AO3 Content Discussion (2016)

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I'm making an outline for this overwhelming page, one I've called a very tentative (and not very organic) title. See talk page.

Related terms:
See also: Archive of Our Own,Purity Culture in Fandom
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AO3 Content Discussion is a fan conversation that was rekindled by the OTW's October 2016 membership drive, which ran from October 13 to 19.[1]

Anonymous antishippers immediately commented on the initial drive announcement post to accuse the AO3 of hosting "kiddie porn",[2] but far more nuanced conversations about AO3 history, content rules, and harassment issues were already happening on Tumblr and elsewhere. The discussion during the fund drive may have increased awareness of ongoing AO3 issues and introduced the phenomenon of antishipping to OTW members who were not on Tumblr. Some fans refer to the discussion as "purity wank" and Tumblr trends that gave rise to it as "purity culture".


A wide range of types of fanfiction has been proposed for additional moderation and/or removal at AO3. The list includes:

  • underage fiction that does not violate US laws[3]
  • non-con fiction
  • fiction depicting abusive relationships[4]
  • racist fiction/Interracial kink[5][6]
  • Transmisogyny[7]
  • Hatespeech
  • abusive comments in response to fanfic (ex: telling a writer they are sick, that their writing is terrible, they should kill themselves or say they hope they are beaten to death or are raped)[8]

This list is by no means comprehensive. In 2016, one fan tagged her tumblr post with the following list:

#critical analysis is always relevant #this is a complex topic and there are no easy answers -- that doesn't mean that it isn't a conversation worth having #fandom history #fandom meta #meta #fandom life #fanfiction life #fandom problems #fanfiction problems #ao3 #racism in fandom #misogyny in fandom #homophobia in fandom #ableism in fandom #antisemitism in fandom #etc. #censorship #free speech #long post[9]

Note that this increased moderation and removal would be in addition to AO3's existing TOS and policies against abuse and harassment and AO3's tagging and content warnings policies.

In some of the discussions the lines between removing content (aka fiction) vs removing speech (aka comments) are blurred. Some fans, for example, are more comfortable with the fiction remaining, properly tagged, while comments that are perceived to be harassing or hate speech should be removed.[10] Others feel that both content and speech should be part of a more robust AO3 moderation. [citation needed] A third group is annoyed that people they consider trolls have put AO3 into a difficult position.[11] And of course, there are those who feel the current moderation suffices. [citation needed]

In July 2016, rather than calling for AO3 to start banning fanfiction, one fan attempted to solicit suggestions for improving AO3's existing Abuse tools to reduce the amount of harassing comments. Since AO3 does not allows users to message each other directly, comments to existing fic are the main methods of communication. And while AO3 allows authors to turn off anonymous comments and moderate or delete, this was seen as relying "on each individual user’s actions instead of a comprehensive commitment to protecting users."

There has been extensive discussion around the failure of the maintainers of online spaces like Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook to respond adequately to abuse in their environment. The Archive appears to have taken none of this discussion to heart in their planning around Archive anti-abuse. The only advice given by the anti-abuse team to users who are being harassed is “turn off anonymous comments on your works, or turn on comment moderation.” This does nothing to prevent the farther-reaching category of abusive activity taking place here, where the abuser follows users to other areas in the community and forcibly engages third-party users as part of the harassment.

Possible approaches that the Archive might consider include enabling IP tracking (and/or banning), or (as Twitter does) requiring an account to engage with users. Removing anonymous comments site-wide (while still allowing anonymous/guest kudos) is likely the easiest first step from a technology perspective. The abuser could of course work around this by creating “burner” accounts, but those are far more traceable and reportable than the current anonymous setup allows.

This may be viewed as unfair to readers who choose not to create accounts for a variety of reasons, but it is not unreasonable to ask the Archive to prioritize protecting its registered users.

Other input on bullying, harassment, and abuse across the Archive of Our Own platform is welcome in the reblogs of this post*, as well as ideas for actions that could be suggested to the Archive Board. The current Board has indicated that community input and discussion is important to them; here is an opportunity to prove that and demonstrate commitment to the feminist principles of the Archive."[12]

Four months later the post had only received 82 notes on Tumblr while similar posts calling for banning of fanfiction had received 14,000 notes on Tumblr.[13] (On the other hand, the more popular post was by a notoriously wanky fan whose posts were widely hate-read, so a large--and often negative--response is to be expected.)

