and you thought the US elections were intense
November 25, 2015 4:47 AM   Subscribe

The Organization for Transformative Works, a fan-run organization that hosts significant fandom-culture projects including one of the biggest fanfiction archives around, a fandom wiki, and a peer-reviewed academic journal, just had their 2015 Board elections, the first since 2011 - and, like its predecessor, was very contentious before, during, and after the election.

OTW had faced years of complaints about poor management, particularly with finances. This motivated 6 active OTW volunteers who'd never served on the board before - Matty Bowers, Aline Carrão, Atiya Hakeem, Katarina Harju, Alex Tisher, and Daniel Lamson - to run on a campaign of reform, better management, and greater transparency.

The other two nominees, Andrea Horbinski and Nikisha Sanders, were current Board members - until Sanders was suddenly declared ineligible because of her resignation from staff roles at OTW. Sanders refutes the allegations, saying that she did not resign from all roles but was instead dismissed by the Board. Lemson withdrew his nomination soon after (while he was a friend of Sanders, it is unclear how much of his withdrawal was motivated by recent events), and the remaining nominees, minus Horbinski, condemned the Board's actions, citing a significant conflict of interest.

Hakeem and Bowers won the top two spots in the election, and thus were elected into the two available seats on the Board. In an unexpected public meeting, and with no advance notice, the Board near-unanimously voted to appoint Horbinski to the previously-unavailable third chair of the Board. One member abstained, one was not present, and Horbinski voted on her appointment without declaring conflict of interest. There was significant outcry about this decision, with the OTW Elections committee pointing out that Horbinski had come in dead last in the elections and that this move was breaking precedent, and a vote of no confidence was called.

Today, the entire current board has resigned, with only Hakeem and Bowers remaining. They have pledged to maintain operations and publish a budget (one of the membership's most significant demands) as soon as possible.

Further links to discussion can be found in this round-up post, and this unofficial blog has served as a useful resource on the elections.
posted by divabat (30 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
Ain't no fight like a fandom fight etc...
posted by soren_lorensen at 5:17 AM on November 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

Oh dear. This feels like a fandom_wank post in the making, but without the schaudenfreude of, say, Ms.Scribe.

posted by a fiendish thingy at 6:02 AM on November 25, 2015 [12 favorites]

I was just going to drop in some links to the Fail_FandomAnon Wiki but I see you handled that OP, lovely.

The thing I keep coming back to is that they are wanting to "compil[e] an annual budget for the first time in the OTW’s history." I support what the OTW is doing, and I love AO3, but I don't think I can contribute financially to an organization with no official plans for my money.
posted by possibilityleft at 6:02 AM on November 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

a fiendish thingy: god I miss fandom_wank. it was actually pretty reasonable in large parts.
posted by divabat at 6:24 AM on November 25, 2015

Yeah, the budget thing really gets me, too. Arguably a large chunk of my life is tied up with the same priorities as the OTW but since I always make sure to thoroughly check out how my money will be used before I donate it, and I literally could not find that information anywhere because it basically doesn't exist, I haven't ever gotten involved in a lot of the ways I would otherwise want to. Hopefully this will be one of the first things dealt with.
posted by Mizu at 6:28 AM on November 25, 2015

On the one hand, one likes to be like "ha, fandom lol", and things certainly do get pretty lol-y. On the other, given that in general people are doing this work totally unpaid and making it up as they go along, I tend to have a lot of patience for foolery, as long as everyone is committed to fixing it when it comes to light.
posted by Frowner at 6:28 AM on November 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

The transcript of the meeting is enjoyable in a kind of [slimy bureaucratic fast move getting spotted and called out by people who are like increasingly WAIT A GODDAMN SECOND about it] way.
posted by nom de poop at 7:03 AM on November 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Honeslty, this is the kind of thing that I was worried about with the founding of AO3. It looks like the situation isn't dire now - but so much of fandom has become centralized in one place, and a lot of people have sunk a lot of their fandom life into this one website (works, bookmarks, networks, contests, etc). It's kind of like LiveJournal all over again, and a lot of communities that fractured when LiveJournal became a bad host for fandom never really recovered.

