Fan Fiction Oral History Project with Francesca Coppa

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Interviews by Fans
Title: Fan Fiction Oral History Project with Francesca Coppa
Interviewer: Abigail De Kosnik
Interviewee: Francesca Coppa
Date(s): July 19 and 24, 2012
Medium: audio, print transcript
External Links: Fan Fiction Oral History Project with Francesca Coppa
Click here for related articles on Fanlore.

Fan Fiction Oral History Project with Francesca Coppa was conducted in 2012 by Abigail De Kosnik and archived at the University of Iowa Libraries.

This interview's medium is audio, much of it is unintelligible; you'd best rely on the 46-page transcript.

It was part of the series: Fan Fiction Oral History Project also referred to as "a Fiction and Internet Memory Research Project," "the Fiction and Internet Memory Program," and "Fan Fiction and Internet Memory."

The interviews conducted for this project were used for the book by Abigail De Kosnik called Rogue Archives: Digital Cultural Memory and Media Fandom.

Some Topics Discussed

  • the Wayback Machine
  • the early 2000s as a more at-risk time for losing fanwork content than the late 1990s
  • social media fans are not interested in archiving fanworks
  • early archiving
  • archive elves
  • the "doers" of fandom
  • the Karen Nicholas page: Fan Fiction on the Net
  • the garishness and anything-goes design elements of early webpages, Geocities
  • sex.wav and embedded sound bites
  • bandwidth and how fics are measured in terms of size
  • image vs text on platforms
  • Crack Van
  • fandom and profit
  • Six Apart and Strikethrough
  • Archive of Our Own and Organization for Transformative Works as a front door, a beacon
  • at the time of this interview, Archive of Our Own had 47,000 users and 27,000 on the waiting list
  • the history of the OTW
  • trying to fulfill everyone's expectations, making choices
  • Tumblr, its pros and cons, the lack of archival
  • the Fan Culture Preservation Project
  • animated gifs, the lack of archiving them
  • fandom and fanworks becoming mainstream, more visible, and then commodified and being exploited
  • fandom as a place to be free, to tell the "smaller" stories
  • transformative fandom as "female," "curative fandom" as "male"
  • fans being much younger now, the threshold for participation is much easier
  • Spock as a metaphor for woman

