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. [↩]