Fleeting Frustrations # 7: Archive Frenzy and Being (Un) Grateful To Our Fannish Foremothers (Stuck In 2002)

Note: This Fleeting Frustrations installment mentions racism as well as fanworks involving sexual violence and underage characters. It’s also not very nice. Obviously.

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There are things to love about the AO3. I won’t list them here because I don’t need to. Almost every single piece written about the big ole archive – especially in the wake of its 2019 Hugo Award nomination – has been positive. 

It’s been gushing. 

The AO3 is positioned as a site for queer and/or female exploration and empowerment.

It’s so amazing, these articles and adoring fans write, because it allows queer people and women the freedom to understand their identity and play around with sexual and gender roles as they figure themselves out.

We should be grateful to the grand ole archive because it gives us room to be queer, be women, and to explore kinks and identities that we can’t in real life.

Which is a cool story, let’s be real here.

If I wasn’t a queer Black fan who’s used the AO3 and been in fandom for most of my life, I’d even take those claims at face value. After all, a space for female and/or queer fans is pretty cool, right?

But what about the racism on the archive – in the form of fanworks or in how fans of color have talked about the response from archive staff volunteers have given when they talk about their experiences with racism on the platform?

What about the erotic content centering child characters – content not limited to prose fanworks at all?

What about the ways that the fandom space carved out by the archive, while innovative for the technical aspects of forging fandom space so well-organized, mainly just replicates and enables preexisting and problematic patterns in fandom?

At the end of the day, I am tired of being told to be grateful for the Archive of Our Own.

I am tired of constantly seeing valid criticism of what the archive hosts, how ineffective its moderation policies are, or what it represents as an Institution shouted down by people who think that the archive has ZERO problems at all. 

I am tired of being told to “make my own” or having people decide that I’m singlehandedly marching for censorship when I point out the Archive’s problems with racist content and fans, with the sheer volume of content that does revolve around teens and/children in sexual situations, or well —

With a bunch of other things. 

I think the AO3 has been an immensely valuable aspect of modern fandom that’s changed the way that many people do fandom, but I feel as though the way that it works and what it’s done for fandom isn’t entirely positive.

Take for instance the “Offensive Content Policy” in the organization’s Terms of Service. 

Offensive Content Policy

As provided in part I.E.3 of the Terms of Service, the OTW is not liable to you for any Content to which you are exposed on or because of the Service.

Unless it violates some other policy, we will not remove Content for offensiveness, no matter how awful, repugnant, or badly spelled we may personally find that Content to be.

This is not actually a good “Offensive Content Policy”. 

Not just like… as a whole (if something happens and the AO3 is somehow held responsible for the content their platform hosts, this is not going to be enough to stop them grom getting shit) but like… when you think about what that policy means when it comes to content that gets to be hosted on the Archive:

  • Fanworks where Black characters like Dragon Age: Inquisition’s Vivienne, Star Wars’ Finn or the MCU’s Sam Wilson are brutalized, tortured, and violated to “put them in their place”
  • Fanworks where real (actors in shows like Stranger Things or young members of Korean pop groups) and fictional (anime characters like Ciel Phantomhive or half the characters in Voltron Legendary Defenders) children are in sexual situations
  • Fanworks involving well… graphic child sexual abuse played to get the reader/writer off with some of the starring child characters being as young as infants

There are some highly suspicious and frankly gross things that linger on the archive’s shelves and while I get that avoidance is largely how folks in fandom prefer to (not) deal with criticism, it’s… not a great approach to take. 

Not when folks in fandom are also trying their hardest to legitimize fan fiction as something akin to (if not actually) literature despite not wanting fic to be treated like literature is. We’re talking about folks who are flat out against viewing fic and fandom in critical – for various meanings of the word – lights and respond with instant aggression at anything that suggests that fiction, fandom, and reality are in conversation —

Somehow still wishing for lit-lite legitimacy.

Weird, right?

There’s a tweet that I’ve caught floating around my timeline that rekindled my annoyance with how fandom keeps demanding that fans never ever criticize fandom’s big institutions like The Archive of Our Own. 

It’s a tweet from a user I can no longer remember words saying something to the effect of “I better not see anyone complain about the AO3 again”.