Some Brief AO3 History

The AO3 was first proposed in May 2007 by Astolat. Her post was one of many in LiveJournal fandom reacting to the commercial startup FanLib, which had tried to recruit some fanfic writers for its new fic archive. LiveJournal fandom was unimpressed by the company's desire to profit off of the popularity of fanfic, not to mention a sales pitch to get buy-in from copyright holders saying things like "All the FANLIB action takes place in a highly customized environment that YOU control" (see File:FanLib info.pdf). Astolat's post An Archive Of One's Own set out some guidelines for a fan-controlled archive in opposition to the dystopian future she saw in FanLib: no ads, no restrictions on content, and a commitment to fic as fair use. To realize this vision, the Organization for Transformative Works was created.

Fans had other (often long-standing) reasons for wanting to help build a new multifandom archive. Strikethrough happened a few weeks after astolat's initial post, driving home the point that it was not safe to rely on commercial entities to preserve fan culture. See Beginnings of OTW: 2007-08 Comments for more comments regarding AO3 and OTW's creation.

[links to other pages]


Summary of and link to Terms of Service

Summarization of Some Primary Topics and Arguments

History: Similar Discussions

Regarding Content on AO3

Other Electronic Platforms, Strikethrough, Livejournal, Usenet

Way Back: Discussions Regarding Age Statements and Warnings

Zines, age statements, the porn debate of 1977

Subjects and Content That Have Been/Are Banned on Archives

Some archives have out-and-out banned certain kinds of fanworks.

Other fanworks have been discouraged and disparaged (with varying degrees of strength and success), depending upon the climate of the time.

See List of Content Banned by Archives.

As one fan explained:

"So… then what? Do we censor certain topics on there? Which topics are to be censored? What happens if authors write about them anyway - do they get banned?

It’s all far too reminiscent of when the ‘bad topics’ in fanfic were slash. Yaoi/yuri. The Gays. There were self-proclaimed moral guardians demanding something be done about that, too. And if X subject gets banned from AO3, that’s a big step back in that direction - because now X is banned. Next is Y. At what point do we go back to banning gay fics? Are fanfic-writers going to go back to being spooked that authors are going to slam down lawsuits because the ficwriter wrote about this or that ship? Because I sure remember the time where most fics started with “A/N: This universe and all characters in it are legally the property of This And That Author. WARNING: M/M” and I don’t think anyone wants to go back to that.

“Oh, but we’d never ban gay fics,” you say. Sure, you wouldn’t. But by starting a banfest, you’d very much encourage those who would."[14]

Others have pointed out that there may be a greater social costs when certain topics are banned:

"Some people want to censor the fandom community as a whole to prevent any potentially dangerous ideas to spread. What they neglect to think about is

1. Not all writing that contains problematic themes treats these themes in a problematic manner.

2. By refusing to talk about a potentially disturbing topics, we are silencing the ones who are already suffering (such as victims of abuse etc.)

3. I have enough trust in humanity that I believe we can deal responsibly with “the problematic”, if we are well-informed and taught how to handle sensitive discussions correctly.

In short, I think people that promote censorship do us all a disservice and their actions are far more dangerous than actually censoring what they view as harmful. I’m not always a fan of how people treat certain topics I’m squeamish about, too, but honestly, we can only learn from that. And even if it is so we have our eyes already open when the next terrible thing happens.

(And fiction can definitely help us with that.)[15]

Context: Political and Social Climate

Social Justice, Social Justice Warrior, Triggers, fandom's greater visibility and desire for legitimacy, political polarization, Fandom as a Safe Space, Underground, Underage, chan, Rape, Noncon, Race and Fandom

An Age/Experience Divide?

[pipistrellus], October 18:

"The ao3 discourse is interesting to me bc i feel like theres a big disconnect between ppl who Were There For Strikethrough of course but also in a more general way, people for whom Strikethrough was not a Weird Anomaly – people who grew up in the late 80s/early-mid 90s climate of BANNING JUDY BLUME BOOKS FROM LIBRARIES BC AN ADULT WROTE TEENS DOING SEX ! and stuff… like… ppl for whom “disingenuous right-wing ~for the family~ morality org claims to wanna protect vulnerable people but SOMEHOW MIRACULOUSLY ends up just banning kids from reading about sex or gay shit or talking about having been raped” is really… just… the norm. like. thats the baseline of this discourse… that’s… you know. i dont know. i dont mean this in a YOU GOTTA UNDERSTAND WHERE WE WISE OLD PPL ARE COMING FROM thing i mean it in a … i genuinely think that there are two paradigms here and that it is probably hard to grok aspects of them if you grew up in a cultural atmosphere which can lead you to claim ~Strikethrough was an anomaly~ rather than the system working as intended. Strikethrough wasnt a Good Protective Thing which ON THE EDGES also ACCIDENTALLY took out a FEW “innocent” comms and journals… Strikethrough did what it was intended to do, and it was only one incident in a long, looooong history of organizations like that one doing, or trying to do, the same damn thing."[16]

havingbeenbreathedout, October 20:

