Owning the servers: A design fiction exploring the transformation of fandom into "our own"

Casey Fiesler

University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado, United States

[0.1] Abstract—This essay serves as a speculative design fiction that traces the history of fan creation platforms from the past to the present and finally to a possible future. Using the history and success of the Archive of Our Own ( as a focal point, I consider the importance of owning the servers as a way for fan communities to create and preserve culture and reassert values. Examining one possible legal and technological future with an air of optimism allows us to consider what fannish communities can do now to maintain a path of our own.

[0.2] Keywords—AO3; Archive of Our Own; Fair use; Fan history; Fan works; Ownership; Platform

Fiesler, Casey. 2018. "Owning the Servers: A Design Fiction Exploring the Transformation of Fandom into 'Our Own.'" In "The Future of Fandom," special 10th anniversary issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 28.

1. Introduction

[1.1] What if? This simple question is at the heart of imagining possible futures. Media fandom was born out of speculative fiction, like the "what ifs" of Star Trek, but fan fiction itself is also all about speculation. In drawing this parallel, Francesca Coppa notes that fan fiction often speculates about character over world (Coppa 2017). Rather than asking "what if the world were different?" fans ask "what if the character were different?"

[1.2] Design fiction, by contrast, speculates about technology. It is a conflation of design, science fact, and science fiction that allows us to consider possible futures (Sterling 2005). What if we weren't constrained by current technology or current societal structures? Technologists use design fiction to think through consequences and implementation, and even as a way to think through the ethics and impact of radical technological intervention (Lindley 2015). This kind of speculation allows us to imagine both the aspirational and the cautionary (Russell and Yarosh 2018).

[1.3] In the essay that follows, I consider the aspirational and go about this backwards—describing our current trajectory as a way of imagining a possible future and what might get us there. Following descriptions of fandom's past and present, section 4 is entirely speculation, driven by this question: How has fandom's relationship with technology, with policy, and with each other gotten us to where we are now, and what could the future hold?

2. Past

[2.1] In the earliest days of fandom, we owned the servers. Of course, the "servers" then were just smiles and words, pen and paper, staples and stamps. We were intimate and secretive—and also small. Fan works passed hand to hand, and there were no unintended audiences, no critical outside eyes. We controlled channels of distribution; we controlled which ears heard our stories. We wrote for an "insider audience" (Bacon-Smith 1992) with an entirely different value and culture than the traditional writing market; it was our own thing.

[2.2] It is hard to say when the first fan work may have appeared on a server outside our control. The early days of the internet brought us Usenet and email-based mailing lists as popular modes of communication and dissemination. The internet altered the very substance of fandom; fan artifacts were no longer physical, and geographical boundaries no longer existed (Busse and Hellekson 2006). Without these barriers, participation in fan creation communities grew by leaps and bounds. It also meant that posting a story online required relinquishing some control; you weren't giving it to a person at a fan convention, you were giving it to the world at large, to anyone who could connect to a Usenet server. And suddenly, for the first time, the platform mattered.

[2.3] The problem with platforms is that they have their own agenda. When deciding on policies, for example, a platform (or, rather, its stakeholders) has its own concerns—about leeway, liability, profit, and public perception (Gillespie 2010)—and these concerns are probably not the same as those of its users. But once fan creators moved past staples and stamps, platforms were a necessity. We co-opt technologies, bending them to fannish uses (Busse and Hellekson 2006), moving across platforms the same way we move across texts. And though this journey can fragment us, there is still an underlying community, regardless of the technology that helps bring it together.

[2.4] Arguably, a creative work only becomes a fan work when it is "produced within and for a community of fans" (Coppa 2017). Fan fiction is what it is because of its community. Furthermore, this community has been around for a long time—long enough that its values and norms (around, for example, inclusivity and control) are far more entrenched than those that could be reflected in any single platform (Fiesler, Morrison, and Bruckman 2016). And when our values are at odds with those of our co-opted platforms, we feel unwelcome there.

[2.5] Therefore, as fandom moved across these spaces, when our content was removed without warning (Brennan 2014) or our labor commercially exploited (Hellekson 2009) or our creativity stifled (Fiesler 2017), the inevitable question was: Would our community values shift to meet those of these pre-fabricated houses, or would we build our own home?

3. Present

[3.1] Value clashes and exploitations seeded a rallying cry that brought much of fandom together in a common goal: "Owning the servers!" (Lothian 2012). This thirst for independence drove an initiative for fans to create a new platform where we would not only own the servers, but have control over the values that design and policy reflected—an archive of our own.

[3.2] Within the ten years after its launch in 2008, Archive of Our Own (AO3) grew to over a million users and even more millions of fan works. Size and growth was one metric of success, but the other was the deft way that the community's existing values were baked into the design of the site; AO3 is a platform that has the same agenda as its users, because unlike most platforms, those users are the ones who built it (Fiesler, Morrison, and Bruckman 2016).

[3.3] If I had written an essay in 2006 about "the future of fandom," I might have imagined a possible future that looked very much like AO3—except I would have considered it far out of reach. The idea that a community of people could come together to create among themselves both the infrastructure and the code for an entirely new platform is remarkable—but it is even more remarkable that this was a community of mostly women, who are traditionally underrepresented in computer science and even more so in open-source development (Nafus 2012). Another success of AO3 is that they didn't just build a platform; they also built a batch of fan-coders because, as the founders realized at the time: "we're going to have to grow our own" (Fiesler et al. 2017).

