Thinking Digital Archives Through Fan Cultures: The Fan Fiction Archive

Why do I want to talk about fan fiction in an academic context, specifically related to digital humanities? What has a fan fiction archive, filled with non-profit texts produced by fans for fans, to do with academically sanctioned projects? Some scholars might even argue that fan fiction is a sub-cultural phenomenon that lacks originality and exists on the fringes of legality. So what is there to be gained in an analysis of fan fiction archives? I argue that fan fiction functions as a way to re-write and re-think canon storylines, characters, and stereotypes. It is one of the most tangible and legible ways to analyze how fans respond to cultural objects, how they create communities, and social networks in which they can disseminate their views and uses of these objects. A fan fiction archive can and should be regarded as a canon of collected counter narratives. In fact, the term canon is used among fan fiction writers and readers to refer to the original storylines and characters, in order to differentiate between their own works or interpretations and those created by paid producers and screenwriters. To diverge from canon means to reinvent and change the original text of any TV program, movie, comic or book. Fan fiction allows fans to immerse themselves in a world of creative co-authorship that is perpetuated by aspects of community and creative agency. These characteristics turn fan fiction into something more than a mere pursuit of trivial pleasure – it becomes a uniquely digital genre with its very own conventions and its own archives.

In order to constitute a “genre”, a corpus of works that contains literary creations which adhere to similar rules, traditions, and norms has to be created and distributed. Fan fiction is non-traditional in the sense that its corpus of works is nowadays archived almost entirely in virtual form. It has existed alongside online preservation from the very beginnings of the World Wide Web. Writing fan fiction originated in fanzine culture and person-to-person exchanges of texts, most famously in the Star Trek fandom. Such fanzines ranged from newsletters like “Trek Talk” to privately circulated zines containing fan fiction such as “Before the Glory”.

When the first wave of transitions to the internet took place, the shape and size of fandom was radically changed and fan fiction was distributed through early mailing lists, group pages, or Usenet. Today, new fan fiction readers and writers alike begin their journeys into fandom and fan fiction through online archives. And because it has become so incredibly easy to both post and read fan fiction online, the need for more sophisticated archival tools and methods has been steadily increasing. I will take a closer look at one of the most popular and prolific fan fiction archives today: Archive Of Our Own or AO3. Only with the conception of such large-scale online archives did the structuring of fan fiction into recognizable categories of metadata begin.

To label this fan fiction site as an archive invokes certain established notions of collections not necessarily existing in an online environment. However, there are quite literally no physical copies of anything on AO3. To frame my analysis, I have decided to focus on this wholly virtual, large, and multi-genre archive and exclude smaller projects and websites that are also used as fan fiction archives but were predominantly created for other purposes (such as Livejournal or tumblr).

Fan fiction as a genre challenges how we think about the literary canon, digital archiving, and how we define original work or dismiss claims of legitimacy. I draw on Janice Radway’s Reading the Romance and argue that acknowledging fan fiction in its historical and contemporary context means to challenge how we understand the literary canon, what constitutes original work, and how mainstream is defined. Radway suggests that it is fruitful to connect particular texts with communities that produced and consumed them, and to investigate how the individuals involved constructed these texts as meaningful semiotic structures (4). In turn, I argue that in order to analyze fan fiction and its surrounding communities, it is important to take a closer look at how it is created, archived, and curated online and made accessible to anyone who is interested in it. AO3’s efforts to organize these often smaller communities and bring them together in a space that was created to suit the needs of fandom has made these communities more legible as comparably large social networks.

Echoing Radway, I am interested in “questions about the degree of freedom audiences demonstrate in their interaction with media messages and their interest in the way such cultural forms are embedded in the social life of their users” (Radway, 8). In this sense, AO3 is a personal digital archive in which fans have the freedom to explore new identities and narratives. In these communities, the idea of a social network extends to and enables literary production and collaboration in ways that seem different or less ubiquitous than in other social networks like Facebook or Snapchat. There, our interactions are often anchored in performing versions of ourselves, or of our constructed online identities, rather than engaging with other perspectives through the creation of fictional characters and worlds. Fan fiction communities are unique in the sense that they are fueled and maintained through and by fan efforts. AO3 is one of the places where these communities can find the space to publish and disseminate their fan works. As an archive it contains literary works that fans create in their leisure time and for free. Therefore, this kind of archive might be even more private or personal than Facebook or Snapchat, as it contains insights into fan fiction writer’s likes, dislikes, thoughts, and kinks. But what makes AO3 so special that it has become a favorite among fans?

