[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.]
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]
The Archive was set up in response to attempts to monetize fanfiction and to the censorship fans experienced on multiple platforms. The core goal of AO3 is to protect all transformative fanworks that are legal in the State of New York, not just the ones that we personally like or that adhere to a certain standard of literary merit or that are based on certain source materials. Therefore, the TOS, which every user agrees to when using the Archive, explicitly state that “using the Archive may expose you to material that is offensive, triggering, erroneous, sexually explicit, indecent, blasphemous, objectionable, grammatically incorrect, or badly spelled”. AO3 does not (and can not) judge user intent.
Users are responsible for curating their own experience on the Archive and already have a system of warnings and tags available that is far more comprehensive than that of most libraries. Of course, that system can always be improved upon! The potential creation of new warnings and/or of canonical tags that cover a variety of material to be avoided are measures that could potentially help. Changes like these are not, however, without their drawbacks, and implementation needs to be carefully evaluated.
Regarding the topic of harassment: while harassment “is any behavior that produces a generally hostile environment for its target” the AO3 TOS further explains that generally, we define harassment as targeted at “a specific person” and utilise other cues in the content to differentiate harassing content from other unpleasant speech. Writing fanfiction about the Turner Diaries, or any other controversial source material, would not constitute harassment; a targeted attack of users in the work or comments would.
I believe that all AO3 users should be entitled to equal protection under our TOS, regardless of who they are or what fanworks they publish. The OTW will only ever disclose user-related information (the small amount that we collect) to official requests by law enforcement agencies.
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]
The recent statement from the Board, Chairs and Leads already addressed the first steps OTW is taking to address racism on AO3 and the OTW. I personally believe that giving users additional tools (for example the ability to turn off comments and a native block function) as well as having a critical rediscussion of our harassment policies would be more helpful in curating their experiences than an additional Archive warning. Especially since it would not be feasible to apply that warning retroactively to the already existing 6+ million works on the Archive.
My opinion on warnings, however, is entirely secondary. The most crucial element of any potential change in warnings is that any debate needs to be plural, to invite feedback and criticism, and to take into account a wide range of views. We need to find ways to get more input on this issue from fans of colour outside the OTW, to gather ideas and discuss drawbacks collectively with our users. I don’t doubt that any discussion process we come up with wouldn’t be perfect, but it can only help.
Should we decide to implement a new warning, “racism” would run into multiple problems. Finding a definition of race and racism that works on an international scale is unlikely. Additionally, whole fandoms whose source material critically engages with the topic of racism (for example Hidden Figures, Malcolm X) would potentially require that all its works contain the warning—or Choose Not to Warn—by default. It is extremely difficult to judge authorial intent in fiction from a Policy & Abuse point of view. While many users who create works critically dealing with the issue of racism already tag for it, making racism into a mandatory warning would most likely dilute the tag’s usefulness by requiring it in a far broader range of contexts. After all, multiple settings that may not be meant by creators as a commentary on racism may, due to its systemic nature in our societies, contain racism (for example: works for any number of US police- or prison-related TV shows). I believe that “depictions of prejudice-motivated speech/violence” would be a better choice, but also runs into similar problems. It’s a difficult issue with severe enforceability challenges, and one that still requires a lot of discussion.
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?
There is a difference between tags and warnings; the application of the former is optional, the latter mandatory (meaning, if a user does not want to include specific content warnings, they will need to select the Choose Not to Warn option instead). The triggers and squicks that users expect to be warned or tagged for are as manifold as our users themselves.
While I of course understand that all trauma survivors might wish to avoid specific types of content, it is impossible to accommodate everyone and still have a manageable mandatory warning system that authors are willing to employ instead of defaulting to “creator chose not to use archive warnings”. The aforementioned “depictions of prejudice-motivated speech/violence” might be a good compromise to cover extreme depictions of some issues, such as racism, transphobia, homophobia and misogyny, but it would not help users who want to avoid only one of these topics. Users would still need to rely on (non-mandatory) tagging for specifics.
As someone who grew up in the times before and in the early stages of the internet, I’m used to zines and early websites/archives not having an elaborate warning or tagging system in place. Therefore I personally very much appreciate AO3’s warnings, tags and filtering system to find certain themes I want to read and to avoid others. The warnings, however, do not cover my own trigger and it’s unlikely that it will ever be added as a warning. This is why I believe that offering different tools that allow users to curate their own experience is an important step in addressing the various needs our users have.
ETA July 21, 2020: The first paragraph of the first answer was updated by the candidate to reflect the state under which the ToS is governed.