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The internet’s most beloved fanfiction site is undergoing a reckoning

A million-plus-word story is holding AO3’s community hostage.

Sad times with AO3.
Archive of Our Own
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

The Archive of Our Own — the beloved, Hugo-winning fanfiction platform shorthanded affectionately as AO3 — was famously created by fans, for fans. It’s run by a fandom nonprofit, coded and moderated by volunteers, and reliant on its huge community of users to help it carry out its mission of preserving and protecting fans’ work. Because the history of fandom includes a long lineage of fanfic authors fighting for the right to write and publish fanfiction without facing deletion and/or legal threats, AO3’s rules are incredibly permissive: “Our goal is maximum inclusiveness,” explains the platform’s Terms of Service.

Longstanding calls for AO3 to more closely moderate fics with toxic elements, for example, have generally been met with a polite but firm “no” from AO3 according to that mantra — a variant of the classic free-speech idea that permissiveness and openness, not restriction and censure, will bring the most benefit to the community. Basically, if it’s a fic, it can stay.

Until now, that permissive approach has worked well for most AO3 users. But lately, the site’s approach to moderation, curation, and what even counts as fanfiction have all been thrown into upheaval and caused widespread consternation — all thanks to a single fic.

Over the past few months, this fic has enraged users, become a target of ridicule and harassment, and been the subject of so many abuse reports filed by members of the AO3 community that moderators reportedly stopped accepting complaints about it. On February 21, the moderators reportedly suspended it for a month on a technicality — but this hasn’t fixed the problem, and its author has vowed to return with a vengeance.

What’s wrong with the fic in question, and why is it such a powder keg? As I reported on the situation in search of answers, my perspective shifted: I thought this was a story about website moderation, taxonomy, what performance art looks like on the internet, and an online community’s complicated growing pains.

And it is all of those things. But it’s also a story about ethics, kindness, and connection within a community plagued by toxic abuse, and how a single disruptive user can undermine everything that community purports to stand for — even if the upheaval ultimately leads to something better.

Meet the most controversial fic on AO3

Since it first appeared in October 2019, “Sexy Times With Wangxian,” or STWW, has become notorious across AO3. That in itself is unusual, because most AO3 users stick to their own fandoms and don’t pay much attention to what’s happening in others. STWW belongs to the fandom for the wildly popular Chinese TV series The Untamed, and the “Wangxian” in the title refers to the ship name for the show’s beloved main romantic pairing. It’s a very long fanfic, over a million words, and contains more than 200 chapters of porn featuring The Untamed’s large cast in endless permutations and sexual scenarios.

All that, by itself, isn’t enough to make STWW remarkable — not on a website as wild and unpredictable as AO3. Yet the fic has become impossible for many AO3 users to ignore thanks to a unique quirk: Its author has linked it to more than 1,700 site tags (and counting).

A quick note about AO3’s tagging system: It is designed to let users tag creatively and freely. So you can add useful tags, like pairing labels and character names, but you can also toss in personalized tags for fun and creative expression, from “no beta readers we die like men” to “I wrote this at 4am on three bottles of Monster Energy and zero sleep don’t judge.”

The tagging system is in service of the site’s total permissiveness — you can write anything you want in tags. But for the site to function, tags still need to be useful for navigation. So AO3 has hordes of volunteers known as “tag wranglers” whose sole job is to sort through the massive number of fic tags on the site and decide which ones will actually help users find what they’re looking for.

Those tags are then made “canonical,” which means they’ll become universal tags that every user can sort through. They’ll also appear within a list of suggested tags as you type. If I start to type “hospital” while tagging a fic, AO3 will return canonical tag suggestions like “Alternate Universe — Hospital,” “Hospital Sex,” and “Hogwarts Hospital Wing.” That makes it easy to determine whether your fic fits tags the community is already using.

AO3’s tagging system is so organized and thorough that it has won widespread acclaim from fields like library science and internet infrastructure. But it still has its limits — and with more than 1,700 tags, “Sexy Times With Wangxian” has revealed what some of those limits look like — in some cases quite literally.

For example, here’s how STWW’s tag list displays on even a very, very big screen:

The tags are so numerous, they can’t fit into a single screenshot on a large monitor. Here’s a quick scroll through the entire thing:

Now, imagine looking at AO3 on your phone, trying to scroll past this wall of tags to get to the next fic on the page.

Remember that none of those words in the image and video above are the actual fic — they’re just the navigation tags for the fic. Nearly all of them are tags that other people actually use to navigate AO3 and find fics of interest to them. And because STWW has become so extensive and uses so many tags, its description has created a massive visual and infrastructural disruption for users across the platform.

The fic is now linked to numerous fandom categories it doesn’t really belong to, and in recent weeks, it has grown and begun to encompass more and more fandoms. Consequently, what started out as a problem for The Untamed’s fandom has abruptly become a problem all across the platform.

