A Day At the Biggest Mall on Earth: Fanfic Archiving and You

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News Media Commentary
Title: A Day At the Biggest Mall on Earth: Fanfic Archiving and You
Commentator: Merlin Missy
Date(s): October 19, 2007
Venue: online
External Links: A Day At the Biggest Mall on Earth: Fanfic Archiving and You, page 1, Archived version
A Day At the Biggest Mall on Earth: Fanfic Archiving and You, page 2, Archived version
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A Day At the Biggest Mall on Earth: Fanfic Archiving and You is an article by Merlin Missy.

It was posted in 2007 at Firefox News.

Topics Discussed


...fandom is a democracy that's made of the people who show up, and it's run by the people who do the work. If we don't do the work to create our own space, we're doomed to live in other people's spaces.
Internet-based fandom is a constructed space. It didn't magically pop into existence out of the ether, it was built over years and it's changed its mailing address many times. Consider if you will the age of Usenet and the WELL. Back in the day, when fans were swimming happily in the primordial waters of SASEs and word-of-mouth fan-run conventions, a strange, shining beacon lured them from the shore: a way to communicate with other fans across the world in real time. Fans haunted their local BBSes, posting Star Trek discussions and coordinating Beauty and the Beast meet-ups.
Then came Xing.

The story is legendary: Xing Li started an archive as his senior project in school. Fanfiction.Net went live in late 1998 and never looked back. Described by one user as "the giant shopping mall" of fandom, FFN changed the dynamics of fan archiving. With no editorial oversight and no moderation, posting fanfic for any fandom became something that anyone could do.

Now, there are good things about shopping malls, and there are bad things. FFN takes a lot of flack for the same things that malls do: no good place for adults to hang out, overpriced yet cheaply-made merchandise, ads everywhere, and way too many darn teenagers around. Ah. I see you recognize the place. But it's big, it's convenient, it's open for everyone, and you're likely to find something that you want eventually. Besides, some of those teenagers are pretty cool.

My friend who made the "shopping mall" comment was user 3454 at the site. I was user 37360. Today there are well over a million users. Even if many have drifted away, that's a big fannish presence at the mall, and not one costumed Easter Bunny in sight.... FFN was not set up to be a money-making opportunity. Xing ran the site out of his own pocket for years before advertising finally took over paying the bills, round about the time when NC17 fanfics were booted per the new TOS. While no numbers on how much the site takes in now, it is the fifth stickiest site on the Web, and Google appears to have a special deal going to permit the ads being shown with fanfic. That's a huge business, and I speak only for myself, but I certainly don't begrudge Xing; he provided and continues to provide a great service for fandom.
One of the best pieces of advice in any mystery is to follow the money. Where money goes, people who want money will follow. Fans have money. More importantly, fans also create huge numbers of creative works for free. Fandom is after all a "gift economy," in which we give each other presents of 'fic and in return receive thank yous of reviews.

When the occasional fan tries to make money off fanfic, the rest of fandom falls on her/his head like a ton of rectangular building things. Back in the heyday of print 'zines, fans would sometimes charge extra for the 'zones, which normally cost enough to cover printing and binding costs, and those fans found their wares shunned in the Dealer's Rooms. A few years ago, a fan (who shall remain nameless for now) decided she didn't like her job and if her readers would just each send her $25, the cost of a hardcover, she could afford to quit, stay home, and write them fanfic for a year. This was not received well by fandom, wank ensued, and hopefully we won't have to go through that again for a while.

Why? Because fandom is aware of its grey area of influence and nobody likes a lawsuit. The general consensus, right or wrong, is that The Powers That Be will ignore us as long as we're not making money, and in practice, that's what happens.

However, we live in a new climate, and our favorite media projects are being written by people who used to be us. They're fan-friendly because they were fans, and some of them are willing to work with us. The Star Wars producers encourage fan films to be sent in for contests. Star Trek, via Pocket Books, runs a regular fanfiction contest called "Strange New Worlds," the winners of which get published.
The Organization for Transformative Works (OTW) was created earlier this year as a means for fans to create their own fannish spaces. The Chair of the OTW is Naomi Novik, author of the best-selling Temeraire series, and the entire board consists of people who have been in fandom for years (most under handles which may or may not be familiar).

Novik spoke with us this week about the project. "A lot of us have been talking about creating a fannish nonprofit for several years. You'd see a favorite archive shut down without warning, and wish there was a system to save the stories. Or read about fans being scared by ToS warnings and wish for a legal defense fund. Or follow the political debates about copyright and wish for a fandom lobby group. Certainly, the immediate trigger for this particular project was the FanLib launch, but FanLib was really only the last straw in a series of events that made a lot of us say, finally, 'enough.' Enough of letting non-fans define fandom; enough of not stepping up and defending what we've created. We began organizing in May, and by the end of the summer we had a board, several committees and a mission statement. We're still very much in the start-up process and like most start-ups, we have a lot of outreach and research still to do."

The OTW is the advocacy organization set up behind the Archive Of Our Own, a soon to be released multi-fannish fanworks archive. "The Archive is meant to be a central archive created by fans, for fans, and owned not by any individual or private corporation, but under the umbrella of a fan-run nonprofit organization -- one that presumes the legality of transformative fiction from the get-go. Many people are happy with the archives they're using now, and that's great -- there's room for a wide variety of archives, with different missions. What we want is to offer a space that won't back down the first time a lawyer sends us a letter and can't get shut down on the circumstances of a few individuals."

She continued, "In two or three years, we aspire to be a stable nonprofit organization doing advocacy work, in a good position to successfully defend a precedent-setting case, with the Archive Of Our Own up and running and full of fannish creativity, and the wiki and the academic journal both online and going strong."

The OTW and the archive are operating on the "public radio model," according to Novik. Donations will be the primary source of income for the site, with no advertising. "Just as NPR stations depend on ordinary listeners for support, we hope fans will be willing and able to support the OTW because we're doing good work and people are glad we're here. At the same time, just as anyone can listen to NPR without making a donation, the Archive and the other OTW projects will be open to all."
As fans, we have been carving out our own spaces for years, be those spaces nudging against the terms of service on paid servers, or on borrowed servers at the whims of site owners who may or may not be fans themselves. No one wants a lawsuit. No one wants to be the test case. But still we keep writing, and we need a place to show off our work and get our cookies. Fanfiction.Net is here to stay, but while it's still the biggest place to shop, it's no longer alone for multifandom accessibility. FanLib and MyFandoms are setting up malls nearby, and we don't even know what model the Archive Of Our Own will eventually follow. What we do know is that wherever fandom goes, we need the space to be fan-positive, by fans and for fans. We need it to be easily accessible for old-timers and newbies, and we need to trust the people running it not to use us for their own ends, or duck and cover when TPTB come calling. If there's an Orange Julius there, so much the better.