AO3 – The mad woman in the open source attic?

Earlier in April when I was preparing my keynote for the FLOSS UK Conference, which focused partially on issues of structural discrimination and lack of equality and diversity in open knowledge and open source communities, it struck me rather forcefully that there is one hugely successful OSS initiative supported by an almost entirely female developer and user community that rarely, if ever, gets spoken about in open knowledge and tech circles. That initiative is Archive Of Our Own. Hands up who’s heard of it? I suspect many of you won’t have heard of it. I know a few of you will have. I bet one or two of you won’t admit it.

So why the reticence?  Run by the not for profit Organisation for Transformative Works, the Archive is a massively successful project that has been sustained by a hugely diverse community of volunteers for almost ten years now. It’s about as open as anything could possibly be. Why are we not singing its praises from the rafters? Why is AO3, as it’s commonly known, the mad woman in the open source attic? Some of us know it’s there, but no one really wants to talk about it. The reason for this reticence, is also the reason for the Archive’s success. AO3 is a repository of transformative works, otherwise known as fanfiction.

I’m not going to debate the validity of fan works as a creative endeavour here, there is plenty of scholarly discussion on that point in other disciplines such as sociology and media, however I really do want to talk about why we don’t acknowledge AO3 as a hugely successful open project founded on the principals of equality, inclusion and diversity. Why aren’t we celebrating it and learning from it?

The success of AO3 is nothing short of staggering. Built on the Ruby on Rails framework, the archive is an open source platform developed, built and maintained by an army of volunteers, the vast majority of whom are women. The project is funded by subscriptions and donations; there is no foundation funding, no sponsorship, no advertising revenue. Indeed AO3 was originally created as a haven to protect fanworks from being monetized by unscrupulous commercial ventures who sought to turn fan labour into profit for their own gain. The Archive itself now has one and a half million users and hosts around four million individual works. It’s free and open to everyone, all user accounts are pseudonymous, and at no point are users required to reveal personally identifying information. In order to manage those four million works AO3 maintains probably the only large scale community generated tagging system that I’ve ever seen working in practice. And it’s all made possible by a large community of tag wranglers who manage the free text tags provided by users.

And as if all that wasn’t enough, the Organisation for Transformative works also publishes a peer reviewed open journal, Transformative Works and Cultures, maintains the Fanlore wiki to preserve the history of transformative works, it provides voluntary legal advice to creators to protect their works from legal challenge, and it has an active project, Open Doors, to absorb and curate other fan archives elsewhere on the web that are threatened by obscurity, obsolescence or deletion.

It’s an astonishing achievement, but it’s an achievement that many passionate open advocates know nothing about, and, if I’m being honest, that is something that’s pissed me off enormously for years.

So I was absolutely over the moon when I spoke to Claire Knowles, Library Digital Development Manager at the University of Edinburgh, at the recent Digital Day of Ideas (always a thought provoking event that pushes the boundaries) and she told me that Casey Fiesler, a member of OTW’s legal committee, would be presenting the opening keynote at this year’s Open Repositories Conference in Bozeman, Montana. Earlier this week I listened to Casey’s keynote through the conference livestream and was blown away by her talk.  Casey did an amazing job of communicating just what an important achievement AO3 is and how we can learn from its success. Giving an overview of the history and development of the Archive, Casey pointed out that AO3 is an example of amazing design, created for a community that already existed. The open software was designed and built entirely by women, which is remarkable given the small number of women in the open source community. And she concluded her keynote by asking

Is there something here that’s the key to making open source more welcoming to women? I don’t know. What I do know is that if you love something enough you can build your own thing and make it work. AO3 is a great example of a successful open repository but it’s an even better example of the power of community and everything that can come out of it.

The recording of Casey’s keynote isn’t online yet, though I’m sure it will be soon, but in the meantime, I’ve captured my live tweets from her keynote here; Growing Their Own: Building an Archive and a Community for Fanfiction. Many thanks to Casey for her amazing keynote and to the Open Repositories Conference Committee for inviting such an inspiring speaker.

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