A Day At the Biggest Mall on Earth: Fanfic Archiving and You

This was written by Merlin Missy in 2007. Some references may now be outdated but the information is very good. I would also note that Fanlib is now long dead, OTW is alive and reasonably well despite drama here and there, and A03 is thriving. This article is used with Missy’s permission. — Cygnet, March 17, 2016.

Internet-based fandom is a constructed space. It didn’t magically pop into existence out of the ether, it was built over years and it’s changed its mailing address many times. Consider if you will the age of Usenet and the WELL. Back in the day, when fans were swimming happily in the primordial waters of SASEs and word-of-mouth fan-run conventions, a strange, shining beacon lured them from the shore: a way to communicate with other fans across the world in real time. Fans haunted their local BBSes, posting Star Trek discussions and coordinating Beauty and the Beast meet-ups.

Usenet exploded, and then the home base for fandoms straddled the line between the rec.arts.* groups and the mailing lists that sprung up around them. The stories on alt.startrek.creative were archived by Joseph Young on his school server. Authors and readers from alt.tv.x-files.creative created the Gossamer archive, which eventually landed at http://www.gossamer.org. FORKNI-L and FKFIC-L were archived on their listserv’s home site (and later uploaded to http://www.fkfanfic.com).  Fan spaces were being created and maintained by fans.

As more fans came online, specialty archives started to appear. Geocities offered free websites in 1996, and then anyone who could copy HTML from another site could run an archive. Favorite pairing? Archive. Favorite character? Archive. School accounts and personal websites had the most storage space and bandwidth, so those were the sites that grew. Gargoyles fans watched their fanfics migrate from a small FTP server on http://www.rat.org to http://www.castle.net and finally http://www.gargoyles-fans.org.  Star Trek fans saw the big archive bounce from place to place, finally finding a home at http://www.trekiverse.org. Fans grew and tended their own fannish spaces, even as they kept those spaces separate.

Then came Xing.

The story is legendary: Xing Li started an archive as his senior project in school. Fanfiction.Net went live in late 1998 and never looked back. Described by one user as “the giant shopping mall” of fandom, FFN changed the dynamics of fan archiving. With no editorial oversight and no moderation, posting fanfic for any fandom became something that anyone could do.

Now, there are good things about shopping malls, and there are bad things. FFN takes a lot of flack for the same things that malls do: no good place for adults to hang out, overpriced yet cheaply-made merchandise, ads everywhere, and way too many darn teenagers around. Ah. I see you recognize the place. But it’s big, it’s convenient, it’s open for everyone, and you’re likely to find something that you want eventually. Besides, some of those teenagers are pretty cool.

My friend who made the “shopping mall” comment was user 3454 at the site. I was user 37360. Today there are well over a million users. Even if many have drifted away, that’s a big fannish presence at the mall, and not one costumed Easter Bunny in sight.

Livejournal has also been a great resource for fanfiction archiving, as its Friends List function allows people to view friends and communities in one handy place. If FFN is the shopping mall, Livejournal is the swap meet, where everybody and everything is out there at once, and you know the seller personally. When LJ was still under Brad Fitzpatrick and his team, the customers were the people who bought the paid accounts.

When Six Apart bought it, the advertisers on the Basic and Plus accounts became the customers, and that should explain everything you need to know about the recent brouhahas.
FFN was not set up to be a money-making opportunity. Xing ran the site out of his own pocket for years before advertising finally took over paying the bills, round about the time when NC17 fanfics were booted per the new TOS. While no numbers on how much the site takes in now, it is the fifth stickiest site on the Web, and Google appears to have a special deal going to permit the ads being shown with fanfic. That’s a huge business, and I speak only for myself, but I certainly don’t begrudge Xing; he provided and continues to provide a great service for fandom.
One of the best pieces of advice in any mystery is to follow the money. Where money goes, people who want money will follow.
Fans have money. More importantly, fans also create huge numbers of creative works for free. Fandom is after all a “gift economy,” in which we give each other presents of ‘fic and in return receive thank yous of reviews.
When the occasional fan tries to make money off fanfic, the rest of fandom falls on her/his head like a ton of rectangular building things. Back in the heyday of print ‘zines, fans would sometimes charge extra for the ‘zones, which normally cost enough to cover printing and binding costs, and those fans found their wares shunned in the Dealer’s Rooms. A few years ago, a fan (who shall remain nameless for now) decided she didn’t like her job and if her readers would just each send her $25, the cost of a hardcover, she could afford to quit, stay home, and write them fanfic for a year. This was not received well by fandom, wank ensued, and hopefully we won’t have to go through that again for a while.

Why? Because fandom is aware of its grey area of influence and nobody likes a lawsuit. The general consensus, right or wrong, is that The Powers That Be will ignore us as long as we’re not making money, and in practice, that’s what happens.

