AO3 Exchange

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Related terms: gift exchange, Secret Santa, challenge, ficathon
See also: Category:Gift Exchanges, Art trade
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The term AO3 exchange is generally used to refer to gift exchanges run on Archive of Our Own using its collections and challenges system for nominations, sign ups, matching, and posting. More specifically, AO3 exchanges have usually come out of the Yuletide tradition and are a part of exchange fandom. Typical hallmarks include mod communication via a dedicated Dreamwidth community, dear creator letters, pinch hits, anonymous periods, and not revealing works until everyone who signed up and completed their assignment has received a gift.

In exchanges run on Archive of Our Own, participants are assigned to requests using the collection and challenges system, which allows exchange mods to have a computer match participants instead of handmatching if they wish, a useful feature for large exchanges. Mods who still handmatch typically still use AO3's matching interface to send out assignments and assign pinch hits.

Some exchanges may use AO3's collection and challenge system in whole or in part without being part of exchange fandom, because although the challenge system was built for Yuletide there are many people on the site who've never even heard of it. Exchanges run on tumblr, for example, are likely to use only part of the collection and challenges system: frequently they use it only for posting, and the exchange mod instead collects sign ups via Google Form, handmatches participants, and then sends assignments to participants via email, tumblr IM, or tumblr ask. Therefore, it should be understood that the information below is simply a generalization of a large portion of a particular subset of fans who use AO3 for exchanges.


The stages of an AO3 exchange are, commonly:

  • Nominations
  • Sign ups
  • Matching
  • Assignments
  • Creation period
  • Posting deadline
  • Work reveals
  • Anonymous period
  • Author reveals

Some exchanges hosted on AO3 deviate from this because they're based in a community that isn't connected with exchange fandom. Other exchanges deviate simply because the mod is trying something new—for example flash exchanges usually hold nominations and sign ups at the same time.


During nominations, anyone thinking of signing up visits the exchange's tagset, which is a special collection of tags meant to make matching offers and requests easier. The tagset is where participants suggest fandoms, characters, ships, freeforms, or other tags that they want to be able to match on during the exchange. The exchange mod sets up which categories can be nominated in and how many tags in each category can be nominated. The exchange mod also accepts, rejects, corrects, or merges tags either during nominations or after they're closed. Exchange mods may also use clarification posts on their associated Dreamwidth (or other community) to ask nominators questions about their tags.

This step is not actually necessary to run an exchange, but it allows the exchange mod to control what participants can request and offer, which makes matching run much more smoothly. Exchanges that don't use a tagset have to use canonical tags (tags approved by AO3 tag wranglers) which can be a problem if participants want to match on fandoms or characters that don't yet exist on AO3 or if the tag a participant wants to match on is synned in a way they don't agree with. For example, Dreaming of Sunshine is synned to Naruto, which means fans of Dreaming of Sunshine who want to sign up to an exchange that only allows canonical fandom tags must request the Naruto fandom tag and accept that they will likely be matched to someone who only wants Naruto.

Tags in a tagset must be unique and are they're usually disambiguated by fandom: Albus Dumbledore might be nominated under Harry Potter - JK Rowling as "Albus Dumbledore (HP - JKR)" and under Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them as "Albus Dumbledore (Fantastic Beasts)". Tags also have to be an exact match for AO3's matching algorithm to match offers and requests, so even if matching is on relationships only, a participant offering/requesting "Albus Dumbledore (HP - JKR)" would never match to another participant offering/requesting "Albus Dumbledore (Fantastic Beasts)". Disambiguations are also frequently used to keep tags from "wandering", or appearing in a fandom they weren't nominated for because the AO3 tag wranglers have either synned the tag's nominated fandom to another fandom in the tagset or associated the tag with another fandom in the tagset. For example, character or relationship tags nominated under the Black Panther (2018) tag are likely to show up under both that fandom and the Marvel Cinematic Universe fandom if the AO3 canonical tags are used. Marvel characters also tend to wander between Marvel Cinematic Universe, Marvel Comics, and Marvel 616.

Sign ups

During sign ups, participants fill out the necessary number of requests (things they want written for them) and offers (things they are willing to write). Many exchanges have both maximum and minimum limits of tags for sign ups and exchanges. Offers are hidden from everyone except the exchange mod.

Unlike some other challenges, such as remixes, participants in exchanges are encouraged to include optional details in their requests, such as their likes, preferences, and DNWs (Do Not Wants), in order to increase the likelihood that they'll receive a gift they'll enjoy.


Participants often use letters to provide additional detail or better formatting for their requests than the optional details box on AO3 allows. Letters are usually hosted on a personal Dreamwidth or Livejournal, but any site that allows one to post text and link to it might be used.


Matching is the process by which offers are paired with requests based on tags selected from the tagset put together during nominations. Exchange mods can also choose to match participants by hand either entirely or in part, but most take advantage of the automated matching system that AO3 provides.

