AO3 & Censorship

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Title: AO3 & Censorship
Creator: stopthatimp
Date(s): Oct 22, 2016
Medium: tumblr
Fandom: Meta
Topic: Censorship
External Links: ao3 & censorship, Archived version
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AO3 & Censorship is a meta essay written by stopthatimp about racist trolls harassing AO3 users, sometimes by posting hateful fanfic. The meta discussed questions of adapting AO3 content policy in light of this phenomenon and in the context of pushback against antishippers.

It was posted on October 22, 2016 on Tumblr and had 477 notes as of October 28.

During some of the reblogs, the discussions and responses expanded to include whether AO3 should ban certain types of controversial fanfiction such as noncon, dubcon, darkfic and underage fanficton. Some of this expansion may have been due to then ongoing antishipper debates that were circulating on Tumblr at the time. As a result, there was much confusion among the participants, some conflation of issues and overall difficulty in tracking the various threads of the debate.

The essay was preceded by a series of posts that date back to 2014 where stopthatimp called for removal of an interracial kink fic[1] and also supported the removal of a transphobic story.[2]

Stopthatimp later updated her post with suggestions on how AO3 could implement an policy to remove objectionable content.[3]

The original post and her reblogs were seen by many to offer "measured, thoughtful criticism" and "a careful and analytic discussion of problems that the AO3 is going to face."[4]

The Essay

while I’m dipping my toes in the wank water, it’s interesting to me to see people defend AO3′s current content policy as something that is simple or, say, guaranteed sustainable long-term. Fandom history types have elided the influence of libertarian ideology on internet advocacy and fandom’s own historic attitudes towards content rules and censorship for…basically forever, as far as I know (feel free to contradict me), but that influence is very real. See, for example, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, or Phil Zimmerman’s own account of why he wrote PGP, citing “civil libertarians” defending the rights of citizens to encrypt their communication and keep it totally private. These are the sorts of ethical conundrums and ideological activities that gave us Tor, a private browser that is literally used both for vital civil liberation…and to find, distribute, and perpetuate child porn. AO3 isn’t Tor, or PGP, or the Silk Road, or anything like that, but a lot of the ideology around fandom in general and fanfic in particular uses, mirrors, and grew from early cyperpunk libertarian writing and policymaking.
Personally, I don’t think AO3 should delete, say, fic centering around a m/f couple where one member is gay in canon. Is it homophobic? Yep it sure is. But my kneejerk response is “I’ve been there”, because I have! I have had some trash ass offensive/weird pairings. I have absolutely been like “I know he/she’s gay, buuut”, despite being gay myself!!! And maybe that’s the heteropatriarchy brainwashing me or whatever, but sometimes a girl just wants to read her problematic garbage in peace.
AO3 also hosts “extreme underage”, which is a personal HELLLL NO for me, since I am a victim of molestation. Should it be deleted? Honestly, I have no idea. On one hand, it is gross to me, and I do not want to see it, and I think it is mostly morally reprehensible. On the other hand, just for starters, some people really do write that stuff because they were themselves molested. Some people write it but would never rape a kid IRL or even look at actual child porn. Some people are porn-damaged and don’t want to inspect why it gets them off. It goes on. Plus, there are logical enforcement problems: how young is too young? Tumblr likes to say 18, but then, the legal age of consent is lower than 18 in many places, including the US. Should the cutoff age be whatever the absolute lowest age of consent in the world is? What if they’re 15 but the author is clearly writing them as younger in body/maturity? What about diaper play type stuff that screws with the POV so they SEEM super young but are actually of the age of consent? What about high school AUs? The list goes on.

But, then, what about grossly racist fic? The corner of fandom that originated AO3 is pretty white; I have no idea if AO3′s demographics skew majority white these days, but it wouldn’t surprise me. If we leave aside stuff like extreme underage and non-con, under the assumption that a significant portion of the userbase experiences the threat of sexual assault at a bare minimum, doesn’t racist fic then fall under a different kind of category? If you’re white and writing, say, a plantation AU, or openly, gleefully white supremacist fic, then I personally feel that’s reprehensible and should be taken down. But who decides? What’s the line? I don’t mean that flippantly, I mean it seriously: is it enough for multiple people to complain, regardless of content? Or would it only be works that openly advocate for systems of white supremacy in some way? Would all the buddy cop fic with really shitty attitudes towards police brutality make the cut, or not?

And then, if that’s our rubric, what happens if a fandom’s mostly men, and the fic is wall to wall rapefic? I don’t want to be around men who write gross dudeporn about raping women, and again, I think there is definitely something reprehensible about that porn’s popularity. But AO3 is a fannish archive for everyone, and so, that fic would be left up.

So, it’s complicated to think about enforcing any kind of moral community standards when it comes to what kind of fic is posted. The above thoughts - of exceptions, logical and logistical complications, moral grey areas, variations, all of those are things that many websites have dealt with by saying anything goes, always. But I do not think that anyone making policy, whether large and world-affecting or relatively trivial, should be dismissing moderation or rules-making based on perceived complexity. Here is why.

