Future Tense

Why Archive of Our Own’s Surprise Hugo Nomination Is Such a Big Deal

The fan fiction site—built, run, and written primarily by and for women—deserves your respect.

Illustration of Hermione, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman, and Uhura working on computers.
Natalie Matthews-Ramo

The Hugo Awards are some of the most important prizes in genre fiction, including science fiction and fantasy. Among past winners we see Ursula K. Le Guin, Isaac Asimov, Neil Gaiman, and most recently, N.K. Jemisin, who made history for winning Best Novel three years in a row for every book in her Broken Earth series. This year, nestled among nominees for novels, short stories, and even individual episodes of The Good Place and Doctor Who, is an unexpected contender for the Best Related Work category: the primarily women-run fan fiction website Archive of Our Own.

Archive of Our Own (often known as “AO3” for short) is an online platform for fan works— creative work based on existing media like novels, books, and video games, produced by fans of the originals. The nearly 5 million works archived there—4,690,000 as of this writing—represent almost 2 million registered users and countless more who visit the site every day, consuming content and leaving comments. Fan fiction makes up the majority of content on the platform, and these written works range from stories that are a couple of hundred words long to novel-length epics that rival the word counts of the Game of Thrones series. AO3 also houses other types of fan works, including fan art (often of popular characters), fanvids (music videos created from remixed movies and TV shows), and podfics (audiobook versions of fan fiction). The works represent more than 30,000 fandoms (the source material), among them the Marvel universe (340,375 works), Final Fantasy (37,281 works), New Kids on the Block (197 works), Full House (137 works), Progressive insurance commercials (12 works), and the board game Candy Land (five works).

But what makes Archive of Our Own so remarkable isn’t just the millions of fans and creative works it hosts. It’s also the kinds of people who build, maintain, and contribute to this dynamic, surprisingly less-toxic corner of the internet.

Founded in 2008, AO3 is far from the first platform where people have gone to share and consume fan works. We can trace fan fiction itself at least all the way back to Jane Austen and Sherlock Holmes, and fan fiction culture in its current form to Star Trek fandom in the 1960s, when people met at fan conventions and passed around stapled-together zines with stories about Kirk and Spock. Fan fiction has also had a long history on the internet, beginning largely with Usenet groups like alt.startrek.creative. Other huge fan fiction platforms like FanFiction.net have also been around for decades. But AO3 has skyrocketed in popularity over the past decade and become a hugely important part of fan culture—so significant that a recently released young adult novel contains a shoutout to the platform, both from one of the characters and in the author’s acknowledgments.

In many ways, AO3 seems right at home in the Hugos’ Best Related Work category. Like the nomination group’s name implies, it honors works—typically nonfiction, but also fiction—related to other science fiction or fantasy published or translated into English. Other nominees this year, for example, include the YouTube video essay The Hobbit Duology and a book about the Hugos themselves. Though not all of the fan fiction on AO3 is based on science fiction and fantasy, they still dominate: For example, the most popular source material on the platform comes from the Marvel universe and Harry Potter. How much more “related” can you get than millions of people creating countless creative works based on their love for the genre that the Hugos represent?

But fan works, and the community that surrounds them, often don’t get the respect they deserve. So AO3’s nomination for the prestigious award—both for the platform itself and for the platform as a proxy for the very concept of fan fiction—is a big deal. Many, both inside and outside the sci-fi and fantasy community, deride fan fiction as mostly clumsy amateur works of sexual fantasy—critiques that, as those who have looked at them closely have pointed out, have a glaringly gendered component. Erotic fan fiction is part of the landscape—and, frankly, can be a wonderful part of it—but it’s about more than that. It’s about spending more time in the worlds you love and exploring characters beyond the page. It’s about speculating over how things could be different, just as good science fiction and fantasy does. And it’s also about critiquing source texts, pushing back against harmful narratives, and adding and correcting certain types of representation (including the ways women and LGBTQ people are portrayed in these genres).

Both the criticisms of and the critiques contained within fan fiction make sense when considering the overall demographics of fan fiction writers compared with media fans generally. It has traditionally been a mostly female space, with early accounts of these communities estimating the groups to be 90 percent women. The communities are also known to host a large number of LGBTQ participants: For example, more than half of the respondents to a 2013 census of AO3 members self-identified as a gender, sexual, or romantic minority. And more respondents self-identified as genderqueer than as male. This tracks with a more recent survey I conducted last year of fandom participants generally (though most reported being AO3 users): Among respondents, cis men made up the smallest gender demographic, and fewer than 25 percent of participants identified as heterosexual.

