We didn’t ask our participants about feminism, and yet there were all the values markers, as they talked about things like the importance of participation and ownership by the community, accessibility, inclusivity, advocacy, and nuanced handling of identity. [In] sum, AO3 designers felt that integrating community values was critical to the design of the archive, and users named these same things as ways in which AO3 improves over some other online spaces. Both these values themselves and the careful way in which they were considered tracks well to the tenets of feminist HCI.
One of the most interesting things that emerged, though, were the tensions that exist in incorporating values into design. What happens when these values are at odds with each other? We found that some of the design decisions were made to mitigate these tensions–for example, between a value of preserving history and a value of user control (resulting in the ability to “orphan” works), and a value of inclusivity versus safety (resulting in the content warning system). We also found examples of designing to influence values (particularly around remixing and permission), and how this can be tricky.
Casey Fiesler on programming values.
I have some Thoughts On Programming as they relate to the AO3, but they’re all a bit of a jumble and probably best reserved for another day. For the record, I’m Fandom Old enough to not just remember when the AO3 was founded, but to have been one of the original coding volunteers.1
I love the AO3 and I love the service it provides to fandom. But it does make me despair sometimes. It’s all great to talk about “feminist HCI” (that’s “human computer interaction”, for those who didn’t study academic computer science), but in some regards I think even the term “feminist HCI” is indicative of part of the AO3’s problem.
I mean, you don’t hear people talking about the “Reddit HCI”, or the “Twitter HCI”, very much, do you? Instead, they talk about the UX, a.k.a. the user experience.
HCI and UX aren’t interchangeable, but they do approach the same problem from different sides. HCI advocates tend to be oldskool academics interested in long-term analyses of how the use of computers shapes society. UX designers, meanwhile, tend to be Valley hipsters interested in how any one user is interacting with any on product now.
The thing is, I don’t think the AO3’s UX is particularly great. I mean, there’s nothing wrong with it, it’s just not great. And it’s dated, very dated. The layout looks dated, in its use of skeuomorphic textures.2 The interactions are dated. The user community aspects are dated. I mean, people complain a lot about readers not leaving comments, for example, but imagine if the AO3 had inline commenting like Medium? Or phrase highlighting like Kindle. Why is the default line length on the AO3 100% of the page width?3 Why is the default font sans-serif? And so freakin’ tiny? I mean, have you ever tried to load the Archive on a modern 27-inch+ monitor? Have you ever tried to read it on one? Why do I have to click through two or three links to see my Inbox? Imagine if the AO3 supported art and images in the way of, say, deviantART (let alone Tumblr). Why doesn’t it auto-resize images in fic to not exceed the width of the device screen on which they’re being read?4 Imagine if it had an updates dashboard.
Do you remember Craigslist? Is that still a thing? (IDK, I live in Australia; it was never really A Thing here.) You remember how the weirdly crappy layout was essentially A Statement because the founder guy didn’t like webdesign or whatever? Yeah, well. The AO3 with its aggressive maintenance of an early-2000s UX status quo kind of reminds me of that. Like stodgy old fandom nannas who’ve Always Done It This Way You Kids These Days With Your Webfonts And Your jQuery Everything Get Off My Lawn. And, I mean, don’t get me wrong; on the one hand, this does mean the AO3 isn’t plagued by the horrible bloat of a lot of the rest of the internet. But on the other… inline comments, man.
So… yeah. This isn’t very coherent, as predicted. But the bottom line: talking about feminist HCI? Great. Very interesting to see the different design choices that get built into a product built outside of the Silicon Valley brogramer mentality. But I also think it’s interesting to look at what gets left out because of the same. In other words: the AO3 is a case study in what happens when back-patting over academic HCI overtakes day-to-day UX.
- I didn’t, I should point out, actually write any code; I dropped out of the project before it really got going, for a large number of reasons that are mostly my own baggage. [↩]
- Seriously, Steve Jobs has been dead for half a decade now; it’s time to let him go. [↩]
- At least… I think it is? I have a site skin that tweaks a lot of the visual stuff, so to be fair I haven’t seen the “default” Archive for a while. [↩]
- Like… seriously, why? This is literally like two lines of CSS:
max-width: 100%; height: auto. Boom. Fixed. [↩]
As for gaming the Hugo awards, it is surprisingly easy. Like all popularity contests, it doesn’t take much to mess it all up. It only keeps a feeling of legitimacy as long as everyone is very polite and careful, because there’s no rule that says you can’t muck it up. The Hugo nominations come from the attendees of this year’s, last year’s, and next year’s WorldCon convention. That’s not a huge group (and figure many people haven’t bought their memberships to this year’s or next year’s yet). Actual number of ballots comes out not greatly over 2000, and if no one is playing games, the nominations are spread out over a huge number of different stories, books, etc. So, if you can get 200 people to vote along a party line, you’ll win. This is even easier since you don’t have to go to the convention, just sign up for a voting membership, pay $40, and you’re good to go.
–Matthew M. Foster on the Hugo Awards.
Foster’s whole post, and its sequel, are well-worth the read as they go into some of the history behind SFF’s recent bout of culture wars.
One of the things that’s interesting to me, is that the whole thing can, arguably, be traced back to RaceFail. RaceFail involved the pro SFF circuit, but I’d always read it as a fandom thing, because a lot of the discussion was on LiveJournal/Dreamwidth, and LJ/DW were Where Fandom Was At back in those days. Six years later, however, and fandom has largely moved to Tumblr, while pro SFF is split across more platforms than it’s interesting to mention.