Twitter is probably the most famous example right now of a site that allows almost anything in the name of free speech…and it’s biting them in the ass, big time. It’s become known among many white supremacist communities as the place they can go and say whatever and it will almost certainly not be taken down. And that dynamic - where a space is flooded with people who hold certain repugnant views, and thus ruins the space for everyone else - is one that should not be regarded as impossible for AO3 to facilitate.
Because, of course, AO3 isn’t a read-only space. It is an archive, but not in the sense of the Internet Archive, where it’s scraping websites. It’s a social space. They’ve already seen the need for more stringent abuse policies due to trolling, and the site is getting more popular by the day. What happens if some fandom springs up that’s fertile ground for white supremacists, and a bunch of them start posting to AO3? Or the dudeporn scenario? It is very true that in the event of AO3 being flooded with horrifically misogynistic, racist, or homophobic fic, that I could just go on posting my fic and blacklist stuff I find offensive - but it is possible that AO3, by dint of hosting this material unexamined and welcomed, will drive other people away. It is possible that AO3 will become the kind of place known for being permissive towards white supremacists or other hateful groups. It’s not likely, but it’s possible, and it’s important to consider because AO3 is only as good as its userbase. It’s only as comprehensive, in terms of hosting and preserving fanworks, as the people who choose to post there. And while it’s certainly not their responsibility to remove a high school AU because some 20-year-old complained about it being child porn (or whatever), it is their responsibility to look after the interests of their userbase. I very much disagree with the thinking that rejecting the idea of any content moderation wholesale, under the name of “free speech”, is the only or best way to do that.
tl;dr a lot of people pitching hissy fits about AO3′s content policy are being immature and short-sighted, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that AO3′s content policy is perfect, nor that having ANY kind of content policy is simple/free of flaws.

Reactions/Responses

Enforcement Questions

[pageleaf tagged her reblog of the original post]

Tags: #ao3 #fandom #when you design an online community (which is what ao3 is) you make decisions that have pros and cons #you define what success looks like for your site #and that comes with bad side effects #that's largely unavoidable #but the solution is not to pretend the bad side effects do not exist #second thing: #i've seen a lot of people saying that ao3 should keep absolutely everything up because it is supposed to be inclusive to all #my question then is this: what does inclusivity mean? #does it mean ''not outright banning''? #or does it mean fostering a space where people of different experiences can exist? #when you define inclusiveness as ''not actively excluding on purpose'' #you are implying that a community can be inclusive to--say--racists and poc both at once #that's something i disagree with #anyway #be smart kids #don't deal in generalizations and don't go too far to either side of the spectrum [5]

[serenadestrong responds to pageleaf]:

I agree with all this and I also want to add - not just content policy but enforcement of content policy. Say Ao3 decides, OK, no racist fic because the white supremacist fandom has made fans of color uncomfortable. What if the enforcement board is a bunch of white people who accept complaints on racebent fic where white characters are reimagined as POC as racist? Content policy can have good intentions but be abused by the user base or the enforcers of that policy"[6]

Should The Archive Offer Storage Or Should It Curate Content? Or Perhaps Have Better Tools?

[taraljc]:

I think what a lot of people don’t always realise is that automated fanfic archives don’t exist to curate content. They simply exist to house content. Is Sturgeon’s Law still gonna apply? Fuck yeah. Cos there’s no filters, except what filters readers put in place to try and find what they want to read and to filter out things that they do not want to read (in the case of trigger warnings which I 100% support FYI).

But the burden of vetting content has never been on the people who created and maintain the archive. Because vetting content isn’t what they signed on to do, and would be a full-time job for a vast team of content editors that NO-ONE has the money to employ. Cos automated fan fiction archives are not literary magazines, or fanzines. They aren’t something that separates the worthy from the unworthy.

They’re just affordable self-sortage buildings that fandom is donating for us to use as we will. It’s on us to use them wisely and carefully, with a care for our neighbours.[7]

[jkthinkythoughts]:

No, it’s not what they signed on for. But the world changes, and rapidly. The world that AO3 rose out of, and in response to, is gone. (And I had a front row seat for the events it rose out of. Because old.) In its place is a world where your service is defined by how you allow it to be used. Do you want to be facebook - reasonably safe but loathed for its censorship; or Twitter - censorship free but widely regarded as a cesspit of lowest common denominator bullying and hate? (Tumblr is not the third option. Twitter used to be like Tumblr is now. If Tumblr goes mass mainstream the way twitter has, the same thing will happen here.)

Is there another way? I hope so. But right now, those are the two options we’ve got. And if A03 insists on treating the next few years as though we are still living in 2008, then it will ossify and die, but not before the worst elements of fandom make it uninhabitable and destroy the legacy of good work that created it.

But fear not. Something else… maybe something better, will rise in its place. Probably.

As a postscript aside to the old fandom ladies in the audience… I love the trips down memory lane as much as any other old. But when you teach kids to question authority, they will eventually question yours. And that’s a good thing.

Tl;dr: purity wank is bullshit, but so is pretending that the world has not changed in the years since AO3 was founded.[8]

[book—wyrm]:

I still don’t think that AO3 has any responsibility to curate fics that they host. Just in general, that’s sort of the kind of power imbalance that created it in the first place. But I do think they have to get better about allowing fandoms to curate themselves. The ability to blacklist tags during a search, for instance, would be pretty great.[9]

Hosting is the Not the Same as Endorsing

[madamehardy]:

Here is an important thing for me. Hosting a fanwork is not the same as endorsing. If I publish a zine or a book, I’m saying “This editor thinks X is worth reading or worth thinking about.” Editing and publishing are an important function in the world.

Hosting a fanwork, as AO3 does, is not an endorsement of any kind. Hosting a fanwork on AO3 says “Here is a fanwork”. That’s all. Hosting is also an important function in the world. People who ask AO3 to have a content policy are asking AO3 to become a publisher instead of a host. That is not, and has never been, its goal.

