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Sunday, April 14, 2024

What Web3 Can Learn From Archive of Our Own

Kenzie Carpenter first decided to choose a Fannish Next-of-Kin when an online friend, whom she knew as XT, died suddenly. “I had met her in a small, tight-knit Discord server for our shared fandom,” she says. “Her death was a shock to all of us.” 

FNOK arrangements allow users of the popular fan-fiction website Archive of Our Own to designate another fan to take control of their works—things like fan fiction, fan art, essays, and videos—after they die. Carpenter had heard of the policy before, but it was XT’s death—and the suggestion from a fellow server member that they all consider naming a FNOK—that spurred her into action.

AO3 remains an outlier in Carpenter’s digital life: She has no such arrangements on other platforms, partly because none of them have a feature that lets you easily leave your posts in the hands of a like-minded friend. “If more sites had the functionality AO3 has and a similarly simple process, I would probably set something up just to make it easier on my spouse,” she says, clarifying that he does have access to her computer and she trusts him with her online presence. 

It’s now common practice to leave a “social media will” with login information and postmortem wishes, but without one, immediate family members or people legally designated to act on behalf of an estate are often the only ones who can control a deceased user’s online accounts. Generally, that just means taking a profile down, since most platforms will not grant access to anyone but the user. Some platforms, notably Facebook and Instagram, allow non-family members to “memorialize” a profile; Facebook now also permits users to designate a “legacy contact” who can do things like change their profile photo or put up a remembrance post after they’ve died. 

The things you’ve bought or earned online can’t be passed on after death—on a gaming platform like Steam, for example, you are licensing the right to use the software, and that right is non-transferable. Most platforms have little to say about the content created by the deceased—perhaps because most platforms are in the business of signing up and retaining users, not preserving the things those users have created. In most sites’ terms of service, an individual holds the copyright to their content while licensing the platform to use it; when a person dies, that copyright passes to their heirs, just like with any other type of media. Regardless of ownership, that content usually remains untouched, if it stays online at all; one notable exception is Twitch, where the people running a streamer’s account can keep posting for them after they die. TikTok, arguably the biggest well of content creation on the web in 2023, has no publicly-listed postmortem policies at all.

Fans spend time on all of these platforms, but for a lot of them, immediate family members would be less-than-ideal stewards of the works they’ve created. Fandom can be a space to explore things you might not share with people in your non-fandom life—sexual and gender identities, for example, or maybe just weird rabbit holes that only make sense to fellow fans. 

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Without context, fanworks might not seem like something worth preserving—a problem that long predates the web. Many fanzines and other collections have been lost forever; as the Fannish Estate Planning article on the communal wiki Fanlore puts it, family members of deceased fans often “have no idea what they are looking at, and sadly, much fannish material ends up in the trash and other inglorious destinations.”

When AO3 was being built a decade and a half ago, many of the site’s creators had already lost fandom friends—and as a result, they’d also lost their friends’ fanworks. “FNOKs were brought up very early on, as they were starting to discuss what sorts of things they wanted in the terms of service,” says Heather Smith, AO3’s policy and abuse committee cochair and primary FNOK facilitator. “People also had the question of how their own works would be handled after they were gone, so the OTW [the Organization for Transformative Works, AO3’s parent organization] wanted some sort of arrangement that would benefit both creators and fans.”

Though FNOK set-up is straightforward, only a small fraction of the site’s millions of users have put one in place. “We hope that an FNOK arrangement is something users take seriously, that both people in an arrangement trust each other a lot and have talked about the possible future of becoming incapacitated together,” Smith says. But, she adds, “I think the majority of our users will never decide to set one up.” 

Smith herself created one when she joined the FNOK team in 2020—a year that saw a significant increase in requests. “Covid-19 seemed to have put that possibility at the forefront of everyone’s minds,” she says. “For me, it helped make the conversation easier to bring up. Everyone had thought about it at least once that year, and it was a small relief to know my existence on the Archive would be handled by someone I trusted.”

FNOK arrangements are one of several ways AO3 users’ creations can be preserved independently of the user. Nearly half a million of the site’s 10-million-plus works have been “orphaned,” remaining online but severed from the account that posted them. Orphaning is an act of permanence on a web full of broken links and abandoned profiles, deliberately putting the work in the hands of the Archive itself. Both features create a sense of the platform as a communally constructed space—one that’s built to outlast any individual.

This stands in contrast to the increasingly precarious feel of a lot of our digital platforms. From the slow, occasionally chaotic decline of Twitter to the ever-expanding detritus left behind from earlier eras of the web, the connections we make online and the places where we put our creations can feel ephemeral, subject to the whims of corporations or ultrarich individuals. 

Even with her affairs in order on the AO3, Carpenter feels this acutely in the rest of her digital life. “I’m constantly terrified that Automattic will suddenly decide Tumblr’s not worth it and shut it down overnight, and my past 11 years on the site will be erased in the flip of a switch,” she says. “That’d be like losing my journals and photo albums, letters from friends, scrapbooks, keepsakes, and things like that to a house fire.”

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As we build the next era of the web, proponents of decentralized, communally created and owned spaces would be well served to take a page out of the AO3’s book. The people pitching our digital future in the metaverse can feel like they’re broadcasting a cash grab—and the resolutely noncommercial AO3, where works are written, shared, and passed to Fannish-Next-of Kin wholly for free, might feel like an unlikely comparison.

But there are parallels between what AO3 does and the ideas of people like Ethereum cofounder Vitalik Buterin, who proposes using distributed ledgers not just for financial transactions, but to build webs of trusted connections and experiences to serve as a sort of digital identity. On AO3, small connections like the FNOK are expressions of trust between peers, and they serve to strengthen the whole: a signal that the death of a person you only know online won’t just mean an inactive account, and a promise that the space you are building together will outlast you both. 

I asked Carpenter, who is in her mid-twenties, if she felt her FNOK arrangement was incongruous with a web generally defined by impermanence. “People have been writing ‘I was here’ graffiti in random places for thousands of years,” she told me. “There is something permanent about designating a FNOK, I agree. But there’s something even more permanent about losing all evidence that you were online at all.”

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