Fans are slans
June 11, 2019 11:41 AM   Subscribe

At least when it comes to inventing an effective tagging system better than anything big tech can deliver so they can enjoy their Steve/Tony slash, as Wired's Gretchen McCulloch explains.
posted by MartinWisse (32 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
So, in short, the secret sauce is...human labor (and since we're talking about fan communities, unpaid human labor.) In addition, I'd like to see the gender breakdown of the "wranglers" - I'd be willing to bet it skews female.
posted by NoxAeternum at 12:00 PM on June 11 [21 favorites]

More information from McCulloch on this topic on her twitter, including comparing how Wikipedia is covered vs. how AO3 is covered.
posted by dinty_moore at 12:19 PM on June 11 [4 favorites]

Slans? Would an algorithm tag this AEVanVogt?
posted by BrotherCaine at 12:25 PM on June 11 [9 favorites]

What we have here is similar to the subscription libraries that popped up in the 19th century just before the public library movement. It is a volunteer collective of readers, and, in this case writers. Typically such volunteer groups flourish, thrive, and do excellent work for about a generation and then fade away, leaving a neglected collection. Sometimes a subscription library would flourish, wane, and revive, typically because a new batch of immigrants were interested in self-education. Problem was, there would be a giant gap in the collection corresponding to the period when no one was subscribing. It was for this reason public libraries superseded subscription libraries. Jesse Shera discusses this in his history of the rise of public libraries.

It is also similar to the second edition of Poole's Index to Periodical Literature, in which volunteer librarians all over the US and UK indexed English-language periodicals. Eventually they went collectively to H.W. Wilson, and asked him if he would for god sake do this for them and let them pay him. Hence the Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature, which some of you may recall from your youths.

tl;dr:This is fucking great and what civilization is all about, but don't be surprised if it doesn't last.
posted by ckridge at 12:40 PM on June 11 [29 favorites]

the honestly ridiculous argument that exactly the same situation is either virtuous/exploitative depending on if AO3 or Amazon do it.

But it isn't ridiculous. A non profit can ethically use volunteer labour while a for profit company cannot ethically use free or underpaid workers.
posted by jeather at 12:44 PM on June 11 [38 favorites]

It's linked from SansPoint's Verge article, but I was going to link to Ceglowski's talk on this, so here you go.
posted by suetanvil at 12:44 PM on June 11 [2 favorites]

In addition, I'd like to see the gender breakdown of the "wranglers" - I'd be willing to bet it skews female.

The readers and the writers of fanfiction also skew female. I find it hard to object to this mutually beneficial exchange of labor (the labor of writing with the labor of tagging with the labor of running the website) unless you object, in principle, to anyone exchanging labor for anything other than money.
posted by Pyry at 12:45 PM on June 11 [36 favorites]

You know what I wish I heard people say more often? Women's fandom* is awesome. To be fair, it has a lot of insane elements -- harassment of the talent, pissing and moaning online, pure madness like the Snapewives -- and that's what your basic public narrative about it is going to be, with a heaping helping of misogyny on the side.

But at its best, fandom is not about what it's about, the MCU or what have you: it's about fans themselves, and the work they perform to bring joy and interest to each other's lives. And as part of that work, they do things like this. In other words: the real slow-burn M-rated fic was the friends we made along the way.

* Not to erase members of other genders. I just use the term to specify the fanfic and art communities that have coalesced around mostly female/AFAB labor since around the rise of ST:TOS, distinguishing it from the mostly tech-focused male-oriented SF fandoms that tend to exclude women. There really must be a better term.
posted by Countess Elena at 1:12 PM on June 11 [32 favorites]

>> the honestly ridiculous argument that exactly the same situation is either virtuous/exploitative depending on if AO3 or Amazon do it.

> But it isn't ridiculous. A non profit can ethically use volunteer labour while a for profit company cannot ethically use free or underpaid workers.

You know how folks are like "if people didn't have to sell their labor to capitalists in order to live indoors and eat food, they wouldn't do anything at all!"

If people didn't have to sell their labor to capitalists in order to live indoors and eat food, they'd do awesome stuff like this all the time. Every day we've got to live under this abusive socioeconomic system, we lose millions upon millions of person-hours of useful improvements to the world, because the people who'd provide those hours and make those improvements are stuck doing useless crap that benefits no one.
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 1:32 PM on June 11 [49 favorites]

Transformative fandom is a term I've seen used (as opposed to curation-based fandom, which skews male and concentrates on collecting merch and trivia).

And any discussion of AO3 ethics can't omit the fact that it was created by fans in response to commercial fan-havens (at that point, LiveJournal and screwing fans over in favour of advertisers and vocal trolls in typical capitalist fashion. It's ours, it runs on our money and labour. (And it needs an option to sort by kudos-to-hits ratio. Bother on my inability to code.)
posted by I claim sanctuary at 1:34 PM on June 11 [28 favorites]

In addition, I'd like to see the gender breakdown of the "wranglers" - I'd be willing to bet it skews female.

