Fiction, they say, is more interesting than reality. So, as people around the world learned to live in lockdowns and quarantines over the past couple of years, it makes sense that many (re)discovered a love for reading. In fact, as businesses reeled from the effects of the pandemic, book sales soared.
Aside from books, people also turned to a curious and ever-growing corner of the internet: the world of fanfiction. In the months since, sites like Archive of Our Own boomed.
Fondly known as AO3, the site’s daily page views rose by 10 million between February and April 2020, and on April 7, the site recorded a high of 51.4 million views in one day. In the last full week of December 2020, the site enjoyed 419 million page views — up from just 265 million in the same period in 2019. By the end of 2020, the site surpassed 3 million registered users and 7 million posted works, enjoying a combined 17,158 billion page views.
That’s a lot of eyes on a website that, to an outsider, doesn’t seem too complicated: Logo on the upper left, red menu bar, decidedly no-frills.
If you’re new to the community, you might not know that in 2019, AO3 also won a Hugo Award for Best Related Work. The Hugo is the most prestigious award for science fiction, given annually at the World Science Fiction Convention, and this category is for work related to sci-fi but is notable for something that isn’t the text itself. Though the awards have seen nominees of the experimental nature in the past, they don’t often nominate — and award — an entire website.
The win is huge, and sends an emphatic message: AO3 is a fanfiction archive that belongs among the most important sci-fi and fantasy works around.
But how did it get there?
First, a Primer on Fanfiction
Fanfiction can be pretty polarizing.
Some authors, like George R. R. Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire, which gave us Game of Thrones) and Diana Gabaldon (Outlander), don’t like fanfiction. Others, like Neil Gaiman (The Sandman, Stardust, American Gods, among many others) are pretty open to it, as is N. K. Jemisin (Broken Earth trilogy), who holds the unique distinction of winning the Hugo Award for best sci-fi or fantasy novel three years in a row.
But growing up, fanfiction had always felt like something of a dirty secret. Maybe it was the overabundance of sexual content (if you know what a lemon is, you qualify for a senior discount), especially that of the homosexual variety. Or maybe it was the sheer amount of poor writing that I ate up anyway because it was about characters I couldn’t get enough of. I went to Catholic school and therefore specialize in guilt and shame, so maybe that’s just what it is.
Put simply, fanfiction is a work of fiction that borrows characters and settings from an original work. To be a fanfic author means being a reader or viewer of something you love so much, that you decide to further explore the lives of those characters — sometimes in the same world where they live or, in the case of alternative universe (AU) fics, other places and timelines.
One big misconception about fanfiction is that it’s just a knockoff of “the real thing.” George R. R. Martin, for example, whose book series has amassed some 44,000 works on AO3, describes fanfic writing as “riding a bike with training wheels.” For him, it’s important for writers to invent their own characters and do their own world-building.
This view disregards those fics that do introduce an author’s original characters (OCs) and place existing ones in AUs. It’s also a little limited: Some argue that many published books are technically fanfiction. Neil Gaiman, for his part, insists that A Study in Emerald is a piece of Sherlock Holmes/H.P. Lovecraft fanfiction.
If you think about it, great authors borrow from other works of fiction all the time. Outside of the oft-cited (and icky) 50 Shades of Grey, Dante’s Divine Comedy is basically a self-insert Bible fanfic, and even Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was based on a narrative poem called The Tragical History of Romeus and Juliet. So, technically, our high schools assigned us published fanfic as required reading.
But in its purest form, fanfiction belongs to online communities. Though it’s often reduced in popular imagination as a place for horny shippers, there’s so much more to sites like AO3, and to fanfiction as a whole. (Though, I must say, mature fics form a wonderful part of that.)
AO3, a Brief History
Fanfiction is a lot older than one might think, and fanfiction authors and readers today can look to Trekkers (that is, fans of Star Trek) of the ‘60s and ‘70s as their forebears. They released fanzines that contained fics and created communities around the Star Trek series.
Contrary to the male nerd archetype, Trekkers were overwhelmingly women and members of the queer community — people who are historically underrepresented in media and who, undeniably, set the tone for modern fandom and fan culture.
The labor of love that zine-making involves only grew with the rise of the internet, and suddenly fanfiction writers could share their work more easily to more people in less time. The problem was, the websites available for doing so weren’t really ideal.
They were either tiny, which meant that writers have smaller audiences for their work, or huge and commercialized, which meant that authors’ hard work was vulnerable to whatever changes website owners deemed fit to draw in money.
