Fan is a Tool-Using Animal

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Title: Fan is a Tool-Using Animal
Creator: Maciej Cegłowski
Date(s): September 6, 2013
Medium: online transcript of a speech given at dConstruct, Brighton, England, audio version is 20 minutes long
External Links: Fan is a Tool-Using Animal, Archived version
Click here for related articles on Fanlore.

Fan is a Tool-Using Animal is a PowerPoint presentation by Maciej Cegłowski. It was later transcribed and posted online.

It is also available as a 20-minute audio recording: see audio.

Includes a link to this googledoc: Pinboard feature requests, Archived version.

Includes The Morning After, a fic featuring an anthropomorphized Delicious and Pinboard.

This essay is related to another shorter 2011 essay by Maciej Cegłowski called The Fans Are All Right.


What happens when you build a nice website, and a real community shows up that doesn’t meet your expectations?

Since the earliest days of Usenet, fandom has wandered the Internet, finding remarkable ways to assemble websites, plug-ins, and online forums into tools for sharing and organizing erotic fiction. Often ostracized and ridiculed for their hobby, this community of rather gentle people has learned to work with the materials at hand, building for themselves what they could not get from others, in the process creating a culture of collaboration and mutual respect other online projects can only envy.

Fans are inveterate classifiers, and the story of how they have bent websites to their will (in a process reminiscent of their favorite works) may change the way you think about online communities, or at the very least, about librarians.

Some Topics Discussed

Some Realizations

  • "Fans are SO NICE"
  • "Fans Fight Censorship"
  • "Fans Fight For Privacy"
  • "Fans Transgress"
  • "Fans Improve Our Culture"
  • "Social Is Not A Syrup"
  • "Don't Make It Too Easy"
  • "Lurkers Are Watching"
  • "Stop Futzing With It"
  • "Shut Up And Listen"
  • "Breakups Are Hard"
  • "We Are All Fans"
  • "Fandom Changes Lives"


Well, I'm here by way of atonement, because I used to be a real jerk about fandom, and I used to make fun of them. Then I had a life-changing, road-to-Damascus moment. It involved a strange artifact that got produced partly because of something I did, which I'll describe in a few minutes. It taught me a great deal about community on the Internet.

As I've gotten to know fandom, I've grown convinced that they have a lot to teach us all. Fans are an example of real people using machines to talk to one another, rather than a manufactured and engineered attempt to graft social life onto a single website.

But for the story to make sense, I need to tell you a few things about my website, and how I was set on a collision course with fandom.

This morning I pulled up my tag cloud from Pinboard. My tags are pretty typical of a long-time bookmarker. Tags accrue over time like barnacles, and unless you scrape them off, you end up with lots of oddities and cruft.

Some people are very focused taggers. They treat tags like folders; they may only have ten or twelve tags that they bin everything into. I'm not disciplined. I just type what comes into my mind.

But the fanfic people were doing something very different. They had converged on a set of elaborate tagging conventions that allowed them to turn Delicious into a custom search engine for fanfic.

It's incredible how much effort people put into tagging conventions, and how they were able to converge on some useful common idioms that made Delicious the most powerful fanfic search engine on the planet.

This was really remarkable. Fans had customized Delicious into a fan site without writing a line of code (though there were soon plugins and Greasemonkey scripts to make fannish work easier).

In 2009, when I started my own bookmarking site, called Pinboard, I really wanted to lure over fans with their amazing tag collections.

But fans are loyal people. And they were really attached to Delicious, especially to a very elaborate Firefox plugin that made life a breeze for people with thousands of tags. I didn't have much success in getting them to cross over.

Until in 2010 Steve Chen and Chad Hurley, the founders of YouTube, came along and made my career. I don't know them personally. Maybe they're lovely people in person—kind to animals, beloved by children.

But they bungled their way through acquiring Delicious so badly that the site never recovered.

Chad looked at Steve and was like:

“Bro, you want to buy Delicious?”

And Steve looked at Chad and was like:

“Bro let's totally buy it!”

And they high-fived and that was it.

A few months after the acquisition, there was a grand uncloaking of their new design, much of which involved destroying features of Delicious that fans were utterly dependent on.

The new Delicious removed the ability to see your full list of tags, which as you can imagine for someone with an intricate tagging system is the end of the world.

They got rid of tag bundles, a crucial feature for fans.

And in an inspired stroke, they took down their support forum, so no one could complain about anything on the site itself.

But the single change that killed fandom dead on Delicious was no longer being able to type "/" into the search box.

There is no God, life has no meaning, it's all over when you can't search on the slash character. And fandom started freaking out on Twitter.

Being a canny businessman, I posted a gentle reminder that there was still a bookmarking site that let you search on a slash tag.

So fandom dispatched a probe to see if I was worth further study. The emissaries talked to me a bit and explained that my site was missing some features that fans relied on.

In my foolishness I asked, "Could you make me a list of those features? I'll take a look, maybe some of it is easy to implement."

Oh yes, they could make make a list.

I had summoned a very friendly Balrog.

Here you see a very stern admonition by some people not to slash me (that is, include me in erotic fiction).

“Please don't slash Maciej, he's not okay with it, and we want him to like us.”

(I was totally fine with it!)

You see the debate and then someone plaintively cries "THIS IS WHY WE CAN'T HAVE NICE THINGS", and tries to argue that writing fic about anthropomorphized bookmarking sites is not the same thing as real person fiction (RPF), which is taboo in certain parts of fandom.

And then of course the inevitable happens, and someone writes fic about the document itself.

Naturally the fic links back to the document, and someone puts a link to the fic in the document itself, crossing the Internet streams and dividing by zero.

Finally at the end of the doc, people took time to express how happy they were about having written it together, and how much fun it had been, and their joy at living in a world where this kind of thing was possible. They changed the text color for each user.

When is the last time you saw an anonymous comment thread or collaborative doc end in general happiness?

[Here I gave a dramatic reading from The Morning After, a wonderful story featuring an anthropomorphized Delicious and Pinboard. Big thanks to ambyr for letting me include this in my talk! Go read it!]

Having worked at large tech companies, where getting a spec written requires shedding tears of blood in a room full of people whose only goal seems to be to thwart you, and waiting weeks for them to finish, I could not believe what I was seeing.

It was like a mirror world to YouTube comments, where several dozen anonymous people had come together in love and harmony to write a complex, logically coherent document, based on a single tweet.

All I could think was – who ARE these people?


dConstruct 2013: Maciej Cegłowski — Fan is a Tool-Using Animal a recording of Cegłowski giving his talk and showing the powerpoint