Guides to how to block the fic have cropped up. For example, I use a Chrome extension that blocks fics with too many tags (you can specify how many tags is too many — I picked 50); there’s also simple site code that you can add to your custom site “skin” to block the fic completely from search results, as well as other workarounds.

But the usefulness of these options is limited. Site skins only work for logged-in users. Website extensions don’t work on mobile. Many other workarounds aren’t compatible with adaptive technology like screen readers used by disabled people and others — and if you think having to scroll past the tags on a phone is obnoxious, imagining getting stuck on it while a screen reader laboriously recites all 1,700 tags out loud.

It’s perfectly likely that the fic’s author, an AO3 user whose handle is virtual1979, had no idea what kind of havoc they were wreaking when they started tagging their work in this fashion. In an interview with Vox, they described themselves as “a casual reader” before all this. “I’m not an active part of the community of fic writers,” they told me.

Virtual1979 is an Asia-based writer of Chinese descent; internet sleuths have alleged that they are a 41-year-old long-time member of fandom. But since virtual1979 started posting chapters of “Sexy Times With Wangxian,” AO3 users have asked them repeatedly to stop — and they’ve not only refused, but continued to expand STWW to add more tags and fandoms. Their defiance has generated sustained furor over the fic. Many users have started referring to it simply as “the wall of tags.” One person on Reddit literally dreamed about A03’s moderators stepping in to help. Fandom blog site the Geekiary published an angry rundown of the situation, noting, ”I have not sat down and done the math, but at this time I’ve probably spent 20 or so minutes of my life just trying to scroll past the fic.”

Predictably, “Sexy Times With Wangxian” has come to be perceived by many as an act of pure trolling — as though virtual1979 is just trying to rile up the AO3 community. There’s just one problem: The author is technically not trolling, but using AO3’s tagging system exactly as it’s intended. And that’s a whole different issue.

The disruption caused by “Sexy Times With Wangxian” has led to a referendum on AO3’s community standards and abuse on the platform

As the fic’s notoriety has spread, so have the imitations. In the last week alone, AO3 has had to remove at least two instances of actual trolling inspired by STWW: One user uploaded the entirety of The Great Gatsby, and another uploaded the entirety of 1984 — both as tags, meaning every word of each novel was turned into a tag and thus took up a huge amount of space on the site’s related navigation pages, just as STWW does.

But there’s a big difference between STWW and its clearly performative troll off-shoots, both of which have since been removed. STWW arguably hasn’t broken any rules about tagging, and its author insists they’re using the site exactly as it’s designed to be used. In theory, it’s hard to argue with that. The fic is a million words long, after all, and you can fit a lot of accurately tagged topics into a million words.

Virtual1979 stressed to Vox that contrary to the widespread belief that they’re trolling, they aren’t tagging their fic simply to be performative. “I’m not tagging to beg for attention, please make that very clear,” they told me. They explained that they tag the way they do for personal preference, for purposes of clarity, and because they like the feeling that comes with finding out that one of the tags they’re using is already canonical and being used by others in the AO3 community.

“For me, tagging is a personal choice,” they said. “I tag as I go along ... It’s a bit of a routine, also a bit of discovery.” As for their habit of adding even more fandoms to the fic itself and then adding new tags so that even more AO3 users have to confront it, virtual1979 insisted this approach is about variety and the fun of a challenge.

They acknowledged the controversy around their fic but emphasized that they were operating completely within AO3’s rules. “If AO3 has a category or a big red warning checkbox to say ‘click this to read crazy fics’ then I should put my fic in there,” they joked. “People are free to search (my) fic or exclude the fic using tags.”

Virtual1979 also remained steadfast when I pointed out that their fic was breaking the site for disabled users, stressing that the onus should be on AO3 — not them — to make enforceable site changes.

That’s actually a very popular idea. Many, many AO3 users have long argued that the site needs to change in exactly the way STWW’s critics want it to, though for much different and more serious reasons.

Throughout 2020, during sustained discussions across social media about structural racism and other toxic elements in fandom, AO3 users repeatedly requested that the site add basic features that could help users avoid involuntarily engaging with fics they found toxic or harmful. For example, currently there’s no real way to officially sanction a writer who includes racist elements in their fanfiction — the site’s abuse policy FAQ doesn’t mention race, and there’s currently no way to “warn” readers about racially charged elements in a fic. (You can warn readers about other controversial fic content, like character deaths, non-consensual scenarios, and underage characters.) And there are many readers who’d like to avoid engagement with fics and authors they deem to be racist.

Among these wide-ranging discussions, one of the most frequent requests was for a function to block or hide individual users and their works — a function that would incidentally be incredibly handy in the case of a single author building a giant wall of tags.

In other words, the “Sexy Times With Wangxian” situation has direct links to earlier discussions about race and community moderation on the platform.

Beyond annoying lots of AO3 users, what virtual1979 has inadvertently done with their fic is reveal how susceptible AO3’s hands-off moderation stance is to being exploited and damaged by bad actors. Even if virtual1979 is not intentionally trolling, they have undermined AO3’s ability to claim that its stance of total permissiveness is one that brings the most benefit to the entire community.

