AO3 Tag Wrangling

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Related terms: Wrangulator
See also: Archive of Our Own, Organization for Transformative Works
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Name: Tag Wrangling Committee of the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW)
Date(s): 2010
Profit/Nonprofit: Nonprofit
Country based in: USA; international volunteers
Focus: Organizing the folksonomy system of the AO3.
External Links: Archive Of Our Own,, AO3_Wranglers, ao3org
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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".

Additional Tag Wrangling Vocabulary

AO3 tag page displaying a canonical tag and its syns, metatags, and parent tag. Parent tags could include the fandom the tag is associated with—in this case, No Fandom (a work-around for tropes and other non-fandom-specific tags).

The Wranglers have a number of terms they've built up over the years.

Canonical Tags and Decanonizing

Canonical tags are the tags that appear in the search filters and the auto-complete. These are decided by a truce between what's most common in a fandom and what best fits the guidelines the Wranglers use. Non-canon tags can still be viewed, but you can only see works that match exactly and you can't filter the tagged works.

The verb form is canonizing, meaning to making a tag canon. The opposite is decanonize. Decanonized tags may just be left non-canon or may be synned with something else.

Synonym Tags and Synning

A synonym tag is a tag that wranglers have decided means the same thing as a canon tag; AO3's search engine will consider them synonymous.

The verb form is synning is the act of linking (wrangling) two separate tags together. The opposite is unsynning.

Synned tags cannot be viewed separately from their canon counterparts — attempting to do so redirects you to the canonical tag they've been synned to. Autocomplete will not suggest them. This is useful if you accidentally typed "Hsrry Potter" when you meant "Harry Potter" but can be disastrous if tags are miswrangled.

Metatags and Subtags

Metatags are the special 'umbrella' canonical tags that group similar tags together. Subtags are the tags under a metatag.

Subtagging and metatags are useful to establish a link between two things without erasing the distinction between two tags. One might want to browse all the Stargate canons or all the Sherlock Holmes (and related) canons, so the metatags are useful, but having them subtagged instead of synned means that the respective canon subtags will show up in autocompletes and can be used to filter works.

Media Tags

These are the category tags seen on the main browse pages of the archive.

  • Example: Anime & Manga, Movies, Video Games

The Wrangulator

You can find more information on the machine that rules our lives at its own wiki page

The Tag Wranglers' Work

stolen shamelessly from OTW 2012 Committee Descriptions:

Tag Wrangling volunteers sort and organize tags in their claimed fandoms according to the Archive’s Tag Wrangling guidelines, researching source canon and other sources to unravel tag conflicts when required. They discuss and help solve sticky organization puzzles with other wranglers in chat or on the email discussion list. Volunteer time varies depending on how many fandoms are signed up for and how busy they are, although it is expected that wranglers will check for new activity at least once a week for quiet fandoms. (Check out the list of fandoms in need of a wrangler—this list changes frequently).

Tag wrangling volunteers do not require any previous knowledge of wrangling or the archive, and can volunteer at any time of year. Requirements do include a commitment to diversity in the archive, a willingness to learn and review established guidelines, and monitoring the tag wrangling mailing list for announcements and discussions.

The Committee's Work

stolen shamelessly from OTW 2012 Committee Descriptions:

The Tag Wrangling Committee and their team of volunteer “Tag Wranglers” maintain and administer the tags on the Archive of Our Own, curating the folksonomy system that links related tags together for better filtering and searching, while allowing users to tag their works however they prefer.

The Tag Wrangling Committee induct, advise and assist tag wrangler volunteers in handling new and existing issues, compose and maintain the written guidelines and tutorials to coordinate tag wrangler activity, communicate with other OTW committees on matters related to tagging, and serve as liaisons for moderators of challenges and ficathons hosted at the Archive with respect to tagging.

Since knowledge of wrangling guidelines and the archive tools is needed to address volunteer questions, the Tag Wrangling Committee draws its staff members from existing tag wrangling volunteers, or those with past wrangling experience who have also served in other staff positions for the OTW.

History of the Committee

The Tag Wrangling committee was initially a sub-committee of AD&T. It launched in February 2009 with a team of 8 wranglers and Julieann as the Wrangling Lead.

On 18 July 2010, the official Tag Wrangling committee was formed, chaired by Renay.

As of the 2012 term, the Tag Wrangling team consists of a staff of 12 (2 chairs and 10 staff members) and 140 wranglers.


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. 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