AO3 as a [Black, Queer] Feminist Space by JC

Created specifically as a non-corporate space by queer women, Archive of Our Own (AO3) is a
site for fans to create, share, and preserve their transformative works. These works, which are
typically pieces of fanfiction, cover a variety of genres and topics but often include sexual
content, and specifically, queer sexual content. With millions of fanworks created by thousands
of fans, AO3 is an active community that has not only survived as the Internet has shifted from
web 2.0 to web 3.0 (and possibly web 4.0 as well) but has thrived in the face of increasingly
monopolist corporate interests. These fanworks are organized by volunteers who are part of the
community and the organizing structure is a folksonomy that is constant being added to as new
words and terms enter into fandom’s vernacular.

I chose AO3 to research for MALS 72200 because as a member of the community, I knew the history, the mission, and the practices of the site. Since its inception, I considered it a feminist space; however, I had never
studied it closely. My ethnographic work gave me an opportunity to explore the this belief of
AO3’s feminist nature, with a specific focus on a black and queer feminism. As I mentioned in
an early class assignment, to me, “queer” refers to more than a sexuality that isn’t heterosexual;
rather “queer” includes a rejection of oppression based on sexuality and gender, as well as race
and class. Also, by explicitly referring to this feminism as “black,” I am separating this feminism
from the popular, typically white, feminism that has been co-opted (and “whitewashed”) by
corporations.

As I observed the site, I concluded that while AO3 does succeed as a feminist space in most
regards, it isn’t as inclusive as I believe it could be and so fails as a black and queer feminist
space. However, it was created by women, intended to preserve content about same-sex
relationships. It is non-corporate, nonprofit, playful, and community focused. In these ways AO3
is a feminist space (and is a very successful feminist space). My ethnographic study had two
parts: at the macro level, I studied the content of the site by surveying recently posted
fanworks, popular tags, and categories used by creators; and on the micro level, I also
reviewed my own fanworks with a specific look at the gender, race, and sexuality of the
characters I wrote about.

In this paper, I summarize my findings from previous assignments for my ethnographic study.
Additional explanations, references, and findings can be found in the post I created on AO3.

Created by women
A female fan posting under the name Astolat suggested that fandom needed an “archive of our
own” in 2007 and later that year, another female fan registered the domain name. Currently six
of the seven members on the Board of Directors identify as women.
Same-sex relationships and additional queer content

Of the 4,678,224 fanworks on AO3, the majority of them feature same-sex relationships in the
“Category” section:

– Male/male: 2,253,538
– Female/female: 383,085
– And for comparison, female/male: 1,140,377

The tag cloud shows the most popular tags used to describe the content of fanworks. In a
previous assignment I posted a screenshot of the cloud, which specific tags relating to sexuality:
“BDSM,” “bottoming,” threesome,” “fingerfucking;” to gender: “gender related,” “female
characters,” and “female relationships;” and to sexual identity: “LGBTQ themes” and “boys’
love.” Clearly fans are interested in writing and reading about non-heterosexual relationships
and characters.

Non-corporate and nonprofit
In a previous assignment, I summarized AO3’s history, noting that it was specifically a response
to the attempt of corporations to capitalize on fans’ creations. The interference of corporations in
the past had led to censorship due to fanworks’ often queer and/or sexual content; even without
deliberate restriction, the temporary nature of many online communities endangered the
preservation of content. Accounts are free, it is staffed by volunteers, it is funded by donations,
and there are no advertisements anywhere. By banning monetary exchange, AO3 also breaks
fanworks out of monetary valuing. By this I mean that fanworks have a reason for existence
completely outside of the concepts of capitalism. I believe that this disruption of capitalism is
progressive, and possible to interpret as queer in that it dismantles what has become the typical
structured relationship between creator and consumer. Rather than the audience paying for
content or the writer being paid to create content, there is freedom in sharing – both in terms of
consuming and creating.

