A Brief History of Modern Fanfiction: the Migration of Online Communities

Fanfiction is the ultimate form of reader engagement. Using the characters and events of other, original works, fanfiction is essentially the product of fan communities, which read and respond to it in turn. While fanfiction is by no means a new concept — it has existed, in various forms, at least since the 19th century — the rise of the internet and digital communication expanded its scope. Since the late 1990s, online communities have been indispensable to the creation and circulation of fanfiction. Over the years, the most notable fanfiction websites have been FanFiction.net, LiveJournal, Tumblr, Archive of Our Own, and recently, Wattpad; to be successful, each has had to address a unique niche.

Fanfiction websites can be divided into two main types: “blogging” and “archive” sites. The distinction, although rarely discussed, is implicitly understood and often casually referred to within fan communities. Archive sites catalogue their submissions, and use categories and filters to make them highly discoverable to casual readers, who can then browse without prior involvement in the fandom.¹ These sites tend to exclusively host fanfiction (rather than other fan content or general writing), and stories posted to them are necessarily categorized. By contrast, on blogging sites, writers post fanfiction to their own pages or feeds, and while stories are typically tagged, potential readers must actively seek them out, and know what to search. This means that readers not already involved with a fandom are less likely to find it, but it allows blogging-style sites to be open to a variety of content, including non-fan works or other forms of fan content, such as art, quizzes, and most importantly, discussions. Both types of sites have roles to play; while archive sites make stories discoverable for new readers, blogging sites are essential for building the communities that give fanfiction its life.

Early Internet Communities

Founded in 1998, FanFiction.net (FFN) remains by far the largest archive of fanfiction in existence, claiming over 2.2 million registered users. Among a younger generation of fanfiction readers and writers, however, “no one really uses FanFiction.net.”² In a digital world that changes by the minute, 1998 is ancient; for an audience of readers that averages at most 15 years of age, according to a 2010 study,³ it is prehistoric. It should come as no surprise, then, that despite FFN’s monumental status, it is no longer the definitive fanfiction site.

Despite its age, popularity, and astute URL, FanFiction.net has never stood alone as a writing platform — fanfiction can be published anywhere, and the last decade has seen any number of attempts to create alternatives. Of these, many host only a single fandom; they cater to specific interests, such as Asian culture or Harry Potter or even My Little Pony. Multi-fandom archive sites unable to differentiate themselves have typically stayed small or been short-lived, despite heavy demand for an alternative to FFN. A major grievance among users is FFN’s restrictive content policies, which disallow:

  • explicit (18+) content, including any “detailed descriptions of physical interaction of sexual or violent nature”⁴;
  • submissions based on works by authors who have expressed opposition to fanfiction, including, most notably, Anne Rice and Archie comics;
  • non-stories such as “lists, bloopers, polls, previews, [or] challenges”;
  • stories featuring real people, such as actors, musicians, and celebrities;
  • and “any form of interactive entry, [including] choose your adventure, second person/you-based, [or] Q&As.”⁵

Many of these rules are understandable given the site’s nature (a massive archive) and prominence (the top result of any search for “fanfiction”). Nevertheless, sites such as Quotev, which allows users to “read or write a story, book, quiz, survey, poll,”⁶ including in a “fanfiction” category, or Adult-FanFiction.org (formerly adultfanfiction.net), which specifically hosts 18+ content but disallows lists, polls, blogs, requests, and the like,⁷ are successful precisely because they fill separate niches.

Early-on, and for many years, the most popular supplement to FanFiction.net was LiveJournal (LJ), a blogging platform founded in 1999 that allowed users to create interest-based online communities. Posts to LJ could include fan art and a variety of “non-story” content, and served as a place for fandoms to engage with themselves, especially through discussion, in a way that remains restricted on FFN. It was also relatively common that a FanFiction.net user who wanted to write “explicit” stories would simply include links to her LJ (alongside descriptions of the stories) on her FFN author profile. The two sites had no real integration, but their userbases overlapped significantly.

Ultimately, LiveJournal’s decline as a fanfiction site was driven by its handling of the same questionable content. Aja Romano, writing for the Daily Dot in 2012, pinpoints a May 2007 “PR fiasco” as “the beginning of the end”; the site had “systematically and without warning deleted and banned hundreds of journals for impermissible content.”⁸ The incident had “wrongfully targeted and deleted” a number of fandom journals, particularly those featuring homosexual (“slash”) character pairings, as well as “rape survivor support groups, rape, incest, and pedophilia survivors’ personal journals, character-based RPG journals, [and] a discussion group for the novel Lolita.”⁹ Many of these were later restored, but a similar incident, called “Boldthrough,” happened only three months later.

