Talking with Claudia Rebaza of AO3: Part One

Like many of you dear Reader readers, I enjoy wiling away many a nerdy hour thinking about why people like to read what they like to read. What do readers get out of the experience? How can understanding that help us librarians better help those readers?

Which leads me to fan fiction.

The excellent Maggie Reagan has written about fan fiction before, both here on the blog and in the pages of Booklist. My personal experience with fan fiction is more limited (#Stucky), but the idea has always fascinated me. Folks get so involved in a text that they have to inhabit it and interact with it and sometimes reinvent it.

TBH I’m a little jealous of the commitment.

This, of course, is not about me. It’s about Archive of Our Own (AO3), one of the largest noncommercial homes for millions of fan-created stories, works of art, videos, etc., in the world, which was nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Related Work. The fact of this nomination gave me an excuse to indulge in my curiosity about fan fiction (and fan works in general) and how any aspect of it might intersect with library interests.

So it is sort of about me?

Anyhoo. Claudia Rebaza, OTW Communications Staffer (OTW is the Organization for Transformative Works, which is the parent organization of AO3), former academic reference librarian, current PhD in LIS, was so absolutely generous with her answers to my probing questions that I broke the interview down into three parts: intro to fan works and AO3; metadata and other geeky concerns; and the reading experience. Below you’ll find the first part of the interview! I hope you find our conversation as fascinating as I did, and that it inspires you to think differently or more deeply about how readers read.

SUSAN MAGUIRE: Thank you so much for chatting with us about Archive of Our Own (AO3) and the Organization for Transformative Works (OTW)! Can you start by telling us . . . what . . . what even is a transformative work?

CLAUDIA REBAZA: Transformative works are key to our existence! The transformative works we’re concerned with are creative works about characters or settings created by fans of the original work rather than by the original creators. Transformative works include but are not limited to: text, art, multimedia, audio, and physical objects. A transformative use is one that, in the words of the U.S. Supreme Court, adds something new, with a further purpose or different character, altering [the source] with new expression, meaning, or message. 

So a Harry Potter story told from Voldemort’s perspective would be transformative, or a video which reworks a movie plot to put attention on different elements. 

If I may put on my devil’s advocate hat for a moment . . . is that even legal?

In U.S. law, transformative use is one of the tests for determining if a work represents a fair use of another copyrighted work. What counts as transformative is decided, legally, on a case by case basis. 

The stance of the OTW is that we believe that fan works are creative and transformative, core fair uses, and we’re proactive in protecting and defending fan works from commercial exploitation and legal challenge. So our Legal Committee’s mission includes education and assistance to fans, and they advocate internationally for laws and policies that promote balance and protect fan works and fandom.

Legality aside . . . someone might look at a work of fan fiction and think that the writer just stole someone else’s idea. But it’s both more than and different from that, isn’t it? How does the fan work interact with the original?

Media scholar Henry Jenkins had a good discussion about this in one of his blog posts, “How Fan Fiction Can Teach Us a New Way to Read Moby-Dick.” In it, he says the following:

“Fan stories . . . are constructing arguments through new stories rather than critical essays. Just as a literary essay uses text to respond to text, fan fiction uses fiction to respond to fiction . . . A good fan story references key events or bits of dialogue as evidence to support its particular interpretation of the characters’ motives and actions.” 

In other words, fan works are a form of reader response to the original work, and may expand or latch on to particular things that were expressed or that they found to be missing. Sometimes these are “fix-it” works that seek to repair aspects that were either poorly devised (such as plot holes) or which didn’t develop characters or provide a satisfactory ending to certain plotlines.

But fan works aren’t just concerned with the original work, they’re also concerned with the audience. Jenkins also addresses this, noting that fan works target “perhaps the most demanding audience you could imagine—other readers who are deeply invested experts about the original work. The new story may operate within any number of genres that have emerged from the realm of fan fiction and which represent shared ways of reading and rewriting favorite works.”

So fan works fall into certain common traditions and styles familiar to other fans. For example, the tradition of “vidding” expresses certain styles of work within fan videos more generally. In writing, there are many common tropes, some of which are specific to particular fandoms and others of which may be shared across fandoms. But they all build on and respond to similar types of work that are being shared.

I would say that one of the biggest misconceptions about fan works is the prioritization of the original work, whereas what’s most overlooked is that fan works are an act of community participation. Fan works also have their own fan works!

That community participation element is what interests me the most when I’m thinking about fan works and the reading experience. [Readers: we’ll talk more about this in Part Three of the interview.] How does AO3 and OTW facilitate that community aspect of fan works?

AO3 is a central hosting site for transformative fan works. [There will also be more on organization and access in Part Two of the interview!] It is completely noncommercial, wholly fan-created and fan-run. OTW is the parent organization for AO3, and OTW operates other fandom-related projects such as Fanlore, Open Doors, OTW Legal Advocacy, and our academic journal, Transformative Works and Cultures.

A good part of our mission involves preservation of fan works and fan activities. This gets expressed very directly through our Open Doors project. It offers shelter to at-risk fannish content, whether digital or physical. For example, the Fan Culture Preservation Project is a joint venture between the OTW and the Special Collections department at the University of Iowa to archive and preserve fanzines and other nondigital forms of fan culture. We also collaborate with owners of digital archives that are at risk of disappearing to migrate them into the AO3.

Our Fanlore project is a wiki that any fan can easily contribute to. Its mission is to record both the history and current state of our fan communities—fan works, fan activities, fan terminology, individual fans and fannish-related events. Fans can contribute their own experiences, knowledge, and perspective on the activities, members, and materials that their fan communities have produced. Fanlore has a library connection as well, in that in 2015 it was chosen for inclusion in the the American Folklife Center‘s Digital Culture Web Archive.

Congratulations on your Hugo nomination! By the time this comes out, the winners will already have been announced, but I hope the old saying is true, that it’s an honor just to be nominated. What did this nomination mean to you all?

I can’t speak for everyone in the OTW, especially given that we currently have over 700 volunteers working for us, though I’m sure everyone would agree that it is an honor. That’s equally true for AO3 users: we got more comments and readers on our news post announcing our nomination than any other post this past year. There’s been a lot of excitement.

AO3 is being recognized in the Best Related Work category, which was instituted in 1980 as Best Related Book and renamed in 2010. That was three years after the OTW was formed, almost a year after the AO3 opened for public beta, and nearly 20 years after the World Wide Web was available to the public. So, for me personally, I find the most important thing about AO3’s nomination to be an acknowledgment of changing times. 

AO3 will pass five million works this year, and in the month of May, it served up over one billion page views. We have readers from just about every country in the world (we received donations from fans in 86 countries in April). We’re far from the only fan works platform, though we are the largest nonprofit and fan-created one. So I think it’s really important for creative activity to be recognized as it is happening in these fairly massive ways, affirming the important contributions of noncommercial entities and practices.

I also think, as some articles reporting on our nomination pointed out, that it’s no coincidence that the nomination happened this year when the slate of Hugo nominees as a whole was the most diverse yet. As we state on our website, the OTW represents a practice of transformative fan work historically rooted in a primarily female culture, and we encourage new and nonmainstream expressions of cultural identity within fandom. So I think we fit neatly into this broader way of looking at fan activity in the field of science fiction and fantasy.

So much here is adjacent to library interests: preservation, intellectual freedom, underrepresented voices, literary analysis, and . . . access. Stay tuned for Part Two, where we talk about tagging and other metadata nerdery.

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I am the Senior Editor for Collection Management and Library Outreach. Holla!

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