of the erotic variety, exposes desires people have that mass media cannot meet.
“Fan fiction, especially of the erotic variety, exposes desires people have that mass media cannot meet.”
Fan fiction is arguably more closely tied to individual desire than other types of erotica. Because fans write this fiction with no expectation of reward beyond kudos from their friends, they have the freedom to explore relationships that they may not be able to access in other communities. For example, slash fic, which Mashable writer Jess Joho calls “by far the most popular erotic fan-fiction genre,” imagines canonically straight chacters in homosexual relationships, and ironically, it is largely created by straight women and lesbians, not gay men. Joho explains, “generally, slash attracts women because it lets them fantasize about sex without the constraints of their gender.” In an interview, Francesca Coppa, a fan-fiction researcher at Muhlenberg College, told Joho, “If you want to write a relationship between equals, writing about two men sort of unlocks powerful subjects … So slash isn't about gay men, but often women's fantasies of equality in a patriarchy.”
While fan-fiction writers share their work on a variety of platforms, the website Archive of Our Own (also referred to as AO3) has become the standard by which all other fan-fiction sites are measured. Founded in 2008 under the leadership of Naomi Novik, Francesca Coppa, and Rebecca Tushnet, AO3 is a self-organized community maintaining a website that serves more than 312,000 fandoms and provides a home to more than 4.5 million “fics.” It’s roughly the same size as English Wikipedia, as well as about the same age.
The genesis and evolution of AO3 is a study in how poorly many other platforms treat their users. LiveJournal was a key platform in the development of online fandom, but the various owners of the site seemed bent on driving fandom away by shutting down core communities, banning content with no sense of nuance (support groups for survivors of rape, for instance, were banned for mentioning rape), and removing functionality that fandom users considered crucial. No one learned from LiveJournal’s lessons, and Tumblr has been mirroring its hamfisted censorship under various owners, using automated tools to shut down accounts that are deemed pornographic, including those featuring abstract paintings, pictures of turtles, and photos of vases. Platforms reliant on investors or ad revenue have to go for a least-common-denominator approach to anything that could squick out anyone. Brianna Dym and Casey Fiesler, both information-science researchers at the University of Colorado at Boulder, described the evolution of fandom as “an ever-evolving community of nomads, migrating across platforms and constantly attracting new members across generations ... it is a small marvel that the community has traversed online platforms together while maintaining core values that still persist in the community's ever-evolving spaces.”
By 2008, many fans saw only one option for ensuring their access to spaces that welcomed their work and provided the tools they needed: building a new home for fandom. A space controlled by fans dedicated to fandom communities was a necessity. “Speranza,” an active fan, shared a post on LiveJournal in 2008 explaining why she supported the Organization of Transformative Works (OTW), a nonprofit established by and for fans: “Because I want us to own the goddamned servers, ok?” This simple answer became a rallying cry, convincing community members to take action. Within two months of when the idea for AO3, an offshoot of OTW, was dreamt up, over 100 volunteers were working on the project.
The fans designing AO3 may not have overtly focused on using feminist HCI principles, since AO3 predates much of the research into feminist HCI, but their inclusive process looked at similar questions. The nature of the erotica shared in fandom communities required that same careful approach. Because many platforms forced out fan fiction by banning anything that could be considered pornographic (which includes two openly gay characters holding hands on some sites), maintaining access to erotic works in a way that mitigates harm is key to AO3’s welcoming nature. AO3 maintains access to works that would be immediately banned on other platforms. The community draws the line at works that are illegal, choosing to focus moderation efforts on works that do harm rather than works that are merely taboo.
AO3 is only able to make the distinction between what is harmful and what is taboo because the website doesn’t rely on investors or advertisers. The only individuals invested in the decision of what the website should allow are users—most of the developers, designers, administrators, and other volunteers running the site are devoted AO3 users. They work on the site because they use the site to read, write, and share fan fiction. User values, such as a need to protect privacy, are considered throughout the design process. AO3’s identity management tool provides a glimpse of these standards. In her research on feminist HCI, Casey Fiesler wrote, “ ... AO3’s treatment of user identity [is] both fluid and user-controlled. This tracks to a highly ingrained fandom value towards respecting anonymity, pseudonymity, and privacy.” Fiesler further explains that while some fans who write fan erotica have support outside the community, many don’t, leaving them vulnerable to criticism from family and employers.
“The high quality of AO3’s technology is a testament to the impact of feminist HCI design practices—a user-driven exploration of technology built around desire.”
AO3’s identity management tools highlight perhaps the clearest difference between feminist HCI and its root discipline: On AO3, protecting users’ privacy is a priority. The result is a site with minimal harassment, unlike many social platforms that wave away the accidental destruction of the fabric of their users’ lives.
That focus on mitigating risks and managing long-term impact is present in the smallest details of AO3’s features: AO3’s account-management system acknowledges the reality that a user may need to delete their own identity on short notice. AO3 makes that possible without removing material from the community, balancing the needs of individual users against the goal of providing a complete archive. Their orphan-works system means that a person’s contributions can survive even if they themselves need to leave the community.
The high quality of AO3’s technology is a testament to the impact of feminist HCI design practices—a user-driven exploration of technology built around desire. That quality was acknowledged at Worldcon 2019, when AO3 won the Hugo for Best Related Work. For platforms looking to build inclusive and safe communities, AO3’s award-winning methods of including users in every step of development offer a path to the future.