However, we live in a new climate, and our favorite media projects are being written by people who used to be us. They’re fan-friendly because they were fans, and some of them are willing to work with us. The Star Wars producers encourage fan films to be sent in for contests. Star Trek, via Pocket Books, runs a regular fanfiction contest called “Strange New Worlds,” the winners of which get published.

They’re still not entirely happy about us, but they’re willing to see what we can do, and they’ve realized they can make more money off of us. And that’s where FanLib came in. FanLib (whom we tried to reach for this article) combines corporate interests in fannish output with contacts on the inside. They package up the fanfiction by the authors on their site and promote it to advertisers as user-generated content ala Livejournal and MySpace. While claiming to be fans, they’re running a business and trying to make money off fandom from the outset. What fandom allows for FFN and mutters about on LJ is the thing it likely will not accept about FanLib, and despite the changes in their TOS, it is what will continue to keep FanLib separate from the majority of online fandom.

So what’s the alternative? Many writers dropped FFN when it banned NC17 material and the fans went to LJ. Now fans are fleeing Livejournal, fed up with the TOS changes and the witch hunts. Journalfen, GreatestJournal and InsaneJournal are LJ clones with some fannish overlap, but stories spread out among many sites are not going to be seen by as many people. The “boutique” fanfiction archive, geared towards just one product, may have to return, and fandom as a whole may splinter again.

That’d be sad. I liked the mall well enough, but I loved the swap meet. It’ll be hard to go back to just yard sales.

As I discussed last week, fandom is a democracy that’s made of the people who show up, and it’s run by the people who do the work. If we don’t do the work to create our own space, we’re doomed to live in other people’s spaces.

Some fans have stepped up to do that work.

The Organization for Transformative Works (OTW) was created earlier this year as a means for fans to create their own fannish spaces. The Chair of the OTW is Naomi Novik, author of the best-selling Temeraire series, and the entire board consists of people who have been in fandom for years (most under handles which may or may not be familiar).

Novik spoke with us this week about the project. “A lot of us have been talking about creating a fannish nonprofit for several years. You’d see a favorite archive shut down without warning, and wish there was a system to save the stories. Or read about fans being scared by ToS warnings and wish for a legal defense fund. Or follow the political debates about copyright and wish for a fandom lobby group. Certainly, the immediate trigger for this particular project was the FanLib launch, but FanLib was really only the last straw in a series of events that made a lot of us say, finally, ‘enough.’ Enough of letting non-fans define fandom; enough of not stepping up and defending what we’ve created. We began organizing in May, and by the end of the summer we had a board, several committees and a mission statement. We’re still very much in the start-up process and like most start-ups, we have a lot of outreach and research still to do.”

The OTW is the advocacy organization set up behind the Archive Of Our Own, a soon to be released multi-fannish fanworks archive. “The Archive is meant to be a central archive created by fans, for fans, and owned not by any individual or private corporation, but under the umbrella of a fan-run nonprofit organization — one that presumes the legality of transformative fiction from the get-go. Many people are happy with the archives they’re using now, and that’s great — there’s room for a wide variety of archives, with different missions. What we want is to offer a space that won’t back down the first time a lawyer sends us a letter and can’t get shut down on the circumstances of a few individuals.”

She continued, “In two or three years, we aspire to be a stable nonprofit organization doing advocacy work, in a good position to successfully defend a precedent-setting case, with the Archive Of Our Own up and running and full of fannish creativity, and the wiki and the academic journal both online and going strong.”

The OTW and the archive are operating on the “public radio model,” according to Novik. Donations will be the primary source of income for the site, with no advertising. “Just as NPR stations depend on ordinary listeners for support, we hope fans will be willing and able to support the OTW because we’re doing good work and people are glad we’re here. At the same time, just as anyone can listen to NPR without making a donation, the Archive and the other OTW projects will be open to all.”

A recent post made on the OTW Livejournal community said: “At the moment, our server space is being provided free by one of the systems team, our legal team has handled the non-profit incorporation, and our code will be hosted on the free Google Code service.” That last clause is important. Novik says one of the OTW’s goals is “to create open-source code so anyone who wants to will be able to take the code and use it to build another archive, too (like eFiction or Automated Archive).”

The “gift economy” in fandom does not demand open-source code or free hosting and software, but those aspects tend to be the key things that drive fannish migrations. Livejournal originally operated on a “buy an account or have a friend bring you in” basis, and later became free to all users with the nicer bells and whistles reserved for paid accounts, but it was Fitzpatrick’s offer of the source code to make similar sites that really sealed the deal for the “Brad is one of us” notion. FFN, for all its foibles, is still free to all, and there’s been a handy Ad Block feature for years, regardless of paid status. Back in the Usenet and mailing list days, archives were almost always kept on school servers, partly because people were accessing fandom via universities, but also because the space was essentially free (after the tuition was paid, obviously).

Fans like free stuff.