Playful
Fanworks are autotelic and are examples of play. On AO3, fanworks are not and cannot be
created for profit. There is no timetable on them: they can be posted at any time before, during,
or after the release of the media they’re based on (i.e., I can write and post a fanwork based on
1977’s Star Wars or the upcoming 2019 Star Wars). Many of the fanworks posted on AO3 are
incomplete; there is joy in the action of writing and sharing, even without an end product. Once
a story is posted, it exists on AO3 indefinitely and is findable, even if it isn’t popular. By default,
AO3 displays fanworks in chronological order so there is no hierarchy of visibility. It’s true that
this can mean that a fanwork can go unnoticed by the community, but again, AO3 is not and has
not been concerned with placing value on fanworks: a fanwork with 1 page view is still a
fanwork.

Community-focused
Organized around a folksonomy, AO3 literally uses the fans’ own vocabulary to describe content
and context. Rather than a structure created top-down and rigid, this folksonomy can be
adopted and adapted by the users themselves. On AO3, anyone can create an “additional tag.”
Behind the scenes, volunteers can match terms and words to previously created tags, which
ensures that spelling is correct and consistent; this moderation prevents the tags from being a
wild west of chaos and it protects users from trolls.

AO3 also allows space for fans to have shared experiences. There are very few restrictions in
place on AO3. Anyone can view content so long as their location allows it (importantly, this
restriction did not come from AO3 itself) and anyone can create an account without having to
prove their legitimacy as a fan. Someone can post a hundred fanworks, a single fanwork, or no
fanworks at all under their account.

Black and queer
“Categories” in this case is used to refer to relationships. It is possible to choose multiple
categories. Here queer pairings are included with along with heterosexuality on equal footing.
However, it’s important to note that these are primarily gender-binary pairings; by that I mean
that the relationships are both between two people, and that those two people are either M
(male) or F (female). Relationships between any number of people over two are gathered under
the “multi” category and relationships between people who don’t identify as M or F can use
“other.” Here I believe that this method of categorizing relationships that can be vastly different
from one another (that is, M/M/M vs. F/F/F/F, etc.; or gender nonconforming people vs.
non-binary people) is restrictive.

While these fields are optional, I believe that their inclusion is telling: besides knowing who the
story is about, the next thing readers (or at least the readers that AO3 was built for) want to
know is who pairs up with whom. Again gender and sexuality can come into play here.
Despite the different ways a story can include information about the characters, there are no
places specifically for race to be mentioned, not like gender and sexuality can be. The third field
of tags is a catch all “additional tags” where the creator can certainly include the race, ethnic, or
cultural information about their characters. Again, “additional tags” is not specifically for this:
tags that are found here include tropes, summaries, author thoughts, and additional content
warnings.

Creating a black queer x-reality
As I studied AO3, I became interested in the possibility of bringing aspect of it out of fandom
and into the “real world.” The tagging system specifically seemed to be a success, and
successfully feminist. The tagging system is remarkable, and again as folksonomy that’s
moderated by the users and is often used to bring attention to sex-positive story tropes,
something that I b elieve is feminist. And so the small community of my husband and me chose
books from our shelves to try to “tag.”

My first step in bringing AO3 into the physical world was to make the content of the website
visible to us. As the TV is one of the bigger pieces of furniture, centered in the room, and the
other pieces of furniture placed deliberately around it, having AO3 displayed on that ensured
that the site was the focal point both in the room and of our attention. One of our computers is
almost always hooked up to the TV, so it was easy to get online and to the website. I’m usually
logged into AO3, so when I pulled up the site, it was under my account. Once on AO3, I went to
the page with the tag cloud so we could see the most commonly used tags. In this way I was
again referencing Coleman: having my account on the screen was something like Lessig and
his avatar appearing at once at the Austin Second Life party .

Once we had AO3’s tag cloud and our books, we worked together to tag our physical books with
the online, crowd-created vocabulary. Sitting together on our couch, we talked through our
choices while I tracked our changes in a spreadsheet. The books we selected were all fiction
and were those with main characters with whom we were familiar enough to be able to tag their
identities. Other than that, they were chosen at random. We also put in a few “additional tags”
for tropes, themes, and warnings that we would find helpful if we were trying to choose a book
to read. I put the year of publication for context.