So. Keep your shit together, everyone. Pls.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 7:12 AM on November 25, 2015 [6 favorites]

Oh man, I've followed the previous wanks with great interest, mostly for this unavoidable conflict between the fandom "this is for fun! \0/!" attitude and the... "this is now also a business and if we're asking for $175,000 maybe we should tell donors where it goes" mindset. It's been truly astonishing that they've been able to stonewall on a budget for so long, largely by having some BNFs on the board at times and, frankly, shaming people with the "fandom is fun!" argument when they ask hard questions.
posted by TwoStride at 7:24 AM on November 25, 2015

So does this mean I should back-up my fanfics?
posted by bgal81 at 7:32 AM on November 25, 2015

I wonder sometimes whether this sort of drama seems to occur most often at the independent org / local government level because they simply don't know how or aren't organized enough to do right. Or it happens in all bureaucratic organizations and we simply don't have access to the machinations going on in the big corporations and Congressional backrooms.

To be fair on the "don't know how" count: If they knew how and were sufficiently good at it, they'd probably have bigger aspirations for their time than the local governments and nonprofit orgs that can't afford to pay people to do the work.
posted by at by at 7:43 AM on November 25, 2015

This election wasn't canon at all.
posted by the uncomplicated soups of my childhood at 7:51 AM on November 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

Growing up in the arts seriously raises your basic acceptance of pure batshittery discusses the dysfunctions of arts nonprofits in particular (and there's some discussion in comments about whether it's a fandom problem, an arts problem, a nonprofit problem...)
posted by Jeanne at 8:05 AM on November 25, 2015 [6 favorites]

One of the OP's comments on the post Jeanne links is worth noting:
Yeah see my lifelong experience with this kind of org really is that there hits a point where you have to toss some of the "rules" of PR, because those rules are being used by the toxic problem people to make sure they get away with what they're getting away with.

I think when your client-and-donor-and-volunteer base all overlap so substantially, the rules of information end up a bit different than they are when your client and donor bases are quite separate, because your donor may actually also be the client who's getting shafted while ALSO being a volunteer getting burned out, because of the internal poison that nobody will actually talk about where anyone might see them or see their comments as authoritative and substantial, rather than the grousings of yet-another-squeaky-wheel.

There comes a point in those situations where actually the situation is that bad, it's not going to STOP being that bad without drastic action, and the drastic action has to include people knowing it's that bad. There's a difference between "MemberBob said something nasty about the Chair of Tagging" and "the Board was actively trying to skew and control the supposedly-free election."

At that point "don't show your donors the drama" is just another way of saying "keep the secrets". In the case of THIS kind of org, donor-client-staff are all blurred, and that makes for different needs in information flow. The quieter you keep the drama (that is, the bad behaviour and fuckery), the more it goes on.
posted by divabat at 8:28 AM on November 25, 2015 [6 favorites]

So glad someone on Metafilter did the heavy lifting on this. I've been seeing "back up all your fics because AO3 is likely to fail" all over my end of tumblr, and I'm looking forward to reading up on the situation.
posted by immlass at 8:35 AM on November 25, 2015 [3 favorites]

At this point, I think that the "back up all your fics because AO3 is likely to fail" outcry is a bit premature. I mean, of course one should back up their documents rather than entrust them entirely to "the cloud" or an archive. That's just common sense. But I don't think that AO3 and Fanlore and whatever else are in any immediate danger.

All of the regular work of the org is still happening, uninterrupted. The other bits of the org (AO3 included) are run by a small army of dedicated volunteers. I think it remains to be seen what the direction of the org overall will look like, once incoming Board members are actually able to look at the details of Board of Directors-related business (they don't have access until Dec 1) and once they're able to talk about what they hope their direction will be.
posted by dryad at 8:57 AM on November 25, 2015 [5 favorites]

This is all really inside-baseball stuff to me, though the DailyDot article linked in the post helped. I get that people involved are trying to avoid slinging ad hominem attacks around but can anyone explain why the Board seems to have acted so aggressively? If it's an attempt to keep a clique in power it seems remarkably ham-handed. Is there some more reasonable defense of their actions beyond "we don't want to be more transparent about money and screw anyone who disagrees?"
posted by Wretch729 at 9:10 AM on November 25, 2015