In 2007, FanLib was created entirely by men seeking to monetize fanfiction. This was around the same time that LiveJournal was rolling out features to control fan content and took down a pretty big Harry Potter fanfiction group in the process. Members of the fanfiction community just weren’t having it.
And so, Astolat, an influential writer of queer fanfics, suggested an idea that was as straightforward as it was quietly revolutionary: Why not have a creator-funded archive of fanwork?
Inspired by Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, in which she argued that writers must have space, time, and resources to create, the nonprofit Organization for Transformative Works (OTW) was created. The goal was to record and archive fan culture and fan works. And by 2008, through the work of Francesca Coppa, Naomi Novik, Rebecca Tushnet, and a collaborative group of 100 volunteers, AO3 was born.
Fanfic as a Labor of Love
The site was built and designed entirely by volunteers from fandom — using their skills in coding, design, and documentation to create the open-source software of AO3. It’s also entirely made possible through donations: There are no advertisements at all on the site, and users do not pay a single cent to access the site’s content.
Today, the site is run by around 900 volunteers organized into different committees: Documentation, Communications, Policy & Abuse, and crucially, Tag Wrangling, all of whom work for free. The work of this last committee has been instrumental in keeping the site’s 7 million fanworks intelligible and navigable for writers and readers. As the architecture for the site itself, the tag wrangling system is one of the internet’s most sophisticated information organizing mechanisms today — a mechanism very much deserving of a Hugo Award.
And for those of us who enjoy fanfiction, this labor of love is nothing short of remarkable.
“People are often very snotty about amateur things,” Coppa said in a 2019 interview. “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.”
Fanfic as Rebellion
The resistance to monetizing fanworks is something that’s felt to this day. For many fanfic writers, AO3 is a way to write without having to worry about the constraints that many professional authors have to think about under capitalism.
No one’s asking if their high school AU of Attack on Titan characters is going to be marketable to teens in the Midwest, or if their slow-burn 25-chapter interracial romance of two sapphic characters is publishable. You don’t have to answer to anyone wielding charts or projections — you just need the time and energy to write.
This isn’t to say that money isn’t important, of course. But in the world of fanfiction, potential revenue isn’t a measure of value, which is a pretty radical concept in a world where we’re encouraged to turn our hobbies into side hustles. Ultimately, this approach gives the power back to creativity and expression.
Fanfic as Representation
The vast majority of media we consume is created by men — and more specifically, straight white men. Though we’re increasingly seeing more women, queer people, and people of color on screen, women are still largely absent behind the camera.
By taking stories into their own hands, fanfiction is an opportunity for people to see themselves more in the stories they read: There are Harry Potter racebending fics, as well as queer romance fics for every heteronormative rom-com you’ve watched growing up.
Fanfic as Community
Though writing and reading fanfiction tend to be things we do alone in front of our screens, the experience of fanfiction — and fandom as a whole — is based on community.
In her Hugo Award acceptance speech on behalf of the community, Novik said, “All fanwork, from fanfic to vids to fanart to podfic, centers the idea that art happens not in isolation but in community. And that is true of the AO3 itself.
All of our hard work and contributions [as AO3 volunteers] would mean nothing without the work of the fan creators who share their work freely with other fans, and the fans who read their stories and … nourish the community in their turn.”
This sense of community, as felt in the tagging system, hearts you can send as ‘kudos’ to writers, and engaging feedback in the comments section, has been all the more important in the middle of a pandemic.
Of course, it’s not a perfect community. As an archive of something as polarizing as fanfiction, AO3 has also seen its fair share of controversy over the years. Biggest of all is the legal battle for fanfiction’s right to exist, but there have also been criticisms from members themselves over the site’s less-than-enthusiastic efforts on battling racism in fandom, especially in light of the Black Lives Matter protests.
Compared to the wider world around it, however, AO3 and its archival infrastructure has become something of a haven for those who’ve long been culturally maligned both in the world of fandom (as what countless fake geek girl memes have taught us) and in Silicon Valley (even though women tend to be better than men at coding).
Coppa highlights the common misconception that fanfiction is for 12-year-old girls, to which there are two points we must raise.
First, that AO3 has become a community of people of different ages, nationalities, races, and genders. Second, and perhaps more crucially, what in the world is so bad with 12-year-old girls and their interests?
“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,” she says. “They are going to run the world someday. But it’s not only them.”
Indeed, AO3 has provided a structured space for creators to put their stories out into the world, and for readers to enjoy more of the themes and characters that they love in ways that mainstream media can’t give them just yet. It’s a place to connect with others who enjoy the same TV shows, movies, and books. And finally, it’s a place to find stories that resonate with you — even as your AO3 search history stays between you and God.