Over the weekend fanfiction website Archive of our Own went down, to the dismay of fanfic readers everywhere. While it’s not the result of any one fic, despite what some fans thought, it’s a reflection of how much the pandemic has changed our fanfiction reading habits.
Archive of our Own is a website to archive transformative works, also known as fanfiction. Fanfiction uses the fictional boundaries of someone else’s fiction in order to tell new stories with those characters and in those universes. While fanfiction is mostly associated with lovesick, teenage Twilight fans who insert themselves into their favorite novels, fanfiction and the associated cultural force of fandom has become the default view of what it means to be a fan. For some fans, especially in particularly online fandoms, reading fanfiction and reacting to it is a huge part of how they express their fandom. Over time, Archive of Our Own has been recognized as both a very popular website and a culturally important one, eventually winning a Hugo Award for best related work.
Over the weekend, Archive of Our Own went down, much to the surprise and chagrin of people who were in the middle of their fics. The beleaguered posting from people who were hoping to relax with the two new chapters of fanfiction like the Mandalorian fic “Rough Day” were funny enough. I only knew about the outage because Kotaku writer Ash Parrish was lamenting that she’d planned an entire night of relaxing with fanfiction, only for the site to go down. She was joined by a chorus of fans who’d had similar plans:
It seemed that fans of one fic in specific were laughing hardest, and taking the blame for tanking the site.
The fic “Heat Wave,” which is about two real life Minecraft content creators, was updated at almost the exact moment that the site went down, leading people to believe that eager fans accidentally made the site go down in their rush to read the new chapter.
Despite how funny that is, that’s not exactly what happened, even if AO3 referenced it in a tongue in cheek tweet. People have been reading so much more fanfiction of all kinds in the past couple of months as they’ve been stuck indoors that the site couldn’t take it anymore.
“An author writing a popular fic in the Minecraft fandom updated their work around the time the problems began and posted a tongue-in-cheek reply to our AO3 Status update saying they were sorry,” Archive of Our Own communications staffer Claudia Rebaza told Motherboard. “‘Heat Waves’ is the third most kudosed [“kudos” are function like Twitter “likes” on the site] fic on the AO3 at the moment and has a big following, so the idea of the quick response to it having an effect isn’t surprising! However, it was not responsible for the slowdown.”
In traffic data shared with Motherboard, Rebaza pointed to the sheer volume of users who are accessing the site, which has grown in particular in the past couple of months. From September to October, the site jumped from 1.4 billion pageviews per month to 1.5, held more or less steady through November, and then jumped again in December to a total of 1.7 billion pageviews.
Although Rebaza said that end of year holidays and the Hugo win were contributors to this general rise of traffic, as well as a growing international fanfiction scene. Archive of Our Own had noted the growth from the pandemic back in a blog post from May. All in all, traffic has been so high in general that one specific fic can’t make the kind of impact that would bring the site down.
“We have been seeing rising traffic all year, and this has particularly spiked over the holidays.” Rebaza said. These holidays have been busier than usual, with a few days where over 10,000 works were posted when the site normally averages three or four.
“We also, a few months ago, passed our 3 millionth registered user, but most of our visitors do not have accounts,” Rebaza continued. “As of November 2020 we passed over 14 million unique visitors a month, and are now reaching some 440 million page views per week. So a single work, however popular, might cause a blip in page views but definitely is not responsible for affecting the archive as a whole.”
It’s not surprising that people are extra bored right now. We don’t have to recover from holiday travel because we have all been at home, as we have been every goddamn day for what feels like 300 years. People have so much time to actually finish the shows you start watching, if one has become a particular comfort and you’ve watched it all, seeking out fanfiction might be a new way to prolong that pleasure. I got into fanfiction during the long waits for new Harry Potter books, reading novel length fiction that I’d eventually like more than the actual series. If you’re new to Archive of Our Own, I hope you discover your own longtime, beloved fanfiction, like my personal favorite Harry Potter fic, the Shoebox Project, or at least enjoy the latest chapter of Heat Waves.
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