I agree that many fics are based on and communicate racist, sexist, otherwise biased, and perhaps criminal depending, on legal environment, views of the world. AO3 says that the burden of avoiding those fics is on the reader, because no human, other than the writer, reviewed the work. It is impossible for AO3 to have humans review each fic because of the sheer volume of the archive. It is impossible for AO3 to have humans review complaints about the content of the fic, again, because of the volume of the archive.

If you want to argue that hosting a fic is an implicit endorsement, we have a disagreement over terms. I don’t think that can be resolved, because we have fundamentally different understandings of categories. It is logistically impossible to make AO3 a curated collection. AO3 is not, cannot be, and was never intended to be, a judge of the quality of a work. It’s a host.[10]

A Better Abuse Policy vs Content Curation

[stopthatimp in response to taraljc]:

Content curation isn’t synonymous with an abuse policy, though, which is what I am talking about. Specifically, I’m talking about a potential need to not allow *all* content, coupled with my discomfort with the dialogue around AO3’s content policy. From a lot of people, that dialogue has mostly been refusal to acknowledge that an issue being complicated doesn’t mean it’s impossible to even think or talkabout. It’s also been refusal to consider other perspectives, using phrasing like “I think what people don’t understand…” to create artifical distance between themselves and other members of their community.

If AO3 were a buffy/faith archive run by random fan #5 I wouldn’t be making this argument. But ao3 is a nonprofit with a stated mission to serve fandom, and a social obligation that they emphasize with fundraising and other community activity. That supposed permanency and communal obligation is why I am making this argument!

[taraljc in response to stopthatimp]:

I still think you’re blaming the folks who built the building for what the tenants get up to. But I didn’t know there was wank (or rather, new wank) about a lack of comprehensive abuse policy. I was just responding to your examples in your post.

So what exactly are people asking for? A faster/better/stronger way to report works that violate the archive’s rules? Or complete revamping the content guidelines section of the archive’s TOS to exclude works not currently covered?

Cos that’s not what I got from your post. What I got from your post is that specific types of content should have to be approved in order to appear on the site – which goes against the concept of “archive” as it was originally founded. Which does not, to me anyway, seem feasible. Not with the myriad languages involved, and incredibly limited manpower. The archive has MILLIONS of stories, and I can’t imagine what the daily traffic is like. But it doesn’t seem like it would be possible to vet incoming submissions. Instead, if you want to better serve the community you consider yourself a part of, then pushing for a “report this for TOS violations” button on stories in the archive would seem more logical to me. But from my POV, it’s always going to have to rely on the community self-policing

[stopthatimp in response to taraljc ]:

What I have seen is people saying that AO3’s anything goes policy can be a problem, specifically when it comes to things like very racist fic. That discussion is mixed in with many many tumblr wanks about ao3’s policy “supporting pedophilia”. I think the latter is ridiculous, but the former holds merit, and in general I’m increasingly uncomfortable with AO3’s current policy, since I’ve seen people take advantage of it (specifically, shit like a troll writing racist fic as a stated “you don’t belong here” message, using gift fics to harass people, and so on - the hockey rpf troll, for those familiar). So, I’m reacting to dismissive attitudes towards the mere idea that a stronger TOS policy might be desirable or reasonable or like, workable.

And yeah, I have no desire for ao3 to vet all fics, just a desire for, perhaps, a more robust and transparent abuse policy.

[amireal2u in response to stopthatimp]:

Okay but see, this is interesting b/c I think we’re also running into strange vocabulary hiccups? Because what you described was harassment pretty plain and clear, you even used the word and and A03 does have a specific harassment policy. Has this particular behavior been reported and has AO3 said that it doesn’t fit the criteria? Because I think that’s definitely worth a conversation, but I’m not sure I’m comfortable drawing a line in the sand about a posted story being racist or nor because to me that’s just asking for a constantly moving finish line that no one will be satisfied with and that AO3 as it exists doesn’t have the resources to enforce

[amireal2u]:

For reference: At the bottom of a story page is a link to ‘report abuse’ directly under the comment section and it brings you to a form WITH the URL of the story you just came from already inserted. So there is a place to report TOS violations, though I do find it interesting that it’s not a button attached to the story the way ‘commenting’ and 'sharing’ is, but it IS there and while there’s neon beacon, it’s not exactly hidden either.

[stopthatimp in response to amireal2u]:

[The story] was reported. I honestly don’t remember whether or not it was taken down right away; I do know movement was pretty slow with regards to that troll, because AO3 was wholly unprepared to deal with someone calling other fans racial slurs in fic comments, targeting people, and so on. I remember reporting racism to Abuse and being told the slurs in comments didn’t justify action.

[amireal2u in response to taraljc]:

What I am still trying to understand from the OP is what exactly folks want. Because I’m all for TOS changing with the times! But what’s confusing me is what exactly folks are trying to achieve, and trying to udnerstand if what they desire is actually feasible.

Absolutely, if you are getting comments that include racial slurs, those comments should be deleted and the user (if they aren’t anon) should potentially be booted after repeated trolling.

But as for content guidelines being revised, again, what exactly are we trying to do? If we’re trying to make it easier for community self-policing, then yes, making the “Report this as a TOS violation” button should be mroe prominent.

But if we’re saying “We don’t want XYZ content archived on this site at all” then that would require vetting of all submissions for XYZ, and that puts the burden on the staff in a way that I don’t believe is actually feasible.

If we’re looking for content filters that would automatically scan submissions for specific words, again, that’s not going to work because it’s too indiscriminate and would require too many man-hours for the existing AO3 staff to vet every flagged story. It’s just not a workable solution.

