Concerning Archive of Our Own

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Title: Concerning Archive of Our Own
Creator: ozymandias
Date(s): April 14, 2017
Medium: online
Fandom:
Topic:
External Links: Concerning Archive of Our Own; Wayback link; archive link
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Concerning Archive of Our Own is a 2017 essay posted by ozymandias.

Some Topics Discussed

  • Archive of Our Own and policies regarding underage fic and explicit fanart
  • differing definitions
  • censorship

Excerpts from the Post

I think that AO3 will not be able to delete controversial fanfics in a way that remotely satisfies the people asking them to do so.

First, AO3 is run by volunteers, which puts a limit on how much manpower they can devote to deleting controversial fanfiction. Fanfiction.net, a similar website, bans porn, but it’s not exactly difficult to find porn on Fanfiction.net. By eliminating tagging and incentivizing fanfiction writers to hide the content that might get deleted, it simply increases the likelihood that people who don’t want to see rape or abuse will see it anyway.

Second, there’s an enormous judgment problem with deleting fanfiction. Both broadness and narrowness have serious failure modes.

If your rules are too narrow, people will rules-lawyer their way around them. For instance, the website Literotica has a rule that all characters must be over the age of eighteen. Naturally, there are an improbable number of eighteen-year-old high-school students, and quite a lot of porn in which the lollipop-licking, pigtailed protagonist who doesn’t know what sex is mentions in the first paragraph that she’s eighteen. Obviously, this is not a satisfactory solution for people who don’t want underage porn to be written.
If your rules are too broad, a lot of things become judgment calls. I’m going to talk about something that’s a lot more clear-cut than abuse: one person I’ve talked to suggested that it’s homophobic to ship heterosexual ships with canonically gay characters, and that Archive of Our Own should remove such fanfic. This seems pretty simple: “is this character gay?” definitely seems a lot easier to figure out than “is this relationship abusive?”
So: what do we do about Willow? There is a loud and angry contingent of Buffy fans who believe that Willow is a lesbian who dated a man in high school because she hadn’t come out to herself yet, as many lesbians do. There is an equally loud and angry contingent of Buffy fans who believe that Willow is bisexual because of her obviously loving relationship with Oz, and that Joss Whedon has never heard of the concept of ‘bisexuality’. If you say Oz/Willow is homophobic, you going to get a bunch of people calling you a biphobe, and if you say it isn’t homophobic, you’re going to get a different bunch of people calling you a lesbophobe.

What do we do about Margot Verger? Margot is canonically a lesbian, but she also canonically has sex with Will Graham in order to conceive a Verger heir so that she can murder her abusive brother and get his inheritance. Will we delete fanfiction that explores the implications of something that happened in the show?

Or what about Messala from the movie Ben-Hur? According to the documentary the Celluloid Closet, the director intended Ben-Hur and Messala to have been in a gay relationship; he told the actor playing Messala, but did not tell Charlton Heston, because Charlton Heston was a homophobe. In that case, it’s difficult to tell if Ben-Hur and Messala were even in a canonical gay relationship, much less whether Messala is canonically gay himself. Wait, is it ahistorical to characterize someone as “canonically gay” in a time period with such a different understanding of sexuality? Okay, everyone, get out your Foucault and Halperin, we’re going to have to resolve one of the most fundamental arguments in queer theory before we can figure out which slash fic we’re going to delete…
And you can’t trust that these judgment calls will be made in the way you prefer. The whole reason we’re having this discussion is that fandom, in general, has its head up its ass about what ‘abuse’ is. On Archive of Our Own, stalking, sexual coercion, and wildly unethical power dynamics are regularly depicted as romantic without so much as a warning. Even coffeeshop AUs, which are notoriously fluffy, light-hearted, and angst-free, regularly depict workplace sexual harassment– often to the point that it would be an EEOC violation in real life. If Archive of Our Own set about trying to delete all the abusive fic, the deletions would be made by the exact people who keep putting sexual harassment and stalking in all their light and fluffy fanfiction. I do not really trust this to have a positive outcome.
I think a much better strategy for people who want to reduce the rate of abusive relationships in fiction is attempting to convince others of their beliefs. This has been successful in the past: for instance, the We’re Not Gay We Just Love Each Other story genre has almost been eliminated. That happened because a lot of people wrote essays along the lines of “it is really fucked up and homophobic to think that men can’t be attractive and masculine if they’re gay, and also the word you’re looking for if someone is attracted to women and men is ‘bisexual’.” If you want people to not write fic in which workplace sexual harassment is depicted as romantic, I think it’s going to be a lot more effective to try to convince people than workplace sexual harassment is not romantic than it is to get those fics deleted.

Excerpts from Comments

[Deiseach]: “Even coffeeshop AUs, which are notoriously fluffy, light-hearted, and angst-free, regularly depict workplace sexual harassment– often to the point that it would be an EEOC violation in real life.” If we’re going to be banning things we dislike, I would ban every single bloody coffeshop AU in every fandom ever; not for obscenity but because they’re so overdone. However, I don’t get to be Global Censor and neither does anyone else.

