Talking with Claudia Rebaza: Part Three

Welcome to Part Three of my interview with Claudia Rebaza from the Organization for Transformative Works, which operates Archive of Our Own, quite possibly the internet’s largest noncommercial repository for fan-related fiction, art, videos, etc. We’ve talked about what it is and how it’s organized, and now we’re going to talk about why people enjoy reading fan fiction and how they use AO3.

SUSAN MAGUIRE: Most of our readers are librarians, and we’re always interested in learning what readers enjoy about what they are reading. Do you get a sense of what readers get out of fan fiction? I have this idea that it must be somehow different from reading, say, a straight-up novel . . . but maybe it’s fundamentally not? Is there an interactive element to reading fan fiction? Is “interactive” even the right word?

CLAUDIA REBAZA: Well, that also presumes we understand what readers are getting out of a novel! A lot of times even the reader isn’t aware or takes for granted an experience they would never express if asked.

That’s definitely relatable for folks who traffic in the readers’ advisory conversation.

There’s also the question of what’s different for each user if the story is in an audio, a visual, or a text format. Much like we have different learning styles, I suspect that people connect differently to formats and styles of storytelling. Fans tell stories through art, video, and audio as well.

I’m not aware of any studies that look at the reading process when it comes to fan fiction, though I expect there are some out there. But I can contribute some personal experiences and conversations I’ve had.

This is going back over a decade now, but when I was working on my PhD I did a series of interviews with fans, and one thing I asked them about was their reading habits. The main question was whether they did most of their reading online or off. Even today I do almost all my own reading offline because I sideload content to my e-book reader, and I mainly read for leisure before I go to sleep. Back in the early to mid-2000s the question was relevant because of people’s sometimes limited access to the Web because of connection costs or limited access to a computer. But there were other reasons, too: People mentioned issues such as eye strain or the difficulty in reading through certain font or color choices, or even back pain from sitting for long periods in front of the computer.

So even though it was an online medium, people were taking it offline.

Around this time (2000-ish), many people were printing out stories, either to read them later or to format and save them. Some people bound certain works so they could put them on their bookshelves like any other favorite book. One person told me that she maintained binders of stories, with hundreds of pages in each. Another fan told me she printed out the stories in order to be able to write in the margins, something which is common enough that it’s a feature in e-readers, to be able to make notes and bookmark certain passages.

Marginalia is a great way to interact with the text (on a personal level, anyway). Although please nobody marginali-ate library books.

I was thinking that perhaps rather than interactive you mean communal? Because that’s one thing that does set fan works apart from commercial content, even today when it’s so much easier to interact with creators online through social media.

Because fan works are done for free, the exchange is in the form of audience feedback rather than sales. So the person who wanted to write in the margins on paper might cut and paste content as she reads the story in order to cite those parts when posting a comment to the author. She’d explain what she liked, things that made her curious, speculation about where the story might be going, etc.

Some authors will take their cues from reader responses and take the stories in those directions or update stories with information provided by their readers.

I love that—that’s an example of AO3 giving readers an experience that is both interactive and communal.

Some of AO3’s features take into account the fact that fans interact with other fans and they want to bring other people over to see these wonderful things that they love. And the responses go both ways. If you read authors’ notes in any random set of stories, chances are that they will be very conversational. They’ll talk about what the author was doing that week (especially if interfered with their writing time!). They’ll queue up expectations for the new chapter (“x is finally going to happen!” or “This is going to be way sadder than the last chapter” or they’ll offer additional warnings to the reader). They’ll talk about what (or who) inspired them to create that work. They’ll talk about how difficult the work was to write (“I wanted the characters to do z but they just wanted to keep talking!” or “I rewrote this for a week and am still not happy with it but here it is.”) They’ll mention other places it’s been shared (“Part of the xyz challenge at Dreamwidth”). They’ll share research they did that is included in the work, and sometimes talk about interesting finds at length. They’ll thank people who helped them or gave them gifts of art or music playlists. And they’ll often reference the feedback they’ve been getting in relation to earlier posts, which might mean being excited about getting new readers or assuming people were disappointed with the last installment because there wasn’t much response.

For me, as a reader, I love to have ready access to the author’s inspiration, especially if it’s along the lines of “I read this story by x and I wanted to see if I could make it work here” because then I will go back to x’s story or some other connected story or just happily fall down a reading rabbit hole.

There are ways to manage that. At AO3 you can download content in a variety of formats. You can use the “Mark for Later” button for things you don’t have time to read right now. You can bookmark works to create your own reading list by adding unique tags, and add extensive descriptions or notes. With just a checkmark you can recommend those works to others. If you want, the site creates a history of where you’ve been as you browse so that you can find works again. You can create your own collections to share with others. You can subscribe to ongoing works, or a series, or to individual authors, and get alerts when there is new content. With another button click you can share a work through Twitter. And because of its size, there’s never any shortage of things to look at, all in one place. You can browse categories, search for specifics, or hopscotch across fandoms by clicking on tags.

So many possibilities.

For the most part reading is a solitary activity, but the reader isn’t necessarily alone. A lot of our traffic on AO3 (as well as most websites, I imagine) is mobile. So I know that people often read in bits and pieces during things like commutes, lunch hours, and spare bits of time during the day. There’s always been a lot of reading done at work. Although I’ve never seen a study on this, I feel fairly confident in saying that the majority of fan fiction is short, under 20 pages. Those short works are easier to read in spare moments. Plus, longer stories are often posted a chapter at a time, so the majority of works can be read or caught up on in short bursts.

I love all this stuff: the fact that AO3 is determinedly noncommercial makes it accessible to anyone with an internet-ready device; folks can interact with readers and creators to find their next read or listen or watch; and it’s accessible via this organic tagging system that is vibrant and accessible. So much of that intersects with library interests. So if a library person wants to dip their toes into AO3, where do you suggest they start?

I would suggest viewing the Introduction to the OTW video, which explains what fan works are, what the OTW does, and the projects fans use. Those projects are linked to the left in the sidebar so visitors can go directly to them to start exploring what they offer and how they work. The statistics in the video are very out of date (we just passed our five millionth work on AO3 for example!) but otherwise it’s a good overview.

I also think AO3, which is probably a more user-friendly and entertaining database than most library OPACsand the tags and search structure on AO3can reveal a great deal about how information searchers think about what they’re looking for and what they find important.

Thank you so much, Claudia, for chatting with me about AO3 and OTW! You’ve given me a lot of food for thought about reading behavior and access. Readers, what say you? Have you been changed by a step into the world of fan works?

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1 Comment on "Talking with Claudia Rebaza: Part Three"

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  1. I_Sell_Books says:

    Thank you so much for this interview!

    As a writer and reader of fic, I can’t tell you what a pleasure AO3 is to use. I’ve been a writer since the very early 90s and yeah…hoo boy, the struggles I used to have posting stories! And some very popular sites are still…difficult…to use.

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