So the discussion I’m looking for is instead of talking about how awful things are, what can we as the ao3 community actually accomplish, in order to make things better? Because it makes more sense to me to try and come up with workible solutions than rehashing wank about BNFs or how white fandom is. Fandom hasn’t been white for a long, long time, and ao3 should reflect that. I’m not saying it shouldn’t.

What I’m genuinely asking is what do people actually want to see? If it’s revised TOS to be stricter in terms of content guidelines, then that’s an achiveable goal and banding together to try adn make that happen seems like the best course of action. But trying to get everyone on the same page as to what exactly constitutes “acceptable content” is gonna be on a par with trying to get the entire EU to agree on a single currency.

That’s why reporting content and dealing with TOS violations on a case-by-case basis is still the most effective way to deal with content violations. Because it’s a lot easier to point to a thing and say “this thing exists to be rascist and toxic, not to be a transformative fanwork” . Even if the TOS were updated to be stricter, enforcement would still rely on individuals within the community reporting TOS violations, and agreeing to abide by the moderators judgements.

AO3 Will Eventually Become Twitter: We Need To Be Prepared

Some fans predicted that AO3 would eventually be overrun with harassers and hate speech, very much like Twitter. New content policies were therefore need order to preemptively protect fandom spaces.

From the original post]:

But I do not think that anyone making policy, whether large and world-affecting or relatively trivial, should be dismissing moderation or rules-making based on perceived complexity. Here is why. Twitter is probably the most famous example right now of a site that allows almost anything in the name of free speech…and it’s biting them in the ass, big time. It’s become known among many white supremacist communities as the place they can go and say whatever and it will almost certainly not be taken down. And that dynamic - where a space is flooded with people who hold certain repugnant views, and thus ruins the space for everyone else - is one that should not be regarded as impossible for AO3 to facilitate.

[birdhead]:

It is so strange to respond to such measured, thoughtful criticism as the one being put forward here by impertinence with “take your toys and go home”. That post wasn’t a tantrum and it wasn’t being put forward by someone new to fandom. It was a careful and analytic discussion of problems that the AO3 is going to face. I found it to be deeply sympathetic to both the AO3 and its userbase, and the comparison with twitter is apt.[11]
#v interesting discussion/thoughts #interesting the point being no so much that ao3 should 'ban' certain things on moral grounds... #...but on the grounds that it will eventually end up driving people away and becoming a safe space for hate #fandom #ao3 #fanfic[12]

Others pointed out the irony that the AO3 = comparison debate was taking place on Tumblr, a place often perceived to be filled with problematic content and harassment:

it’s ironic to me that this discussion is happening on tumblr, a platform that hosts plenty of content widely regarded as “hate speech,” but which many marginalized fans somehow still continue to use.

it’s also worth noting that at least in the case of its u.s. userbase, black and hispanic adults use twitter at higher rates than whites. so citing twitter to argue that having a permissive free speech policy drives away marginalized users doesn’t make much sense.

personally, i’m not interested in any site that enforces “moral community standards” on art beyond the scope of what’s, y’know, legal. if ao3 were to change its policy and suddenly start enforcing arbitrary “moral” (whose morals??) guidelines, i might look for a different place to host my fic.[13]

AO3 Is Not Twitter: You Are Not Forced To View The Fic

Many dismissed the AO3 = comparison:

[zz9pzza]:

How do you allow censorship and ensure that it is not misused? What I might want to be censored may well be different from you.

I think the current policy that a creators area is under their control is the best we can do.

I understand that it is currently possible to force people to see content they may not want (for example misusing gifts) and those should be closed up as we see them. However the number of people who code on the Archive is tiny and we are working as hard as we can keeping things afloat.

I do agree that we don’t want to see some of the things that have happen on twitter on the Archive but I can’t see how censorship can work.

[esteefee]:

The twitter analogy doesn’t work for me, simply because if AO3 has closed the giftworks loophole, then no one is forced to view works they don’t want to view. It is unreasonable to expect volunteers to have to view the works that the readership itself might find so abhorrent (hypothetically underaged, racist, or containing rape elements). And they would have to *read* them in order to decide whether to censor them or not (even if a fair metric could be decided upon). How fair is that? We are already asking a great deal of these people. Not to mention they simply don’t have the *time* or probably, let’s face it, the inclination to read my Kirk falls into a quantum mirror fic. (Spoiler: he finally gets over his tribble phobia.)

[bomberqueen17]:

yeah comparing it to Twitter is a completely false flag, because Twitter is used to harass and doxx and abuse people, in violation of its own policies, and that's the entire problem. AO3 as it stands is rarely used for those activities and when it is, the Abuse team deals with it.

From FFA[14] [Anonymous 1]:

I think it's overlooking that the problem with twitter is that there are no tools to effectively curate your experience which makes avoiding the skeevy echo chambers hard, and nothing you can do to counter harassment except for block it as it comes.

Harassment and hate speech have are not protected speech. 'Problematic' art is. It's up to the people who own the servers to decide what they want to host.

[Anonymous 2]:

+1

Besides, the other main issue with Twitter that Ao3 doesn't really have going on is that it's intended and overwhelming used as a means to communicate between people as themselves, speaking their own mind. Fanfic (and fiction in general) is a means of expressing oneself through the voices of other (usually fictional) people that is not implicitly intended to communicate support for any idea just because it happens to be expressed. Any communication from the writer to anyone else is initiated by that other person in the comments section. If someone posted something on Ao3 that amounted to harassment of a real person in a way that they were obviously intended to see (like as a "gift"), that WOULD be taken down under Ao3's TOS, which Twitter is complete shit at doing.

