A frontend of our own

A frontend of our own

The true story of what happened when a group of fanfiction writers built a Hugo award–winning—and resolutely, delightfully amateur—web publishing platform.
Part of
Issue 13 May 2020


In 2007, a popular fanfiction writer named astolat wrote a post on her LiveJournal detailing the features and functionality she’d include if she were designing the ideal website for publishing and reading fanfic. At the end of the post, she wrote:

But I know we have project managers in our community—and coders and designers—can’t we do this? Seriously—we can come up with a site that would be miles better and more attractive to fanfic writers/readers than anything else out there, guys, because we actually USE the stuff.

Astolat was proposing a new platform at a turbulent time for creators and consumers of transformative works—a broad umbrella that, in addition to fanfiction, encompasses art, fanvids, and other ways fans take the (often copyrighted) stories and characters they love and create new works around them. Fanfiction, which had historically been written and shared for free among communities overwhelmingly made up of women and people assigned female at birth, fell into a legal gray area: While intellectual property experts argued its noncommercial nature meant the work was protected under copyright law’s fair use exemption, both entertainment corporations and tech companies remained skittish—and sometimes, actively combative—about the practice.

Fandom’s early years on the web were defined by platform migration due to legal pressures, restrictions, and purges—from Yahoo Groups bowing to entertainment corporations’ threats and removing fan content en masse, often without warning, to fanfiction.net, the web’s largest fanfic archive at the time, setting increasingly stringent limits on what could be posted. Shortly after astolat’s post, LiveJournal began the content crackdown that would come to be known as “Strikethrough,” which included labeling queer blogs with no explicit sexual material as bannable “adult” content, as well as removing communities for survivors of rape, incest, and abuse.

All art is at least partly defined by its means of production and distribution. Professional writing is usually asked to satisfy many criteria, from length to format to marketability. Fanfic writing is also the product of length and format choices, but its writers only really have to answer two questions at heart: What do I want to write? How can I share what I’ve written? Humans have been transforming texts for as long as they’ve told each other stories, but modern media fandom—and the current practice of creating and consuming fanfiction—dates back to the 1960s, when fans of a few television shows, Star Trek chief among them, began to write their own stories about those properties and print them in paper zines, which they would collate and mail to each other or sell at conventions. When fans came online, they began to build and maintain fanfiction archives. But to get a story online, a writer would often have to email the file to the webmaster, who would be responsible for posting the work—and, if the writer requested it, taking it down, too.

As the commercial and social web took shape, fans made the tools at their disposal work for them as best they could. But functional and design limitations constrained the works they could create and how they could be consumed, from word count limits that dictated chapter length and story structure to web design choices that hampered everything from discoverability to the way readers and writers talked to each other. Fans were creating art and building communities despite the platforms they gathered on, not because of them.

So in 2007, after a great deal of discussion around posts like astolat’s, a group of fans formed the Organization for Transformative Works, or OTW, whose membership included legal scholars, archivists, and web developers. The OTW initiated a number of projects, including an open-source academic journal (Transformative Works and Cultures), a communally maintained wiki to document fandom history (Fanlore), and a legal action group that would continue to build the case that fanworks were protected under fair use (the OTW Legal Committee).

But the heart of the organization was a fanfiction website: the Archive of Our Own, or AO3. The name was a nod to Virginia Woolf, who once wrote, “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction.” It would be built by and for fanfiction writers as a place to host and read stories—anonymously or, as has always been popular in fandom, using pseudonyms—with no ads and no data collection.

AO3 went into open beta in late 2009. By the end of that year, it hosted more than 33,000 stories uploaded by a few thousand users. It took four and a half years to reach the first million works, but the pace has increased rapidly since then, with close to a million new works uploaded every year—content that ranges from 100-word drabbles to multi-installment series, as well as fanart, fanvids, and nonfiction criticism and commentary that fans call “meta.” (Both fanart and fanvids, in which fans edit together footage from their favorite works, often set to music, are hosted elsewhere.)

In 2019, the Archive of Our Own received a Hugo Award, one of the science fiction and fantasy community’s greatest honors, for Best Related Work. The award was a clear acknowledgment of how far the site had come in the decade since its launch.