But the effects of RaceFail are still felt in both communities. For fandom, RaceFail was, I think, the birth of modern fandom social justice and identity politics culture. If you’ve ever seen or made one of those “your fav is ~problematic” style posts, then congratulations. You’re feeling the ripple effects of RaceFail, even if the event itself is fandom pre-history to you personally.
For pro SFF, well. Go read Foster’s posts.
I’m mentioning this, essentially, because I’m old. I still have this mental thing where “SFF fandom” and “media fandom” are two very heavily overlapping circles on the Venn diagram, because that’s where my introduction to fandom came from. But the one thing paying closer attention to the Hugos in the last few years has made me realise, is just how divorced those two communities are.
The Hugo awards are supposed to be a popular vote. As per the quote above, anyone can buy their way into the process for forty bucks. And yet… people don’t. The voting pool for the Hugos is tiny, at about 2,000 people. Works are winning with primary votes of 1,000 and less. Actually getting nominated onto the ballot in the first place takes somewhere between 50 to 200 nominations, depending on category.
So, my question to you, fandom, is: Do you think there are 200 Welcome to Night Vale fans out there prepared to vote for their favourite show? Individual episodes are eligible for Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form, and the show’s got a book coming out this year. Reckon that can get on the 2016 ballot?
Or what about Homestuck fans. Y’all gave Andrew Hussie $2.5 million for Hiveswap. How about a nomination for Best Graphic Story? Or even Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form for one of the flash clips? Andrew Hussie himself is eligible for the Best Professional Artist category. You think there are more than 500 Homestucks prepared to pay $40 to see their fav get a little rocket statue?
Or how about you, Dragon Age fandom. Y’all know video games are eligible for both the long and short Best Dramatic Presentation categories, right? You remember when you cried over Dorian’s personal quest or nearly shat yourself when Corypheus turned up? Are there 1,000 of you out there who want to get that recognised?
To anyone who’s ever used the Archive of our Own. Think that deserves some recognition for its contributions to fandom? Well, then maybe it deserves a nomination for Best Related Work. Yeah, there’s some debate as to whether it would qualify, but no-one’s ever going to make that ruling unless someone gets the ballots in, right?
Or how about you, yes you, the J. Everyfan reading this. You know that the Hugos have Best Fan Writer, Best Fanzine, Best Fancast, and Best Fan Artist categories, yeah? Best Related Work also covers fandom meta. I’m sure you can think of someone who you’d love to see win something for their contributions, be they fic or art or otherwise.
Here’s the thing about fandom as it currently exists, mainly on Tumblr: it’s huge. It’s huge, but it’s also very, very divorced from the Venerable Old Institutions of its grandparent fandoms, including the Hugo awards.
The Hugos were first given out in the mid-1950s, when my parents were just toddlers (and I’m fandom old). According to the Hugo site itself:
The Hugo Awards, to give them their full title, are awards for excellence in the field of science fiction and fantasy. They were first awarded in 1953, and have been awarded every year since 1955. The awards are run by and voted on by fans.
And, sure. That might have been true 60 years ago. But in 2015 it’s become painfully obvious that the Hugos are, far from being a populist award, a tiny clique of old-guard SFF pros squabbling over what they see as the heart and soul of fandom.
The Hugos are hugely prestigious, but they’re no-one’s heart and soul. There are a lot of people who’ll hate me for saying this, but fandom’s heart and soul is younger, now, and it lives online. It talks in YouTube clips and Tumblr posts, not in ‘zines. (And does anyone under the age of 30 even know what a zine is anymore?) You want to talk about slates of nominees and culture wars and take-overs? Fine, let’s talk about that. Because you know what I want to see for the 2016 Hugo awards?
I want to see Welcome to Night Vale up for awards in Best Novel and Best Dramatic Presentation. I want to see Stephen Universe and Agent Carter and whatever anime is big right now. I want to see Homestuck. I want to see something from the OTW and I want at least one videogame up for Long Form and one DLC/expansion up in Short Form. I want to see fanfic writers and fanartists up for their categories. I want to see someone get nominated purely on force of their Tumblr.
Whether or not I like the individual nominations doesn’t matter. I just want to see them, because seeing them will tell me the Hugos are relevant again. That they mean something to kids who were born after the invention of the personal computer, let alone born this century. You want to talk about logrolling an awards ceremony? Tumblr fandom is orders of magnitude bigger than the voting pool for the current Hugos. If y’all want those awards, they’re yours. No old greybeard muttering about “true fans” and “golden age SFF” can take that away from you. Literally not; by numbers alone there just aren’t enough of them.
Think it’s not worth the effort because the awards themselves aren’t relevant to you? Then make them relevant; that’s my whole point! They’re a popular vote! Make them popular again! Talk to your friends, your followers. Find what works and individuals are eligible and make Tumblr posts about them. Buy a membership to WorldCon (“Supporting” is the one you want if you’re not attending the con itself but just want the ability to vote in the Hugos). Vote this year, nominate next year.
Blow off those fucking cobwebs, and shake things up a bit. I dream of the day it happens. I know you can do it, fandom.
And, hell. If nothing else, it’ll piss off a bunch of dusty old straight white men who think they own what it means to be in fandom. Fuck those guys, amirite?
So go on. You’ve got a year. Make yourselves heard.