I don’t think you can talk about fans without talking about the work they create.
Fanworks are, according to fanlore.org, creative works “produced by one or more fans, generally intended for other fans.” Although there are fanwork categories that are more commonly made (such as cosplays), there is a myriad of forms that a fanwork can take (yes, there is such a thing as fannish quilting).
Personally, the form that I know best is fanfiction (in other words, fiction written by fans). I dipped my toes into it first with Harry Potter, then fully immersed myself with Marvel, and I don’t think I quite came back from it yet.
I don’t think I want to either. Although I have never written it myself—and it goes on my bucket list every year—there are many fanfiction writers that moved me. Some have even made me bawl my eyes out. Others have me reading into a 46-chapters-and-still-not-finished story at two in the morning.
Fanfiction allows me to read stories from all sorts of writers. It makes it possible for me to have a plethora of women narrators and protagonists at the tip of my fingers. It gives me a wider range of representation that I usually find in my mainstream media, as well as intriguing me with all the possible “what if’s.” (What if the Avengers were all in high school? What if Bucky Barnes went to Disney? What if Thor ate Poptarts? What if…?)
One group that is doing the amazing work of protecting fanworks is the Organization of Transformative Works, or OTW. OTW is a non-profit made by fans for all types of fans, and they work on preserving and providing access to all sorts of fanworks. Their mission has taken form in many projects, such as providing legal advocacy for creators and establishing online archives. If you are a fanfiction-afficionado like me, you may know them from Archive of Our Own (AO3), one of the largest fanfiction archives online (4.2 million “fanfics” from more than 30,000 fandoms as of 2018)!
I got a chance to talk to Claudia Rebaza, a Communication Staffer for the OTW, to learn more about what OTW does for fans, the current state of fandom, and (of course) our favorite types of fanfiction.
Juliana Vaccaro: What inspired OTW to be created? What needs was it trying to address?
Claudia Rebaza: The OTW was founded in 2007 in response to various developments at the time which affected fans. These included commercialization of fanworks through sites such as Fanlib, censorship and control issues such as Strikethrough and Boldthrough at LiveJournal, and gender imbalance issues in fandom research and professional publishing. Some of the central problems to be overcome at the time included taking a stand on the legal status of fanworks, and the way the rapid development of the Internet meant that locations where fans gathered and created were often short-term and cared nothing for the continued existence of their hosted content. This meant creating a legal entity to host, defend, and speak to outside entities about fanworks and fandoms.
JV: How has being a “predominantly female community” influenced OTW’s work?
CR: I think this can best be seen by the scope of the OTW’s central projects: Legal Advocacy in 2007, Transformative Works and Cultures on September 15, 2008, Fanlore on September 29, 2008, the Archive of Our Own (in limited beta) on October 3, 2008, and the Fan Culture Preservation Project (FCPP) on June 18, 2009. The FCPP is part of Open Doors which completed its first digital archive import in 2012.
In all these cases, the OTW's fundamental activity is preservation, whether it be by recording the history not only of fandoms but individual fans and fanworks in Fanlore; creating the AO3 to be open to all fandom works regardless of content or type; preserving individual archives and fanworks through Open Doors, whether digital or physical; defending fanworks in legal and governmental arenas; and highlighting research in Transformative Works and Cultures that explores activities in which female fans are likely to be the majority participants.
It's fairly well known that the activities and achievements of women (and minorities generally) are underreported or are buried in historical records as well as the pipelines through which history tends to get recorded and distributed. Even now major sources of information such as the news media or Wikipedia not only underrepresent women in their content, but also have relatively few women who are regular contributors to it.
This problem is no different in fandom or in academic studies of popular culture. Until this past decade there was a persistent belief (one might even say insistence) within the entertainment industry and the media that, outside of a few areas, women did not participate in fandom generally. This presentation of fandom as predominantly or exclusively male only began to shift when women began attending large conventions (which unlike many female dominated conventions, attracted a lot of media attention) in such glaringly obvious numbers that the reality could no longer be denied.
The founders of the OTW knew that unless representatives from female fandom took ownership of online spaces and made our voices heard in numerous outside arenas, a more representative picture of fandom history would likely never take hold. This would be even more likely given how so much fan activity has been erased from the Internet as platforms have died off, changed direction, or deliberately chased off fan groups.
JV: AO3 is known for its tagging archival system. How was that developed? What are the most popular tags?