[3.4] Fast-forward ten years, and we still owned the servers. Fan communities also still cut across many different platforms, both for interaction and for archiving, but there also seemed to be a shift in attitudes. Perhaps bolstered by a growing willingness to identify as a fan, by more mainstream acceptance of fandom and even fan creation, there seemed to be more of a sense of we belong here, even on co-opted platforms. It appeared to not just be about the platform we built, but that sense of shared purpose and identity that helped us come into our own.

4. Future

[4.1] The transformative nature of fan works has long been haunted by the specter of copyright law (Stanfill 2015). Protections such as fair use in the United States, that provide exceptions for remixes, parodies, and other types of transformative works, were well argued and even assumed, but never ironclad. However, in the decades that followed the creation of AO3, as technology evolved and all manner of read-write culture (Lessig 2008) became the rule rather than the exception, even the law eventually began to keep pace. More importantly, so did industry norms.

[4.2] A landmark copyright case hit the US Supreme Court in 2012, codifying the concept of "market good" as part of a fair use analysis—finding that not only might certain type of reuse not harm the market of the original, but that the ways in which they could actually improve or invigorate a market should be taken into consideration. In cases that followed, this concept, alongside transformativeness and noncommerciality, strongly suggested if not solidified the legality of transformative works through a string of relevant cases. Though to this day fan works have never been directly challenged, domain-adjacent situations of content reuse have allowed the legal advocates of fan creation, who have had an increasingly loud voice in policymaking (Tushnet 2014), to craft increasingly unambiguous arguments, should the time come.

[4.3] After all, has Sherlock Holmes been harmed, or made less valuable, by the many interpretations of him over the years—or have those interpretations contributed even more to his success (Coppa 2017)? As media consumption metrics have improved (despite the obvious privacy threat these metrics brought with them), the positive connection between fandom and the economics of the media industry became an empirical truth.

[4.4] Though a friendlier legal and cultural regime has improved the standing of fan works generally, it is the ongoing sense of shared ownership that has arguably most significantly contributed to the growth and stability of fan creation communities. All of the traditional media of fan works—fan fiction, fan art, fan vids—are as active as ever, despite the constant introduction of new media forms.

[4.5] Keeping up with new media forms has also proven an unsurprising challenge, given that "owning the servers" requires resource intensiveness and expertise. The small, shifting group of dedicated volunteers that maintain and improve AO3 have faced challenges with workload and expertise bottlenecks (Fiesler et al. 2017). However, the concept of training fans to be developers rather than turning to outsiders helps maintain our sense of ownership.

[4.6] Fan creation communities have long been recognized as important spaces for informal learning—from literacy skills through fan fiction critique (Black 2009) to technical skills through video editing or website coding (Fiesler et al. 2017). More organized efforts of fan coders and fan educators over many years have resulted in a steady pipeline of fans learning new computational skills. The goal wasn't merely more developers for AO3, but also more developers who could do whatever they wanted, some of whom would eventually go on to build more platforms.

[4.7] Our first significant test followed the explosion of popularity for augmented reality (AR) platforms, including the integration of AR into everyday media. As fans dipped their toes into creating AR fan works—Chewbacca sitting in the driver's seat next to you in your car, tours of filming locations peppered with digital recreations of scenes—there was some resistance. Because media properties were enamored with creating their own platforms, how we could use them was sewn up in restrictive platform policies. This wasn't the first time that platforms had placed restrictions on fan creativity (e.g., Marvel's banning creative content on both "alternative lifestyles" and "killer bees" (Fiesler 2017)), but by then we knew what to do: we had to own even more of the servers.

[4.8] Thanks to the growing number of both technologists and philanthropists that consider fandom their home, we have platforms for not only traditional media and AR, but also gaming, roleplaying, and there are even steps towards immersive virtual reality. There are challenges, of course, including maintaining the gift culture of fandom (Hellekson 2009) in the face of economic realities, but we've had decades to entrench this value system.

[4.9] Who can say where technological or cultural evolution will bring fan creation communities next? But it does seem clear that, in all the best ways, we'll continue to do it on our own.

5. Conclusion

[5.1] In this essay, I considered the aspirational rather than the cautionary, in envisioning a possible future for fandom—but rooted in the journey that we have already taken. What I hope this thought exercise emphasizes is that fandom is not helpless to external forces—to platforms, industries, or even policies. Though of course the realization of the optimistic legal and cultural changes I described here would make our work much easier, part of the story as well is that we can help drive them. The success of AO3 already suggests that we can do the impossible. And though we might only have influence and not control over the law or the media industry, there are some things that we can think about, like organizing around technical education for interested fans.

[5.2] As Henry Jenkins said many years ago, "Fan fiction is a way of the culture repairing the damage done in a system where contemporary myths are owned by corporations instead of owned by the folk" (Harmon 1997). We may not own the myths, but owning the servers is also a form of damage repair, where we've reasserted the values of our community. The future of fandom is particularly bright because of how far we've come, the path we've taken to get here, and the amazing things we've built along the way.

6. References

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