"I agree, and I’m sure there is a large element of this, but my issue with chalking the whole thing up to an age difference in which Things Were Different Then, is that the paradigm the OP is describing still exists. Books are still challenged and removed from libraries based on the same arguments under which Blume books were being challenged back in the 80s & 90s—which, coincidentally are some of the same arguments being made by proponents of fic censorship as well. [snipped list of books challenged or banned in 2014-2015]... ....I could go on. I just think anyone advocating censorship and claiming not to understand or take seriously how easily and universally it gets turned into a weapon to suppress intellectual freedom and silence already-marginalized voices, not only hasn’t learned their history but also isn’t paying attention to what’s happening right now.[17]

Fandom as a Safe Space: Safe for Whom?


We seem to have fallen into the trap of imagining the platonic ideal of a Safe Space, and thinking fandom should be it. There is no such thing as a maximally Safe Space for all people at all times. You can only have a space that is Safe on specific terms for specific groups. The wider the groups, the more specific the terms have to be. The A03 is not designed to provide access to safe content, it is designed to be a place that is safe for content to be shared. That, on the up side, means it is a place where your kink - your personal work using your very personal sexuality or whatever - is okay, or at least is not going to be deleted. On the down side, it means some spectacularly racist shit, or homophobic shit, or whatever, is not going to be deleted either.

If you want a space where safety is determined in terms of the kind of content you will encounter more than the durability of the platform and the policies of free speech and so on, that is fine! But the AO3 is not that space, and is not designed to be that space.[18]

Others offer up their own definition of safe spaces:

[2016]: I believe a safe space is somewhere you can talk about the fanworks you enjoy without having to disclose personal information to ‘justify’ yourself. It is also a place where you can say that you don’t like a particular kind of fanwork without having to say why.

I will not demand you share my views on this, especially if you are young and/or relatively new to fandom, and haven’t spent years watching communities implode over censorship and lack thereof, but I feel it’s only fair you know my own.[19]

Archive of Our Own as a "safe space" for readers/consumers: [need quotes]

Archive of Our Own as a "safe space" for writers and other fanwork creators: [need quotes]

Fanworks as Subversive


"'s absolutely possible for women to produce works which glorify, promote or simply apologise for rape culture, just as it's possible for women to internalise and uphold any other harmful cultural norm. And there are probably parts of fandom and other creative internet subcultures which fall into exactly that trap.

But female-dominated media fandoms of the sort that created AO3 are the last people likely to wallow in that mistake. This is a branch of fandom with a long history of not just writing kinky fic, but also writing extended thinky meta about why those kinks appeal to women and how that intersects with cultural sexism and rape culture, cite reputable sources demonstrating that indulging in those kinks through fiction isn't unhealthy, and wank themselves into a fury over the precise line between 'dub-con' and 'non-con' (often by multiple meanings of the word 'wank'). This is a branch of fandom that (for all its faults and infighting) is feminist as fuck, socially conscious, incredibly prone to naval gazing, and overall self-aware of the issues involved to a degree the mainstream may need another decade to catch up with.

Now, if that awareness over all those issues isn't reaching the younger generation of tumblr fans, that should be addressed, but you seriously can compare fanfic to any mass-market published media. The scale and the surrounding culture are hardly in the same solar system.[20]

Group Polarization

Fans Policing Other Fans as Opposed to Outsiders Policing Fans

See Fandom Police.

Squicks, Kinks, Don't Like Don't Read, YMMV, Darkfic, Using the Delete Key and the Back Button

Differing likes, dislikes, tolerance, intolerance.

