AO3 Tag Limits

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On August 24, 2021, the OTW announced that Archive of Our Own (AO3) would limit the number of tags that could be added to a single fanwork to 75. Previously, AO3 had never limited the number of tags a user could add to a work.

The announcement generated a lot of fan discussion on multiple platforms. Opinions varied widely, though the majority of site users appeared to be in favor. The discussion also revealed the philosophies behind different tagging practices.

Background

Wall of tags, 2021

AO3 users can add tags to their own works or bookmarks. The work form includes several freeform fields that users can enter tags into: Fandoms, Characters, Relationships, Additional Tags. Users can select existing "canonical" tags from the dropdown or create their own. Volunteer tag wranglers work on the back end to connect synonyms and "canonize" tags to improve site navigation. (Archive warnings, relationship categories, and Rating are also tags, but users must select them from a predefined list and cannot make new ones.)

From 2009 when the archive entered open beta until 2021, AO3 had no limit on the number of tags that could be added to a work. All of the tags and other metadata would display as part of the work blurb on search results and work list pages. Occasionally archive users would complain of "walls of tags" on some works that they deemed to have too many tags, but no one, it seems, was prepared for what came next.

Many people believe that the trigger for the new tag limit policy was Sexy times with Wangxian by virtual1979, a frequently-updated million-word Mo Dao Zu Shi work with thousands of tags. Matters came to a head in early 2021 when the increasing number of tags caused the site to crash for some users, while more and more users became annoyed at this work appearing at the top of every tag they wanted to read. The author seemed impervious to user requests to remove tags. Copy cat trolls then started flooding the site with more works with thousands of tags for a few days before they and Sexy times with Wangxian were removed from view.

A ticket to limit tags was opened on AO3's public bug tracker on March 31.[1] In April virtual1979 announced that the AO3 had told them there was a new tag limit policy, but nothing official was heard until August....

AO3 News Post

The tag limit announcement was posted to the News section of AO3 itself, as well as to a few of the OTW's social media accounts. The AO3 post explained that after the next code update went live, the combined total of fandom, character, relationship, and additional tags could not exceed 75. Existing works with more than 75 tags would not be affected until the user tried to update the work--the user would be prompted to remove the extra tags before saving.

Why place a limit on tags?

Having a limit on tags will:

  • help keep work blurbs to a reasonable length, improving the experience of navigating work listings, and
  • encourage creators to tag for the most important elements of their works, improving the quality of search results.

Why 75 tags?

We looked at all the works on the Archive and determined that:

  • the average number of tags per work is 17,
  • the most common number of tags per work is 11, and
  • less than 0.5% of works have more than 75 tags.
A limit of 75 total fandom, character, relationship, and additional tags per work will provide the vast majority of creators with enough space to describe the content of their works while also keeping work blurbs to a manageable size.[2]

In response to questions, the OTW clarified in a later post that "the new limits will not apply to bookmarks, series, or gift exchanges and prompt memes run on the site."[3]

Reactions

Before comments were closed, the AO3 News post received 1,715 comments. As of 8 September, the tumblr announcement post had 14,120 notes. Most users (especially readers) seemed to be in favor, with a minority of authors against.

The main disagreement seemed to be between fans who treated tags as an index to their work (tagging every element that appears) and fans who believed that only the most important elements of the work should be tagged. Also at play was the tension between tagging so people could exclude things they don't like (squicks, triggers, a character they hate so much even a brief mention is too much) vs. tagging for things people actively like (would a fan of this character be happy with the amount of screen time they get in the fic?). Some longfic writers, writers who liked collecting all their short works as chapters in one work, and fans in complex franchise fandoms with large numbers of characters expressed disappointment in the new policy. Fans of rarepairs and side characters, fans who didn't like collections-as-works, fans who were annoyed by Sexy times with Wangxian, and other AO3 users who used tags to find fanworks expressed varying degrees of satisfaction with the new policy. Some people thought having a limit made sense, but wanted the limit to be higher or lower than 75. Some people just posted "The evil is defeated" gifs.

Discussions about how AO3's tag system worked also took place, as it turned out that some fans worried about the limit were unaware that they could use metatags instead and didn't have to tag all synonyms separately.

