Do you enjoy reading fan-fiction? Or do you want to display your fan-fiction so it can be read and enjoyed by others? Archive of Our Own (AO3) was designed as a safe haven for fan-fiction free of censorship or threat of takedown.
AO3’s site describes itself as a fan run archive for fan-fiction. Writing for The Verge, Elizabeth Minkel describes the precarious state of fan-fiction before AO3 was created. Fan-fiction was regularly taken down by host sites at the behest of complaining entertainment companies regardless of whether it met the criteria for fair use. Jennifer Knop, writing for New York University’s legal blog, mentions that fan fiction can fall under fair use when it is not for profit, doesn’t compete with the original work, and has significant differences from the original work.
Some sites banned certain types of fan-fiction like those centering around real-life people. All these forces spurred fans to create AO3, a nonprofit that Minkel describes as “free speech maximalist”, designed specifically to create a safe haven for fan-fiction.
Writing for Vox, Aja Romano describes how AO3 received the Hugo award for its contribution to science fiction and fantasy writing. Naomi Novik, A New York Times bestselling author and co-founder of AO3 accepted the Hugo on behalf of the organization. This serves as a major recognition of the worth of fan-fiction and a landmark in the mainstream acceptance of fan-fiction works.
Navigating AO3, you can find fan-fiction about Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Stephen King novels, and scores of other popular works. While AO3 doesn’t censor, they do allow writers to participate in a rating system that allows readers to filter content based on their preferences. They have archive symbols for content ratings, relationships/pairings/orientation, content warnings, and whether the work is finished or not, allowing fans to avoid certain kinds of content or find their favorite themes.
While Elizabeth Minkel writes that AO3 “isn’t a social network; direct fandom conversations happen elsewhere on sites like Tumblr, Twitter, and Dreamwidth” the site certainly facilitates community. Many writers participate in a tradition called Yultide where writers create unique fan-fiction based on readers’ specific requested characters with the goal of increasing fan-fiction for rare fandoms or with uncommon character pairings. In doing so, story creators respond directly to fan wishes and create free content that caters to individual fan interests.
Free Speech Controversy
While AO3 has many supportive fans, it has also generated controversy. Elizabeth Minkel with The Verge describes how AO3 has been at the center of free speech debates: “morality, activism, and shipping have become irrevocably tangled, and it can be challenging — even impossible — to untangle them”. Minkel makes the case that arguments against a story may be subjective, artistic, moral, or all three, making it difficult to tell where censorship ends and personal preference begins. Classic debates about censorship abound, with many questioning whether depictions of violence or abuse result in similar behaviors in the real world, and even debates about how these subjects should be depicted in works of art.
The Chinese government has taken an extreme stance on this debate. Aja Romano, writing in Vox, states that AO3 has recently been taken down in China. The Chinese government announced March 1st broad regulations against sexually explicit, violent, or anti-government works. While the new regulations appear to be a straight-forward cause for the site’s removal, it hasn’t stopped rumors from growing, with some even claiming that the crackdown was due to a campaign by fans of the actor Xiao Zhan who were angry at fan-fiction written about him. Fans have denied this, and the removal of AO3 is likely coincidental.
The emphasis on free speech garners AO3 both detractors and praise, with widely differing opinions depending on which side of the debate you fall on. Should fictional works about real-life people be written and shared? Is there cultural value to works that depict sexually harmful behavior, and is its value contingent on how it’s portrayed? AO3 has already made its decision, but many others continue to weigh the worth of these controversial works.