Fangirl Friday: Terms of Service, Community Standards, and “free speech” (Tumblr vs. Archive of Our Own)

Hi, all!

I decided to do a really long discussion today. Get yourselves a beverage and a snack and the like as we unpack some issues with regard to free speech, Terms of Service, and Community Standards on the interwebz and we’ll have a look at how those come into play on two specific platforms and some of the cray that can and does happen.

Here is a song to play while you’re getting your drinkies and snacks.

So I’ve been thinking about the “Terms of Service” (ToS) and Community Standards that platforms post to let you know what they’ll put up with and what they won’t.

Which in most cases is a load of bullshit, because platforms haven’t been good about adhering to their own freakin’ stipulations and all kinds of toxic crappity crap has overrun bunches of ’em.

All of this, of course, plays into screeching about “free speech” and yadda yadda yadda, to which I say

XKCD webcomic

Now here’s where I say free speech can be a really good thing.

BUT free speech also comes with huge responsibilities with regard to what you’re saying or what you’re supporting being said on your platforms, and if everything is valid for posting, well, then, as the adage goes, nothing is.

We can’t trust other people’s better angels. Because people suck. So it’s up to platforms in this brave new world to help create communities that maybe aren’t divisive and shitty, that don’t allow users to threaten or bash people for whatever reason — and studies show the most harassed people on the Intertoobz are female, LGBTQIA (especially youth), and people of color. And many of those identities intersect.

So that’s why platforms have ToS and/or Community Standards. That doesn’t mean, however, that the damn things work.

There are numerous examples of major social media platforms totally dropping the ball with regard to harassment and people posting threats and racist, homophobic, transphobic, and whatever other horribleness humans come up with (because humans can be the worst; see here, here, and here, and here, e.g.).

Which brings me to my discussion about ToS/Community Standards and fandoms.

I’m going to give you two examples, two different platforms, and we’ll see the problems that can result with (bad) attempts to regulate and practically no attempts to regulate.

Let’s chat first about Tumblr, which traditionally has been a platform that lots of fanfolk use. It’s also provided a haven for LGBTQIA people and other marginalized communities. Tumblr is a micro-blogging site that makes it pretty easy to share links, photos, videos, memes, jokes. It’s kind of a cross between Facebook (FaceBorg, as I call it) and a blog. It tends to skew toward a younger demographic, and traditionally, it’s been a space for lots of fandoms.

In December 2018, Tumblr rolled out new Community Standards which effectively banned all “adult content” on the site.

So what exactly does that mean?

Tumblr’s new Community Standards include this directive:

Adult Content. Don’t upload images, videos, or GIFs that show real-life human genitals or female-presenting nipples — this includes content that is so photorealistic that it could be mistaken for featuring real-life humans (nice try, though). Certain types of artistic, educational, newsworthy, or political content featuring nudity are fine. Don’t upload any content, including images, videos, GIFs, or illustrations, that depicts sex acts. For more information about what this guideline prohibits and how to appeal decisions about adult content, check out our help desk.

This will probably ruin fandoms across Tumblr — especially LGBTQIA fandoms because guess what kind of content almost always gets flagged as “adult” even if it’s as innocuous as a fanart cartoon of two women sharing a kiss or holding hands or something? Mmm hmm.

If you’re interested, author and fanfic writer Rae D. Magdon did a podcast on the Tumblr situation, and it helps break it down for you.

And if you’re further interested, The Mary Sue has noticed that activity appears to have slowed down on the site.

Casey Fiesler, who does a lot of infoscience and studies social computing and is probably the leading expert on how adult content policies affect fandoms, did a great thread on Twitter explaining what happens when “adult content” bans go into effect on social media (with reference to what was happening on Tumblr in December):

Later on in the thread, Fiesler noted this:

And therein lies a huge problem. Algorithms are going to give a bunch of false positives that will flag content that probably isn’t “adult” while they’ll also miss content that should be flagged for violating other Community Standards, including hate speech.