Tumblr is especially shit about taking down actual harassment, which is lucky for antis who have driven more people to the brink of suicide on that site than any white supremacists have, afaik
.

The Original Poster Reframes: Perhaps The Issue Is Not AO3 Policy. It Is The Discussion of AO3 Policy

[stopthatimp]:

What I am saying is that the conversation about resources and standards is one that should happen, because a more or less totally permissive content policy may not be permanently tenable, and I have seen quite a bit of callousness towards people asking for such a conversation - even people who aren’t self identified antis. I’ve seen, as an example, people speculating about the mental health history of the “young people” who disagree with ao3’s content policy. That’s the kind of stuff I’m objecting to. I have no answers about how AO3’s content policy might be updated or changed to make it less hostile to marginalized people or to limit harassment and shitty behavior. I do, however, think the conversation is worth having - that’s my point. I have seen a lot of people reacting to purity wank stuff with, essentially, reactionary language in the other direction.

I’ve been an AO3 user since 2009, btw. The assumption from a lot of AO3 oldbies seems to be that anyone who disagrees with AO3 is utterly ignorant of its founding and past. Part of my point, again, is that that’s not true, and the assumption feeds into a lot of shitty stuff about who AO3 is functionally serving, and what groups it’s making comfortable vs who it’s excluding.

In a later post she referred to nianeyna's "call me a libertarian" post as an example of the type of discussion she was criticizing:

This is the kind of reductive and dismissive attitude I was talking about, for the curious![15]

[sevensneakyfoxes]:

I think this is the first post about this that hasn’t made me want to pull out my hair. Honestly, the dialogue more than the issue itself is what is scaring me lately. There is almost no nuance or acknowledgement of the inherent issues and how they would affect people beyond just someone’s personal experience of AO3.

YOU ARE A PEDOPHILE IF YOU DON’T SUPPORT NOT DELETING THAT FIC! JUST AS BAD AS THEY ARE!

Are you fucking kidding me?[16]

Fandom As Libertarians?

[From the original post]:

Fandom history types have elided the influence of libertarian ideology on internet advocacy and fandom’s own historic attitudes towards content rules and censorship for…basically forever, as far as I know (feel free to contradict me), but that influence is very real. See, for example, A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, or Phil Zimmerman’s own account of why he wrote PGP, citing “civil libertarians” defending the rights of citizens to encrypt their communication and keep it totally private. These are the sorts of ethical conundrums and ideological activities that gave us Tor, a private browser that is literally used both for vital civil liberation…and to find, distribute, and perpetuate child porn. AO3 isn’t Tor, or PGP, or the Silk Road, or anything like that, but a lot of the ideology around fandom in general and fanfic in particular uses, mirrors, and grew from early cyperpunk libertarian writing and policymaking.

[nianeyna]:

Well, buy me a bunker and call me libertarian then, I guess.

The whole POINT of AO3 is that they won’t take down your fic because someone didn’t like it. It doesn’t matter how good your reasons are for not liking it or how many other people agree with you. The point of AO3 isn’t to host fanfic, there are plenty of other sites that do that. The point of AO3 is that THEY WILL NEVER TAKE DOWN YOUR FIC BECAUSE SOMEONE DIDN’T LIKE IT.

If you think that’s a bad rule then… I’ve heard good things about Wattpad? And apparently FF.NET is churning out some decent stuff these days. I’m not even saying that to be snarky, I’m saying it because really, honestly, AO3 doesn’t have to be the only game in town - shouldn’t be, even. Isn’t! There are other options. If you don’t like AO3 that is fine and good but please stop trying to rip it up at the roots.

#I would much rather have my search results be 90% big-tiddy rapefic written by dudes that see AO3 go back on that promise #I don't need AO3 to have fic that I like #I need it to exist as a space where the worst and weirdest of fandom has amnesty #maybe that means it becomes a seething hive of scum and villainy; fine #it still needs to exist #anyway never been accused of libertarianism before! #that's a new experience#fandom#opinion post[17]

Several commentators on FFA took issue with the description:[18]

[Anonymous 1]:

Does anyone have a source for this? Are they saying AO3 histories that cite fandom's history with getting screwed over by corporate TOS as one of the drivers behind creating OTW/AO3 is 'libertarian ideology'? What does that even mean in this context?

[Anonymous 2]:

I think they're saying that fandom in general comes out of a tradition that is basically 'proudly counter culture', and AO3 flows out of that. Libertarian seems like a slightly odd word to describe it with.

[Anonymous 1]:

If that's what they were trying to say, Libertarian is the wrong word for it.

[Anonymous 3]:

Right after they talk about "libertarian" ideology they quote Phil Zimmerman talking about "civil libertarians." I don't think they understand that "civil libertarian" just means someone who defends civil liberties. It doesn't necessarily imply Libertarian in the American political sense at all. The ACLU is classically civil libertarian, and very much leftist.

Racial and/or Age Divide

In August 2014, stopthatimp had reported an interracial kink story[19] to AO3 abuse and demanded that the story be removed. She blogged the staffer's response along with her thoughts to her tumblr.[20] In a later statement during an OTW fundraising drive that OTW needed to adopt a more "solid ideology wrt: hatespeech, not milquetoast “well it’s bad to censor people!!” bullshit."[21]

These 2014 themes were reflected in themardia's response to stopthatimp's October 2016 "AO3 & censorship post":

[themardia]:

The thing I have to say is this: fandom is for white people. Fandom, the AO3, the tumblr discourse, the status quo that a lot of Old School BNFs want to uphold, all of it is built to support white fans. When people complain about how difficult it would be come up with any sort of content policy for the AO3, any kind of plan to deal with widespread harassment because “oh, it hasn’t happened yet so why should we plan for it” or complain that it’s just too “complicated” to even make the attempt, all I hear as a person of color, as a black girl who’s been in fandom for over fourteen years is: Shut up and stay in your lane, because this space isn’t really for you. It’s too ~hard for us to take your considerations into account, so why should we bother?