“timeline of a mass exodus”; source: thedailydot.com

While LiveJournal’s poor handling of the affair alienated and outraged its userbase, FanFiction.net has weathered similar purges of banned content, such as in 2012, when thousands of stories were removed for violations of its guidelines. In part, FFN’s lack of dependence on native communities, as well as its clear limits for acceptable content, prevented backlash on the scale that LJ suffered.¹⁰ Still, the threat of losing content pushed fanfiction communities, and especially writers, to seek new platforms.

The New Generation

After nearly a decade of FanFiction.net and LiveJournal’s dominance in the world of fanfiction, a revolutionary new concept took root online — social media. In July 2006, Twitter published its first tweet; in September of the same year, Facebook was opened to public access. Only months later, in February 2007, Tumblr came online. With the rise of social media, active content sharing among communities and across sites became the norm; integrative features were built-in on newer sites by default.

Rather than the discussion boards typical of older community sites, Tumblr communities organize themselves by tagging and reblogging. This model, further to promoting active engagement as a means of responding to content, also encourages a diversity of content forms, including photos, videos, .gifs, audio clips, links, and of course text posts. Also important is Tumblr’s adult content policy, which states: “We have no problem with that kind of stuff. Go nuts. Show nuts. Whatever.”¹¹ As a blogging-type site for hosting and growing fan communities, Tumblr is an apt, albeit very different, successor to LiveJournal. It is, however, much less suited to the long-form text posts typical of fanfiction; instead, fanfiction shared on Tumblr tends to be linked from other sites.

Archive of Our Own (AO3) was created in 2008 and entered open beta in November 2009. As the name suggests, AO3 is committedly fan-run; it was first proposed on May 2007 in a prominent LiveJournal post, in direct response to the recent creation of FanLib.com, a now-defunct, corporate-driven “multifandom fic archive that [was] owned by people with no roots in fandom and no real understanding of [it].”¹² The post mandated, among other features, that the site be “run by fanfic readers for fanfic readers; with no ads and solely donation-supported; … allowing anything — het, slash, RPF [real person fiction], chan [smut featuring at least one underage character], kink, highly adult [stories].”¹³ AO3’s implementation of all of these ‘features’ directly addressed what the community wanted from an archive, setting it apart from its precursors and competitors.

Further suggestions from the original post, which include “tagging” and a “posting interface that would allow you to post to the archive, to your blog, to your personal LJ, and to up to (say) three LJ communities you specify”¹⁴ demonstrate the desire, even in 2007, for easy sharing across platforms, and especially between blogging and archive sites. LiveJournal’s influence had waned by the time Archive of Our Own was finally created; still, AO3 is intensely integrative. All readers have access to Twitter and Tumblr sharing buttons as well as easy downloads of HTML, PDF, MOBI, or EPUB files on any story.¹⁵ AO3 also facilitates sharing from other sites, using “pseuds” (non-unique pseudonyms, distinct from one’s AO3 username) to “allow people who’ve posted under multiple names over the years to gather their work together under one account while retaining the names that were originally associated with those works.”¹⁶ These features highlight major differences in attitude between AO3 and FanFiction.net; in recent years, FFN has added social media sharing for Google+, Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook (although this shares only a link, whereas AO3’s sharing includes the story description), but completely restricted any means of downloading or saving stories — even highlighting text to copy and paste is disabled. AO3 is much more a product of its time.

Mass Migration

Newer sites for fanfiction, like Archive of Our Own and Tumblr, have made clear gains in popularity over their older counterparts, FanFiction.net and LiveJournal. As of 8 Dec 2015, according to Alexa web traffic metrics, archiveofourown.org was ranked 521st in the United States, and 1646th globally (up by 154 over the past three months); it was not far behind fanfiction.net, which on the same date ranked 472nd in the United States and 1158th globally (down by 30 over the past three months). Traffic data for tumblr.com (23rd in the U. S.) and livejournal.com (542nd in the U. S.) is also telling, though less useful, since these sites do not host fanfiction exclusively.

The most compelling evidence that fan communities are moving sites comes not from traffic data, but actual content — on archive sites, this is measurable in terms of the number of stories posted. The chart below compares numbers of stories published in the top fandoms on FFN and AO3; fandoms are ordered loosely by initial year of publication.¹⁷

It should be noted that FFN’s colossal numbers for Harry Potter (729,000), Naruto (394,000), and Twilight (218,000) greatly exceed what is useful for the purposes of comparison. The differences between the two sites, however, are notable. Overall, vastly more stories are hosted on FFN, but in very current fandoms, such as The Avengers (2012–ongoing), BBC’s Sherlock (2010–ongoing), and Supernatural (2005–ongoing), AO3 actually hosts more stories. Similarly, older fandoms such as Naruto (1999–2014) and Twilight (2005–2008) are the second- and third-most popular on FFN, but have almost no presence on AO3.¹⁸ Newer, and presumably younger, fan communities — likely from Tumblr — clearly prefer AO3 to FFN, and the positive feedback effect will drive future growth on the newer site, further increasing its popularity.