It’s not clear whether any planned changes are in the works as a response to STWW’s continued existence. But its notoriety and the groundswell of calls to take action against it feel like a watershed moment for AO3 and its community.

And things look promising. In response to a request for comment, a spokesman for the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW), the nonprofit that runs AO3, hinted to Vox in an email that changes could be on the way:

Due to PAC’s [the OTW’s Policy and Abuse Committee’s] confidentiality policy, PAC can not comment on any cases, and at the moment, there is nothing in the TOS about limiting tags. There will be a post coming next month from AD&T [the Accessibility, Design & Technology committee] that will address site features such as the block user function.

If the site really is on the verge of adding new site features as a result of the STWW situation, then it’s important to be clear: What hundreds of fans couldn’t do in 2020, during months of discussion about racism on AO3, “Sexy Times With Wangxian” has done in basically a few weeks. It’s swayed members of the community to favor the idea of greater hands-on moderation for individual fics and writers, and more functionality that will allow users to customize their experience reading the site. These exact concepts met tremendous resistance last year when many fans argued that such an approach would make the community safer and more inclusive, and that change was necessary.

Lori Morimoto, a fandom academic who was involved in the earlier discussion, didn’t mince words about the inherent hypocrisy of the controversy around STWW. “The discussions of the fic were absolutely riddled with people saying they wished you could block and/or ban certain users and fics on AO3 altogether because this is obnoxious,” she wrote to me in an email, “and nowhere (that I can see) is there anyone chiming in to say, ‘BUT FREE SPEECH!!!’”

Morimoto continued:

But when people suggest the same thing based on racist works and users, suddenly everything is about freedom of speech and how banning is bad. When it’s about racism, every apologist under the sun puts in an appearance to fight for our rights to be racist assholes, but if it’s about making the reading experience less enjoyable (which is basically what this is — it’s obnoxious, but not particularly harmful except to other works’ ability to be seen), then suddenly our overwhelming concern with free speech seems to just disappear in a poof of nothingness.

Virtual1979 may have achieved that magical poof simply by promising to keep expanding the number of fandoms they tag their fic into indefinitely, until they get bored or AO3 changes its policies. But if the site’s tagging infrastructure is altered or a blocking or filtering function is added, it will be hard not to see this episode through a cynical lens: That the OTW systematically rejected and bypassed the sustained voices of so many fans, including Black fans and other fans of color, for months — until their needs and desire for a safe space abruptly aligned with other fans’ annoyance and inconvenience.

Despite everything, the AO3 community has found ways to rally around the “Sexy Times” pushback with grace and creativity

What’s perhaps ironic in all of this is that virtual1979 wasn’t a member of the AO3 community before they joined in 2019, out of their growing interest in The Untamed.

“When I searched for The Untamed fics, AO3 seems to appear at the top of Google search,” they recalled. “I see people recommending fics with links to AO3. [The site’s] reputation as a safe haven for [adult-rated]-fics and their mission about archiving fannish/transformative works drew me in.”

Now, though, after what they describe as months of intensifying harassment and requests to remove their fic or the tags — which they’ve ignored — virtual1979 is less invested in engaging with other readers and writers. “I guess any bridge that remained between me as a casual writer, and the readers who may be fans or not, has burned down,” they said.

Despite what virtual1979 told me, however, it’s hard to believe they’re as antisocial as they claim. After all, the joy they get out of tagging — the reason the entire AO3 community is in this mess — stems from recognizing that they’re part of a larger community of people, all using the same tags. I’ve experienced that same joy many times on the site; it’s meant to be a feature, not a bug.

What’s entirely unsurprising, but always remarkable, is that out of the anger and ire people feel toward virtual1979 and STWW, the fandom community has done what it usually does and turned an ugly situation into something positive.

Since “Sexy Times With Wangxian” became a whole Thing, it has spawned memes, spinoff fics, and a frankly fabulous fic prompt generator that scans all of the STWW tags and chooses some at random for you to write fics around. Just now I got the tags, “Foursome – M/M/M/M,” “I’m Bad At Summaries,” “Cryptography,” “Body Dysphoria,” and “Organs.” Outstanding.

The fic also inspired a rival “Bland Times” fic movement, prompted by a Twitter joke that became a real fic and grew into an entire challenge that caters to fandom’s love of soft fics where the stakes are low and inherently peaceful.

This all leaves me feeling strangely poignant — both frustrated and hopeful for the future of the AO3 community. Because even though the controversy around “Sexy Times With Wangxian” is technically just about tagging, it’s really about the painful, even absurd way that meaningful change happens, with subtext about the ways we reach out to and connect with other people online. In this case, virtual1979 wasn’t intending to subvert and overhaul an entire fanfiction community with thousands of members, but that may be just what they’ve done.

And whether or not they feel like part of the AO3 community after all this, I can’t think of anything more in keeping with the spirit of AO3 itself than that.

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