AO3 currently gets around 230 million page views per week, and within the site, users have created bookmarks for their favorite works more than 90 million times. It’s maintained by a team of about 600 volunteers, a large portion of whom are dedicated to folksonomic “tag wrangling,” in which user-generated tags are lightly standardized based on communal norms. The OTW keeps the servers running with semiannual donation drives that bring in relatively modest sums; in 2018, they were working with a budget of about $350,000.

Above all, AO3 is an explicitly noncommercial and independent space on a web that’s growing more homogenized by the day, the spaces where people meet and share creative work steadily winnowing to a few platforms owned by a handful of large corporations. It remains resolutely, gloriously amateur, even as art online trends toward professionalization and commoditization, and artists are asked to trade away their privacy for a place to host, share, and sell their work.

Francesca Coppa, another of AO3’s founders, draws parallels between the noncommercial art hosted on the Archive and the Archive itself: Both exist for reasons of love, not money, and are in a constant state of revision. “It’s an art site in that way,” she says. “This is what a website would look like if you didn’t have to care about most of the things that you usually have to care about.”

The site’s first frontend developer, Lim, says, “We have always rejected those attention design patterns, sticky features. If you’re not selling [users] anything, you don’t need to capture their attention. There are no hooks, and there are no rewards for staying there—except for the fact that you want to be there.”

None of this is accidental: These foundational ideas run deep in the Archive’s codebase and endure more than a decade later. Built by its users, the site makes a strong case for what a noncommercial digital archive should be, and how to create a space that can be used and contributed to by as many people as possible.

In 2007, Naomi Novik, an award-winning speculative fiction writer, and the rest of AO3’s founders were looking for volunteers to help build the site, particularly people who cared about accessibility. While Lim, who now works as a web developer, didn’t have any professional web development experience at the time, she was personally interested in accessibility and volunteered to do some research on the subject. She proceeded to read the W3C’s accessibility standards in their entirety.

“Apparently I’m the only person who’s ever done that,” she jokes. In the process, she helped create a website that worked not for a hypothetical pool of users, but for her own community—fans eager to share their opinions—and their diverse needs. “I came in to work on accessibility,” Lim tells me, adding, with a laugh, “And I wound up coding the whole frontend.”

The Archive was born out of the desires of fanfiction readers and writers who’d been trying to mold suboptimal commercial web products to their purposes for years—the people designing the site included. “There was no oppositional sense between the designers and the users,” Lim says. “When you design anything, you think of user stories; you have these personas of different kinds of people. Which is useful, because it’s trying to bring the users into the design room. But on AO3, the users [really] were in the room—everybody actually used the product.”

When it came to accessibility, that eager pool of users was invaluable. “Instead of having an abstracted persona of somebody who would access the archive, we were like, ‘Well, we want Barbara [to be able to use it]’—not because of some kind of patrician sense that Barbara ought to be included, but because we wanted Barbara’s stories,” Lim explains. The hypothetical Barbara, for instance, might read more easily with larger type and higher contrast, or use a screen reader. (The site is designed to be easily visually customizable, and users create and share skins to accommodate both accessibility and aesthetic preferences.) In a community where many active users are disabled and/or neuroatypical, accessible digital spaces are integral to maintaining robust communities. “It was much more about trying to [accommodate] as many people who were already in our community [as possible].”

The fanfiction world has always been a place where expert-level writers and artists share work alongside novices and intermediate practitioners, united by a common interest in certain story worlds, characters, or relationships. The people who built AO3, Lim included, took a similar philosophical approach when it came to constructing the site, which they know would be maintained by enthusiastic, but not necessarily experienced, volunteers.

“The point was to make [the frontend codebase] open to people who were going to learn, who would take over from me,” Lim says. She designed a combo class system for the site’s CSS with AO3’s future volunteers in mind. “They would likely be writers, because that was the user base, so they would think about things in this very particular kind of narrative-constructed way,” she says. “I wrote a combo class system where each class was like a noun—nouns and verbs—and you put them together to make a kind of sentence, the description of the element on the frontend.” These sentence-like descriptions were deliberately simple so they’d be easy to translate—in the English-language corner of the fanfiction world, there are often many non-native speakers.