In that vein, then, an up-and-coming site called MyFandoms.com is intending to offer its fanfiction publishing software for free starting next month. The software is called FanFicFan and like eFiction, it provides sorting and search functions, using handy pull-down menus.

MyFandoms.com site owner Jacky Abromitis spoke with us about her site and the software they’re going to make available. “If users have the skill, they can customize the page so that it looks exactly like their sites,” said Abromitis.

“We have a few ad spots reserved for ourselves within the software, which is called FanFicFan and can be found at http://www.fanficfan.com. We have a few folks testing it out now, and we’re in the process of adding two huge features — a complete admin panel and an announcements area. Any fan fiction uploaded through fanficfan from any user, will also be uploaded to myFandoms.com. We feel this is a fabulous win-win for both us and the end user. They get to use the coolest, best fan fic software for their own purposes and on their own sites for absolutely free. We get some ad revenue when they use it, and we continue to grow myFandoms.com. Everything we do is free — no ‘premium’ for-pay anything. Advertising is the revenue stream for our sites.” (In the name of complete transparency, we should note that Firefox News is also an advertising-funded fannish site.)

The unfortunate choice of site design at MyFandoms — incorporating a little star like FanLib does — plus the use of the phrase “user-generated” in their parent site’s text has led some fans to speculate a link between the two sites. According to Abromitis, this is not the case. “[W]e’re completely independent of anyone/everything. We have no ‘venture capital.’ We’re not some corporation. It’s just me and our programmer, Chad Horton. We’re the quintessential fans — he’s a sci fi guy — and we look at our fandoms and say, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we could ….’ and then Chad programs it for us. We are truly a site BY fans, FOR fans. … [W]e’re fans with day jobs who are hoping that other fans will see that a) we’ve got *great* software and b) that we’re not some venture-capital conglomerate with ad budgets and stuff.” While that should assuage the suspicions of many skeptics, the thought of having privately-archived stories also being uploaded to MyFandom’s servers is going to be off-putting to fans still leery from LJ’s “strikes” against users who had already deleted their content.  Edit to add: Abromitis said, “[B]ased on input we’ve been getting this week, we’ve decided there WILL be an ‘opt out’ of having stories added to myFandoms.”  Additionally, she said, “any story deleted/edited/updated via FanFicFan **is also** deleted/edited/updated on myFandoms.”

Abromitis came to fandom via ER. “During Season 7 [of the series], there was a lesbian storyline with one of the main characters. That storyline was given about 3 minutes of air time every other week, but a huge fan community emerged around it. It was the first time I ever went online looking for fan information. I didn’t know what fan fiction was when I first read it — I thought it was an un-filmed script. But I became a fan fic junkie, reading every ‘Kim and Kerry’ story I could find. Fan fiction filled the gaping holes left by the show, and fan fic writers filled those holes in so many creative, believable ways. They made a very frustrating experience a whole lot of fun, in addition to satisfying. I saw what the lesbian community was capable of, from a fan and fan fiction perspective. Then, I read about The L Word in a gay/lesbian magazine. A few months later, August 2004, Showtime had a float in the Carnival Parade in Provincetown, MA. I can remember vividly watching the float go by — it was really just a billboard on wheels — and I immediately thought of the Kim/Kerry fandom. I looked at my partner and said, ‘I think this show is going to be big.’ But I sat on it. Finally, in December 2004, something brought it back to my attention again. We opened up a butt-ugly fan site. It pretty much just had news article links and a forum. I wanted fan fiction, so people would send me stories. I had an index page that linked to a web page, where I was adding the stories myself. Within 3 months of the show starting, it became evident that I wouldn’t be able to keep up. I had someone write the initial software so that I could have people upload the stories themselves. I wanted an auto-populating index page. That’s where our fan fic software started.”

The impetus to create the central site is similar though not identical to the idea behind the Archive Of Our Own project. Abromitis said, “Once we noticed there was no one ‘Fan Central’ type of site, the desire to be that site drove us to acquiring and customizing a ‘social networking’ program that allowed us to plug in all our proprietary tools, like fan fiction, fan art, fan photos, fan videos. The software gave us a framework to start with — it provided the communication tools. The rest [of the idea to make it a fansite] was ours.”

As fans, we have been carving out our own spaces for years, be those spaces nudging against the terms of service on paid servers, or on borrowed servers at the whims of site owners who may or may not be fans themselves. No one wants a lawsuit. No one wants to be the test case. But still we keep writing, and we need a place to show off our work and get our cookies. Fanfiction.Net is here to stay, but while it’s still the biggest place to shop, it’s no longer alone for multifandom accessibility. FanLib and MyFandoms are setting up malls nearby, and we don’t even know what model the Archive Of Our Own will eventually follow. What we do know is that wherever fandom goes, we need the space to be fan-positive, by fans and for fans. We need it to be easily accessible for old-timers and newbies, and we need to trust the people running it not to use us for their own ends, or duck and cover when TPTB come calling.

If there’s an Orange Julius there, so much the better.

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