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Saturday, April 13, 2024

An AO3 Algorithm Would be Horrible, Actually

Long gone are the days when fan fiction was treated as a guilty pleasure, exclusively consumed on a glowing iPad screen under the covers at night and never to be discussed outside of Tumblr. We’re living in an age where Supernatural star Misha Collins boasts about Dean/Castiel fanfic stats on Twitter, a Harry Styles fanfic on Wattpad has been adapted into a major movie franchise, and even Academy Award–winning filmmaker Chloé Zhao openly admits to writing fan fiction. The hobby has become a cultural phenomenon, referenced casually in shows like EuphoriaOnly Murders in the Building13 Reasons Why, and Bob’s Burgers. And who could forget Archive of Our Own (more widely known as AO3) snagging that Hugo Award in 2019?

Born in 2009, AO3 is one of the biggest fan fiction sites today. It’s an open source, multi-fandom archive for transformative fanworks that, as of January 2023, is home to approximately 10.5 million works across over 55,000 fandoms, ranging from big names like Stranger Things and Marvel to the most niche corners of the internet you could imagine. AO3 is pretty much a household name now, at least for any Gen Z or millennial with some degree of online presence. And as fan fiction has become more mainstream, there’s also seemingly been a push by some users for AO3 to keep up technologically. More specifically, for the archive to function … well, more like TikTok. Picture a “for you” page greeting you as you log in to the archive. It automatically recommends your next fanfic to read, like an oh-so-helpful friend plucking a book off the shelf for you that they just know you’ll love.

Let’s be clear though: This idea isn’t going to see the light of day. “An algorithm is never going to happen,” Claudia Rebaza, a volunteer for AO3’s parent group, the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), tells me outright. But the debate about whether AO3 should have an algorithm reveals what’s special about fan fiction and the importance of maintaining a space where creative works can just exist.

I get it. As someone born in 1997, it’s hard to remember a time before algorithms, rankings, and personalized recommendations. It feels like every place on the internet is trying to become more like TikTok, from Instagram with its Reels (until Kylie Jenner complained) to Twitter’s “for you” feed. For better or worse, the world today feels deeply online. When nearly every aspect of our lives feels optimized, it makes sense that some want fan fiction to keep up with the times too. 

But here’s the thing: AO3 isn’t social media. It’s simply a space that hosts an enormous collection of works. It’s basically a library on your phone. Being a nonprofit run entirely by volunteers distinguishes AO3 from other fan fiction sites like Wattpad, which is an entertainment company. “AO3 is designed to be an archive, not a social media site, and we’re a nonprofit that will also never run ads,” explains Rebaza. “So we’re not trying to make people spend more time on the site or make anything go viral.” 

Another aspect that sets the archive apart is its lax content policy. While the site still draws the line at some content—explicit material of real minors, flat-out plagiarism—nearly all fanworks are allowed. The only major requirement is that users must tag works containing rape/non-con, graphic violence, major character death, or underage content (alternatively, authors can simply tag “Creator Chose Not to Archive Warnings”). But as long as it’s properly tagged, it’s probably permitted “no matter how awful, repugnant, or badly spelled we may personally find that Content to be,” per the site’s terms of services.

It’s a policy that has been both praised and criticized. But one of the reasons for AO3’s hands-off philosophy is that fan fiction has historically faced a great deal of opposition and censorship. For instance, Fanfiction.net (FF.net), one of the first major fanfic sites on the web, banned all works based on anything by Interview with the Vampire author Anne Rice after she reportedly threatened legal action. (The law as it pertains to fan fiction is murky, but OTW believes nonprofit, transformative works fall under “fair use.”) In 2002, FF.net began implementing a strict “no NC-17 content” policy. Then in 2012, the site famously deleted a large number of stories, presumably ones deemed too mature. The move was widely coined the FF.Net purge by fans, and it sparked concerns about potentially disproportionately affecting authors of slash (same-gender pairing fics).

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AO3 is one of the few remaining places on the internet where you alone are responsible for curating the content you consume. You’re armed with only a search bar and the use of tags and filters, sent out into the Forbidden Forest to find whatever your heart desires. And sure, that may feel like a daunting task, especially if you’re used to the likes of TikTok. But part of the beauty of it being algorithmless is that you can hand-pick the works you’re looking for and also easily avoid content you don’t want to see. If AO3 were to implement an algorithm, it’s highly likely you would encounter a lot more content you would have otherwise filtered out, scrolled past, or simply just been blissfully unaware of.

An AO3 algorithm could present a problem not just for readers, but for creators as well. Harassment has long been an issue in fandom, but it feels more intense and intimate in the social media age. In the early 2000s, ship wars and heated discourse mostly lived within the confines of forums, under usernames that nobody would care enough about to track down. Now? Not so much. Hollie, a moderator for the 329,000-member group r/fanfiction on Reddit, tells me how she’s seen things change over the 15 years she’s been involved with fandom. “Fandom has become more clustered into a smaller number of spaces, rather than being able to easily separate into different groups. [So] people with very different interests and takes overlap,” she says. “Don’t get me wrong, there were ‘sporking’ (mocking fics) sites back in the day, as well as bullying and ship wars, but for the most part, people complained in their own groups about how terrible their rival ship was or how gross they found certain kinks or whatever. They didn’t usually go to the creators/shippers’ social media and fics to complain at them.” (Plus, if your fandom self is even slightly intertwined with your public persona, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that you will at some point be harassed, threatened, or even doxxed over fictional characters.)

An algorithm would only further knock down these walls. If someone really dislikes a ship or trope for whatever reason, one might assume they would go out of their way to avoid such content by using tags and filters, or simply interact only with fans who have similar taste. But if the algorithm shows people something they hate, they might feel more inclined to engage with that content and go out of their way to make it known just how much they hate it. 

There’s something quietly beautiful about AO3 not making it easy for us to snap our fingers and have a personalized story recommendation fall into our laps. I’d liken browsing the archive to wandering into a bookstore, picking a novel off the shelf, and being pleasantly surprised by how good it is. Sure, you might head to a genre you know you enjoy or gravitate toward a familiar author or friend’s recommendation. But when it comes down to it, you picked the book. Maybe an algorithm would have found a story you liked just as much, maybe not. 

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Algorithms and modern technology can be convenient for discovering new content and tailoring things to your personal taste, but they can also impose their own limits. Sure, streaming is great—but are we really taking advantage of this infinite amount of content if all we see is Netflix’s top 10 and Recommended for You tab? Or are we perhaps missing out on shows we would have enjoyed, if only we’d known about them before they were canceled after one season due to (supposedly) low viewership? Is the skill-based matchmaking algorithm used in multiplayer online games like Call of Duty actually helping us enjoy gameplay more? Or is it ruining video games altogether?

If you’re on TikTok, you’ve likely experienced seeing a video on your “for you” page that you never would have clicked on yourself. Sometimes it’s merely annoying (no, I’m really not into watching people eat that Pink Sauce); other times, it can be outright distressing. For instance, if you’re into cute cats, the algorithm might think you actually want to see a viral video mocking domestic abuse. Algorithms often lack the ability to distinguish tone, and they generally don’t account for triggers or content warnings. It’s like shelving Stephen King’s It in children’s fiction just because the characters are kids.

Safety and practicality issues aside, an algorithm would ultimately just plain suck the fun out of AO3. I don’t want to see only the biggest, most popular content. I want to live in the corner of my little niche fandom, enjoying whatever weird things I like regardless of how many views, kudos, or comments are involved. In a world dominated by algorithms, stats, and virality, let me have my fan fiction.

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