In their essay, “Can Digital Humanities Mean Transformative Critique?”, Alexis Lothian and Amanda Phillips suggest that archives are the most legible form of production in the digital humanities, as digital tools have been developed to preserve, gather, and share historical information – whatever this information may be and into whichever category it might fall (6). At first glance, to compare a fan fiction archive with a historical paid-for academic project seems irrelevant, but in fact becomes important upon further inspection. Lothian and Phillips go on to argue that to transform digital humanities as we know them today means to use the emergent methods and practices not only for traditional work, but to accompany a changing of communication, technology, and scholarship in order to look at less-than-traditional archives, materials, and networks that purposefully have no connection to academia as such (5). And this is exactly the reason why investigating AO3 as a fan fiction archive is a productive and hopefully informative endeavor. Indeed, why not consider digital humanities and fandom studies neighbors in spirit as they work with and alongside new technologies, novel theories, and are involved in a struggle for legitimacy each in their own right? “Thinking fan cultures through digital archives and digital archives through fan cultures can help unpack media theory’s generalized assertions about what “we” do in and with the digital” (Lothian, “Archival Anarchies” 544). Not surprisingly, Alexis Lothian, both a digital humanities and fan studies scholar, is one of the founders of the Journal for Transformative Works and Cultures editorial team, the organization responsible for creating and curating AO3.

The story of AO3 begins with the formation of the Organization for Transformative Works and Cultures (OTW), a non-profit, public-facing organization with the goal to represent and serve creative fan culture through processes of archiving (Lothian, “Archival Anarchies” 542). The name was purposefully chosen to accommodate the US copyright law concerning “transformative” uses of copyrighted material and “fair use” (see OTW FAQ). AO3 is one of OTW’s fandom-related projects and went live in October 2008. In September 2009, the OTW bought its first dedicated servers. Per definition, AO3 is a piece of open-source software running on the OTW’s member-owned servers. As an archive, it contains more than 1 million fan works and has about 270.000 registered users today (current site stats are only available up until 2014).

Figure 1. Source: Nati_nio at AO3 (

All of the fan works on AO3 can be commented on, shared, discussed, and gifted. The relationship between authors and readers is entirely reciprocal and interactive collaborations are essential to this digital archive. The interface and structure of AO3 encourages the preservation of fannish culture and community. It is also a historical preservation of fan works that is not overshadowed by institutional control that comes with the monetary and corporate backing, as well as concerns about copyright, of such projects. Fandom as a subculture has always relied on storage of its transformative texts in order to function online and off-line. In this sense, archives remain especially important to the continuation of fandom and its traditions and tropes.

While AO3 is not necessarily curating the content of the website in the way a traditional, scholarly digital archive would, the labor that goes into posting and updating, commenting and maintaining, is distributed between curator and the user. The material of a fan fiction archive is no less safe from erasure than anything else on the internet, but there is something decidedly unique about the inner workings of such a project. The way fan fiction archives gather their information, texts, and other fan works may be less professionalized than in digital archives with institutional support, but the sometimes messy collaborative work is organic and, in a sense, bypasses more hierarchical structures of archival work. As many professional and non-professional archivists are aware of, archival work is a labor of love and for the fan fiction author that means treating ones personal texts with care and perhaps even returning for check-ups from time to time.

However, AO3 still faces the same problems of saving “too much” or archiving “everything” until it becomes difficult to make sense of its content and eventually runs the risk of being useless to writers and readers alike. To avoid any of these consequences, AO3 uses a very particular form of metadata creation and utilization, which I will look at in the following paragraphs.

It is interesting to note that AO3 is popular among fans to gather data and create statistic overviews, like Tumblr user “destinationtoast”, because it is better organized and easier to search than most other platforms. But what exactly does it mean for an archive of such size to be well-organized and accessible? “The shift of fan fiction archives toward the internet gives fans greater control over the content they receive, how they receive it, and how they share content” (Johnson). Fan fiction is an ever-changing and evolving community-based product that involves the writer, feedback from readers, encouraging comments, and a reciprocal relationship between different participants. Only through the internet and archival tools is it possible for fans to communicate so quickly and effortlessly. However, a large volume of works being created and archived leads to certain difficulties. In order to make these large volumes usable or accessible, Shannon Fay Johnson identifies three different models of how archives can be organized in her article “Fan fiction metadata creation and utilization within fan fiction archives: Three primary models”.

“Fan fiction folksonomies (assemblies of user-generated metadata created collaboratively, relating to a specific application or group) are not only relevant from an educational perspective, but they also play a role in long-term preservation of the works themselves.” Johnson suggests that much information about the content has carried over from ‘zine culture into modern electronic archives and metadata usage. Folksonomic practices to metadata serve particular purposes and through examining the usage of metadata in pre-digital fanzines, as the information was necessarily contained in the magazine itself, it will be possible to investigate different approaches to metadata and its manifestations.

