Long gone are the days when fan fiction was treated as a guilty pleasure, exclusively consumed on a glowing iPad screen under the covers at night and never to be discussed outside of Tumblr. We’re living in an age where Supernatural star Misha Collins boasts about Dean/Castiel fanfic stats on Twitter, a Harry Styles fanfic on Wattpad has been adapted into a major movie franchise, and even Academy Award–winning filmmaker Chloé Zhao openly admits to writing fan fiction. The hobby has become a cultural phenomenon, referenced casually in shows like Euphoria, Only Murders in the Building, 13 Reasons Why, and Bob’s Burgers. And who could forget Archive of Our Own (more widely known as AO3) snagging that Hugo Award in 2019?
Born in 2009, AO3 is one of the biggest fan fiction sites today. It’s an open source, multi-fandom archive for transformative fanworks that, as of January 2023, is home to approximately 10.5 million works across over 55,000 fandoms, ranging from big names like Stranger Things and Marvel to the most niche corners of the internet you could imagine. AO3 is pretty much a household name now, at least for any Gen Z or millennial with some degree of online presence. And as fan fiction has become more mainstream, there’s also seemingly been a push by some users for AO3 to keep up technologically. More specifically, for the archive to function … well, more like TikTok. Picture a “for you” page greeting you as you log in to the archive. It automatically recommends your next fanfic to read, like an oh-so-helpful friend plucking a book off the shelf for you that they just know you’ll love.
Let’s be clear though: This idea isn’t going to see the light of day. “An algorithm is never going to happen,” Claudia Rebaza, a volunteer for AO3’s parent group, the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), tells me outright. But the debate about whether AO3 should have an algorithm reveals what’s special about fan fiction and the importance of maintaining a space where creative works can just exist.
I get it. As someone born in 1997, it’s hard to remember a time before algorithms, rankings, and personalized recommendations. It feels like every place on the internet is trying to become more like TikTok, from Instagram with its Reels (until Kylie Jenner complained) to Twitter’s “for you” feed. For better or worse, the world today feels deeply online. When nearly every aspect of our lives feels optimized, it makes sense that some want fan fiction to keep up with the times too.
But here’s the thing: AO3 isn’t social media. It’s simply a space that hosts an enormous collection of works. It’s basically a library on your phone. Being a nonprofit run entirely by volunteers distinguishes AO3 from other fan fiction sites like Wattpad, which is an entertainment company. “AO3 is designed to be an archive, not a social media site, and we’re a nonprofit that will also never run ads,” explains Rebaza. “So we’re not trying to make people spend more time on the site or make anything go viral.”
Another aspect that sets the archive apart is its lax content policy. While the site still draws the line at some content—explicit material of real minors, flat-out plagiarism—nearly all fanworks are allowed. The only major requirement is that users must tag works containing rape/non-con, graphic violence, major character death, or underage content (alternatively, authors can simply tag “Creator Chose Not to Archive Warnings”). But as long as it’s properly tagged, it’s probably permitted “no matter how awful, repugnant, or badly spelled we may personally find that Content to be,” per the site’s terms of services.
It’s a policy that has been both praised and criticized. But one of the reasons for AO3’s hands-off philosophy is that fan fiction has historically faced a great deal of opposition and censorship. For instance, Fanfiction.net (FF.net), one of the first major fanfic sites on the web, banned all works based on anything by Interview with the Vampire author Anne Rice after she reportedly threatened legal action. (The law as it pertains to fan fiction is murky, but OTW believes nonprofit, transformative works fall under “fair use.”) In 2002, FF.net began implementing a strict “no NC-17 content” policy. Then in 2012, the site famously deleted a large number of stories, presumably ones deemed too mature. The move was widely coined the FF.Net purge by fans, and it sparked concerns about potentially disproportionately affecting authors of slash (same-gender pairing fics).