Click this link to a Twitter thread pointing out some of the ridiculous things that got flagged on Tumblr after it implemented its new Community Standards.

Oh, and the research Fiesler references in that Tweet can be found HERE.

Fiesler also noted that other communities are impacted by adult content bans, as she pointed out via this Tweet:

So Tumblr was all, “we’re gonna clean up our site!”, which effectively banned/buried legit discussions about sexuality, sexual orientation, gender transition, and probably discussions about medical issues like breast cancer and survival (since oh noez, you can’t show images of ta-tas) and affected lots of fanart and possibly fanfic, too.

And yet, it’s still really freaking easy to find, for example, white nationalist content on Tumblr.

ThinkProgress just did a piece on this, and noted that a month after the new standards went into effect on Tumblr, white nationalist propaganda is still easy to find.

One group Tumblr apparently has no problem continuing to host, however, is far-right extremists, who seemingly survived much of last month’s purge unscathed.

The website is currently littered with pages promoting Nazism, white supremacy, ethno-nationalism, and far-right terrorism. Despite their often flagrant violation of Tumblr’s Community Guidelines, these pages remain largely active and easy to find.

ThinkProgress included a bunch of screenshots of what they found on Tumblr, if you want to go see (hit the link above).

And I just went to Tumblr as I was writing this and typed in a few things and easily found white nationalist content. So…what was that again about Community Standards? 🤔

Okay, so let’s leave Tumblr there for a minute and move on to another site, Archive of Our Own.

As some of you may know, I write fanfic, too. I’m writing exclusively in the Clexa fandom, which is the Commander Lexa and Clarke Griffin ship from the CW’s post-apocalyptic The 100.

logo of AO3

I post my work at Archive of Our Own (AO3), which is a groundbreaking kind of project. AO3 falls under the purview of the Organization for Transformative Works, a nonprofit “run by and for fans to provide access to and preserve the history of fanworks and fan cultures.”

Casey Fiesler (yes, from the Twitter posts above) did an academic paper on the founding of AO3 (which you can find HERE) along with fellow scholars Shannon Morrison and Amy Bruckner. In “An Archive of Their Own: A Case Study of Feminist HCI and Values in Design,” the authors note that AO3 was founded as a result of other platforms implementing changes that made fanwork creators feel unwelcome (e.g. “adult content” bans). The authors note that

Since its launch in 2008, Archive of Our Own (AO3) has grown to amass nearly 750,000 users and over 2 million individual fan fiction works. Its code is open source, and the archive has been designed, coded, and maintained nearly entirely by the community it serves — a community made up mostly of women. Because the controversy that sparked its existence was surrounding a disconnect with the community’s value system, baking these values into the design of the site was a priority. As a result, the design of AO3 is a unique example of building complex values and social norms into technology design.

Moreover, unpacking this value system reveals an underlying commitment to many core feminist values such as agency, inclusivity, diversity, and empowerment. These same values, as articulated in Bardzell’s agenda for feminist HCI, are also a natural ally to interaction design [2]. Even without this specific design agenda, the developers of AO3 adhered to many of the tenets of feminist HCI as they instilled their value system into the design features of the archive, including nuanced handling of multiple pseudonyms, translations of content into over 20 languages, and a powerful, user-controlled folksonomy tagging and search system.

Two things for clarity. HCI here refers to Human-Computer Interaction and Bardzell refers to Shaowen Bardzell’s 2010 paper, “Feminist HCI: Taking stock and outlining an agenda for design” (fully cited in Fiesler, et. al.)

So keep that in mind with regard to AO3 and its feminist and inclusive development as well as the point that the community it’s serving is mostly women.

I got tagged on Twitter by some fellow fans a couple days ago because of an extremely problematic fanfic that was posted at AO3.

The fans were upset (rightfully so) about this fic, which I’m not going to link to or name. In a nutshell, the fic fetishizes corrective rape, in which a cisgender man rapes a cisgender lesbian, all in the interest of serving some kind of “kink.”