The Role That Technology Plays

As fandom migrates from platform to platform, the technological tools they use to interact with one another change how they interact with one another. Oftentimes a sense of myopia creeps into fan communication, when a platform becomes so popular that users expect the rest of the Internet to model itself after their chosen platform. An example would be when bloggers began using the Livejournal or Dreamwidth platforms created an expectation that certain posts should be "friends locked". On tumblr, there is extensive commentary regarding how tags are used to comment as well as filter out or exclude objectionable content.

Some fans find it puzzling that the banning debate persists when technology offers the ability to filter our objectionable content at a detailed level:

Here’s the thing, and it’s no reflection on you personally, but what any one person thinks should or should not be written, matters to one person–them.

Because, when you strip this argument of all the clickbait stuff surrounding it–the rape fics and child porn and people’s triggers–it turns out it’s all about what someone else likes versus what I like. And that’s none of AO3′s business because they’re not the morals police. And because they were founded as a direct response to the morals police, they have a very generous TOS.

Do I think they should take certain fics down or change the TOS? No. I don’t think they should do either. I’m all about the freedom of speech so I’d be a hypocrite if I said yes.

What kills me most about this whole argument, is that it’s about AO3. As far as I know, there’s never ever been an archive where it was easier to avoid things you don’t want to read.

Don’t like, don’t read, is a good rule because it so easy. No one loses anything by it. I write the non-con and dub-con I like to write and a potential reader sees my tags and warnings and moves on. No one is harmed.

tl;dr AO3 shouldn’t take anything down that doesn’t violate their TOS because freedom of expression.[21]

The Role of Tumblr

Tagging, dogpiling, difficulties in having a conversation, tagging as a source of misunderstanding and other things, visibility, lack of ability to control

Common Tags

Meta/Further Reading: Censorship, Fear, and Content

[need more examples as this is woefully incomplete]






2016: The AO3 Discussion

Further reading


  1. ^ OTW October Drive: Spotlight on Our Servers, Archived version, 12 October 2016 20:09:14 EDT.
  2. ^ Show Comment, Archived version, 13 October 2016 02:49AM EDT.
  3. ^ shit brickhouse, Archived version
  4. ^ Down the Penguin Hole, mikkeneko: desert-neon: julesdrenages:..., Archived version. The OP objected to many different types of fanfiction themes. There were 14,000 notes in response to the OP. This is part of one of the threads addressing unhealthy/abusive relationships.
  5. ^ AO3 and Abuse: A Story About the AO3 Abuse Team, Archived version
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ stopthatimp's reblog, Archived version.
  8. ^ cupidsbow • pocketlass: daunt: imwiththewolves: colethewolf:..., Archived version
  9. ^ ao3 & censorship - Came for the squees, stayed for the analysis, Archived version
  10. ^ See AO3 and Abuse: A Story About the AO3 Abuse Team, Archived version post tagged: #this is an excellent point #my personal POV is that the author comments should have been deleted but not the responses #while the fic should have remained up #but that is just me.
  11. ^ [1], Archived version
  12. ^ [2], Archived version
  13. ^ honestly I don’t even care why ao3 was created,, Archived version. A good number of the 14,000 notes were in opposition to banning fanfiction. Magnusbene was well known, especially on FFA, for being misogynist and age-ist and for sounding generally unhinged and squicked by gay sex. Their later addendum to the post reads: "[nov 2018 add-on]: i’m still right and people disagreeing with me are abuse apologist freaks so jot that down! i’ll never apologize or say i made a mistake with this post, you can die mad about it because i’ll never delete this post or my blog just so this post can keep on trucking. this’ll be the last post on tumblr when it’s shut down in 2030 and i will still be right/people getting off to simulated abuse can all perish and i won’t change my mind. ao3 participates i’m abuse culture and distributing child porn among other things, and you all fandom elders are freaks if not literal abusers! xoxo"
  14. ^ I keep seeing this AO3 discourse come across my... - Needs more pastels, Archived version
  15. ^ What riles about AO3 "appalling lack of... - There is nothing glorious about me., Archived version
  16. ^ untitled post by pipistrellus, Archived version, posted to tumblr 18 October 2016.
  17. ^ reblog by havingbeenbreathedout of pipistrellus's post, Archived version, posted to tumblr 20 October 2016.
  18. ^ ineptshieldmaid's post dated Oct 19, 2016, Archived version
  19. ^ A little note regarding censorship discourse., Archived version
  20. ^ Things you wouldn't admit unanon from fail_fandomanon, Archived version
  21. ^ such a nasty woman - wait so what is your standpoint on the ao3..., Archived version