Excerpts who were online then, in the mid '90s, are much more diligent about archiving. There is a missing gap, but it's not the '90s. It's the early aughts, in my opinion. You can check this against others. It was the blogging wave whose stuff is lost-lost. In other words, yes, the GeoCities ... let me back up for a second ... Right after that Usenet period, you had this sort of very proto-browser web, and it was KS Nick [who] had this page, where literally she was attempting at that point to list all the fan fiction on the Internet—not the actual stories, but the sites. So it was like, list of sites. And then, there were two pages for slash: Slash A-F and, you know, N-Z. And that, you know, that's where you lived, right? And so literally, it was just a plain list of, you know, "Fairycat's Highlander Story," with a link. And just one after the other, I'm sure you've seen it on the Wayback Machine. But [that was] a fundamental kind of site for those of us who came in at that period. That was the whole world. You could look at two pages and say, This was the whole world. Now, most of those pages are gone, yes. But most of those people have moved their work elsewhere. You lose the character of those sites, which were kind of whimsical, or ugly, depending on how you ... they were whimsically ugly ... with spinning GIFs and the whole bit.... But those people were quite diligent about archiving, and in fact, those same early fans, in other words, they may have been having ... So you're Franny's Foxhole of Fanfic, that's your Geocities website and your stories are there. But that Franny, who probably had also then put all of her stuff into a centralized archive if somebody built one. And that person was probably also proud enough of her stuff to keep moving it along. And there's a really good chance that Franny of Franny's Foxhole of Fanfic, that her stuff is archived. The people who did not have the archiving bug are the social media people.
And that's kind of a tragedy, a little bit, for me. Because then everybody got—I'm telling my story out of order, but in any case—the KS Nick page is interesting because it tried to centralize what at that point was decentralized. In other words, you put your fan fiction up on your own pages. And there were early archives, but they were hand-done. And this was another reason—I guess it was female guilt or something, but one of the reasons I got involved was, I somehow became very cognizant early of the amount of work that was being put in to making me happy. And archives, the way you would do it is you would literally mail your copy—in other words, there was no automatic archive. You would have to send your copy to a person, and that person would put the story up, they would code—because nobody knew how to do H[TML], you couldn't just put your stuff up, you didn't have a website, it was all so primitive, you know? But you could e-mail your story to somebody, and they would put it on a website for you, and make it visible, and code it up in certain ways. And they called those people "archive elves." And I fell in very early with a group of fans, or maybe it's my personality or just the friends I happen to pick, but they were very much the doers of fandom in this way. So often, many of them, were themselves volunteer archive elves. And so, for instance, Highlander had an archive, and the archive elves would manually put the stories up. And often they would fall behind and people would complain, you know. "I sent you my story two days ago and it's not up yet."
[These early archive elves] were doing it voluntarily. Hand ... putting them on the line like laundry for you, you know? So it went from isolated pages ... And the people who had pages themselves, tended to be librarians, university sysadmins, in other words, they were techie techie people. And the way that it happened is, everything's networked. You got on a mailing list and somebody would say, Your fic is really good, I have a website, would you like to host your fic on my site? I should say, you know, this Franny's Foxhole of Fic might have been like, Writers at Franny's Foxhole include ... XYZQL—twenty-seven writers that Franny liked, she would invite. So if you actually had a website, you would then invite the writers ... and that in fact became your kind of early cliques, in a certain way, right? That somebody would kind of tap you and say, Your stuff is really good. I'd like to have you on my ... Other people will want to read it. It should be out there. Do you want to come on my page? I'll give you the space. But again, you couldn't put it up yourself. That meant that Franny was nice enough to then archive on that small scale, do you know what I'm saying? So Franny was taking care of the ten writers in her purview, and this one was taking care of these ten writers, and everybody was kind of clumped together in these collectives. The big archives were doing that then on a massive scale. The Highlander archive elves were taking everybody's stories and coding them by hand. And then the next generation was then Naomi Novik's first generation of Automated Archive software, which she wrote for Sentinel, where you could actually archive ... And that was to save the elf work. I would post a story and I would put in parentheses "(43K)." Now young kids today think that that's story 43,000 words long, and they're wrong. You used to post the story was 43K to load. Which now is of course trivial. But if something was over 50K— something that was 200K was a big story, and would take a long time to load, just text. 200K! We're talking about, now you could get on the Internet and downloading 200 gigabyte files like a king. But for a 200K story, you would list that because you would say, if you're only on a 9.9 baud modem, you're going to load it up, get a cup of coffee, and your story will be ready for you when you come back. Just to me, you always gave the size of the file, not the number of words. And you can tell the oldos ... you just can't break the habit. You're still like instinctively putting the size of the file, even though it is a completely irrelevant piece of information. But all your other stories have the size of the file, so why not that? But that's a fundamental thing.
See, I was more hooked up with the doers, people who made stuff, and were a little more technical ... I was always like the dumbest ... I was like the dumb date, my friends were all really technological, and I was like the cute one they brought along, or whatever, and I was always with the technological people and knew people who would help me get this stuff done.

The metaphor I want to make, I'm a theater professor, right? And when they eliminated stage censorship, the year after, which was like the late '60s, like the minute you could do anything you wanted on the stage, you got Hair and Oh! Calcutta and people naked yelling "FUCK, FUCK, FUCK!" It was a little bit like that, with the web, because we had just gone into something visual. And so people wanted color. But you know, then, later, you sort of think, "Really? Like, yellow and green ..." I remember there was a website that was yellow and green plaid. And nobody had any concept of web design, people just wanted it ... They were decorating, but they were decorating it ... So a lot of it was very garish color, people really liked colorful, like literally, pink text or black text on yellow, or this kind of ... I mean there was no ... nobody was thinking about accessibility, certainly.