I checked AO3’s ToS again, because I was pretty sure that Community Standards are pretty much non-existent over there, but I hadn’t read them in a while and I just wanted to have a look.

Aaaaaand I was right.

The ToS say they’re adhering to the laws of the state of New York (which is apparently where it’s registered), and though it does not allow content to contain or link to child pornography, the Archive says

Unless it violates some other policy, we will not remove Content for offensiveness, no matter how awful, repugnant, or badly spelled we may personally find that Content to be.

Which means that homophobic corrective rape is okay to post. As is rape in general, as long as its tagged correctly (there is a “rape” tag and a “non-con” tag). And, apparently, it’s okay to post stories about child sexual assault and pedophilia (there is a pedophilia tag over there, but I don’t know about child sexual assault).

So for a platform ostensibly founded with feminism and inclusivity in mind, I’m trying to wrap my brain around why a story like the one my fellow fans pointed out — that fetishizes an illegal act of horrific sexual violence against a woman who identifies as a lesbian — is an okay thing to have on said platform.

Let’s go back to Fiesler, et. al. to attempt to muddle through this.

The writers interviewed people who developed AO3, and the issue of content came up.

User interviewees were by and large extremely positive in their stories and attitudes about the archive. However, one user had a complaint serious enough that she considered stopping her use of the archive. The complaint was one of personal safety; she felt triggered by some of the content that she came across on AO3. However, as discussed earlier, an important formative value of the archive was its inclusiveness. As Naomi put it, in describing the need for an archive “of our own”:

We support everyone. We support the slash hiders. We support people writing explicit stuff. We support anybody writing anything that is legal. None of us were willing to give our time, frankly, to a site that didn’t have as one of its principles that “This is not my cake, but I will defend to the death your right to post your fanfic.” [NAOMI, AO3 developer]

This was the line drawn by OTW and AO3: that any content was allowed, so long as it was legal. This was in direct response to Livejournal’s policies that had led to fandom account deletions (having to do with their definitions of pornography) as well as to’s notoriously long list of not-allowed content (which included not allowing stories written based on books whose authors were against fan fiction). This user thought that AO3 had gone too far in the other direction, and is too permissive.

The authors continued that the difficulty developers and others involved with AO3 expressed was in drawing lines: “If not at legality, then where?” One developer pointed out that another fanfic site once drew the line at same-sex relationships (and thus would not post stories with such represented). Knowing that this tension would exist, and wanting to protect users from being triggered or stumbling across something they didn’t want to see, developers added required warnings for stories, which include major character death, rape, and underage sex, according to Fiesler et. al.

Intellectually, I think I get some of this. But I want to point out that there’s a big difference between writing rape as a traumatic experience that a character undergoes and unpacking that in the context of the narrative versus writing a rape scene simply as part of a fetish.

What value to fanfic do stories that portray rape for the sake of kink/fetishization actually lend the fanfic community? Or stories that portray pedophilia, necrophilia, or bestiality?


The Wiki about the Archive’s founding raises the point about pedophilia. Scroll down to “History:Some 2016 Fan Comments”.

So I’m still trying to understand what seems to me a disconnect. Here’s this great platform which on the back end involves feminist development and inclusivity but then allows content that encourages misogyny, rape culture, and pedophilia. And no doubt there are stories posted there that are violently racist, too. Not something I’ve searched for, so I don’t know, but let’s just assume that yeah, it’s probably there.

I also know that some stories — like the rape fic I mentioned above that has some of my fellow fans angry — might be a troll story. That is, a story posted by someone who doesn’t like a particular fandom and posts something horrific and egregious as a statement of some sort.

Have I mentioned that people suck?

I don’t have answers for this. My inclination is to not allow content like that on a platform that ostensibly is supposed to be “feminist” (and has users as young as 13, though anybody can read content without an account). But then we run into the problem of where do we draw the line? Because what if that content is banned and then there’s a turnover in the Archive volunteer staff and somebody homophobic gets in there and decides that F/F content should be banned?

