Talking with Claudia Rebaza: Part Two

We’re back with Part Two of my conversation with Claudia Rebaza from the Organization for Transformative Works. Ready for some tagging talk?

Though there are several points of access in AO3 (by fandom, by user’s collection, via good old-fashioned search), the use of tags is the most unique. Claudia pointed to an article in Wired about the tagging system that explains how it straddles the line between a strict, controlled vocabulary that must be learned and a chaotic free-for-all that renders the tags ineffective.

Truly, the tagging system on AO3 is a thing of beauty, and there may be some things libraries can learn from it. Or maybe not! Who knows! But here’s the second part of my interview anyway!

SUSAN MAGUIRE: From a librarian’s perspective, the tagging system seems pretty informal, which is a stark contrast to the authority records and subject headings used in library cataloging. But it’s definitely not arbitrary. Is there an intentional system to the tagging?

CLAUDIA REBAZA: In terms of informality, it is and it isn’t. The intention with our tagging system is that it would allow a balance between individual choice while also providing community usability. AO3 employs a curated folksonomy model, where fans can choose to describe their works however they like. Then behind the scenes we have hundreds of volunteers linking together related terms to create an authorized version that can be searched upon in a comprehensive way. 

Our volunteers (dubbed tag wranglers) follow rules that create authority records. These are publicly available. If one browses a tag record for say, “angst” or “humor“, I think you’ll see some similarity. Our process functions much like the LC system, which means that it’s a guide to our collection, and the tagging guidelines get developed in response to what gets submitted.

Has the tagging system evolved into something different as AO3 grows?

The tag wrangling guidelines are an in-progress affair, subject to change. While the method hasn’t changed, decisions about particular tags and groupings have evolved over time. This has been due to things like new canon, which affect how the old canon was described (such as remakes or reboots or spin-offs), as well as new types of fan work or new interpretations that require new terms or a distinction from earlier ones. 

Do fans/readers have a say in how the tags are used?

Yes, in various ways. Fans who have an issue with a specific guideline, or find a contradiction in the guidelines can contact the Tag Wrangling Committee Staff by submitting a Support ticket. Also, since our volunteer wranglers are all fans themselves, that’s certainly a direct way of affecting how a fandom’s tags are organized. When volunteers join us as tag wranglers, they select fandoms they know about to work on, and if they’re smaller fandoms, they might take on 10, 20, or more of them because there isn’t much new activity. For larger fandoms there are teams of volunteers who work together to make decisions about tagging for their particular fandom. And coordinating all the tag wranglers is the committee staff who, among other things, work with them to develop new policies.

Though not directly about tags, when there are policy changes or a major reorganization is being considered, we have made announcements soliciting public input.

Ultimately fans determine tag use by creating tags. There’s a policy of canonizing tags after multiple users have utilized the same tags in their works and there isn’t already an authority version for that concept. Once tags are canonized they show up as autocomplete options in our posting form. That means even more fans will be able to select it as a default description, though they are always free to use their own. And fans create a lot of new tags! In our most recent newsletter, the Tag Wrangling Committee reported that its volunteers wrangled over 202,000 tags in a single month.

What kind of information do readers look for in the tags?

This varies a lot by reader. For example, some readers may look at tags primarily as a form of content warning or spoiler as to what the story will contain. Others avoid looking at the tags for the same reason. 

Most readers will use the tags to filter their results. So they may be looking for works about character X in a given fandom, but only content that pairs X with character Y. Or maybe they want to exclude stories that cross over with another fandom. Perhaps they want to be sure the story includes something, like kids or a certain type of plot. Perhaps they want to find fan art instead of stories. You can do Boolean searches at AO3 but most people utilize the Work Search or sidebar checkbox forms.

Because tags originate with fans and not the Archive, they are responsive to new developments and can be unique to particular fandoms. I’ve sometimes discovered that a certain theme of stories exists by coming across a tag for it. We were speaking earlier of how fan works can be a form of critical analysis.  Tags can sometimes reveal a common strand of interpretation in a fandom, whether it’s about a character or a plotline. One example would be the tag “Odin’s A+ parenting” in the Marvel Cinematic Universe or Thor fandoms. This tag represents the view that Odin was at fault in terms of how Thor and Loki (and Hela!) turned out, and thus primarily responsible for many of the events that happened in the Thor film series.

A lot of people read fan fiction for emotional catharsis because of things that have happened in the original work. This can be revealed in tags as well. For example, here are two tags that have been linked by tag wranglers because they reflect the same concept but are expressed quite differently: “Not Avengers: Endgame (Movie) Compliant” and “BECAUSE F*** YOU ENDGAME.” So the way that the concept is expressed might lead a fan to read one story over another since anger also loves company 😉

Yes, it seems like some authors use tags almost like a second work, with a series of unique and essentially useless tags with fandom jokes embedded in them.

It’s somewhat different from fan to fan and has a lot to do, I think, with what other online spaces they are used to interacting in. For example, we get a number of people who have primarily used FanFiction.Net (FFN) but who then come to AO3. There is no tagging on FFN and so those fans may have difficulty using them at first. You’ll sometimes see works with very few tags, even for important things such as characters, and even that may be because all posts require some sort of minimal tagging. Other fans using a site such as Tumblr often tag very broadly and use the space to speak to their expected audience more than to use the tags as finding aids. Users who have come from spaces like LiveJournal or Dreamwidth, where tags are generally used to organize community and personal spaces, probably put more emphasis on the use of tags as a way for the works to find an audience (every work its reader, and every reader their work!) [Ed note: Shout-out to Ranganathan realness!]

So the use of tags is something of a carryover from other fandom spaces and personal histories. How people react to the tags is equally influenced. Some people love reading a long block of tags attached to a work and other people hate them. 

This says a lot about the platform’s flexibility. It’s almost as if, without having to customize a dashboard or change settings, a user can nonetheless have a customized experience based on the content alone, because that’s how the system is set up.

This insight into how fans use AO3 is a good lead-in to how readers experience transformative works, which, conveniently, is what we will talk about in Part Three.'

About the Author:

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

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