What I’m hearing from fandom, over and over again is, You’re not worth the trouble.

No one is pretending a content policy would be easy. No one is pretending that it wouldn’t be subjective. But what’s happening right now is that between the old-school BNFs banging the drum for their libertarian “everything goes” bullshit and newer fans co-opting social justice narratives to fight stupid ship wars (yes Voltron fandom, I am looking at you, AND FUCKING QUIT IT), fans of color, who have been dealing with fandom’s racist and exclusionary bullshit for literally FOREVER, are being left in the cold yet again, and it’s shitty and it sucks.[22]

[themardia in response to nianeyna's libertarian post]:

"FYI, when I say that the AO3/fandom is only built to support white fans, this is the exclusionary, racist bullshit I’m referring to."[23]

[sevensneakyfoxes in response to themardia and stopthatimp's posts]

[Some of the comments seem to say]: I’M OLD AND YOU’RE YOUNG AND YOU DON’T KNOW ANY BETTER. I WAS AROUND FOR STRIKEOUT AND I’VE SEEN PEOPLE BANNED FROM MAILING LISTS FOR POSTING SLASH, THUS WE CANNOT HAVE CONTENT REGULATION AND/OR RULES. NO POLICING IN FANDOM!!!!!!!

Condescending as hell.

Listen, I’m old too (well, at least in fandom years). I was around for strikeout, I was around for people getting banned for objectionable content, and YEAH, it fucking SUCKED. People got banned for dumb reasons, had fic deleted, and yeah, Livejournal handled it like they had cooked ham for brains. Yep, some of the mailing lists back in the day were run by bigots. I have zero desire to have a fandom overlord telling me what I cannot read and write, and by no means am I saying that this is the preferable situation.

But I have a problem with the idea that the solution is a fucking free for all where anything goes. In fact, some of the people I’ve seen posting the most aggressive defense of NO POLICING! NO RULES! are the same people I’ve seen POLICING FUCK OUT OF FANDOM inside and outside of AO3. They just don’t like this policing.

.....So I don’t really have an answer. Yes, the fandom oldtimers are right: enforcing standards and rules is fucking dangerous and we’ve lived through some really shitty moral wars because of this subjective grey area. I’m just tired of seeing people act as if NO RULES! has little consequence on the culture of fandom, and won’t create a fertile ground for the continuation of attitudes and actions that harm minorities. That’s my anger at this conversation.[24]

[sevensneakyfoxes]:

When we say, NO POLICING, NO RULES!, people act as though we are protecting the minority who want to write really weird shit when in reality, I see the main fallout of this kind of thinking is that we’re actually protecting the majority. As a cishet white woman with my history, my experience of AO3 is going to be a fuck of a lot different than someone else’s. So it’s easy for me to say, NO RULES, because the likelihood that the space will continue to perpetuate problematic behaviour in a parallel to the real world is high, and its personal impact on me is low.

That’s privilege.

There is a certain risk everyone assumes when engaging with the world, but we are very actively saying, WE KNOW THERE IS A VERY HIGH RISK OF CREATING A TOXIC SPACE IN FANDOM BUT THIS FANFIC FORUM IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN YOU ARE. And while I don’t agree with this attitude, I don’t necessarily think this makes someone a terrible person. But I do feel a certain sense of annoyance at the hypocrisy when fandom has gotten so up in arms about the permissiveness of racism and misogyny in society - both inside mass media and outside of it - but when it comes to our own space, it’s like, NAH, FREE SPEECH!

Free speech exists on both sides, too. So when you limit the ability of people to address problematic material on AO3, this is where we start wading into the, Are we giving people a consequence-less place to park their hate/problematic material? Are we tacitly approving of it if we protect them from discourse through harassment policies? territory.

I remember having it out with someone when they posted a Holocaust AU that was a prison guard/Auschwitz prisoner set up where the prisoner fell in love with the guard. Featuring a white, German-heritage actor and a Jewish actor. That was on LJ, but on AO3, I seriously wonder if our exchange wouldn’t have violated the very vague harassment policy on AO3 (“Harassment is any behavior that produces a generally hostile environment for its target”). If you have a space where you open up everything, you also need to open up how people can engage with it, and that’s another kettle of fish that at this point I just want to CHUCK INTO THE FUCKING SEA.[25]

On older fans:

You can’t just say “We talked about this in 2008, baby”. First off, I was there, and you look foolish when you assume that the person you’re talking to wasn’t. Secondly, as the AO3 changes, the problems it has to deal with - problems of scope - are changing.[26]
#excellent commentary #gotta fucking love that patronizing 'we're older and wiser and did this before so shut up you bratty infant' tone #used on someone who has been around in fandom since the early 00s at least #kudos on being That Asshole.[27]
#A+ commentary #some groups of old fans (I say some groups because I've been in fandom for 18 years) #are super attached to protecting bigotry and hate speech but WHATEVER #the rest of the commentary is good[28]
#god im so sick of Fandom Elders sounding exactly like gaming dudebros but thinking they're superior #FUCK you all and your ridiculous patronizing wimpy anything goes attitude #we get it you read fic like foh or actually contribute[29]

Tough Choices

[mamaliza]:

I’m a black person and I'm an Ao3 volunteer and here’s my two cents, in case it matters: I’d rather the archive allow anything, and here’s why:

1. As we saw with LJ and YT with literally every other social media site, a system whereby x number of reports gets your stuff removed is another excellent vehicle for harassment. Ao3 will never have a volunteer force large enough to review the number of complaints that would come in and read all those works, nor should volunteers have to read offensive works.