During the first transitions to the internet, the usage of metadata was limited due to the lack of available tools and many stories of the previous generation have been lost due to link rot or bit rot, while a lot of early fan fiction websites were taken down or simply abandoned. Therefore, to preserve the contextual resonances of these archives is even more complicated. AO3 attempts to counteract these gaps in the internet archive.

The site has been archiving fan works for about seven years now, and during this time has developed a very successful hybrid form of implementing metadata. The general searchability of the site is determined by categories that become more specific the longer one follows the trail of tags. Those categories range from the most basic identifications, such as medium (book, TV, movie, comic) to fandom (Star Wars, Supernatural, Doctor Who) and all the way to rating (Teen or Mature), pairing (Kirk/Spock), characters, and genre (fluff, romance, pwp – plot what plot?).

Figure 2.
Figure 3.

New smaller communities and their archives are continously added toAO3.”The Prydonian, a Doctor Who Fanfiction archive for fanworks focusing on the relationship between the Doctor and the Master, was created by Versaphile in 2008. A Doctor Who RPF subsite, Human Nature, was added in 2009. Open Doors will be working with Versaphile to import The Prydonian and Human Nature into two separate, searchable collections with their own identities. Eventually the links going to the old site will re-direct to the collections on AO3 so the works can continue to be found with their old URLs. We will begin importing works from The Prydonian and Human Nature to the AO3 collection in January 2016.” (Source AO3 News)

This instance shows how communities dedicated to particular works or fandoms/universes, with their own usage or folksonomies of metadata, are imported to AO3 and assimilated to fit the existing standards of this particular archive.

AO3 uses both predetermined categories and free tagging (as shown in Figure 2), which allows for the creation of personal, additional tags, and therefore combines the best of both worlds. If only free tagging is used on a website (like Livejournal) it quickly becomes impossible to create a sense of unity and readers are tasked with navigating the various ambiguous tags by themselves to find out which tags are relevant and which ones aren’t. On the other end of the spectrum, predetermined categories allow for a high degree of organization (like but may marginalize smaller fandoms. Johnson argues that such a controlled environment that uses regulated vocabulary for all metadata establishes hierarchical structures within the archive. That does not mean, of course, that AO3 is entirely separate from any other fan fiction archive or has managed to rid itself of hierarchies. Many of the architectural elements, such as comment sections, browsing capabilities, and filter options function similarly. Johnson also describes how AO3 makes use of tag wranglers that work in the background to link synonyms and alternative wordings, which allows for better classification and standardization with more control and creative license for authors.

By taking a closer look at AO3, it becomes obvious that this particular fan fiction archive was founded by a group of dedicated fans from different backgrounds: scholars, librarians, and web developers all worked together to create a home for fans, fandom, and fan fiction that is as inclusive, accessible, and as thought-through as possible. Tools for tagging and metadata usage are continuously progressing and evolving toward more searchability and accessability. Reading as a social activity will remain important in future research conducted trough archives and no online archive should be considered irrelevant because of its supposed lack of legitimacy. As Lothian has suggested, archives such as AO3 are the best way to enact change and community, and in foregrounding the archive as a site in which transformative fan works and productions are reserved might help us overcome absences and silences in the construction of archives. After all, “home is where the archive is” (Lothian, “Archival Anarchies” 546).


Johnson, Shannon Fay. “Fan fiction metadata creation and utilization within fan fiction archives: Three primary models.” Journal of Transformative Works and Cultures. 17 (2014). Web.

Klein, Lauren F. “The Image of Absence: Archival Silence, Data Visualization, and James Hemings.” American Literature 85.4 (2013): 661-88. Web.

Lepore, Jill. “The Cobweb: Can the Internet be archived?” The New Yorker. Jan. 2015. Web.

Lothian, Alexis and Amanda Phillips. “Can Digital Humanities Mean Transformative Critique?” e-media studies Journal 3.1 (2013): 1-25. Web.

Lothian, Alexis. “Archival Anarchies: Online Fandom, Subcultural Conservation, and the Transformative Work of Digital Ephemera.”International Journal of Cultural Studies 16.6 (2013): 541-56. Web.

Owens, Trevor. “We’re All Digital Archivists Now: An Interview with Sibyl Schaefer.” The Library of Congress: Digital Preservation. Blog post (2014). Web.

Radway, Janice A. Reading the Romance: Women, Patriarchy, and Popular Literature. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

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