The release of Stranger Things’ fourth season earlier this year sparked a discourse on fandom that has felt nonstop. The show introduced a new generation to fan culture. Those well-acquainted with it have watched the younger generation be baffled by the likes of cosplay, head cannons, and fan art. So, it’s no surprise one of the biggest topics popping up on my Twitter feed has been fan fiction and the lack of algorithms in fan spaces.
Without wanting to sound elderly, I remember what social media was like before algorithms, and while I might be looking back with rose-tinted glasses, it was more fun. We could live tweet concerts or the season finale of a show and actually see everyone else’s reactions in real time.
Today, my Twitter feed is still showing me something someone tweeted 5 days ago despite following hundreds of people—as if it didn’t show me the very same tweet the day after it was sent (when it was no longer relevant).
The algorithms show you things they think are relevant—and most importantly—things that evoke a reaction. If you’re on TikTok, you know going viral is terrifying as your video moves out of your niche and into a not-so-nice corner of the platform who pile on without remorse. Meanwhile, one of my friends never shows up on my FYP or even Friends page despite us both following each other, so I have to manually go to their page every now and then to show support. Maybe it’s because their content isn’t in line with what I usually consume and post on TikTok, but it’s easy for people you follow to seemingly get dumped by algorithms for unclear reasons.
So, with Twitter in Elon Musk’s hands, Tumblr barren, and Instagram abandoning its original purpose, the sacred spaces of the internet today are fan fiction forums, namely, Archive of Our Own.
Some of the takes I’ve seen on Twitter are the younger fans not understanding that AO3 doesn’t have an algorithm. They’ll delete and repost fics again and again, thinking that the key to earning a readership is posting at certain times or using keywords, only to grow frustrated when that’s not the case. If you’ve grown up with an algorithm and learned to tailor your content around it, I can understand feeling like something is missing when you can just post something without considering it all. Plus, fan fiction rarely instantly goes viral; it’s more of a slow trickle of views and engagement. With so many fics abandoned, a lot of people won’t start reading until the story is complete.
Unlike other platforms, AO3 has a fantastic tagging system which is how fics get discovered. You can easily find fandoms, tropes, or characters you enjoy reading about. It also makes it easy to block out content you don’t want to see. Trust me; I’ve been blinded by more than enough seemingly non-sexual plot-driven fics all of a sudden getting extremely graphic to know this feature is invaluable.
Plus, the acclaim you get on fan fiction forums is not like being an influencer. You’re not going to get brand deals—unless you want to get sued, you’re not earning anything from fan fiction. Legally, fan fiction is such a gray area as you’re using someone else’s characters, lore, and world. A lot of public figures don’t approve of it—most notably, the late Anne Rice the only thing keeping these spaces from being shut down is the fact that they’re not for profit.
And yes, a lot of fan fiction is low-grade, incoherent and self-indulgent, but what is a better medium for budding writers to gain experience? They can forget world-building, establishing lore, and even character creation, practice their writing and storytelling skills with no pressure and learn as they go.
But when fan fiction is good, it’s good. The reason it’s good is because it’s pure. It’s art for art’s sake. It’s full of passion and a deep understanding of the original material.
The algorithms show you what they think you want to see; with sites like AO3, you get the satisfaction of finding a hidden gem for yourself or exploring something you normally wouldn’t be interested in and, to your surprise, discovering you love it. One thing other platforms value is consistency; those who post every day or on a regular schedule get rewarded, which is great if content creation is your full-time job, but not when you have other responsibilities. If there was pressure to post a new chapter every day or every week because the fic would essentially tank otherwise, the quality would deteriorate.
Without algorithms, there’s less hate scrolling and doom scrolling since you can protect yourself from things you definitely don’t want to see. If you find yourself hate scrolling, it’s because you brought it on yourself, not because AO3 sees engagement as engagement regardless of whether it’s all negative attention.
With the pressure to get traction from an algorithm, what makes those fics so special would fall apart. If it’s all about keyword stuffing, optional posting times, rigid schedules and trying to become the next internet sensation, the magic will disappear, and so will the comminutes that build themselves around those spaces.