On preview, Jeanne's linked post clarified things for me somewhat, thanks.
posted by Wretch729 at 9:16 AM on November 25, 2015

I had never thought the U.S. elections were "intense" but rather long, over-done, expensive, and a money machine.
posted by Postroad at 9:17 AM on November 25, 2015

The problem with these organizations is that there are always a few people who are OBSESSED with grinding their ax over a specific issue they won't let go of that no one else cares about, and a few people who are obsessed with maintaining power within the organization. And those people have a lot more energy to expend on their plans than normal people do.
posted by deanc at 9:34 AM on November 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

AO3 is in no danger. The committees and staff positions are functioning just fine, and there is no threat to the Archive. (If the Board had absconded with all the money, we would be scrambling to pay rent on server space, or whatever's involved with that, but that's not what happened.)

The budget issue is a longstanding thing, and comes naturally from the growth out of "we have an awesome idea--let's make an archive and other fun fannish things! Um, give us money for this!" and, as Franzi said at one point, "AO3 is Magic Mike and fandom's been making it rain money." At first, there was no budget because there was no plan--there were a bunch of fans who wanted an archive they owned, not subject to LJ's caving to special interest groups or bogus Hollywood DMCA takedown notices. They had some practice with archive coding, with server software and hardware, and--rare among nonprofits--a legal team.

There was no point in making a budget before they ran into expenses, though; they didn't want to spend another couple of years running financial plans and learning how nonprofits worked--they had talented people and people willing to throw money at them (with substantial overlap), and so decided to just do it--make an org, start an archive, and so on.

They knew that whatever plan they came up with, wouldn't scale well, and there'd need to be org-wide adjustments as they grew. They've now hit that point. They bought servers, which was one of the big original plans. They went to Congress--three times--and fought (and won) our right to rip DVDs to make fanvids. The sky failed to fall when "fanfic" became a common word in commercial media publications.

Now they have more money, all their rough initial goals have been met (there's an archive, a wiki, a journal, and a legal team to deal with the MPAA and RIAA's continued freakout over fanworks), and... they have to decide on specific goals with deadlines next. Is hard, switching from, "let us make ALL THE AWESOME!" to "we shall make X features on the archive by Y date."

Should they... hire coders instead of using volunteers? (If so, how many? And do they focus on easy bits to fix, or a major overhaul of features?) Hire an accountant/treasurer/admin record-keeper, who might not be fannish? Do more outreach--pay for staffers to go to conventions and such--to get more volunteers? (They have, last I checked, more volunteers than they can use.) Pay for training of current staffers and experienced volunteers? If they do any of these, what kind of schedule should they use?

Wretch729, I think the lack of transparency comes from a belief that "this is complicated; the random-teenage tumblr fanbase wouldn't understand, and we don't want to deal with a bunch of stupid drama accusations every time we spend money on something some fan doesn't think is necessary." I think it's likely there's a tiny bit of shady dealing with the money--rounding up on expenses and all that, approvals given after the fact, etc.--but not at a level that hurts any of the org's actual workings.

But it *will* be at that level if it doesn't change, because they've gotten big enough to need an actual administrative infrastructure, instead of "we'll record the chat meetings and someone will make notes." And that shift is a big change, and not fun (and even less fun to explain to the public), and I understand why they were dragging their feet--and even why they wanted to keep the people they know and trust involved with the process.

Some of us saw this coming several years ago, and decided at the time that this is better than trying to directly model ourselves after more commercial nonprofits. I don't like all the drama, but I'm glad this is staying personal and interconnected; I don't want the OTW to lose the "by fans, for fans" values at its core, and if the cost of that is occasional flounces and fanwank, I'll cope.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 9:53 AM on November 25, 2015 [19 favorites]

Eris that makes a lot of sense, thank you. I am familiar with the "oh god don't let the idiot masses see how the sausage gets made or it'll be neverending headaches, we're the adults" dynamic in groups that skew young/passionate and that combined with growing pains and the difficulty of recalibrating once initial goals have been met does a lot to explain this drama.
posted by Wretch729 at 10:03 AM on November 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

The answer to "my only copy of this thing that I made that is important to me is on someone else's property, should I keep a backup?" is always always always YES.
posted by Lyn Never at 11:12 AM on November 25, 2015 [4 favorites]

Looks like the post that Jeanne linked to is (now?) locked; looks like one might request access here.
posted by metaquarry at 7:07 AM on November 26, 2015

Some of us saw this coming several years ago, and decided at the time that this is better than trying to directly model ourselves after more commercial nonprofits.

