AO3 Tagging System

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This article is about the Archive of Our Own tag system. For one of the committees involved in the OTW, see Organization for Transformative Works/Tag Wrangling.

Related terms: Wrangulator
See also: Archive of Our Own, Organization for Transformative Works/Tag Wrangling
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The Archive of Our Own's tagging system is unique and complex, based on the principles of user-entered folksonomy; it allows users to create and apply any tags they like to their stories, and on the back end, an army of volunteer tag wranglers link together tags with the same meaning so that readers can browse the site more easily. Rules and guidelines for wrangling are developed by the OTW's Tag Wrangling Committee in discussion with the wranglers and often with feedback from the community.

Tag wranglers wrangle the tags, and the committee wrangles the wranglers....

The way AO3 tags work—including the initial lack of a comprehensive tagging FAQ and clear guidelines for writers tagging their works, and the workload on the tag wranglers—have led to repeated criticism. See AO3 Tagging Policy Debate.

The Tags

User-Generated Tags

There are four different categories of freeform tags on the AO3:

  • Fandoms - This is the only one of the four freeform tags that is a required tag when uploading a fanwork. It indicates which fandom - such as Highlander or Final Fantasy - the work belongs to for correct categorization.
  • Characters - This is the category that houses the various characters that appear in a fanwork - such as Greg House or Tony Stark.
  • Relationships - This is the category listing the various character relationships for the fanwork - such as Carl/Gabriel Van Helsing or Buick 8/Christine.
  • Additional Tags - This category holds all of the other tags users include on a fanwork, indicating such aspects of the work as Alternate Universe or additional warnings or any other descriptor a user may wish to include.

These categories can be seen in the "tag" section of the upload form when a fanwork is uploaded to the archive. (From a Tag Wranglers perspective, the Additional Tags are known as Freeforms since that is the term on the tag wrangling user interface.)

Other Tags on a Work

There are three other types of tags on a work that are set by the author when posting the work. These can be searched and eliminated in the Advanced Search page like any other tag. Two of them are enforceable for accuracy under the Terms of Service if a user files a Policy & Abuse ticket.

  • Warnings Tags - Enforceable - These show the archive warnings that users select for their fanworks. These were selected to be critical warnings for legal and other reasons. "Choose not to use warnings" is the a blanket warning for all possible content - a "read at your own risk!"
  • Rating Tags - Enforceable - This shows the author's rating of the work, within recommended guidelines. This is at author discretion and the fandom in question is considered a guideline for which of two adjacent categories a work might be considered for. "No Rating" is a blanket warning for all possible content - a "read at your own risk!"
  • Category Tags - These show the category of any pairing or interaction within the work. Choices include "Gen", "F/F", "F/M", "M/M", "Multi", and "Other".


The first tag wrangler RPF was posted to the AO3 in 2009, followed by several more set in a shared universe called Wrangulatorverse. One story, chroma, by akamine_chan, even fictionalizes wranglers' long wait for metatag functionality. All wrangler RPF is folded into the OTW RPF fandom tag.

Tags themselves became their own separate fandom on AO3 in late 2012, AO3 Tags.

In October 2012, Isabear wrote Avengers Assemble, a found poem using AO3 tags from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The idea quickly spread, and someone nominated AO3 Tags as a fandom for Yuletide 2012. Two works were written for that challenge: The Bar at the End of the Fandom by Firstlighteos for Misslucyjane, which anthropomorphizes several freeform tags, and Somebody had to write this (so why not me?) by Who_la_hoop for Dizmo, which is a found poem centered around various tag themes.

In 2013, a number of tag wranglers got into the action with art, stories, and meta about tags, sometimes intersecting with works about wranglers. In addition, an upsurge in positive interest in freeform tags on Tumblr and Dreamwidth resulted in several posts linking, screencapping, or transforming tags, such as Melannen's Alot of Tags fanart of Hyperbole and a Half in June, and Thingswithwings's dramatic podcast reading of the landing page for the Feels tag in early August.

Also in 2013 Melannen wrote a filk titled A Complete History of the AO3 as Told by a Humble Wrangler Arranged to the Melody of 'A Complete History of the Soviet Union as Told by a Humble Worker Arranged to the Melody of Tetris'. Podficcers later sung it for Voiceteam 2020.

Criticism and discussion of AO3's tagging system

The way AO3 tags work for Archive readers, writers, and wranglers has been extensively discussed and criticized. In 2009, one discussion and a comment by zvi on Tags Wuzzles resulted in an Ao3 newspost, Tags (Wuzzles) explained. Zvi's comment became a newspost because there was confusion in fannish spaces about Ao3's tagging system at the time, with many users unfamiliar with the curated folksonomy model.

One hub for discussion on the topic is panfandom anonmeme Fail Fandomanon (FFA). Anons there regularly voice both their appreciation and disapproval of aspects of AO3's tagging system.

External links