In this article:
- Archive of Our Own is a fanfiction site that was established following a massive content purge of NC-17 works on FanFiction.net. Due to the site’s history, fans and creators are extremely wary of any signs of AO3 censorship.
- Earlier this month, the Organization for Transformative Works, which runs AO3, released a transcript of a chat between candidates that, to fans, appeared to indicate that one of the candidates was interested in restricting what content can be allowed on the site.
- Fans have argued that not only is this counter to why AO3 was created, but also stands against what fanfiction is all about.
Earlier this week, Archive of Our Own creators and fans flooded the internet with complaints warning against the possibility of censorship on the site after a transcript of the chat between AO3 board candidates revealed that one of the candidates is interested in creating a more “presentable” public image for Archive of Our Own.
While seemingly innocuous on its own, the statements made by this board candidate reminded fans of similar actions taken on other websites where fans come together to share their work, namely Tumblr and FanFiction.net, the old fanfiction king.
A Free Fanfiction Culture?: Why the Fanfiction Community Is Less Than Happy About Talks of AO3 Censorship
Archive of Our Own is a fanfiction website that made waves back in 2019 after it won a Hugo Award for Best Related Work. Hugo Awards are, to understate it, a big deal. It’s the most prestigious award for sci-fi literature that’s given annually and it’s not every day they give an award to a whole website, much less one where everybody and their dog can upload stories based on Supernatural.
The website began after angry fans decided to create their own website to move away from increasingly restrictive content regulations on the then more popular FanFiction.net. Like AO3, FanFiction.net is a website where fans can upload their derivative works and share them with other fans. Up until around 2012, it was the place to be if you wanted the good stuff.
FanFiction.net’s golden days came to a screeching halt after the site underwent a massive purge of NC-17 content. Fanfiction rated as NC-17 contained sexually explicit content, namely detailed descriptions of sex scenes and decidedly morally gray (or downright questionable) scenes of sexual assault, torture, and the like.
While some fans were fine with the restrictions on the latter, the idea of banning all sexually explicit content was deemed too restrictive by most, prompting some to create competitors to FF.net. Among these were FictionAlley, FanDomination.Net, and Archive of Our Own, the latter being the biggest one as of 2022.
The possibility of AO3 censorship has spooked fans of the website as many of them migrated from FF.net because of the promise of being able to upload whatever they want as long as it’s still fanfiction.
Admittedly, there is content on the website that some may argue is the exact reason why AO3 censorship should be a thing. The site’s infamous Dead Dove, Do Not Eat tag is used by fanfiction writers to warn potential readers that the fanwork they’re interested in contains scenes and elements that are unambiguously morally wrong but will not be condemned as such. Think of it as bad guys going unpunished but a lot more extreme.
The tag is also used as a way of saying that a piece of fanfiction is going to get really dark, while indicating blamelessness on the writer/uploader’s part because duh, it’s a dead dove. What did you expect?
AO3 board candidate Tiffany G, however, thinks that isn’t enough and that the site should take a more active role in regulating the content available on Archive of Our Own.
Okay, but Who’s Saying AO3 Should Be Censored?
Archive of Our Own operates as a fan-created and fan-run non-profit organization with the organization behind it being the Organization of Transformative Works (OTW).
OTW runs several other fan culture-related projects such as Fanlore, which documents fanworks and fandom history, and Legal Advocacy, which advocates for freer copyright laws that allow creators of fanfiction and other fanworks to make derivative creative work without having to worry about, say, Disney breathing down their necks.
An organization that busy needs leadership so OTW holds annual elections for board members. For 2022, there were five candidates, all of them women. To help voters decide on who gets to sit on OTW’s board, the organization releases transcripts of chats between their candidates.
The last one, which was shared with voters on August 5th, raised eyebrows after candidate Tiffany G appeared to be in support of policies that would result in restrictions of content allowed on the site.
Tiffany G is, relatively speaking, one of the newer volunteers for Archive of Our Own which she mentions herself in the chat transcripts. When asked what she expects would be the biggest challenge she may face if elected as board member, the candidate answered:
“I believe a lot of external people have issues with our ToS and policies so working with those will be the biggest challenge. I have had discussions with respective volunteers and it seems like we have limited resources and legal issues that need to be addressed, and delivered to the public.”