Though it was a kind of grassroots accessibility, that you would sort of say, you know, "I love her, but I can't read off ... it gives me a headache. And in fact, it's not that different from today. It's interesting the way this generation of social media software often has a kind of customized theme, but in fact only the user sees it. I mean, who sees the front page of somebody's Tumblr? You're seeing it on your dashboard, you're not seeing the art they put up there ... So in some ways it gives you all the pleasure of decorating your locker, which is what this all is, the decorating your locker impulse without bothering anybody's accessibility. But at that time, that was it, you still had to see it.
There's always a fight in fandom, for centralization versus personal control. And then also the safety of diaspora. Different arguments, and nobody's right or wrong in these arguments. But there's definitely this sort of safety like, Let's all huddle together and show them we're a big united front, versus, Let's just all spread out and they won't notice we're here. And I've always been of the centralization school. And there are others who are of the ... And even in the OTW, we saw that fight play out again, where people were like, You're going to make us a target by coming together in one spot. And we tried to say, Well look, even if we are a target, there's shadows. In other words, we'll put the light over here, and you go stay over there! If you stay away from us, then you have a nice shadow. Nobody will look for you. The people looking will find us. We'll give you that kind of cover. These things needn't be incompatible.
So LiveJournal was great in a lot of ways, and suboptimal in a lot of ways. And that's just getting into the use - value of them. Obviously there's a whole spin on this from the legal-cultural angle, which is that on some level somebody else is owning your infrastructure. Another piece of it is that fans didn't necessarily know ... In other words, it may be that to the average fan, they didn't own it, so they didn't know the difference between Franny's Foxhole of Fanfic—which Franny owned, and Franny may even have had that server in her house, or Franny was the university librarian, or Franny was the sysadmin for the biology department, and that's who that was as a kind of profile, and Franny was running an IRC channel. But you were beholden to Franny, who's a fan. It's a very different thing to be beholden to LiveJournal as a commercial entity. Franny had your best interests, as a fic writer, at heart. Well, LiveJournal may or may not have your best interests—it is a for-profit company. You see what I'm saying? So there was also a way in which that move to autonomy was also a move away from a fan-owned, hacker's, primitive Internet to a more commercialized Internet. And that had repercussions but nobody saw those until the second half of the [unintelligible]. And then it became clear that we were then being hosted on—like, Who the hell owns this? Like then it became like, Wait, where are we sitting? Who owns this chair? I thought you owned this chair. No, I don't own this chair. Franny no longer owns the chair. And then it was like, Some dude in Russia owns my chair!
And so when the Strikethrough issue, and outages, and trolling, and the selling of Six Apart, all these kinds of various things, you did start to feel like, Wow, they could just take this. At any time. And we'd have nothing. And this didn't affect me so much but it affected other people I care about, but was purging adult fiction semi-regularly. So there was a whole sort of way in which you really felt that the infrastructure started to feel a little bit fragile. Which was annoying. And also you know, there's always people—this wave has seems to have passed—but as social networks were trying to make money, there was a kind of wave of people who only saw fandom as eyeballs for potential web 2.0 commercial enterprise. And the real great period of that was 2005—2004 even to 2008. You just felt like every idiot who had like —I'm going to make a million dollars on the Internet! And I know what I'll do, I'll do something fannish and get all these fangirls working for me in some way. You really felt that there were predators, not even necessarily really harmful, malicious, but you know, that people were trying to figure out, what is the classic web 2.0, You make all the content, we take all the money. Fandom is really a perfect ... I mean if that's your philosophy, you have people who are making content. I mean, relentlessly. Unstoppably. And so you really had this feeling that there were a bunch of people kind of circling, sort of figuring, How can I make money off of this? And I resented it. And I know others resented it. Being seen as a profit-generating enterprise. And I have to say there was a gender piece of it, the sense that, like, some dude was going to come and make millions off of us. But even so, often it was not that they—I remember some of us talking, and saying, It's not even that they're going to make millions and give us some great service. Like, our bigger fear was like some idiot, who had really no sense of what he was doing or what the community was doing, was going to build something and get everybody on it, and collapse in two years.
I remember we talked about it as sort of trying to build a front door. That fandom didn't have a front door. And obviously, you know, certainly in hindsight, and even then, we recognized, that, you know, that it has its positive and negatives. I mean, there's a sort of hubris in saying, We're going to put up a front door. But we weren't trying to be colonialist. We were just trying to set up a bit of a beacon. You know, Everybody, over here!