Some AO3 News replies

[Schnikeys]

I appreciate the explanation for the chosen number, feels good, feels supportive, thanks for everything you guys do![4]

[viajera_pensativa]

Glad to see this! I wouldn't mind this number being even lower.[5]

[Terrie]

Good. Not every casual mention needs to be included in the tags. Important characters, relationships and themes should be there. They should tell me what I need to know to make a decision on if the story is something I do or do not want to read.[6]

[another_shingo]

Absolutely. People need to stop tagging side pairings and side characters. I'm tired of clicking through hundreds of fics tagged with my ship that aren't about my ship.[7]

[victoriousscarf]

Honestly I get the limit but I feel like 75 is too low. As someone said it feels like it privileges shorter fics. I have one story at 73 tags that includes a really big cast (I only tag characters that have arcs) and needs a lot of warnings. At 360,000 it's not even the longest, and it's not at the limit, but if I want to add any characters it would be.[8]

[DifferentDances]

You could condense all the PTSD tags into just the 'PTSD' tag, you don't need the 'emotions are messy and so is saving the world' tag, cut the 'did i mention this is a slow burn' because you already tagged it 'This is a very slow burn time travel fic' (honestly just replace them both with a single 'slow burn' tag). You could get rid of or consolidate a lot of your non-character, non relationship tags tbh.[9]

[victoriousscarf]

Ptsd and untreated ptsd are actually different concepts that can trigger different people 👍
But hey thanks for your unsolicited advice.[10]

[ArianaDeralte]

I have a similar problem. All my shorter fics are fine, but my longest fic in a huge fandom (Star Wars) is over the limit. I'm basically being penalized for writing a long fic that really does have tons of canon characters with story arcs, pairings, tropes and warnings that need tagging. I just went over it and deleted five that were redundant, but that still puts me over 75.[11]

[victoriousscarf]

It's frustrating. People keep insisting we have tags we can remove (didn't ask but thanks) but that doesn't really change how frustrating it is to have to go over it again with a fine tooth comb when we were using the archive and our creativity in good faith.[12]

[roundabout]

The longest fanfic in the english language is over 5 million words long. It has 25 tags. Long fic doesn't need over than 75 tags.[13]

[Tunicate]

Thank you for this change!
The more tags a fic has, the less weight I give to each tag. To give an extreme example, if a fic is tagged with, say, the fandom, the characters, and only "Car Crash" in the additional tags section, I would readily believe that the fic is centered around a car crash. On the other hand, if a 10k or even a 100k fic has 100 additional tags that happen to include "Car Crash", I won't know if the car crash is incidental in a chase scene, or if the car crash is mentioned in the in-fic news, or if I actually need to avoid that fic because a character gets injured from the car crash.[14]

[PinkAxolotl85]

Finally death to those mega crossover oneshot collections that plague Ao3, do you had idea how fuckin disappointing it is to go 'sort by most kudo's' and having to scroll by 10 of those oneshot works because the author is either too afraid of using a series or wants the big boy numbers the fastest way possible?? Honestly who even reads them I don't think I've met one person who does anything but ignore them.[15]

[Jisa_Patryn]

A lot of the negative reactions seem to be seem to be anxiety over finding readers, accurately tagging fics, and expressing themselves. I just want to say, as someone who is primarily a reader, that there is precisely one instance where I wish people would tag more, and many, many instances where I wish people would tag less.... Let me be honest: the number of tags is something I consider when I'm thinking about clicking on a story, and more tags do not make that more likely. I love long-fic, but I am not here to read your 50 tags, I'm here to read the fic.[16]

[potatertot]

I hope this cuts down on authors chatting in the tags like it's tumblr.[17]

[myguitarisinmymind]

Personally I don't mind (and even find helpful) a few of those tags per story. It can be informative of ~vibes and give a sense of the author that simply tagging genre, tropes, and subject matter may not show. But that maxes out somewhere around 4. If you are past 75 tags and bunch of them are Tumblresque tags... yikes.

[AnneAizawa]

As an author of a sexually explicit work which currently is sitting at just under 30,000 words, but is intended to run closer to 150,000 I must say that I STRONGLY disagree with this limit. I've ALREADY hit this limit and VERY FEW of my tags could be considered extraneous or redundant. Even if I were to go in and prune a few of them out, by the time I finish this fic it will contain MANY more things that should be tagged in order not to trigger people and there is NO possibility of keeping it under 75 and being adequately tagged. Could I move some of those things to the author's notes? Yes, but that doesn't help people to filter for them to either search for or exclude those kinks/squicks. Could I split it into a series? Possibly but not for quite some time since there is absolutely a difference between where you break a story and where you break chapter. Authors of long fic and authors of erotic fic are 100% going to be hurt by this and make the site less functional as a result.[18]

[xkcdBlackHat]

I don't like this change, because I really liked being able to have as many tags as I wanted and not having to worry about the limit. Now that I do, I'm going to be more anxious about what I can tag, and what I'll leave out.[19]

[homodachi]

The thing is that tags have a specific function, which is primarily organizational. They are not supposed to be a space for jokes or author's notes or apologizing or listing every character that appears in a work, even though some people use them for that. They're supposed to work as an enhanced version of library categories and make your work searchable. They are also supposed to help readers find/fics with content that they do/do not want to see.