She also previously mentioned during the Q&A for board candidates that she was interested in making changes to AO3’s Terms of Service and Policies.
The candidate explained that this was because she had concerns that outsiders to AO3 have a negative view of the site, stating, “Well, I think a lot of external people are very concerned about the fact that some works contain child pornography, pedophilic content, and other illegal content. If possible (this is not entirely possible after I chatted with people from PAC though), I am interested in providing extra help to the PAC team and Legal team to update the ToS and policies on those.”
She later goes on to say, in much plainer words, that, “People think we host child porn content and such things. This issue is actually closely related to the incident when our service is banned in my home country. It might also be helpful to clarify that to the public. “
When asked to elaborate exactly how she planned to make changes to AO3’s policies that would make it appear more palatable to the general public, the candidate was quick to insist that she didn’t want a restriction on content, but rather more warnings and ratings so “people know what to expect.”
Fans of the website questioned Tiffany G.’s motives since policy changes geared towards cleaning up the image of the website did not necessarily serve community interests.
“You cannot have partial censorship. This is core to AO3’s stance on censorship. Because in order to have partial censorship you must have a body deciding WHAT deserves to be censored,” one AO3 user said.
Regardless of her claim that there would be no censorship should she be elected as a board member of OTW, fans remained wary because, in a sense, they’ve heard it before. Someone says the site isn’t kid-friendly, brings down the ban hammer, and suddenly thousands of fanfictions disappear overnight.
On a website that is home to over 5 million derivate works of fiction, a purge similar to what happened on FanFiction.net would ravage the archives of AO3’s 34,000 fandoms.
Plus, many fans have argued, sanitizing fanfiction runs counter to what fanfiction is all about.
Though “proto” fanfictions have existed for centuries, fanfiction, as we know it today, traces its roots to zines, fanmade literary magazines about existing fiction.
Many of the early zines were made by and for fans of sci-fi franchises like Star Wars and Star Trek. While most of them were your standard fiction of the time — adventures and romances — fanfiction depicting homosexual relationships had to be passed around in relative secrecy.
These works were the targets of cease-and-desist letters from Lucasfilm who wanted to keep the Star Wars franchise and fandom sanitized to appeal to a more morally inclined majority, even if these people were mostly outsiders to the fan community.
The queer history of fanfiction colors the stats of AO3 today. The majority of the website’s 5 million fanfiction works are centered on homosexual pairings. You know, the kind of stuff that wouldn’t pass a censorship board in ye ole days and in some places today still doesn’t.
Like, perhaps, Tiffany G’s home country.
Fans have pointed out, time and time again, that talks of AO3 censorship, or any form of fandom censorship for that matter, is just the moral panic debate happening all over again.
Besides, users and creators on the site have pointed out that the system Tiffany G wants for AO3 already exists. The website has an extensive filtering and tagging system that lets you sort works based on their letter rating (G, PG, R, etc.) and lets you exclude content you don’t want to see (in case you don’t want a sexual assault scene in your Game of Thrones fanfiction, for example).
Surprisingly, It’s Not the First Time AO3 Has Had Censorship Scares
AO3 censorship scares have been happening for years. In 2018, OTW officials shared that they had problems fundraising for the archive at times since groups that didn’t want the site to host certain types of material refused to give it any form of support.
It doesn’t even have to be explicitly morally reprehensible content either, just the site hosting content depicting two characters in a relationship that some users felt was abusive was all it took.
Others have a more serious stance. They want zero depictions of graphic violence, sexual abuse and assault, or pedophilia — regardless of the context in which it’s depicted — on the site.
In 2020, Archive of Our Own was banned in China after the country restricted media that they deemed to be depicting homosexual content. One of the major targets was The Untamed fandom, a community centered around two men falling in love in a historical fantasy setting.
Because of the historical baggage, AO3’s community has regarding censorship of fanfiction, not to mention that the website was created in response to censorship, it was no surprise that Tiffany G’s statements quickly demoted her in the eyes of users from one of the strongest candidates for board membership to a threat to the maximalist stance AO3 has on free speech.
Perhaps to the relief of AO3 users, creators, and supporters, Tiffany G was not among the elected board members this year. You can check out the election results here.