As a long-time fanfiction writer, I sometimes find myself thinking back to the days before Archive of Our Own came into being. People engaged with fanfiction differently then. I remember long, thoughtful comment debates under the most recent chapters of my favourite stories. On some of the more notable Live Journal fanfiction (e.g. The Shoe Box Project), these comment debates would span multiple pages. Friendships were formed, flames were had, the wank was good. Ah, the pre-Russian, Pre-Strikethrough, Pre-Boldthrough days on El Jay.
Back then, people engaged with fanfic authors. They read, they commented, they asked questions. Sometimes they didn’t say much. ‘Nice Story’ or ‘Good Update’ were still comments that came in a lot, but they did come in. Reason being: this was the only way to let the author know you were reading and enjoying the story. So readers, even shy ones or those without a ton to say beyond expressing their enjoyment, would leave a comment and an author’s day would be made. And so on the cycle went. Until the strikethroughs and the boldthroughs, and the slow steady creep of the Russian government’s presence on Live Journal, made it so that many on LJ did not feel safe sharing their stories. This is not to mention the political and legal action against the company by homophobic groups.
Around this time, some of the older Web 1.0 fanfic archives were starting to disappear. This, coupled with continued issues with Fanfiction.net (that I will not go into but are indeed many), brought Archive of Our Own (Ao3) into being. Run by the Organisation of Transformative Works (OTW), Ao3 is a for fans, by fans archive designed to ‘[provide] access to and [preserve] the history of fanworks and fan cultures in its myriad forms’ (Ao3/About). The organisation is built upon the legitimacy of transformative works, of which they consider fanworks a part, and growing and nurturing young fandom creatives. They run a peer-reviewed academic journal on the subject and their work preserving old single-fandom archives has prevented thousands of stories and other pieces of fandlore from disappearing into all but memory.
There is only one problem with OTW/Ao3, and it is built into a little Web 2.0 metric button at the bottom of every story. The Kudos button on Ao3 is a noted departure from Fanfiction.net or Live Journal in terms of reader engagement. It is akin to the like button on Facebook or the heart feature on Twitter or Tumblr, and, like on Facebook, the reader cannot view the Kudos they have left on a fanfic until they attempt to leave Kudos on that same fanfic again. It is essentially a useless metric, as Ao3 does not monetise likes in the way Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr do (i.e. through like-based/cookie-based advertising). However, this one button has fundamentally changed the way that readers engage with, and consume, fanfiction.
Instituted in 2010, the kudos button provides the illusion of giving feedback, and minimizes reader engagement with the text (Fanlore/kudos). Authors cannot disable the feature. The reader feels as though they’ve provided praise, expressing their like of a story which could have taken hours or weeks or months of work, through a single click of button with a heart on it. This practise fosters passive engagement with fanfiction. It lets the reader off the hook: effectively eroding any need to engage with thoughtful critique and analysis of the text read. The same is true of the fandom migration to Tumblr, as moving to an image-based blogging platform rather than a text-based one with easy comment threading options, has deeply cut into fandom debate and discussion. Twitter is equally problematic, as the 140, and now 280-character limit means that discussion can only happen in short bursts that does not allow for nuance or elaboration.
The introduction of the Kudos/Like button at the same time as this move away from a platform designed around conversation/commenting fundamentally changed fandom from a community of equal exchange into one of consumption. Readers now would race through fanfic after fanfic, reading at a frantic pace because all of the fanfics are in one place. That is the magic of the OTW/Ao3: they’ve centralised fanfiction to their website, which is ad-free and easy to use thanks to their simple design and not-for-profit status. Other websites have fanfic archives, such as Wattpad, Fanfiction.net, and even Tumblr itself. However, none of these other archive platforms have the same advertising-free feel to them, as they are all commercial organisations. Ao3 is run by fandom folks, and for that alone, it will continue to be the best archive for fanfiction around in the eyes of most fans.
The only drawback, however, is that Ao3, through their centralisation of fanfic and the implementation of the kudos button, has shifted fandom toward consumption. Probably inadvertently. Probably because they wanted some sort of ‘like’ feature/metric to make Ao3 similar the Web 2.0 sites popping up around its advent. One can argue that the kudos/like feature is good for readers with anxiety issues, or those who are shy, or who don’t speak English well (though this confuses me), or for those who simply don’t have anything to say but want to express enjoyment all the same. However, the clean interface and preferred status of most writers has created in Ao3 a space for readers to consume and consume and consume the creative labour of fan writers without, for the most part, engaging meaningfully with the story. The kudos button equally cheapens this labour, and makes it easy for readers to opt-out of commenting or providing feedback — as evidenced by memes such as this one:
In many ways, the centralised archive and the kudos button devalue the work of the fandom creative. Readers will blow through a dozen one-shorts in a night, or will read 80,000 words of a single story in one sitting. With all the fanfic centralised, the old fandom struggle of tracking down individual stories on obscure archives or friends-locked LJ posts is gone. There is no work involved in finding stories to read anymore. This lack of work, coupled with the convenience of a central archive, makes the good story less something to be savoured, and more something to be consumed. Most people do not read 80,000 word long books in a single sitting of three or four hours. And if they do, they certainly are not reading for depth or understanding. In centralising fan writing, OTW/Ao3 has created an environment where the reader no longer engages with the text in any depth, because there is always another story to satisfy the craving for a good story. Moreover, the presence of the kudos button at the bottom of each of these fanworks encourages the user to like and move on. This is an accidental consequence of a noble effort on OTW’s part, but it is one that I think can be remedied easily.
I propose the elimination of ‘kudos’ as a metric all together. Get rid of the button; get rid of it as a metric. This feature creates the illusion of feedback given and actively devalues fanfic writer’s work. The elimination of the kudos button and a prompt to leave a comment before moving on to the next chapter would do wonders in terms of encouraging readers to engage with the author whose labour they just consumed for free. Additionally, I would encourage Ao3 to speak out about digital labour and the work fandom creatives do free within the actual interface where folks are reading these stories. I would urge them to encourage their archive users to monitor their binging of fanfic, and to speak out against such practices through the features of their website. A Netflix-style pop up of ‘Are you still reading? Why not leave a comment to tell the author how much you like this story’ after multiple chapters would also help encourage this. It’d be annoying, but it’d get the point across.
Fandom creatives put forth thousands of hours of free labour for their fandom peers on a daily basis, but until mechanisms are put into place to acknowledge that this work is done for free and out of love of their thing and start to honour this labour, fandom culture will always be take-first.
Notes: for additional reading, please see this excellent essay on Accessibility, the OTW and Kudos by ArsenicJade. They weigh the pros/cons of kudos, discuss OTW’s lack of an opt-out policy and also comment on the privileging of the reader/consumer over the creative that such a system provides.
Additionally check this post by The Walking Detective on their reasoning for why they will not archive their fanworks on Ao3. And this piece of scholarly work: Archive of Our Own and the Gift Culture of Fanfiction by Olivia Riley.
Also: I went to grad school since my last long essay, but the ko-fi button is always open.