Underneath the tweet’s text is a picture of the Archive of Our Own’s latest (at the time) announcement about making the AO3 more accessible (language-wise) to the influx of Chinese members of fandom coming to the platform after their local platforms were subject to censorship and tightening rules. 

While I can’t remember the exact text of the tweet offhand, its tone rings clear in my mind. This was a tweet that used Chinese members of fandom trying to find a fannish space to rebuild in to try and shut down the very idea of criticizing fandom. 

And this is one of my big beefs:

Marginalized people in fandom – their treatment, their happiness, their presence – are used to silence other marginalized people critical of fandom.

Yes, the AO3 is going to try and update the language across its website so that Chinese fans can have similar access to the fandom space it offers as other fans. It’s great! But that does not mean that it suddenly negates the rightful beef that other fans of color have had with the platform for ages. 

Making Chinese users have a better experience in fandom on the AO3 by making it easier for them to read and find content in their language is wonderful –

But what about the racism fans of color already face on the platform?

What’s the archive actually going to do about racist fans and racist fanworks?

What is the AO3 going to do to make fandom actually accessible?

According to the Archive’s own Terms of Service?

Nothing much. 

So how dare this user – who probably isn’t even Chinese or dealing with censorship from their government across their digital fandom spaces – try to use fans rushing to this port in a censorship storm to quell or otherwise silence fans critical of the AO3?

Some of the worst harassment I ever received came directly in response to me questioning the AO3’s notable lack of visible and viable policies around dealing with racism and racist fanworks in particular. 

Flat out cruelty was aimed my way as well as scoffing demands that I and other fans of color critical of the AO3 as an institution “go make [your] own, then”. 

As Dr. Rukmini Pande tweeted, telling fans of color to “Make your own,” when they’re critical of the way an institution or a group handles race, “establishes whiteness as default” (Archive link.). 

I’ve had an AO3 account from 2011 or 2012. 2010 at the earliest.

I think I read my first outrageously racist story on the platform in 2012. The comments are full of people pointing out how super duper racist it is.

I think the story is still up.

A lot of the super racist stories on the AO3, stories that I know people have reported to the AO3, are still up and on the platform.

Wanting the AO3’s board to sit down and think about the services it provides all of fandom and the disservice it’s doing fans of color as a whole shouldn’t be a problem. Because the AO3 is supposed to be for all fans, right? That’s the whole thing: it’s supposed to be “by fans, for fans”.

But which fans? Which fans get to turn the tide of conversation about fandom? 

Which fans are valued for their thoughts on fandom?

It’s 2019, folks. 

We’re over a decade out from Strikethrough 2007 and from Racefail 2009. Which fandom event do you think the majority of our fannish foremothers want us to learn from? Which fandom event gets brought up as a reason to do better or do more?

I think it’s telling that the dead horse that fandom won’t stop beating is the one that conveniently allows them to perpetuate an air of “fandom has to be like this because it’s empowering and any criticism makes you just as bad as the people responsible for strikethrough”. 

And not the one that requires fandom to do or be better. 

Not the one that would get folks in fandom to think a little bit more carefully about what they’re creating and consuming because fandom isn’t formed in a vacuum.

At the end of the day, I bristle at the idea that I need to be silent and grateful to the fannish foremothers who paved the way for fandom with the AO3. 

I hate that the consistent, constant response to bringing up that there are ways to shift the way the AO3 works so that it’s actually welcoming to and safe for marginalized and vulnerable fans is snotty and snide.

I hate that folks can’t see that there’s a middle ground between “nothing dark and sexy is allowed ever and if you like the thing you ARE an abuser” and “if you bring up that some things shouldn’t be defended or celebrated, you’re actually a fascist”.

I hate that folks see nothing wrong in spewing condescension and cruelty in response to marginalized folks trying to find that middle ground.

So many “fandom olds” – many of whom aren’t even that much older than I am now – seem to think that criticizing fandom space is something only uninformed outsiders do. We’re told to be grateful because of how much good the AO3 does for fans and for fandom archiving –

But this makes it clear that the “our” in Archive of Our Own” is exclusionary from the jump and perhaps always has been/will be. This makes it clear that marginalized and vulnerable fans who don’t toe the line and embrace certain staples in fandom aren’t part of the “our”.

Even though they should be.