Given that ao3 is overwhelmingly female that would be a good bet.

As it happens I was writing a data analysis tool for ao3 a few weeks ago and got to experience their tag collection first hand. I definitely agree with this article about the surprisingly good taxonomy the site has arrived at. The tag set itself is very well done; the only failing is that not all the articles get the right tags. It’s interesting to get a peek at how they do it.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 1:35 PM on June 11 [6 favorites]

I think comparing this to people doing free labor for corporations is missing something critical. The reason tag wranglers do this work is that they trust OTW to do the right thing with the fruits of their labor. They volunteer because they know nobody is getting rich off of this. Female fandom is a gift economy.

I think AO3 may be the best website in the world (no offense mefi). I love pretty much everything about it. I am someone with no time to volunteer on an open source project but I have a feature I've been noodling on that I want to write for them for some time. Because I'd use it, a lot, and I'm sure others would too. If I ever quit my full time coding job I'll definitely take a couple months out to write that feature before my next gig.
posted by potrzebie at 1:41 PM on June 11 [23 favorites]

AO3 (technically, its parent, the OTW) is a nonprofit created by fans for fans, because those fans wanted to provide a secure platform for an activity they were already doing, publishing and reading fic. It's more complicated now because (a) now it is established and powerful and (b) many millennial-era fans are so infantilized (in this context) that they have trouble conceiving of the infrastructure of fandom as something they themselves can create and control, rather than something handed to them by a faceless corporation to which they are mere subjects, and so they have trouble imagining themselves as being (if they want to be!) part of the project, rather than a "consumer." But if you object to voluntary pooling of labor to achieve a common goal, you're pretty much objecting to every alternative to capitalism beyond, I guess, some kind of pure ancap where everybody lives on their own icefloe and dies of infection the first time they get a papercut. AO3 is a relatively rare (these days) example of a community successfully taking on a big problem through collective, non-profit-motivated, voluntary action. Refining the idea of a folksonomy is one aspect of that.
posted by praemunire at 1:45 PM on June 11 [17 favorites]

What is a “slan”?

Googling gives different definitions, none of which are obviously relevant, and the term doesn’t pop up in a quick scan of the article. Thanks.
posted by darkstar at 1:52 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]

Slan is a 1940 story by A.E. VanVogt. "Fans are slans" was a phrase some of SF fandom picked up as a rallying cry.
posted by Lexica at 1:56 PM on June 11 [7 favorites]

it’s a term from the dark ages of science fiction fandom. ae van vogt, an early 20th century scifi writer, had a story (or a series? it’s been a while...) wherein there was a new group of superintelligent superhumans called “slans.” In the mid-20th century the phrase “fans are slans” became a shibboleth within the developing world of science fiction fandom. The phrase meant something like “people like us, people who read a particular type of pulp genre fiction and who in part structure our lives around being fans of that particular type of pulp fiction, are smarter than and better than everyone else, and if we are marginalized in our day to day lives it is because the hyuumies are scared of our giant brains.”
posted by Reclusive Novelist Thomas Pynchon at 1:57 PM on June 11 [7 favorites]

Gotcha. Googling showed that book as a prominent search result, but it wasn’t clearly evident how or whether it was connected here. Thanks!
posted by darkstar at 1:58 PM on June 11

So, in short, the secret sauce is...human labor (and since we're talking about fan communities, unpaid human labor.)

I mean, isn't this the case for every hobbyist community? It's the same thing as if you bake as a hobby and give out your baked goods for charity bake sales or bring them into the office kitchen, or knit and give away everything you make to friends and family, or play music and jam with friends at parties. Hobbies involve human labor, and for the most part, the joy, interest, and sense of community we derive from them are not based in the exchange of money. If another database wants to replicate AO3's success with tagging, then yeah, sure, they're just gonna have to pay people to tag wrangle. But the fact that AO3 doesn't pay their wranglers isn't a bug, it's a feature. AO3 is a non-profit, and transformative fandom is a gift economy for the most part. Speaking as a member of transformative fandom, it's very important to me that both of those things stay that way, because fuck the relentless grind of monetizing and capitalizing on everything.
posted by yasaman at 2:09 PM on June 11 [11 favorites]

Wrangling means that you don't need to know whether the most popular tag for your new fanfic featuring Sherlock Holmes and John Watson is Johnlock or Sherwatson or John/Sherlock or Sherlock/John or Holmes/Watson or anything else. And you definitely don't need to tag your fic with all of them just in case. Instead, you pick whichever one you like, the tag wranglers do their work behind the scenes, and readers looking for any of these synonyms will still be able to find you.

