Alex Tischer 2020 Q&A: AO3 Content Policy and Warnings

[Note: In total, there will be 6 Q&A posts to cover all of the topics brought up during the user-submitted Q&A period. The candidates were limited to 300 words to answer each question, but they were allowed to rearrange and combine questions within a single post to more clearly express their thoughts. Candidate answers represent only the views of the individual candidate and are not endorsed by the OTW.

Due to a high volume of similar questions this year, many questions were merged and duplicate questions were left out. Other than this, questions appear in the form they were submitted. Questions represent only the views of the individual questioner and are not endorsed by the OTW.]


Do you believe that adding new Archive Warnings to AO3 would be beneficial to the project (and why), and if you could propose a new one, what would it be? Are you committed to maintaining the CNTW option? [merged question]

I have no problems with adding additional warnings, even though I personally don’t use them in my own browsing. They allow users to control their own experience on the site and give them more autonomy to select the works they want to consume according to their own criteria.
The main limitation we face is deciding what is possible for our Policy & Abuse team to enforce, otherwise there is no point in adding new warnings. All of the current required warnings have a mostly clear definition and it is relatively easy to check whether a work contains them. There will always be edge cases, but we need to aim for choosing warnings that would be possible to define and to enforce in a useful way.
Defining any new warning will pose challenges of its own; a lot of discussion will be required to better refine the concepts and limitations of any potential new warnings and how we will treat works already on the site. Besides that, we do have to keep the Policy & Abuse team’s workload in mind. If they aren’t able to do their work and enforce the warnings, new and old, in a timely fashion, there is no benefit to adding additional warnings.
Through the years we have received a number of suggestions whose implementation could be discussed while keeping in mind those requirements. In the following question I give some of my suggestions regarding possible new warnings.
No matter what we end up deciding, I am 100% committed to keeping “Creator Chose Not to Warn” as an option, as, like all other warnings, it allows the creator and fandom at large to make informed decisions about how they interact with AO3 and the content we host.

What steps do you consider best to take combating recent conversations regarding racism in fanfiction/fandom, up to, including, and beyond adding archive-required tags for depictions of slavery and/or racist violence? What is your position on adding “Racism” (or something similar) as an Archive Warning? [merged question]

I don’t believe a “Racism” warning would fulfill the criteria I explained in my previous answer; in my opinion, more narrowly-defined warnings would be more beneficial. Racism can appear in various works as backdrop that isn’t critically engaged with, or as the underpinnings of the institutions and/or societies that are depicted in a work. A work may contain evidence of racism as a consequence of the fandom it is set in or the work’s specific setting, not being something the creator included deliberately or consciously (which is markedly different from non-con or major character death). This means that an exact definition for when this warning should apply would be hard — one that would be helpful for users seeking to avoid specific content and that would not just apply to large swaths of content that is set in a racist society like ours.
For this reason, I believe that a warning focused on more easily-identifiable acts that are the consequence of racism (e.g. “Hate speech” or “Race-related violence”) might be a better option. It would not solve all issues, but would allow users to avoid works where the content might be triggering while being something the Policy & Abuse team can enforce more reliably.
I imagine that this discussion will require many iterations before we have a full set of new, helpful warnings. For this reason, another option for an initial warning would be ‘Slavery’, as defining and identifying it in a work would be straightforward, and it would help black users be able to avoid a fair number of works associated with this. It would also be a good test case on the practicalities and issues of implementing a new warning and pave the way for debating future changes.

What is your stance on triggering content? How should it be tagged? What are things you like about the current tagging system (in regards to triggers) and is there anything you would want to change?

Do you believe that Black AO3 users should be able to give informed consent before being exposed to triggering content as other trauma survivors on the platform are as other trauma survivors on the platform are?

The AO3 tagging system currently offers two options of tags for triggering content: mandatory warnings and additional tags. I believe it’s important to keep both options available for creators. Mandatory warnings have particular limitations related to their scope and usability, as discussed above, that additional tags don’t face, making the latter a very useful tool for those who wish to offer more information on the content of their work.
What will or will not be considered triggering content changes considerably depending on who is browsing AO3. It will not be considered the same by any two individuals. Having additional tags as an option allows for a more detailed filter that can better serve this purpose in many cases.
Nevertheless, I don’t believe the current warnings are an exhaustive list that should never be changed or updated. There are plenty of topics that we should consider as possible mandatory warnings, so that specific groups of users, like black AO3 users, have a better experience using the site.
Over the years we have received a large number of suggestions of tags that should be mandatory, covering a wide range of issues and different applicability. These potential warnings include identity- and prejudice-based issues, like racism or transphobia, and more concrete concepts people wish to avoid, like slavery or incest.
Updating the mandatory warnings is a complex issue that has been debated internally before, and will probably still take a significant amount of time before it’s implemented. There are practical hurdles that we have to solve, for example how to treat works already on the site and how to streamline Policy & Abuse reports. There are also complex issues that will need discussion, like defining the concepts we wish to warn for and making sure the posting form doesn’t become so complex that people start ignoring the warnings and just go for “Choose Not to Warn”. But, even so, I believe it is a necessary step as we move forward.
In the meantime, creating ways to allow users to better block, filter and utilize additional tags provides a secondary stopgap for those seeking to avoid specific topics on the site, giving all users, especially Black users, more autonomy over their experience using AO3.

Would you consider categorizing writing whose primary motivation is to platform hate speech as harassment (example: The Turner Diaries would count, but not poorly written Dragon Age fic)? As per TOS, “harassment is any behavior that produces a generally hostile environment for its target,” which hate speech generally falls under.

I would not consider categorising that as harassment, as from my understanding harassment is a targeted offense to a specific individual and a work does not constitute harassment simply for being posted; there are other criteria.
This is also the definition used by our Terms of Service, which further clarify “whether the behavior was targeted at a specific person” as one of the factors to judge if something constitutes harassment or not.
If that writing was actively being linked to people or written in the comments on another person’s work, that would change the scenario, because then there would be an actively targeting process at work.
It is entirely possible that a work could clear this burden of proof and be considered harassment on its own, by targeting a user or a group of users specifically, but the mere existence of the work wouldn’t necessarily constitute harassment, and, as long as it doesn’t violate other TOS rules, it would be allowed.

How will you protect fanworks and meta which are upsetting or offensive, across your platforms? What about if those fanworks or meta express views which are illegal/censored in some countries, but perfectly legal in others? Say a fan’s works don’t challenge problematic values endemic to older canons, or espouse problematic values directly. Providing they politely abide by AO3’s TOS, do you believe this fan deserves equal protection under AO3’s TOS (a posting platform, confidential treatment of their RL identity, ability to report harassment)? [merged question]

A cornerstone of the AO3 is to be inclusive of all legal content, as defined by US law, no matter how offensive or upsetting I personally might find it. The OTW is at its most basic level an anti-censorship organisation. As long as a fan abides by the AO3 Terms of Service and the work is legal in the USA, doesn’t constitute harassment and is properly tagged, they will receive the same protection as anyone else. I might hate any given work, but regardless, the Archive was created for exactly that reason.