In my memory, this is how it was. Which was that, we were always, kind of, at least to me, I felt like I was waiting for a hero. You know? And then I think that there was sort of a moment, when a couple of us said, "Wouldn't it be great if we had people who could do this?" And we kind of went, Maybe we're those people! Maybe this is us! Like, maybe nobody's coming to save us. Maybe we have to be those heroes in a certain way. And kind of looked around and were like, Well, gee, we have a coder, and a lawyer, and a communications ... Like, Do we have the skill set to actually do this? Either here, or within a couple of hands of here? And the answer at some point seemed to be, kind of like, Yeah, maybe. And I want to iterate, and I think this is something that's gotten lost in people's understanding of OTW, but so many of the original people—not just the board, but everybody who got involved at first, and some of the people who've stuck with the project longest, were themselves archivists. In other words, it was kind of an archivists' convention.
To me, you've got to picture this harbor of giant leaking ships. Battleships, though. Built in the days when we knew how to build things! But like, I feel like, for me, the OTW was seeing this giant harbor of slightly tilting ... Oh, Gossamer! Oh my God, 852 Prospect! Oh my God, the K/S archive! I mean literally, you see these giant ... And they're holding water, because the stuff fans built in '94, '98, is pretty good, but it's 2012, you know, and these things have got to come into port. And so we just really just tried to build a port. Now whether we've succeeded in doing this? I don't know. Because there have been so many things we didn't plan for, and so many ways in which it's gone weird and pear-shaped. And it turns out, democracy is complicated. You know, we founded a nonprofit, and gave everybody a voice, and now there's a lot of voices! But that was the idea. For me, one of the key things was seeing—the big old ships that we owned were kind of failing, and then the commercial ships might just throw you in the harbor, and so really, there was the sense of trying to kind of land all this stuff someplace safe that we owned, was the impetus.
We came up with the OTW as the infrastructure to caretake the archive. And the archive was built from nothing. And I think that's really, really important to say, because every so often, I see comparisons with Dreamwidth, which is a great project, but which was a fork, and they started with 60,000 lines of code. We started with a blinking cursor. In fact, we started with a competition about what language we were going to build this in— it was a Ruby versus Python death match—to say, "Which language do people who knew nothing about coding find easier to use?" Because that's how we were thinking. So I'm in la-la land a lot of time, and I read people saying, "There's something not professional ..." "No, Princeton's the Ruby ..." We weren't professional. The whole thing was built in this amateur way, or the way to make it accessible to amateurs. Amateur writers and in some ways, amateur infrastructure, amateur coders.
I just feel our whole first two years was going, No no no no wait. You just have to wait. Just wait! It's gonna be good! Wait. But people really didn't get it. And they were kind of like, What are they doing? Because from the average fan's point of view, we were like, Yes! We need an archive of our own! And then we disappeared up our own ass, just to be blunt. And we came out with a nonprofit organization, and we did that, because we had to do that, to raise the money. We cannot just take your money, they would put us in jail for tax fraud. We had to have an organization where's there's taxes paid. So the incorporation part happened first. And then we thought, Well, what can we start to build while the coders are frantically knitting this thing? So we launched Fanlore, which was relatively speaking, out-of-the-box wiki software. You had to build it in terms of content, but you didn't have to design it from scratch. We launched Transformative Works and Cultures, which is an academic journal, and I think a really fantastic academic journal, that I think anticipates all other academic ... I think is leading the way, and I think other people are going to look more like us rather than the other way around in five years. Double-blind, peer-reviewed open-access gold-star journal, which has had ten issues, every one on time, which I mean, half the university-supported Ivy League journals, they don't come out on time. So for academics, it's a huge deal. So we launched that. But to the average fan, they went, Wait, you said an archive. And now you're doing an academic journal, you're doing legal briefs, you're doing Fanlore which is very nice, but it's not what you promised. And so they went, Well, what is all this? I'm not saying those things are not important, but I think that for me, they were all things to support, prop, flesh-out, the archive project. Which was the sort of tree that was growing in the center.
Our main problem right now is success. I mean, I didn't ... I really didn't expect this much success. I wasn't thinking on this scale. For a couple of reasons. One of which, fandom was not that big when I started. It's really big now, getting bigger. And I didn't expect that ... I was saying that I come out of this one media fannish community, I really didn't expect that ... these sort of arguments that are happening now, where—"We don't serve other fannish populations as well as we should." I'm sure that's true. I didn't really kind of know ... Literally there are arguments right now—we have a really international membership, but the interface is only in English. It turns out to be ... There's no other software that does it, but we're really trying to translate the interface into a variety of languages. It turns out it's really complicated. We've done like four versions of it, each of which has kind of failed. And yet people sort of say, You're oppressing me because you're not addressing my need to have K-pop in my language. And I get that, and at the same time, I was totally—I feel bad to say I was totally—I'm sorry, Fandom, I was totally not thinking of K-pop when I—like K-pop didn't exist, I didn't know, you know? I was just a little Trekkie. This is my formal apology to you, Fandom: I just didn't know.
