April 16th, 2019
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: firstname.lastname@example.org
The Archive of Our Own has had a fundamental role in altering the way we think about fanfiction
That empowered attitude arising among fans who built and used AO3 would coincide with a sea change in the way we think about fanfiction.
The creation of the AO3 in 2009 happened parallel to the rise of social media. This was a highly significant coincidence for fandom. AO3 was formed as an independent, fully non-corporatized community just when the internet was dividing into venture capital-funded platforms like Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. The more these types of spaces consolidated the “free” internet, the more necessary a site like AO3 became to fans worried that their hosting ISPs wouldn’t be willing to entertain their defense of fair use against a Digital Millennium Copyright Act takedown notice — an issue many YouTube creators are all too familiar with.
But social media was also hugely responsible for mainstreaming transformative fandom — the women-dominated side of fandom that emphasizes creating new world-building and fanworks, often critiquing or deconstructing the source material. Before social media, fans clung to the idea of the fourth wall, a kind of mythical secret barrier and “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy that allowed them to conduct their activities without outside scrutiny. But by the launch of AO3, social media was giving marginalized people new, important public platforms. It was also making visible the importance of transformative fandom spaces, where historically marginalized fans could express the diversity of their experiences and identities. The collective desire for what was essentially a shame filter around fanworks was finally fading.
But with the rise of social media, fans were suddenly newly able to discuss their fandom activities in public alongside other fans. The AO3 and Tumblr in particular operated in synergy, as fans new and old came to Tumblr, adopted AO3 as a unique, beloved fanfiction site, and passed along the communal narrative of the OTW as an important safe haven for fans.
And those fans were becoming more vocal and open about writing fanfiction than at any previous point in cultural history. AO3’s founding in 2009 was still several years before the phenomenon of Fifty Shades of Grey in 2011, which would really open the floodgates on mainstream acceptance of fanfiction. But on Tumblr, which was quietly making its own enormous cultural impact, AO3 was becoming a household name, synonymous with fangirls, queer fanfic, and fandom itself.