I think a lot of this is because the current generation are very young, have little to no idea of fandom history, certainly weren’t around in the days of webrings never mind the Great LiveJournal Debates and have very passionately fixed their identities as being completely right about everything that could possibly be problematic and hence are so impassioned about Stopping The Bad Stuff.

This arises out of a good impulse (wanting to be on the right side of history and wanting not to cause harm) but it goes into a very bad expression, because they’re infatuated with the idea of activism and online activism seems so cool, so easy and so effective. They haven’t learned the hard way to be tolerant because they haven’t had to be tolerant of others because if we don’t all stick together we’ll get nothing. And of course being young, they have the same impulse every fresh generation has: that they invented sex, that nobody else has ever felt or thought this before, that there are problems in the world and why isn’t anybody doing something about them?

They have to learn, though, that things are complicated, that yes tolerance means putting up with stuff you personally don’t like and it doesn’t matter if you’re the most progressive snowflake in the pile, you still have to tolerate it, and that you cannot impose morality.

So I try to understand their impulsiveness before I start yelling “you kids get off my lawn!”
[silver and ivory]: If you say Oz/Willow is homophobic, you going to get a bunch of people calling you a lesbophobe, and if you say it isn’t homophobic, you’re going to get a different bunch of people calling you a biphobe. I think you got “lesbophobe” and “biphobe” switched around, since if you think that the Oz/Willow relationship is homophobic you’re pro-lesbian!Willow and if you think it’s not homophobic you support bisexual!Willow.
[jossedley]: It seems insane that protecting queer people’s right to exist requires policing other people’s erotic imaginations to make sure that they don’t get turned on by Oscar Wilde/Mary Benson erotic fanfic.

Or to put it another way:

[cartoon image snipped: "When I am weaker than you, I ask you for freedom because that is according to your principles; when I am stronger than you, I take away your freedom because that is according to my principles."]

#Children of Dune #Harq al-Ada #Louis Veuillot #dune #frank herbert #Calvin and Hobbes #Bill Watterson #comics
[e8u]: These are good arguments that censoring AO3 would be infeasible. But even if it were perfectly feasible to sort the problematic from the unproblematic, censorship would still be wrong. I worry that making the argument that censorship is infeasible cedes too much ground.
[ozymandias]: I disagree that refusing to host certain stories would be censorship. There is no freedom-of-expression right to post your stories on a particular fanfiction archive. It is not censorship for Fanfiction.net to ban porn and MST3Ks, for the Sugar Quill to refuse to host Harry/Hermione fics, for the Library of Moria not to host het, or for an X-Files fanfiction archive to not host stories about Disney. (That said, for historical reasons the Archive itself is supposed to be maximally inclusive.)
[e8u]:

There is not and should not be a legal right, but there is certainly a moral right. The Purpose (telos) of a fanfiction archive is sharing fanfiction. A website that claims to be a general fanfiction archive, but is censored, is a corrupt and monstrous pretender, because censorship is directly at odds with sharing fanfiction. (And that *is* the correct word; “only censorship when a government does it,” is Randall-Munroe-tier.)

This is exemplified by Literotica, which you commented on. Restricting the content of fantasy erotica is antithetical to the telos of fantasy erotica. The “totally eighteen mmm-kay?” disclaimers break suspension of disbelief and make it impossible to take much of what is published there seriously.

There is, of course, a continuum. On one end, you start with unquestionably okay forms of curation, like lists of fanfics recommended by so-and-so, through the trivially okay like topic-specific forums and fanfic collections focusing on particular pairings or aesthetics (Sugar Quill, DLP, etc.).

Then you get into curation that can be criticized on the basis that it is very silly. Christian-friendly search engines and the like. This stuff isn’t morally wrong, but it is laughable.

On the far end, you have Actual Censorship. The key features you usually find are 1) some kind of claim that censored content is morally wrong or harmful, and/or 2) the presentation of the censored feed as something for general consumption, rather than as a niche product. The common theme is that censorship is expansionist.

You may notice that this rubric puts the standard practice of commercial-spam-filtering under the umbrella of censorship, except when it is filtered on the basis of being off-topic in a topic-specific forum. This is not a mistake. This kind of censorship is acceptable, but it does require very careful consideration. Even if they define away private censorship, most of the only-governments-can-censor people still want the government to censor nuclear secrets and Actual Child Pornography. So they cannot escape having to make a moral case for some censorship.

It’s fine to point out that censoring only “problematic” stories would be impractical, or that some people use “problematic” fantasies to cope. Defense in depth is good, after all. But if it should turn out that censoring is easy, and that the only people writing and reading Harry Potter/Gabrielle Delacour are neckbearded men using it to masturbate, that should not undermine our conviction that censorship is wrong. Free speech is a sacred value. “The primary thing is to cut the enemy,” and all that.
[anonymous]: Ao3 doesn’t “host” fanart, they allow users to insert links to images, which are hosted on other sites. This seems like a triviality, but is a very important legal distinction.

References