The Hugo Awards and the AO3

In early April, the World Science Fiction Society announced the nominees for the 2019 Hugo Awards. This happens every year, but when looking through the list, it was obvious what people would be really interested in it this year. The massive fanfiction site, the Archive of Our Own (known colloquially as the AO3) had been nominated for “Best Related Work,” finally, officially, joyfully cementing the importance of the massive project that receives more traffic than most other digital libraries. For reference, Alexa (the website ranking system) puts AO3 in the 630s. Project Gutenberg is 4,913, is at 2,498, is 967, JSTOR is 907.

But the Hugos aren’t popularity contests. What makes the Archive worthy of inclusion is hard to quantify with numbers, but it’s easy to see why an archive dedicated to the preservation of fanwork, which has for so long gone hand-in-hand with science fiction of all kinds, would be considered for a nomination. The Archive is also a non-profit entity, free to use, browse, and easy to be a part of. The archive is built to facilitate community involvement, but it doesn’t have social media structures: no real dashboard, chat feature, or “following”. You can subscribe to authors, but that means you will get an email whenever the author starts a new fic or posts a new chapter. Ultimately connecting over the Archive is difficult, but that’s fine. That’s not really what the AO3 was built for.

The Archive was built for fans, by fans, developed, run, and owned totally by volunteers and monetarily supported through a majority of small, micro-donations during annual drives. The Archive is a project of the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), which also supports other fannish projects like Fanlore (a wiki of fandoms, fanwork, meta, fanart, artists, vidders, authors, and zines), the Fan Studies project, and Legal Advocacy for fans, which keeps places like the Archive protected, and protects the rights of fans to draw, write, talk, and vid about their favorite characters using pieces of an already-established IP.

This is a primer. Let’s get down to why the Hugos decided that now was a good time to nominate not the OTW, but the Archive specifically. Besides the sheer traffic and scope of the project, the infrastructure needed to support what fans are looking for is desperately complicated, open-source, and created almost entirely by volunteers. When a fan creates a work, they often use ‘Tags’ to describe what they are doing. Tags are used as both descriptors and search terms, which means that the tags one person uses for a Spock/Kirk fic could be totally different than what another user applies to their own Spock/Kirk fic. The interior logic of those two users might be different, but if you are using the Archive to search for Spock/Kirk fic, you want to be able to see both fics, even if the tags are totally different.

And the surprising, amazing, beautiful thing is that you can find both fics, even if you search ‘K/S,’ ‘I Believe in the Premise,’ ‘James T. Kirk/Spock,’ or ‘Spirk,’ one of the most unfortunate portmanteau ship names in existence. The reason I get all these fics and more is that the Archive has created a series of tag associations that are systematically updated behind the scenes by volunteers known as Tag Wranglers. Wranglers need to be well-versed in the fandom, active enough to keep up with trends, and clever enough to decipher what a person means to say and what they intend for people to use within their search for the perfect Spirk hurt/comfort fic.

The search functions of the site are so massive and the demand is so varied, expansive, and specific, that the Archive has gone to extreme and unparalleled lengths to create a database that will allow a user to craft a search for the most specific kind of fic. For example, this search shows only completed fics within the Boondocks Saints fandom, crossed-over with the Supernatural fandom, excluding the character Castiel, and without any crossover with The Walking Dead, sorted by the last date updated. Just as an example, this sort of structure is incredible.

This system alone is deserving of an award (or several) but the infrastructure of the site is not the only reason the Archive is up for a Hugo. The fact is that so many fans have contributed to this site, in a beautiful, inspiring, indulgent, and ultimately, selfless way. Many people cut their teeth on fic, many more only write fic, some scrub their fic of all references to the original IP and sell their reskinned work to a major publisher. The Archive is an incubator for the next round of authors and writers, and it’s all built within a community that supports creators and content in a way that protects their right to write whatever they want, in whatever kind of fandom they want to create for themselves.

The fact is that larger media companies and private ventures will always have censorship laws that limit the kind of work that is hosted on its servers. The AO3 was built and conceived with the express goal of not allowing private interests, advertisers, or stakeholders to make demands of the content allowed on the Archive. This mission is surprisingly more controversial and more progressive than ever thought. So many sites stress censorship for the sake of protecting audiences, but this is a site that directly asks creators and audiences to engage with whatever content they want to engage with. This is tricky, of course, and the Archive has set up safety measures within their tag system to create warnings and notes so that people can understand exactly what they’re getting into when they click on a fic.

Fans and volunteers who work on and contribute to the Archive didn’t need the validation of a Hugo award, but it does feel good to see. The Hugos have always been fan friendly, and many of the nomination categories include Best Fanzine, Fancast, Fan Writer, and Fan Artist. It makes sense that eventually the largest archive of fanwork on the planet would be nominated for an award. The fact is that it’s not just the technical aspects of the AO3 which merit inclusion, but the fanwork that’s hosted on the site is, on its own, worthy of praise.

Fanwork, fandom, fanfic, and ultimately, fans, deserve to be given a Hugo award for the sheer dedication and love they have for their media obsessions. The love of fandom is hard to understand unless you’re in it, unless you’ve written over 50K words for a single fic, unless you’ve cried over a character’s death in a fic, unless you’ve printed out a fic and read it over and over, unless you’ve had to hide your Kindle while on public transit, unless you’ve seen fandoms flare and die within months. There are so many aspects of fandom that there is no exclusivity or accessibility test for the Archive. You can be a part of it without any gatekeeping, judgment, or social pressure. You can enjoy what you want, you can find what you want, and you can contribute as much (or as little) as you want. All for free, all for fans and by fans.

This article might be a love letter to the Archive of Our Own, but all this praise is deserved. The fans on the Archive absolutely deserve an award for their work, both behind the scenes and on the Recently Updated page. Fingers crossed we get it.