2. If people want to put horrible, offensive stuff on Ao3, go for it. If a fandom shows up that’s all white supremacists, I will not be reading in that fandom. That easy. Reddit is a haven for white supremacists and extreme misogynists and whatever else, but it still has some really cool stuff on it. I just don’t go to those sections of the site and I’m fine.

3. Once something is gone, it can be lost forever, and I don’t want to lose pieces of fandom because terms of service have been changed to allow deletion for offensive works and some group decided to hammer the archive to disallow all stories that (for example) had slavery of any kind. Every controversial topic has a million layers of nuance and, while stopthatimp has a great point that complex ideas shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand, policies still have to be written down and adhered to. It’s a terrible idea to say “anything we find offensive gets booted” and impossible to try and plan for every possible depiction of every possible topic.

3. Ao3 exists in the service of the ideals of the OTW, and those ideals all come back to the right of fans to create transformative works of all kinds, to make something with the building blocks of culture, and the idea that our community is important enough that our work should be preserved for future generations. This is my community and I want to see our work preserved.[30]

[nomercles]:

The bit about choosing where you spend your time is really important. Individual fandom experience is individually curated. If, as a rape and emotional abuse victim, I do not want to be anywhere near rape and emotional abuse in fic, then I have to not go to those places.

Even if my GPS tells me to drive through a construction site or into the ocean, it’s my responsibility to not do it.

I would not ever choose someone else to decide for me what I am and am not allowed to read. That is my job, that is my responsibility, and that is my RIGHT to decide for myself what is and is not something that I want exposure to.[31]

[zeegoesthere]:

I don’t think this should be framed as one type of fan’s needs vs. another type of fan’s needs, because I think that the reality is that all of us probably need both free speech and protection from harassment, simultaneously. The same person might want to post fic that involves non-con or age difference, while also needing to not be attacked or harassed for their race, religion, or for some other aspect of their identity. AO3′s userbase right now, and probably in the future as well, needs both kinds of protection.[32]

[that's-what-sidhe-said]:

The founders of AO3 have probably been in one fandom or another longer than you’ve been alive. They’ve seen every variation on every fight. (All this has happened before, all this will happen again.) They looked at the options and this is what they chose. No curating and no removal of content for subject matter, unless it’s not warned for incorrectly.

The thing is, if you want to give people a place where they can freely and openly express themselves, you have to let the assholes do that as well. Yes, even the racist ones. Yes, even the ones writing child porn. Because it is not your job to decide what is appropriate for other people to read and write. In the United States it is legal to write and draw children in sexual situations. Is it gross? Maybe! Is it art? Who knows! Go ahead and host a discussion on Tumblr or Twitter or Imzy, if you like.

Fandom does come down hard on people who write racist or otherwise distasteful fic. There was a Haiti SPN RPF fic which is notorious for being utterly and cluelessly offensive. Someone requested Nazi RPF fic for Yuletide last year and the request was quickly yanked. Fandom’s Court of Public Disapproval is fast and harsh and sometimes it’s even justified.

AO3 has made their call and they’ve made it after hearing every one of your arguments and more, years ago. If you want to pull your fic, then absolutely do so. It’s understandable that you don’t want to stay where you’re not comfortable. Fanfiction.net is a decent enough place to post fic and they don’t allow adult content. If you want to create a new site, the AO3 code is open source. But if you’re playing in AO3′s court, you’re playing by their rules. You can always take your ball and go home.[33]

We're Not Asking For A Ban. Just An Extension Of Existing Moderator Powers

The AO3 isn’t static. Its policies have already changed. The AO3 experience is going to continue to change, and therefore it is *valuable* to have continuing discussions about how that experience should be curated. Because, to be clear, it is always going to be curated in some manner. You can’t just say “We talked about this in 2008, baby”. First off, I was there, and you look foolish when you assume that the person you’re talking to wasn’t. Secondly, as the AO3 changes, the problems it has to deal with - problems of scope - are changing.

Nobody wants the antis to win. But you wouldn’t tolerate “free speech” as an excuse to promote hate speech or bigotry or harassment on twitter or any other platform; why is it suddenly so compelling for the AO3? [34]

Nobody arguing for a more sophisticated policy, either in this thread or elsewhere, is arguing for an outright ban. What people are clearly suggesting is an extension to already-existing moderator powers, which are discretionary and therefore allow for nuance.

The advantage of a formal discretionary power (that could take many forms in execution, including adding tags, adding notes, or in extreme cases deleting works*) over fandom dogpiling should be obvious.