Another major difference between FFN and AO3 — perhaps the most important one — is the content allowed. AO3, aside from permitting the explicit content that FFN bans, also welcomes any fandom — including not only Anne Rice or Archie comics, but also real person fiction (RPF). In fact, “Real Person Fiction” is the third-largest category (after Marvel comics and Supernatural) on AO3, with over 100,490 stories published; others include “Actor RPF” (33,510 stories), “Video Blogging RPF” (28,150 stories), and bands such as One Direction (43,480 stories). Historically, communities writing real person fiction and communities writing fanfiction about works of fiction have rarely overlapped, but are of nearly equal importance; AO3’s lack of restrictions makes it attractive for writers of any fanfiction.

Wattpad, despite its claim of being “the best fanfiction site for Harry Potter, Supernatural, Percy Jackson, and more,”¹⁹ seems to instead host mainly One Direction fanfiction and other real person fiction. A privately-owned site, Wattpad does not display its number of stories published. However, its annual writing contest, the Wattys, features a “People’s Choice” award that may be representative: in 2015, four of the ten winning stories were One Direction fanfiction, while the other six were original works. In the “Fanfiction” category of the 2015 Wattys, meanwhile, each of the ten stories is from a different (fiction) fandom.²⁰ Fanfiction’s presence on Wattpad is significant, but the wider fanfiction community is notably absent. Clearly, Wattpad is not community-driven; instead, its winning feature is likely its mobile app.

In the world of fanfiction, content shapes communities, and those highly-engaged communities shape the websites they use. Today, fanfiction is most present on websites like Tumblr, FanFiction.net, and Archive of Our Own, and writers are moving away from more restrictive platforms in favour of less regulated sites. Once-popular sites that curtailed fanfiction writers’ freedoms, like LiveJournal, were abandoned, and while FanFiction.net remains the largest fanfiction archive, its dominance of newer fandoms has slipped. Tumblr, which allows any kind of content at all, is massively popular for community discussion, and Archive of Our Own is quickly becoming the go-to website for reading fanfiction.


Notes

1 “Fandom” is a term used to describe both fan communities and the works or specific areas of interest around which they are built.

2 Phone interview on 8 Dec 2015 with my sister (born Aug 1999; reader of fanfiction and rather dismissive of outdated websites).

3 “Fan Fiction Demographics in 2010: Age, Sex, Country,” Fan Fiction Statistics (blog), 18 Mar 2011, ffnresearch.blogspot.ca/2011/03/fan-fiction-demographics-in-2010-age.html.

4 “FictionRatings,” a site owned by FanFiction.net, last updated 1 Nov 2015, www.fictionratings.com.

5 “FanFiction Content Guidelines,” FanFiction.net, last updated 20 Nov 2008, www.fanfiction.net/guidelines.

6 Quotev, meta description, accessed 9 Dec 2015, www.quotev.com.

7 “Content Guidelines,” Adult-FanFiction.org, accessed 9 Dec 2015, www.adult-fanfiction.org/guidelines.php.

8 “The demise of a social media platform: Tracking Livejournal’s decline,” Aja Romano, The Daily Dot, 6 Sept 2012, www.dailydot.com/culture/livejournal-decline-timeline.

9 “Six Apart deletes 500 LiveJournals, many fannish,” Melissa Wilson, Firefox News, 30 May 2007, firefox.org/news/articles/408/1.

10 A wikinews article on the mass FanFiction.net story removals in June 2012 notes that “despite the purge, Alexa report[ed] no drop in traffic to FanFiction.net.”

11 “Adult Content,” Tumblr, accessed 9 Dec 2015, www.tumblr.com/docs/en/nsfw.

12 From the influential post in response to which AO3 was proposed; “My two cents on FanLib.com,” astridv, LiveJournal, 16 May 2007, astridv.livejournal.com/84769.html.

13 “An Archive of One’s Own,” astolat, LiveJournal, 17 May 2007, astolat.livejournal.com/150556.html.

14 Ibid.

15 “Downloading Fanworks,” Archive FAQ, Archive of Our Own, accessed 8 Dec 2015, archiveofourown.org/faq/downloading-fanworks.

16 “Pseuds,” Archive FAQ, Archive of Our Own, accessed 8 Dec 2015, archiveofourown.org/faq/pseuds.

17 Older works that have recently been revived, such as Lord of the Rings and Doctor Who, are listed according to their more recent start dates.

18 AO3 hosts only 14,158 Naruto stories and 4868 Twilight stories.

19 “Fanfiction stories and books free,” meta description, Wattpad, accessed 9 Dec 2015, www.wattpad.com/stories/fanfiction.

20 These fandoms are: The Maze Runner, Sherlock (BBC), Harry Potter, The Walking Dead, Supernatural, DC Universe, Star Wars, Fairy Tail, Teen Wolf, and The 100. It is notable that the Marvel fandom is not represented.


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Originally published at tkbr.ccsp.sfu.ca.