That is a terrible example considering that the Sherlock Holmes tags are completely fucked up. "Inspector Lestrade" is not the same character as "Greg Lestrade" and Holmes/Watson and Sherlock/John are different pairings. It would have been helpful if BBC fic had been corralled into its own set of tags.
wow, it's 2019, I don't use AO3 anymore, yet this still irritates me
posted by betweenthebars at 2:33 PM on June 11 [5 favorites]

Oh god, someone is recommending AO3's tag system? It's a nightmare design that has caused the site to explode on a regular basis and is only kept afloat by throwing money at servers and by burning out generations of tag wranglers. I haven't looked in at the state of things for a year or so, but at that point they were destroying the entire system by collapsing categories of actual useful tags, meaning things like historical fiction were all one giant tagball and you couldn't search or filter by any particular source, because the system was literally dying on its feet.
posted by tavella at 2:43 PM on June 11 [5 favorites]

I think "fans are slans" included some amount of self-mockery at the hyperbole, but that's just how I read a phrase which had gone out of fashion by the time I was in fandom.
posted by Nancy Lebovitz at 3:05 PM on June 11

Well...someone is explaining why it's better from the perspective of users than either pure freeform tagging or a predefined tag hierarchy.

Reports of AO3's impending demise arrive approximately once every six months.
posted by praemunire at 3:14 PM on June 11 [2 favorites]

Oh god, someone is recommending AO3's tag system?

Compared to many I've seen? Absolutely.

There are 65,000 curated tags covering 6.8 million articles. With numbers like that it's not a question of being good, it's a matter of how bad it isn't.

For reference try .
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 3:16 PM on June 11 [13 favorites]

I am a librarian and an A03 user/creator so this is relevant to my interests. I mostly dgaf about tagging and taxonomy (easily the most boring part of my library school curriculum and I had to debate what information is) but I do deeply appreciate A03's tags. As someone who uses library databases on a daily basis, including PubMed and others that the author mentions users disliking, I find A03 tags to be wonderfully logical and easy to deal with.

Also, if you use 'kudos greater than [arbitrary number]' in the search within box for the really big fandoms like Johnlock and Stucky and Sterek and Spirk*, you end up with a nice manageable number of results that retains chronological order. Unlike sorting by kudos, which loses that order, keeping things in chron order is a great way to see how a fandom develops and what episodes or moments become touchstones. This is a great example of post-search filtering.

Since the author is a linguist rather than a librarian, she's rather less concerned with filters and search options but to me those are equally as important as taxonomies and tags. I deeply appreciate A03's use of NOT (through the post-search 'exclude' function) because it's my fave Boolean operator for efficient searching. You can tell that there are definitely librarians and taxonomists and all-around search nerds involved in A03!

*wtf fandom, why all S's?
posted by librarylis at 8:15 PM on June 11 [5 favorites]

I claim sanctuary, Min has you covered for a kudos/hits ratio sorter:
posted by current resident at 8:49 PM on June 11 [1 favorite]

Holmes/Watson and Sherlock/John are different pairings.

I don't understand how this would work, given how many instances of those characters there are. "They're all one pairing, written in distinct fandoms, or sometimes in an ambiguous fandom drawing from multiple works" seems better to me.

Maybe I've just been lucky, but I have not had difficulty filtering by fandom/source for the characters I follow who have had many portrayals.
posted by bagel at 8:55 PM on June 11

My rule of thumb for larger fandoms (more than 1K of fic) is that if (hits/kudos > 10), the story is likely filtered up as better writing. In smaller or much older fandoms, it's hard to tell what's good based on kudos or hits even because just one popular writer or pairing can skew the stats wildly. Best to go in through the top ten by bookmarks and then find an enthusiastic fandom bookmarker in that fandom and figure out through them what's good.

Why yes, I have something like 2K worth of bookmarks in AO3 and strong feelings about bookmarks and tags. MORE TAGS TAGS FOREVER.
posted by dorothyisunderwood at 10:00 PM on June 11 [5 favorites]


can someone elucidate, i am afeared to search
posted by murphy slaw at 10:25 PM on June 11

I don't want to go looking again because it is a pit of weasels but snapewives were/are a group who believed that they were married to the (fictional character) Snape on the Astral plain.

Why my brain remembers that and not...what I need to buy for groceries is another question.

It's not currently online but I wrote my library MSc. thesis on folksonomies and fandom tagging on delicious. (and my BSc. was on fanfic fandom and archiving) so this is...quite relevant to my interests, although I have been out of active fandom for some time.
posted by halcyonday at 1:03 AM on June 12 [4 favorites]

Introductory Snapewives for the blissfully ignorant.
posted by clockworkwasp at 1:55 AM on June 13 [1 favorite]

Glad to see people showing AO3 and its tagging system some love. Sure, it's not perfect... but it beats the alternatives. And I'd sure as hell rather be there than, Wattpad, or the ye olde Wonderful World of Make Believe (man, that place sure dropped right down the memory hole).
posted by pelvicsorcery at 12:11 PM on June 13 [3 favorites]

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