The Truth by Terry Pratchett (2000)
Gender: cisgendered male character(s), cisgendered female character(s)
Race: unspecified race, fantasy-setting race
Sexuality: heterosexual character(s)
Additional tags: humor, fantasy, no sexual content, vampires, fantasy monsters, happy ending
Mass Effect Andromeda: Annihilation by Catherynne Valente (2018)
Gender: cisgendered male character(s), cisgendered female character(s)
Race: unspecified race, fantasy-setting race
Sexuality: not specified
Additional tags: aliens, no sexual content, happy ending

The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1929)
Gender: cisgendered male character(s), cisgendered female character(s)
Race: white character(s), character(s) of color, american character(s)
Sexuality: heterosexual character(s), gay character(s)
Additional tags: mystery, slurs, period racism, period sexism, period homophobia, non explicit
sexual content, murder, death

Native Tongue by Carl Hiaasen (1991)
Gender: cisgendered male character(s), cisgendered female character(s)
Race: white character(s), character(s) of color, hispanic character(s), black character(s), african
american character(s), american character(s)
Sexuality: heterosexual character(s)
Additional tags: humor, environmentalism, non explicit sexual content, death

Nemesis by Agatha Christie (1971)
Gender: cisgendered male character(s), cisgendered female character(s)
Race: white character(s), british character(s)
Sexuality: heterosexual character(s), not specified
Additional tags: rape victim blaming, murder, no sexual content, mystery, period sexism, rape
mention, death

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (2005)
Gender: cisgendered male character(s), cisgendered female character(s)
Race: white character(s), character(s) of color, turkish character(s), romanian character(s),
british character(s), american character(s)
Sexuality: heterosexual character(s)
Additional tags: non explicit sexual content, non graphic violence, vampires, death

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle (1901-1902)
Gender: cisgendered male character(s)
Race: white character(s), british character(s)
Sexuality: heterosexual character(s), not specified
Additional tags: mystery, implicit rape mention, no sexual content, murder, death

Wuthering Heights by Charlotte Bronte (1847)
Gender: cisgendered male character(s), cisgendered female character(s)
Race: white character(s), british character(s)
Sexuality: heterosexual character(s)
Additional tags: mental abuse, physical abuse, no sexual content, gothic, death

The Red Tree by Caitlin Kiernan (2009)
Gender: cisgendered female character(s)
Race: white characters(s), character(s) of colors, american character(s)
Sexuality: lesbian character(s)
Additional tags: horror, ghosts, sexual content, death, mental health issues

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler (1993)
Gender: cisgendered female character(s), cisgendered male character(s)
Race: black character(s), character(s) of colors, american character(s)
Sexuality: heterosexual character(s)
Additional tags: science fiction, sexual content, violence, death

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin (1968)
Gender: cisgendered male character(s)
Race: black character(s), character(s) of color, unspecified race
Sexuality: not specified
Additional tags: fantasy, magic, no sexual content, happy ending

By doing this together, we mimicked the way that AO3’s tags and tag wranglers work; i.e., in a
community. We talked through the tag choices, debating which characters were the main
characters (and therefore worthy of being tagged) and what constituted “explicit” or “graphic.”
We also referenced the tag cloud for ideas of tags to use on our books. There were a few times
when we changed a tag word or phrase to match one in the tag cloud: for example, our
suggested tag “sex” became AO3’s tag “sexual content” and “mental illness” became “mental
health issues.”

Tagging books with terms from a folksonomy would allow the vernacular of the readers to
organize books, rather than publishers, marketers, or book sellers who may be segregated from
the text (or at least have a difference sense of the book than I might as a reader). It also
provides us with the opportunity to flag for ourselves the key points, themes, characters, or
warnings. Our words, our ideas, our interpretations become as valuable as those applied by the
publishing companies.

Comparing our books’ tags with those in the tag cloud shows that there was little crossover in
the two. Popular fanfic, it seems, isn’t as concerned with tagging genre descriptions (e.g.
“mystery”), and instead the tag cloud is full of tags relating to sex. However, our books’ tags
and AO3’s tag cloud both include warnings. I tried to create a tag cloud, but couldn’t find a
program that could handle the amount of tags.

I think this is particularly interesting – and important – when dealing with problematic texts, such
as Agatha Christie’s Nemesis. Upon a recent re-read, I discovered that Christie has two screeds
against women and what she considered to be fake rape accusations. In both cases those
screeds had very little to do with the story and were clearly the author’s (rather than just the
characters’) opinion. There was no indication that I’d find such blatant misogyny in the story by
either the publishers or booksellers. If I could tag it and share my tags, I could flag for other
readers what the publisher/booksellers neglected to warn me about. And so these AO3-like tags
have the ability to create a safe (or at least safer) space for discerning readers in the often
white, heteronormative industry of book publishing.