Tumblr and the AO3 is becoming the new slash pairing of fandom. Like you said, there's no text on Tumblr, so in a weird way, AO3 is a very nice complement. So you post your link on Tumblr, and then you read at the AO3 and then you do your pictures. It's almost becoming a kind of ... They complement each other in ways that are really interesting but we could not have imagined. There was no Tumblr when we started designing this thing. And I don't know that there will be a Tumblr in four years. But we'll be around in four years, or ten years. So in some ways it's a weird project trying to design something for longevity that is also taking advantage of excitements of the moment. So right now, everybody wants Tumblr-style tags, but Tumblr might not even exist in two years. Like, we're going to outlast Tumblr, but we might do it in a more clumsy low-tech way in some ways. But this is where the AO3, having been designed by fans, has a lot of features that fans want, unsurprisingly. [snipped] We're turtles. And right now we're being jumped on by all these hares, of various web 2.0 companies. And they make you look like you're just a big fat old dumb turtle. But I feel like, the turtle will be around. Stay with the turtle. The turtle is the archivist. We will get there eventually, just not today. But when you're next to jackrabbits all the time, I get that we can look kind of slow.
Fandom has been totally kind of, "Can do." I mean, you can build a web page. Sure you can! And Naomi has said sometimes that the difference between female—this is overstating it, but as a sort of guideline— very often, female technological communities make the tech because they want to learn the thing. There isn't a kind of competitive coding to code. The girl wants to make a banner for her web page and so learns Photoshop. And fandom is brilliant for those kind of how-to guides. It always has the end in mind. And it says, Here's how you can do it. You can find ... Fandom will really take your hand and step you through some technological procedure. I want to make a vid. Okay, so here is the equipment you need, here is the software you need, here is the computer you need to buy, here are the specs for the computer. It really kind of breaks it down for you, the things you need to do, to do the technological thing to make the thing. Like everyone forgets the thing that you're actually trying to do. But of course, having learned the process to make a banner, you could also make your own office's website. I mean one of the most wonderful things about OTW that has only just continued from fandom in general is the number of people that have learned skills in fandom that they have been able to ... Fandom is the Old Girl Network. It's the Old Girl Network of my dreams, where you learn skills from other women that you can deploy in really practical ways.
There's been some great feminist film criticism about Brave which I've been reading this week. I'll send you this link, too. This woman was writing about Brave and she's talking about how she, as a woman, had become ... was just sort of accustomed, she was saying, to watching movies for the middle. Or watching movies for particularly emotive parts. Because kind of inevitably, the arc of the thing would be awful or disappointing or exclusionary. So you watched in this kind of selective way for the great bits in the middle. And I think fandom is all about the great bits in the middle. And we sort of trash the end. There's something female, and it's that we almost don't do endings. Or we end, we start again. And I think there's a suspicion the ending's not going to go well for us. The end goes well for no one. Women know that. So we're going just going to keep telling the middle. There's a denial of closure. We're going to focus on the really great bits in the middle and tell them a million different ways and not go to closure, because closure is bad. I also think increasingly realism is bad for women. I was making this argument to somebody else. Our grandmother is Mary Shelley, and, you know, we've never wanted to see our monsters directly. We disguise them a little bit. I think women are more happy to deal with metaphor and science fiction and in some ways, they're doing other kinds of things. So I think there is a lot about fandom that I think I would go on a limb and say is female, or represents the female condition such as it is culturally represented at this particular moment.
I see people saying on the web saying, "Did I not plan for scalability?" We planned for scalability, but it's really scaling—everything's going faster—it's all just going faster than we thought. The buy-in is faster than we thought. The number of stories, the use, the demand, is huge. These are all good problems to have, in that, our problem is that a lot of people in all languages and cultures and fandoms want to use this piece of software. But you don't want the software to break. And you want it to—you would hope not to have to disable features to—so you know everyone is coding as quick as they can. But I do—I guess I'll go out on a limb—I worry sometimes that the intervening years, when the archive was owned by a corporation, has changed the expectations of some of the users. And so it's been a little odd for me. Like, now I'm the man. But I'm like, I'm not the man. I still think I'm Franny of Franny's Foxhole of Fanfic.