Both the demographics of the community and the more critical eyes many AO3 contributors represent make this Hugo nomination even more significant when you consider that the awards are barely past the Gamergate-esque war waged during the past few years, in which a group of disgruntled fans tried to rig the nominations to crowd out the women, minorities, and other “social justice warriors” they saw as “ruining” science fiction for everyone. It wasn’t entirely a surprise, considering the way the genres—and the Hugo Awards themselves, which started in 1953—have long histories of being dominated by male authors and macho, white, heterosexual heroes. The nominations this year, however, seem to be continued proof that their war failed. Overall, there are more women than men nominated in every fiction category.

Another place where women have been underrepresented? Computer science, and even worse, open-source development, which is estimated to be about 95 percent men. Which brings us to yet another reason to celebrate AO3: It’s not just the community members who are majority-women; the platform design and development itself was done by a team of mostly women. Many among the original team were motivated by the exploitation of fan creators by other platforms—among them the site FanLib, founded in 2007 by a group of men, which, in practice, seemed aimed at commercializing the creative work of mostly women. Not only did the commercial aspect fly in the face of strong social norms in fandom against profiting from fan works, but the founders and employees of the site seemed entirely oblivious to the demographics of their target audience (evidenced by the ads that featured only men), and many of the mostly female fan creators felt condescended to. FanLib was gone by the end of 2008, but not before it served as a final straw that led to a push from fan creators that became a rallying cry: “I want us to own the goddamned servers, ok?” This eventually turned into an online repository for fan fiction that, for fan creators like me, really was our own (with a name inspired by Virginia Woolf), in that it was built—and continues to be run—by fans and for fans. The nonprofit that backs AO3, the Organization for Transformative Works, also facilitates additional projects, including a wiki to help preserve fandom history, a peer-reviewed scholarly journal, and a legal advocacy team (which, full disclosure, I am part of) that helps protect the rights of fan creators in the context of copyright law.

The values the community brings are apparent in the developers’ feminist-minded design decisions, like the amazing AO3 search system that’s based on a curated folksonomy and an army of volunteers as well as the built-in, required content warnings and filtering system that help readers both find and avoid content as appropriate. (As internet linguist Gretchen McCulloch pointed out in a Twitter thread, not only is this design a dream for archivists, but the tech industry could learn a lot from this platform that’s been sitting there in plain sight for a decade.) It also shows in the way it functions. Run entirely by volunteers, and committed to being ad-free with the help of donations, AO3 is a hugely successful online platform by any metric. It has nearly 2 million registered users, and, in a recent survey I conducted about platform use in fandom, respondents sang the praises of AO3, particularly as it compares with other platforms fans have used over time. They talked not only about how they appreciated the features of the site (though the search system really is remarkable) but also the trust that they have for the platform—trust that the site will protect their content and will have their best interests at heart when it comes to decisions about design and policy. In the current tech landscape, where we often assume the worst of social media platforms, this kind of trust seems rare. For AO3’s developers, too, their work on the platform sits in stark contrast to much of open-source culture, known to be particularly toxic to women.

After the news of AO3’s Hugo Award nomination, I saw an interesting debate pop up, which basically boils down to: Was the platform’s nomination meant for the platform’s contributing writers or for its coders? I think the answer should be: both. AO3 is successful as a platform in part because the people who use it are the ones who built it—whether that means coding, or organizing, or volunteering. The founders of the archive, coders like Naomi Novik, and people like law professor Rebecca Tushnet and media scholar Francesca Coppa have all been fan fiction writers too. Novik’s even nominated for a different Hugo this year: one for her novel Spinning Silver.

Over the past four years, as I’ve studied online fandom platforms, I’ve heard from thousands of AO3 users, some of whom have described the platform and the community that surrounds it as having literally saved their lives. In addition to teaching writing skills (with many writers going on to become successful published authors) and even technical skills (with some learning to code in the process), fan fiction communities are important creative and social spaces where people can be themselves, explore their own identities, and celebrate the media that they love.

The same goes for me. Not only am I involved with OTW’s legal committee, but my career as an academic studying the internet (and fandom!) began with my love of online communities and fan fiction. There have been times when, as a woman, I’ve felt out of place in science fiction communities, gaming communities, or computer science communities. But AO3 has been a place where everyone can come as they are, and there are no accusations about “fake geek girls.” AO3 has a welcome statement that reads, “No matter your appearance, circumstances, configuration or take on the world: if you enjoy consuming, creating or commenting on fanworks, the Archive is for you.” You are a fan if you say you are a fan, no gatekeepers required. It’s a powerful thing.

Even if Archive of Our Own doesn’t win the Hugo, its nomination signals a greater respect for both fan fiction as an art form and for the creators and users of this remarkable platform. It’s a recognition of the power of these diverse spaces and voices that have, for so long, been marginalized—both in genre fiction and in computing. When we make things of our own, they tend to be pretty great.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.