CR: The short answer is that it was developed bit by bit as the archive has grown. The framework was designed to create a balance between individual preference in descriptions and searcher needs for a unified language. So creators can describe their work with whatever terms they wish, but behind the scenes tag wranglers connect the various different ways of labeling the same type of content so that people looking for those works can be sure they're finding them.
JV: Many fanwork creators identify themselves as part of a marginalized community, such as womxn, LGBT+, etc. Do you have any thoughts on why the fanwork genre attracts so many writers from these communities
CR: There have been many discussions of curatorial versus transformative fandom and how these tend to, in a general way, map onto primarily male vs primarily female ways of doing fandom. While this may be broadly true it is not necessarily individually true. Many people are both, some are curative in some fandoms and transformative in others, and others may shift from one to the other over their lifetime. There isn't any one right way to be a fan.
There has been speculation about why so many men tend to perform fandom in a curative way. For example, in her discussion of affirmational (curatorial) fandom, obsession_inc identified those in positions of power as operating on this side of fandom. The theory was that if you are a straight CIS white male you are either seeing yourself represented in most canon or you are more likely to be part of the industry creating it, and even if you aren't you have a vested interest in supporting the system that gives you your livelihood. Unlike transformational fandom, curatorial fandom affirms the status quo rather than challenging or altering it. In short, if you are having your needs met by the current system there is little incentive to see it changed in any way.
JV: In your opinion, can fanfiction—or fanworks in general—be empowering? How so?
CR: Yes, I certainly think that representation matters and if it doesn't exist (or if it's not foregrounded) in canons you otherwise enjoy, then it can be very affirming to take control of it and provide that attention in fanworks. But even if one is not a fanworks creator, the fact that one participates in a community that includes others feeling that same sense of exclusion, and who are providing that sense of empowerment for others, is as important as the works themselves.
JV: What challenges does OTW and the fanfiction community still face?
CR: The OTW will be 12 years old this September. Regardless of all that the organization has achieved over the years, there are always internal and external challenges. Some of the OTW's continue to be the same since its founding, which is the ongoing effort to recruit volunteers with the experience needed to keep all parts of the organization running, and the ongoing need for donations as the very success of our projects require ever more support in order to meet demand.
The challenges that transformational fandom faces could also be seen as resulting from its growth and success. Fandom has become much more recognized in the past few decades. This is due to increased visibility through social media and the pockets of fandom activity that can be found easily online. Media coverage has followed this visibility, and the growing revenue source that fans represent has also caused commercial entities to focus on it. However that growing visibility has come with its own problems, as internal divisions and bad behavior by some can color the opinions of non-participants towards communities as a whole.
Studies have shown that people can be turned off to a site or a community by encountering uncivil behavior even if it's not directed at them, particularly if visitors don't know of any established norms for that group. These problems are common everywhere, not just in fandom, but the less observers know about fandom the easier it is for them to develop negative associations for it.
Similarly, the fact that fandom has become a source of income for many means that it is increasingly vulnerable to exploitation because people realize there's something to be gained. This could end up altering the way that fan communities work. A search online for the term "exploiting fandom" provides pointers to a number of areas where this is happening.
JV: AO3 received a Hugo Awards nomination for Best-Related work this year. What does this mean for the OTW community and for fanfiction writers?
CR: From what we've seen since the nominees were announced, it would seem that it's brought attention to the OTW and AO3 from some people who hadn't heard of us before. That's certainly a welcome thing, and a good opportunity for us to inform them of the work that we do.
For fanwork creators generally, I think many feel that they have received a form of outside recognition that they weren't expecting but find exciting. And as is always the case when there is some major media story involving fanworks, I think it can give fans who participate in that part of fandom an easy introduction to talk about it with people who were previously unfamiliar with it.
JV: Do you have a favorite “fanfic genre”? Keep in mind that mine is 2012 domestic Avengers.
CR: I'm an MCU fan as well! I think when it comes to fanworks whether something is a genre or trope can be a little muddled, but a favorite story type of mine across fandoms is time loop/Groundhog day plots. I also prefer epic length stories generally, and if they are Alternate Universe stories, I appreciate anything that gives me a good insight into particular professions, especially if they tend to be rare in fanfiction (political campaign advisor; marine biologist; cancer researcher; urban planner, etc.) I also enjoy historical fiction and mysteries, and although the latter tends to be thin on the ground in fanfiction, I've read some good ones and would love to see more.
Update: Since the time this interview was conducted, Archive of Our Own (AO3) won the 2019 Hugo Award for Best Related Work. Congratulations to AO3, OTW, and the countless fanfic writers who made this possible!