As mentioned above, this exercise also allowed me to augment my physical identity with
aspects of my online identity/avatar. Specifically, through matching physical books with the
online tagging system, I melded my librarian identity with part of my AO3 identity, in this case
taking an online activity into the physical world. This combination also works in the opposite
direction (that is, taking a physical activity into the online world) since I primarily use (online)
tags like subject headings due to my (“real life”) education as a librarian. And so this was yet
another reflection, back into the “real world.”

Finally, I found it interesting – and depressing – how white and straight the books we selected
are. Although I consider myself a voracious reader and book collector, my library appears to
skew toward white heteronormativity.

A previously described, my recommendation to encourage a more inclusive space is to divide
the “additional tags” section up so that character identity has a more prominent place on the
form. As the field works now, “additional tags” is used for a variety of reasons, such as to
describe plot points/tropes, to describe characters, to talk to readers, to attract readers to the
story, and as disclaimers. If this field was divided into spaces that were deliberately and
specifically for characters’ racial identity, AO3 would be placing race on a equal platform as the
gender and sexuality fields.

In the previous section, I did a quick survey of my own fanworks on this archive. Inspired by my
x-reality project, I decided to replicate the experiment of tagging (or in this case, re-tagging) my
fics. I deliberated tried being more inclusive in terms of the tags I used for characters’ identities
and to see how my tags would change if I applied the above suggestion on ten stories picked at
random.

To protect my privacy, I refer to my fanworks as “1,” “2,” “3,” etc.; again, for context, I also
included the year the fanwork was first posted.

1 (2019)
Current tags relating to character identity: (none)
New tags:
Gender: cisgendered male character(s), cisgendered female character(s)
Race: black character(s), character(s) of color, african american character(s), white
character(s), american character(s)
Sexuality: bisexual character(s), lesbian character(s)

2 (2019)
Current tags relating to character identity: boys kissing
New tags:
Gender: cisgendered male character(s)
Race: black character(s), character(s) of color, african american character(s), white
character(s), american character(s)
Sexuality: bisexual character(s)

3 (2019)
Current tags relating to character identity: male [character]
New tags:
Gender: cisgendered male character(s), cisgendered female character(s)
Race: character(s) of color, hispanic character(s), italian-american character(s), white
character(s), american character(s)
Sexuality: bisexual character(s), gay character(s), heterosexual character(s)

4 (2015)
Current tags relating to character identity: women being awesome, bechdel test pass, female
friendships
New tags:
Gender: cisgendered male character(s), cisgendered female character(s)
Race: white character(s), character(s) of color, black character(s), african american
character(s), aboriginal australian character(s)
Sexuality: bisexual character(s), gay character(s), heterosexual character(s), lesbian
character(s)

5 (2013)
Current tags: canon lesbian character(s), BAMF women, femslash, female-centric, POV female
character
New tags:
Gender: cisgendered female character(s)
Race: unspecified race, fantasy-setting race
Sexuality: bisexual character(s), lesbian character(s)

Just like with our experiment tagging our books, re-tagging my stories increased their
descriptors. It also showed me that while my writing appears to be more inclusive than the
books on our shelves, I should write fic with gender-fluid characters, trans women characters,
trans men characters, and agender characters.

In conclusion, my experience with AO3 is that it has the tools to create a queer, black feminist
space; however despite that, it is not as inclusive as it could be. A reconfiguring of the upload
form could provide users a space to describe identity in more detail; this could encourage
people to think about race as much as they do the relationships of the characters. By simply
have a “space of one’s own” to describe race, gender, or sexual identity, AO3 could encourage
people to think critically about the content they read or produce, as tagging my fanworks and
books did for me. While I can’t speak for the users’ race, gender, or sexual identity, I believe
that because AO3 has the space for black, queer content (e.g., the site itself and the upload
forms); the vocabulary of black, queer communities (e.g. the folksonomy tagging system);
protection from bigotry (e.g. the moderators, tag wranglers, and users themselves to flag and
remove content); and a distance from heteronormative interests (i.e., no corporate support), it
could become a truly black, queer feminist space.

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