Adding too many tags to your work shows that you don't know how to communicate what's actually important about your fic. Naturally, readers can't tell either, and the warning/organizational functions become moot.[20]

Some Tumblr replies

[amber-the-cat]

I’ve seen some disappointed reactions about this, and one thing that is brought up frequently is tagging for triggers and warnings. A lot of people are worried the 75 tag limit will prevent them from tagging all variations of trigger tags.

Well, let me introduce you to the amazing world of ✨ metatags ✨ ...

So if you are worried about not being able to tag every single variation of a trigger, check to see if the tags you’re adding are subtags of a tag you’ve already added to your fic.

[ao3commentoftheday]

This is a great insight. Thank you so much for sharing it! And one reason why this is possible on AO3 is because of the Tag Wrangling team. Actual humans look at your tags and can match them up appropriately under parent tags - so even if your tag isn’t listed but it’s clear what it means, it will still be categorized correctly.... 75 tags is actually quite a lot and if you read the linked news post you’ll see just how few fics even get close to that number. We might need to start making choices about which tags to include, but for the most part we’ll all be just fine.[21]

[madmaudlingoes]

Some folks on Twitter dug into the data dump from March of 2021, to look at what fics would be most affected by this.... Longer fics = more tags. Of fics with a word count greater than 25k, the number with 75+ tags is 2.66% –still small, but an order of magnitude greater than the sitewide average.... It also turns out that the number of tags per work has been growing over time. (You can also see this in Verity’s workbook.) Partly this is down to changing norms around tagging, but I can’t help but suspect it’s also party because, for the first couple years of the Archive, a lot of us were bulk-importing fics from LJ or DW and didn’t have the energy to back through and add tags to dozens of fics at a time.... But there’s also the phenomenon I tend to call “multi-fandom pile-ups,” where a writer uses a single work to collect a bunch of unrelated ficlets under a single theme (like “Whumptober” or “Twitter prompts”). I suspect these are responsible for the works with 100+ fandom tags I found in the data. They’re also the ones that come to mind when I think of the “wall of tags” problem, even if it was a single-fandom fic that finally got AO3 to act on this issue.... TL;DR: half the works that are overtagged are either crossovers or pile-ups, and frankly, the pile-ups are an example of works this policy is trying to target as a problem.[22]

Some Twitter replies

This article or section needs expansion.

Further Reading

Official Announcements

Fan Discussions/Meta

References

  1. ^ Limit the number of tags that can be used on works (accessed 16 April 2021)
  2. ^ AO3 news: Upcoming limit on tags per work, Archived version, posted 24 August 2021. (Accessed 8 September 2021.)
  3. ^ AO3 news: August 2021 Newsletter, Volume 160, Archived version, posted 2021-09-12. (Accessed 13 September 2021.)
  4. ^ comment by Schnikeys, Archived version, 24 Aug 2021. (Accessed 13 September 2021.)
  5. ^ comment by viajera_pensativa, Archived version, 24 Aug 2021. (Accessed 13 September 2021.)
  6. ^ comment by Terrie, Archived version, 24 Aug 2021. (Accessed 13 September 2021.)
  7. ^ Reply by another_shingo on 27 Aug 2021.
  8. ^ comment by victoriousscarf, Archived version, 24 Aug 2021. (Accessed 13 September 2021.)
  9. ^ reply by DifferentDances
  10. ^ Reply by victoriousscarf
  11. ^ Reply by ArianaDeralte
  12. ^ Reply by victoriousscarf
  13. ^ reply by roundabout, Archived version
  14. ^ comment by Tunicate, Archived version, 25 Aug 2021.
  15. ^ Comment by PinkAxolotl85, Archived version, 25 Aug 2021.
  16. ^ Comment by Jisa_Patryn, Archived version, 24 Aug 2021
  17. ^ Comment by potatertot, Archived version, 24 Aug 2021.
  18. ^ Comment by AnneAizawa, Archived version , 25 Aug 2021
  19. ^ Comment by xkcdBlackHat, Archived version
  20. ^ Comment by homodachi, Archived version, 24 Aug 2021
  21. ^ Upcoming limit on tags per work, Archived version, reblogged by ao3commentoftheday, 24 August 2021. (Accessed 9 September 2021.)
  22. ^ Upcoming limit on tags per work, Archived version, reblogged by madmaudlingoes, 27 August 2021. (Accessed 9 September 2021.)