While Lim stands by the combo class system in theory, she admits that her nonstandard choices meant that people with experience in web development couldn’t easily plug their skill sets into the Archive: They’d have to learn Lim’s system from scratch, just like the novices. “Theoretically, it’s very pleasing, but pragmatically, it’s a bit too difficult for people to understand,” she says. Lim and others also made other choices that privileged approachability over technical ease: They would never use Sass or any kind of compiler, for instance, so that a novice would always be able to easily decipher the code. “We always made sure that there was no obfuscation at all.”

Lim compares frontend design to telling your users a story—an apt metaphor for building a website that exists to help people share stories with each other. What made the experience of designing and maintaining AO3 unique was the total overlap between people building and maintaining it and its users, and the rapid feedback loops between them. To this day, fans give the developer team real-time feedback based on their constant, voluntary, and enthusiastic use of the site. And the importance of communication was a particularly valuable lesson: “That’s something I use in my practice now,” Lim says. “It gives me an edge, thinking in that very real way. If you were actually on the phone with somebody, talking to a real person, what would you say in order to get across what it is they’re looking for? How are you going to tell them the story of what this website is?”

Sarken took over as AO3’s lead frontend developer in 2011, after spending six months as a coding volunteer. Her previous development experience was directly tied to her years in fandom. “Fandom is why I learned to code,” she says. “In the late ’90s, when a popular website in my fandom refused to host fic featuring certain topics, I started building one that would welcome all fic. Sounds kind of familiar, now that I think about it.”

When Sarken stepped into the frontend role at AO3, the site had just undergone a redesign that was unpopular with its fast-growing user base, and in her few months volunteering, she’d had little opportunity to contribute to or even familiarize herself with the new code. Being offered the role “was flattering and exciting, but it was also nerve-racking,” she says. “I was a little hesitant, but I ultimately accepted because I loved the Archive and wanted to help improve it.”

In the near-decade since, she and her fellow volunteers have watched the Archive grow dramatically. Of the current site’s current 230 million page views per week, she says, “traffic increases that used to bring us to our knees would now be completely unnoticeable.” For example, a 2012 post addressing site slowness pointed to one Sunday where the site saw 575,000 page views. For contrast, on a Sunday in early 2020, the site saw 43 million page views—and no slowness at all.

Beginning in 2014, the OTW used a portion of its semi-annual donation funds to bring in contractors—both individuals and companies—and they’ve continued to do so every year since. The decision wasn’t a difficult one, though the logistics took some time: “There were some projects we all knew had to be tackled, but which required too much of a time commitment to be suitable for volunteers,” Sarken says, adding, “It took around 500 hours of coding work to update our Ruby codebase from Rails 3.2 to 5.1 in 2017. That’s not something you can ask of volunteers without burning them out and leaving other work unaddressed.”

Contractors mostly helped on the backend: aside from the Rails updates, they updated the search engine, bringing older parts of the codebase in line with the latest version of Elasticsearch, and the login system. They also rewrote the “gift exchange matching code” for fanfiction-writing challenges which anonymously match up participants based on their stated preferences. “Updates like that can be very time-consuming, but they’re also not noticeable to users, so they don’t make appealing projects for volunteers,” Sarken says, and being able to bring in the help of contractors in an all-volunteer organization “was honestly life-changing.”

That AO3 is wholly run by volunteers is one of its greatest strengths—and the source of many of its technical limitations. The number of volunteers on Sarken’s committee, “Accessibility, Design & Technology,” only some of whom write code, hasn’t changed much since 2011, despite the website’s growth. But the Archive’s continued stability and vaunted position within the broader fanfiction space as the largest noncommercial, fan-run platform helps sustain trust between the people maintaining the site and its users, especially during occasional slowdowns or planned outages.

“We’ve always posted release notes [on the site], but now we give advance notice of big changes whenever possible,” Sarken says. “We do our best to make sure users know what’s coming, and when and why it’s going to change. It seems like such a simple thing, just acknowledging that a sudden change to a site someone uses every day is jarring and then doing your best to mitigate that, but it’s surprisingly uncommon. Being respectful of your users’ feelings earns you a lot of goodwill when something goes wrong.”

You can see the fruits of this approach in real time by looking at the replies to the Twitter account @AO3_Status: Rather than an internet-standard sea of anger every time the site performs poorly, users flood each status update with hundreds of messages of gratitude for the site and the people who maintain it.