The slippery slope argument could be made, here, but again, I’m still wrestling with how a feminist and “inclusive” platform is okay with content that is none of those things and in fact perpetuates systems and beliefs that move from online to offline spaces and back again, helping perpetuate awful-ness.

But Tumblr’s approach isn’t all that effective, either, because a lot of the people purged in “adult content” sweeps aren’t even engaging in it or sharing it but they might be openly LGBTQIA on the site and posting photos of same-sex couples dancing or holding hands or kissing or something and because anti-LGBTQIA forces have managed to sexualize everything about being LGBTQIA, algorithms just automatically purge that content from sites.

So here we are, in the land of WTFuckery.

I think I’m looking for some kind of livable medium between these two approaches, but I honestly don’t know what that would look like or even how to implement it because ultimately, it’s humans that are creating these platforms, and as a species, we are entirely fallible.

Having said that, let me throw something else into this vortex.

The Verge just did a piece in November titled “The online free speech debate is raging in fan fiction, too,” about AO3 and this “free speech” issue that I’m grappling with here. That piece has helped put some things into perspective for me — this debate is as old as fanfic (and even older than that).

From The Verge piece:

Across the web, platforms and their users are grappling with what digital speech should be protected and the potential links between rhetoric and action. On Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and YouTube, tech companies are struggling with where to draw lines around free speech and how to moderate and enforce those boundaries. How to limit speech in fiction, however, is a bit more nuanced: do TV shows about serial killers encourage people to commit murder? Does depicting fictional rape create real-life rapists?

The article notes that there’s a clash of expectations in these debates and conversations: the difference between an ARCHIVE and a COMMUNITY. Social media platforms are generally for-profit enterprises that struggle with speech issues but are also dealing with shareholders, growth, and ad sales. AO3 is an archive run by a nonprofit and from its perspective, it’s a repository, not a social media platform and not a social network and therefore, it’s not a community.

Matty Bowers, AO3’s chair on policy and abuse, told The Verge that

We really go out of our way to not define community standards. Sometimes we can’t help but influence them a bit — for instance, with the occasional tag-wrangling [a term referring to the descriptive standardization of subject tags implemented by moderators], but otherwise we do our best to curate fandoms, not define them … This, of course, is not what some parts of fandom want to hear. They feel like it should be our job to set standards for their communities. However, AO3 wasn’t designed this way, nor do we have any intentions of changing our policies.

In other words, AO3 is a receptacle (“archive”) that people throw WhateverTF into, and volunteers (it’s all volunteer) are not really in the business of being arbiters of content (unless said content is somehow illegal).

The Verge also talked to Stacey Lantagne, assistant professor of law at the University of Mississippi School of Law and volunteer for the Organization for Transformative Works Legal Committee. Lantagne tells her (?) students that with regard to free speech, you might have a right to say whatever, but you don’t have a right to be heard. And, Lantagne says, “I have a right to select which speech I am exposed to.” The AO3 tagging system, Lantagne says, “is better at helping you avoid what you don’t want than almost anything else I can think of.” (here’s the link to The Verge piece again).

The tagging system is like nothing I’ve come across, and it does allow you to filter accordingly.


I’m still grappling with certain kinds of content. And honestly, there are no easy answers here. I certainly don’t have any, even though The Verge piece did help with some perspective and because I’m a historian, I understand the premise behind archiving, though I’m not sure I agree with archiving certain things.

Regardless, these are issues we all face, as consumers of content and participants on platforms. Where do we — or do we at all — draw lines with regard to what’s on a platform? Or do we take an approach like AO3 and develop a system that allows consumers and users of said platform to filter out what they don’t want to see? What, though, are the long-term ramifications with regard to some of that content on- and offline?

I don’t know.

And right now, I think I’m going to go consume some TV instead.

Happy Friday and may The Force be with you.


One comment

Comments are closed.