*The equivalent of whatever criteria get applied to determine whether a fic should be taken down under the Abuse policy might be a good starting point in determining this. #fandom politics#nobody's talking about censorship#regulation is a-okay#and policy is hard#which is why you work at it</ref> hazel - ao3 & censorship, Archived version</ref>

To Each Archive Their Own

AO3 has decided to model their policies based on the US constitutional concept of freedom of speech. They are not the only source out there to host fanfic or to read fanfic on. There are other archives, websites, etc. that have different, more restrictive policies. By choosing to use AO3, you accept that those are their rules. If you don’t like those rules, go elsewhere. There are many other elsewheres to go. You can even use their open-source code to found your very own press devoted to whatever limitations you desire. This is freedom of the press. In this day and age, you don’t even need a press. Just a smartphone or free computer access at a public library. EVERYONE has a voice..... ..... don’t say that they’re the only game in town because it’s demonstrably false. There are many many ways to publish your fanworks. Many places for a reader to go other than AO3.

I absolutely 100% defend their right to publish everything. Even the things that hurt me. Even the things that seemingly have ‘no artistic value’. Even, and especially the offensive things. It’s their commitment to artistic freedom and freedom of speech and freedom of the press that I support them and will be donating to them after the start of the new year.....

There is no way to reasonably censor. You can set up your new archive to not accept this or that, and that’s entirely your choice. Your archive, your rules. But recognize that your rules are no more objectively ‘better’ than the rules of another archive that decides to eliminate all LGBT content because it finds that content as ‘morally objectionable’ as you find non-con, underage, or whatever you’re objecting to on AO3. It’s their right to do so. It’s your right to allow X, Y, but not Z. But neither is ‘better’. The only moral ‘better’ is to allow all.

If you find something offensive on AO3, feel free to write about it on your own blog. Leave the author a comment that says you find it offensive (as long as it fits within the AO3 TOS.) Rant and rail all you like. But you don’t get to censor. You don’t get to harass. You don’t get to force AO3 to change their rules. You get to vote your displeasure with your feet. Walk away and go to some other archive with rules you do like...[35]

Related Discussions

Additional posts were made by some of the participants, offering up specific examples of harassment and expressing their ongoing concerns over what they felt was AO3's failure to preventing abuse and harassment. In response one fan wrote:

[irresistible-revolution]

That being said, AO3′s purpose, unfortunately, does not include “protect[ing] marginalized members of fandom”. Meaning, AO3 was never founded with this idea in mind. AO3 was founded as a space where fans could post whatever they want without the looming thread of content being purged. I’m not saying this is right or good, but that this was a response to what was going on at the time. as a writer, yes even as a writer of color, i personally feel much “safer” in a space with an expansive approach to content than one which stipulates what is and isn’t appropriate. I can’t believe i’m writing this because this is radically different than how i approached fandom a few years ago, but the more and more time i spend on tumblr the more disturbed i am by the resurgence of a kind of erotophobic moral policing that deploys sj language to control what people should and shouldn’t write about.

do i think we should discuss with AO3 creators about what a policy against slurs and trolls could look like? absolutely. do i think ao3 should be vilified and shut down (which a lot of people have been suggesting, especially rn since ao3 is fundraising)? absolutely not. if we are wholesale opposing a03, then we need to also actively be building alternative infrastructure to house fanworks and stories. right now ff.net is the only alternative and let me tell you that website is a rickety house that only needs to a small breeze to come crashing down. of course people are free to support or not support ao3 financially, but it saddens me when our approach to fandom is to tear down instead of build up. it’s hard enough out here to be a fanfic writer without some of our only platforms being endangered.[36]

Further reading

References

  1. See ao3's response to my abuse complaint re: the..., Archived version. Some members of FFA had a different interpretation of the story. See fail_fandomanon, Archived version and fail_fandomanon, Archived version.
  2. stopthatimp's reblog, Archived version. Additional commentary on the story from 2014 can be found at harpy queen, warning for people who read jjba fic on ao3, Archived version and whit merule - Response from AO3, Archived version
  3. ao3 & censorship, Archived version
  4. a better son/daughter - ao3 & censorship, Archived version
  5. ao3 & censorship - hi christopher, i'm nero, Archived version
  6. Eco-Friendly and Approachably Punk Rock, Archived version
  7. [1], Archived version
  8. Thinky Thoughts - ao3 & censorship, Archived version
  9. Land Of Books And Irritatingly Meta References - ao3 & censorship - ao3 & censorship, Archived version
  10. Gallimaufrey - ao3 & censorship, Archived version
  11. a better son/daughter - ao3 & censorship, Archived version
  12. ao3 & censorship - no, you move, Archived version
  13. Pull the cord from the phone. - ao3 & censorship, Archived version
  14. fail_fandomanon, Archived version
  15. ao3 & censorship, Archived version
  16. SEVEN FOXES, ao3 & censorship, Archived version
  17. Shitpost Neutral, ao3 & censorship, Archived version
  18. fail_fandomanon, Archived version
  19. move in slow motion for me - Anonymous - Hockey RPF [Archive of Our Own], Archived version
  20. ao3's response to my abuse complaint re: the..., Archived version
  21. transformativeworks: Our volunteers save..., Archived version
  22. [2], Archived version
  23. ao3 & censorship, Archived version
  24. SEVEN FOXES, ao3 & censorship, Archived version
  25. SEVEN FOXES, ao3 & censorship, Archived version
  26. a better son/daughter - ao3 & censorship, Archived version
  27. full frontal nerdity - ao3 & censorship, Archived version
  28. Burnt Sugar, Dead Spice, Nothing is Nice, ao3 & censorship, Archived version
  29. [3], Archived version
  30. damn, gina - ao3 & censorship, Archived version
  31. Blog, Archived version
  32. ao3 & censorship - zeegoesthere, Archived version
  33. [ao3 & censorship, Archived version
  34. a better son/daughter - ao3 & censorship, Archived version
  35. Von Gelmini, Archived version
  36. Esta Noche, Archived version