OTW would be a hell of a lot better if it did model itself after other non-profits. The idea that they are doing something unique and thus should invent everything anew is a flaw that has seriously damaged everything they do, from code to board. Nearly all of the volunteer effort and donation money goes to one simple thing: providing a place where people can upload text and other people can comment on that text, and serving views of the text and comments to others. This is something thousands of other sites do, including plenty backed by non-profits. Looking at them for models, both positive and negative, should have guided everything from the start.
posted by tavella at 1:23 PM on November 26, 2015 [3 favorites]

This might help with some of the history and an explanation of the culture there that rang true to my own experience (from a former board member of the OTW). [Full disclosure I was on staff with the OTW for 18 months in several different committees and served as a co-chair of one of them.]
posted by ladyriffraff at 1:50 PM on November 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Here's a different Tumblr post including my comments and other people's on both OTW and nonprofit hijinks in general. (I agree that 'arts nonprofit batshittery' is the answer to all of those "But why would reasonable people ___?" questions everyone asks.)
posted by Franzeska at 10:46 PM on November 26, 2015

OTW would be a hell of a lot better if it did model itself after other non-profits. .... This is something thousands of other sites do, including plenty backed by non-profits. Looking at them for models, both positive and negative, should have guided everything from the start.

When they started in 2007, there were not any notable examples of international nonprofits that operated entirely online. If there had been other archives that did what we wanted for AO3, we'd've borrowed their code if they were open-source, or outright bought it if they weren't.

Unique archive features: Author sets the fandom and characters, without needing to first have an administrator create them. Fics can be tagged by authors, again, without needing admin participation. Tags (including fandom & characters) work as non-exclusive categories--this is very common now, but was groundbreaking at the time. Content warnings built into the header in addition to the NSFW/"explicit" setting.

There are probably a few more, and other than that, they wanted content formatting options that didn't exactly match any other archive, but that was probably more flexible. But the database structure involving the tags, and allowing the authors to add new fandoms and characters, those were new.

Rare or unique organization features: Nobody meets in person to get things set up. (Finance committee had headaches over this; in 2007, banks were really unhappy with the idea of nobody visiting in-person to deposit checks, and the IRS was suspicious of digital corporate documents.) All the committees are managed by people who've never met. The communication tools available often made them choose between security and free flow of information--Slack has been a godsend.

It would've been much easier to be a nonprofit focused on some group of outsiders--"save the whales" nonprofits don't get emails from the whales demanding that they focus more on humpbacks and less on belugas. Nor do the belugas try to send them payments in a currency their local bank has never heard of.

They chose a build-from-scratch approach for both the archive and their infrastructure, because they had looked at what else was available, and nothing fit; they decided they'd rather make it up as they went along--knowing that they'd build in errors that would need to be fixed later--than try to adapt something and not know which of the adaptations broke other parts of the borrowed structure.

The entire org structure needs a review and overhaul... and the founders knew, when they set it up, that this time would come. That doesn't make it easy to deal with, but it does mean that the long-time members and fans aren't saying "omg, how could this happen? is this THE END?" but "oh, so we've reached that point. Um. dammit. Wow, this is gonna be a lot of work."

And now that they have a structure, and have achieved some goals, and have an active community, they are and will be looking to other nonprofits to sort out how to move forward. But in the beginning, there really weren't any similarly structured organizations they could find to pattern themselves after.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 10:45 AM on November 27, 2015 [2 favorites]

Thank you for putting this all together. I had been trying to figure out what had happened. It's the sortof thing you do usually end up reading about on Fandom_wank but I get a little tired of pretending to be superior to it all!
posted by taterpie at 12:28 AM on November 28, 2015

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