October 31, 2007
A Transformation of Our Own: Fanfiction Communities and the Organization for Transformative Works

I started reading fanfiction relatively recently, starting in the mid-to-late 90s with the rise of fandom on the internet. And in just the time that I've been watching and participating in fanfiction communities online, it has shifted through a number of technologies, spreading over newsgroups, bulletin boards, and blogging networks.

In the divide between the centralized mega-archives and the segmented, and in some ways more difficult to penetrate, LiveJournal fanfic community, I saw what appeared to be a tension in the dual nature of fanfiction as both a social practice and a body of creative work. While the archives worked to provide, to varying degrees of success, a place to store and aggregate fanfiction as a form of user-generated content, livejournal provided a place that could foreground the development, writing and sharing fanfiction as a social process.

Enter the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), a fan-run group that is currently in the process of creating an all-fandom, all-rating, international fan archive that seeks to serve both as a sort of virtual storage facility and as a community space. The Archive of Our Own project in development would include a host of Web 2.0 features that would facilitate the fanfiction browsing and reading process, such as tagging (by both readers and writers) and RSS feeds, but also scaffold the writing process, with beta searches and challenges.

Started as a reaction to the FanLib controversy, a fan archive of the sort that OTW is proposing has the potential to dramatically change structure of the fanfiction community, much in the way that the move to livejournal.com did several years back. It is too early to say, however, precisely what these shifts and changes might be, and what impact they might have on fan culture.

One of the central points under a lot of discussion and debate, for instance, is how to implement a content quality filter or rating system, given the highly subjective nature of just what constitutes "good" fiction. While it is suggested that one of the difficulties of navigating the existing fanfiction mega-archives is a sophisticated quality filtering tool, such a tool would seem to place fanfiction in a value structure based on a set of criteria, and it is uncertain what that criteria would be and who's tastes it would include (or exclude). This reflects a lot of long-standing anxieties within fandom and fiction communities regarding hierarchies of influence that sometimes crop up.

As a whole, however, the project seems to be operating with quite a bit of support and momentum, and it will be interesting to watch it take shape. It finally also highlights part of the problem in discussions around fans as creators of user-generated content: quite simply, fanfiction has never been just a simple matter of content.