"AND" vs "OR" Matching

The matching system can be set to "AND" matching or "OR" matching. In "AND" matching, participants are matched on all tags in their request in every category. In "OR" matching, participants are matched on one tag per category.

"OR" matching is often preferred because it makes matching much easier, since requests and offers only have to overlap a little to be matched.


When the matching is done, participants get their assignment emailed to them. The email contains all of the requests a creator's assigned recipient made, not just the one they matched on. Assignments are secret, so only the exchange mod can see all of them. Participants can chose to default on their assignment as soon as they get it or at any time before their assignment is due. It's generally considered polite to default as soon as possible, so that the mod has a time to put out a pinch hit.

Some gift-givers may do research on their recipient (such as looking at their bookmarks or social media) or ask follow-up questions via the exchange mod or some other anonymous means, although in exchange fandom contacting one's recipient directly us usually forbidden. Opinions vary as to how close the gift needs to be to the recipient's request.

Creation period

Commonly called the "writing period" in fic exchanges, the length of this period varies from exchange to exchange, usually depending on the length or complexity of the fanwork required by the exchange. Creators who have questions about their recipient's requests typically go through the mods in exchanges based on Dreamwidth (or Livejournal), although exchanges based on tumblr may allow or encourage contact through anonymous asks.

Default Deadline

During the creation period and before the deadline for everyone to post their works, some exchanges may have a default deadline about a week before the creation period ends. This is the latest date a creator can default on their assignment with no penalty. The BSD Spring Fling 2019 describes this deadline like so:

There is a "default deadline" on March 17. You can default at any time, however, if you default after March 17, you will need to create and post another gift to the collection if you want to participate in future rounds of BSD Spring Fling. Make-up gifts must meet the exchange minimums, and must be posted before the next year's sign-ups begin.[1]

Pinch Hits

Gift exchanges are designed so that every participant receives a work from another participant, although usually a participant will not be giving their fanwork to the same participant who is making a fanwork for them. Gift exchanges associated with the "exchange fandom" (which is centered around Dreamwidth and Archive of Our Own) will delay the reveal of all gifts until everyone has one, but other communities (such as tumblr-based exchanges) may not do this. In exchanges associated with exchange fandom, the exchange mod will usually post a list of participants who need someone to volunteer to create a gift for them—these are called pinch hits, and the people who volunteer are called pinch hitters. Pinch hitters may be participants willing to produce more than two fanworks for the exchange, or may be non-participants. In exchange fandom, potential participants are advised not to sign up for exchanges without a pinch hitting system because it may signal that the moderator is disorganized or does not care if all participants receive a gift.


A treat is an extra fanwork produced for a gift exchange in addition to the one work each participant is entitled to receive and required to produce. Treats are usually exempt from the length or size restrictions that the main gifts have to adhere to, but still otherwise adhere to the rules of the exchange. Some exchanges encourage treats, while others don't allow them.

Posting Deadline

This is when fanworks are due, and is usually several days before work reveals. This gives the exchange mod time to check that all of the works uploaded meet the exchange requirements (meets length/complexity requirements, isn't an unfinished draft, isn't picklefic or clearly spitefic) and send out any necessary emergency pinch hits. At this point all works are still hidden from everyone but the exchange mod.

Work reveals, anonymous period, & author reveals

The reveal of works isn't automated, so the exchange mod has to be on-hand to flip the switch. Participants get emails letting them know about their gifts and any treats. Many exchanges chose to keep authors anonymous for a time, usually a week. Although it's hotly debated, many exchange participants feel commenting on ones gift soon after work reveals is an important part of exchange etiquette. If there was an anonymous period, authors sometimes wait to reply to comments until their name is revealed.

History of AO3 Exchanges

Exchanges on Archive of Our Own are largely based on Yuletide, the largest yearly multifandom exchange. Yuletide has been running since 2003 and formed the basis of AO3's collection and challenges system:

[Excerpt from AO3 News post: Yuletide Treasure on the AO3!]

Yuletide 2009 will be the first outing for our shiny new Collections and Challenges code, which will be enhanced and expanded in future. It's a great test case for us, because Yuletide mod astolat is one of our senior coders and has done most of the heavy lifting for this new code (which has meant VERY good communication between challenge mods and coders!). The Yuletide challenge is also fairly large and complicated to run, which gives us a good starting baseline of features for other fic-exchange-style challenges.

According to musesfool, Remix Redux was "the first challenge to use [the AO3 challenge system] from sign-up to reveal."[2]

This is a great write-up, though I have to say that using AO3 makes a lot of this much, much easier (especially matching; dear god, it makes matching easier).

It also makes it much easier to keep track of what stories are in and what stories are with pinch hitters (though at the time of remix, there was no way to see if the pinch hits had been submitted without looking at the whole list of stories - we've asked them to make that easier), etc.


So, I guess this can be seen as a plug for running your (generic) exchanges on AO3 - there is a lot less work for the mod(s) and it also allows for participants to continue editing their stories after they've been submitted without having to contact the mods. On the downside, there probably is less feedback.[2]