What would society look like in the hands of the world instead of the top one-percent? Chances are, a lot like the popular Hugo-winning fanfiction empire Archive of Our Own (AO3).
AO3 is an open-source fanfiction repository run by fans, for fans, for every fandom imaginable. On February 24, it sought to recruit specialists into its growing family, like researchers in strategic planning and nonprofit governance, and speakers of lesser-known languages Marathi and Sinhala. Some may say the present situation is a monumental leap from how the community started in 2009.
AO3 used to be an invite-only virtual shelter for fanfiction writers to escape exploitative contracts and lawsuits that chased them. Years following its conception, AO3 relied on the benevolence of donors to survive. It crawled its way into the world while refusing to incentivize labor nor make money from advertising. Above everything, the young organization was firm in its decision to remain non-commercial.
Important tasks like proofreading the site and building the code that allows readers to conveniently download epubs stayed mostly unpaid, thankless work — and that did not even cover the cost of running a site with 3 billion users. From the legal resources used to defend fanworks to the archive's hosting and maintenance, someone within the community paid the price. Often, this came from the pockets or time of the volunteers themselves.
Hurdles in the last decade make its sizable presence today all the more astounding. AO3 is the miracle that lives on through the continued recruitment of its 700 volunteers and 4.3 million works by ghostwriters. Presently, the archive’s highly curated lineup of over 25 thousand fandoms harbors the future that streaming platforms should strive for — a place that can feel like home to almost anyone.
As long as exploitation of creative labor persists, modern creatives will be tempted to gauge the value of an artistic work according to how handsomely they are compensated. But AO3 shows that even as money is essential for survival, it can be a poor metric for measuring value. There are less popular narratives and tropes that get millions of volunteers on board, against rationality and, at times, to their financial detriment. They matter enough to attract full-time workers and parents who put in long hours to relay their version of an existing story to a younger audience.
Besides this, the fan-first platform gives dedicated volunteers a reason to continue plugging in. Constant updates to the site accommodate and legitimize fanworks. Through its free-tagging system, writers stay connected to niche fandoms and a staunch readership. They are empowered to do what they love without feeling the pressure to monetize their hobbies nor the need to adhere to a corporate agenda.
AO3 rejects the long-standing culture of Hollywood stories and media platforms that prioritize money and clout. Only lately have we taken real strides to diversify stories and somehow we ourselves are looping through the same cycle of chasing superficial things. Streaming sites that supposedly champion diversity still depend on audience watch time to determine which stories will see another season.
When data trends alone drive our decision-making, it is harder to find taboo experiences like PTSD, body dysphoria and happy gay romances. What if we let fanfiction fill in the gaps to our collective storytelling? The world does not suddenly become radicalized when we prioritize female and genderqueer voices as some may think.
Before "Day in the Life" Youtube videos became popular, AO3 was a treasure trove for stories, optimized by a sophisticated search engine that helps readers find the right one in a matter of seconds. Character sketches and story prompts on the site were common and familiar names freely sauntered through the world. The luxury of its infinite collection could really mean anything from navigating a supportive platonic relationship to winding down after a long day. Readers have the privilege to learn alongside favorite characters about simple joys and practices that mainstream media, for the most part, is unable to dwell on with its limited screen time.
At the same time, these raw experiences, explicated and iterated over thousands of chapters and original takes by different writers, draw us closer to characters we have previously met but once failed to relate to. They remind us that fanfiction is not a mere extension of the canon world. In many respects, it depicts life and leisure more truthfully, accessibly and reliably than any other media or genre.
AO3 does not need to bag titles and accolades to know its worth. Sure, not all fanfiction stories are well-written, but as with award-winning novels and films, that should be a call to fund these stories and invest in them. After all, the essential element that many best-selling authors and filmmakers aspire for is already baked into these narratives — transformative impact.
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