As the Archive enters its second decade, its staff weighs a number of factors when they consider changes, from volunteer bandwidth to potential ramifications for OTW committees (like policy and abuse or legal) to user expectations. They generally opt for the path of least disruption—which can mean steering away from smaller changes just as often as it means avoiding big overhauls. Because the volunteers still tend to be regular site users, they know just how much the smallest change can disrupt someone’s experience of and ability to use the site. They often ask themselves, “Is this change significant enough to warrant that [disruption], or is an imperfect alternative the better option?” Sarken says.

“Rarely are computing systems developed entirely by members of the communities they serve, particularly when that community is underrepresented in computing,” write computer and information scientists Casey Fiesler, Shannon Morrison, and Amy S. Bruckman in their 2016 paper, “An Archive of Their Own: A Case Study of Feminist HCI and Values in Design.” In it, they build on Shaowen Bardzell’s 2010 article “Feminist HCI: Taking Stock and Outlining an Agenda for Design,” focusing on AO3’s origin story and its very intentional foundations.

“Its code is open source, and the archive has been designed, coded, and maintained nearly entirely by the community it serves—a community made up mostly of women,” they write. “Because the controversy that sparked its existence was surrounding a disconnect with the community’s value system, baking these values into the design of the site was a priority. As a result, the design of AO3 is a unique example of building complex values and social norms into technology design.”

Considering the paper four years later, Fiesler says, “That was kind of always a big part of the story for me—making decisions about what was important to the community and how that could be supported in design.” Fiesler, an assistant professor in the Department of Information Science at the University of Colorado Boulder, also has a law degree and serves on the OTW’s legal committee. She looks at transformative works as both a technologist and as a longtime fan.

“The thing that still sticks out to me as particularly impressive about the design process for AO3 was how you could actually look at Naomi’s LiveJournal posts as requirements gathering,” she says of the conception of the Archive, the posts written and built upon by community members in the comments.

This sort of enthusiastic crowdsourcing by fans formed the basis for a now-famous 2013 talk, “Fan Is a Tool-Using Animal,” by Pinboard founder Maciej Cegłowski. In it, he details his “road-to-Damascus moment” regarding the fanfiction communities he’d previously mocked. After the social bookmarking site Delicious was acquired by the founders of YouTube in 2010, developers made a few seemingly small changes that utterly destroyed the way many fanfic readers were using it. Cegłowski attempted to lure those users to Pinboard for their bookmarking needs, hawking it as an alternative. But first, fans had a few suggestions.

Cegłowski created a Google doc and shared it on social media, then watched in wonder as dozens of anonymous fans worked together to map out features and improvements, such as the ability to choose between multiple accounts in the bookmarklet, or to subscribe to tags as well as user/tag and tag/tag combinations. “Having worked at large tech companies, where getting a spec written requires shedding tears of blood in a room full of people whose only goal seems to be to thwart you, and waiting weeks for them to finish, I could not believe what I was seeing,” he wrote. There were no tears of blood to speak of as fans collaboratively structured the doc and offered suggestions. And they were having fun in the process, even writing fic about an anthropomorphized Pinboard.

The Pinboard example encapsulates the ethos that built and continues to power AO3—though unlike Cegłowski, a keen outsider who listened directly to the community’s needs, the technologists who built and maintain the Archive are fanfiction readers, writers, recommenders, and community members themselves.

There are limits to how much we can compare the practices of fanfiction communities to the work of technologists as a whole: Most websites aren’t fueled solely by extreme enthusiasm and occasional donations, and many of the lessons of AO3 are admittedly hard to translate to much of the commercial web, with its twin priorities of growth and monetization. But the Archive of Our Own remains an important space on the web in and of itself: an archive built and used mostly by women, a space of free and open creativity unencumbered by commercial pressures, and place for fans to organize and share an extraordinary amount of information, fueled by passion alone.

The novelist Lev Grossman once wrote that fanfiction “is what literature might look like if it were reinvented from scratch after a nuclear apocalypse by a band of brilliant pop-culture junkies trapped in a sealed bunker.” The Archive of Our Own, then, is the website they’d build to host it.

About the author

Elizabeth Minkel has written about fan culture for The GuardianThe New Yorker, the New Statesman, and more. She cohosts the podcast Fansplaining and cocurates the fandom newsletter The Rec Center.


Artwork by

Lena Vargas


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