This is not an actual Fleeting Frustration. Like my big bad beef with the Rey/Kylo fandom constantly shitting on Finn in the previous 1.5 installments of this random fandom series, this is a permanent beef because people are unwilling to consider growing or changing as people. 

This beef is so old that you could call it Angus.

Especially because the “make your own, then” comments are pretty much the only ones we get (outside of the outright abuse, y’all…).

Like I said in my essay on gatekeepers in SFF fandom and publishing last year on Patreon:

“Make your own” is another gate we should stay stuck outside of. It’s a gate of privilege and money and access to the time, money, and ability to create content. 

If you tell marginalized and vulnerable members of fandom who talk critically about fandom spaces and institutions to “make your own [because real/queer/female fans are comfortable and happy with fandom as is]” instead of even pretending to want to figure out how to find a middle ground…

You’re actually part of fandom’s biggest problem: transformative fandom’s refusal to move forward in any meaningful way out of the same miasma of nostalgia that wafts across other forms of fandom while clinging to the idea that fandom is actually progressive beyond some seriously surface level shit.

And you’re a dick.

(In case you weren’t clear about that…)


8 thoughts on “Fleeting Frustrations # 7: Archive Frenzy and Being (Un) Grateful To Our Fannish Foremothers (Stuck In 2002)

  1. Thank you for sharing this very insightful and thought-provoking piece. It’s an issue I honestly wasn’t really aware of despite being an AO3 user for several years. I’m well aware that it’s easy for me to say ‘it’s a complex issue with no easy answers’ as someone who hasn’t experienced racism in fandom directly: while I agree, in principle, with AO3’s ‘post what you want because it’s not our place to censor you’ approach, that only works if users themselves are willing and able to self-censor, and of course that doesn’t happen, of course there will always be people willing to abuse such a service.

    Censorship on moral grounds is tricky, because whose morals do you use? But surely there’s scope for censorship/moderation on legal grounds? At the very least, being able to warn users if a work has been flagged by another user as containing racist/abusive content or depictions of underage sex. Bookshops and libraries moderate their stock, and TV channels give content warnings, so why not a similar policy for AO3? Then again, as you point out, how would users present that possibility without being dismissed as needlessly critical?


    • To be clear, works on the AO3 that contain underage sexual content ARE flagged. It’s in the required warnings list. If you filter out the “Underage” and “Author Chose Not To Use Archive Warnings” tags, you won’t see any of them.

      Libraries stock plenty of books with offensive content — and don’t have any standard for content warnings, either on the physical books or in their catalog entries. When it comes to helping readers avoid surprise underage content, the AO3 is way ahead.

      I don’t have any answers about racism, but I do know that if AO3 users had the ability to flag *other* people’s works for racist/abusive content, that would *immediately* be weaponized by the kind of people who claim “Black Panther is racist because there weren’t enough white people in it.” There’s no way that ends well.


  2. Thanks for yet another insightful essay. Much as I love AO3, I’d never say it’s perfect!

    Racist fanworks should NOT be immune from critique, and I’d hope any authors unwilling to remove racist material could be removed from the platform.


  3. Very well articulated.

    But question is, do they care? No.

    Will they change it? No.

    Do they be staying fucking trash? Yes.

    Good riddance AO3. It’s gonna take a miracle for me to go back.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think that the people in power care because well… when DO people in power ever care about the people they’ve got power over? But if people can read this and think “hey, maybe the Ao3 doesn’t have to be the way it is and can grow towards a more accessible and welcoming platform,” that’s good. I want people realizing that their archival space is problematic and that the arguments for it not getting better aren’t really great ones.

      Will it get better any time soon? Probably not. Because we live in a racist ass world.

      But deadass, if I didn’t have hope I wouldn’t do any of this.


  4. “I hate that folks can’t see that there’s a middle ground between “nothing dark and sexy is allowed ever and if you like the thing you ARE an abuser” and “if you bring up that some things shouldn’t be defended or celebrated, you’re actually a fascist”.”

    Yes! So much this.

    I hate that we’re at a point where if you criticize child porn in fandom, there’s a large number of people ready to claim you support censorship. Sooner or later, these people are going to defend some committing acts of sexual abuse, if they haven’t already.

    I like the features of AO3 (and the smut), but with how they’ve contributed to problems of fandom racism/sexualization of children, I don’t read fic on the site nearly as much as I did.


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