Archive of Our Own has always been more than the hottest fanfiction destination on the internet. In 2007, after years of struggling with fragmentation, lack of preservation, and legal threats, a group of fanfic creators came together to launch a nonprofit dedicated to tackling those issues.
They built the Organization for Transformative Works, and crated Archive of Our Own as the arm intended for other creators to be able to host their work in a secure, accessible, and permanent way. As well as AO3, OTW hosts a wiki for preserving fan-related culture, an academic journal, and a project dedicated to importing and preserving other fanworks called Open Doors.
For most of fandom history, fanfic works were difficult to find and easy to lose, either to lack of upkeep or to cease and desist letters. Since the creation of AO3, few people have had to worry about any of that. And Open Doors is ensuring that less of the pre-OTW history is being lost to time. Which, most recently, has come in the form of announcing the import of one of the most significant fan sites online: the Kirk/Spock Fanfiction Archive.
Created by a Star Trek fan who goes by Killa in 2004, the Kirk/Spock Fanfiction Archive hosts thousands of fanfictions, as well as poems and other creative works focusing on the relationship between Captain Kirk and First Officer Spock. It flourished for many years despite using a backend platform that quickly went obsolete. Now it’s being preserved and protected by moving everything over to AO3.
“I found my way to fandom via Usenet groups in 1994,” says Killa. “Around 1999 or 2000, the groups started getting really splintered … it started to become a culture where there was a lot of infighting.”
With all kinds of Star Trek fans collected in one place, people began to argue, Killa says. Some had been in the fandom since the ’70s, and thought that zines were inherently better than anything found online. Others split along lines that will be very familiar to anyone in fandom — “these characters are or should be in a relationship” versus “no they shouldn’t.”
“Mailing lists alleviated [the arguments] a little bit, but it also just led to more fragmentation,” says Killa. “I was getting really tired because I was interested in everything about Kirk and Spock. I wanted to read gen [non-romantic and non-sexual] stories; I wanted to read slash [relationship-focused] stories; I wanted to participate with all those fans, and that was becoming very, very difficult to do.”
And so she created the Kirk/Spock Fanfiction Archive. Users could create an account and share any creative work that focused on the pair, or browse to read what others had posted. And it had two key features that she hoped would fit her purposes: it was as inclusive as possible, and it would allow people to categorize their work and search for only what they wanted to see.
True to its goals, the Archive bridged many gaps within the fandom. Killa and some helpers brought stories online for authors who did not yet use the web, for instance, and translated others. When the Star Trek reboot movies started arriving in 2009, she quickly decided to welcome new fans who had those as their introduction to the Star Trek universe.
But eFiction, the platform that the Archive was hosted on, stopped updating in 2005. From that point on, Killa had been looking for someone to take over its upkeep. Fourteen years later, the Archive finally crashed and became inaccessible. A friend, who was paying for hosting had to go through “a Herculean effort” with the ancient software to restore it to a previous version, Killa says. “Some stories were lost. At that point was when I got really serious about [preserving it].”
Killa says that she had previously reached out to Open Doors, a sister project to AO3 that coordinates the maintenance of fan content that would otherwise be at risk by bringing it over to AO3. But after running into an Open Doors staff member known as Libraralien at a con in 2020, she renewed her efforts. The rescue project was announced in July.
Another Open Doors staffer, Yrindor, says moderators or fans reach out and ask for their sites to be preserved for any number of reasons. “It can be cases where moderators say ‘I don’t have the time to commit to this anymore.’ Or say ‘I’m getting older, I’m not going to be around forever — what’s going to happen in the future?’ It can also be infrastructure or software; maybe they aren’t able to pay the hosting costs anymore.”
They explain that the preservation itself can be a lengthy process. Firstly, Open Doors agrees terms with the owner of the original archive. Every rescue is slightly different; for example the collection created on AO3 might be open to new works, or it might be preserved as it was at the time of the import. Then, there’s a public announcement and a waiting period while the original authors are contacted to get permission to save their work.
This is where the Kirk/Spock Fanfiction Archive is currently at. “I still have almost 200 authors who haven’t replied, and I don’t know what’s going to happen to those works,” Killa says.
For those that Open Doors do have permission to import, Yrindor is hoping they will be able to semi-automate the process of moving over the Archive’s approximately 6000 works, since eFiction is a standardized system. But this isn’t always the case. Some archive backends require Open Doors staff and volunteers to manually carry over every piece of work. And some of the archives they have rescued have had tens of thousands of stories posted. The process can take years — Harry Potter site Fiction Alley’s rescue was announced in July 2018, and is still ongoing despite using some automation.
The Kirk/Spock Fanfiction Archive isn’t the first piece of Star Trek fan history that Open Doors has saved. In 2020, for example, it rescued most of the zine Side by Side, the online Kirk/Spock zine that published 23 issues between 2001 and 2007. Unlike the Kirk/Spock Fanfiction Archive, its focus wasn’t on tagging and searchability, but taking submissions from authors and artists and gathering them together for publication as an offline zine would.
The rescue is a process that tries to give people a peek into what earlier fandom was like. Yrindor noted that they make all imported fics searchable like usual, but they also host them in discreet collections. “So if you wanted a sort of snapshot in time, what did this part of fandom, in this place [look like]? What sort of things were they writing? You can see that just by looking within this collection and the information there,” they say.
It’s not a perfect system. If you visit the original online version of Side By Side, you get a fuller picture than the version in AO3’s collection. For example, the disclaimer at the top that states “This site contains homosexual EROTICA, of the male/male variety,” hasn’t been carried over, as basically everyone who visits AO3 knows there’s explicit gay fanfiction on there. It needs to be tagged appropriately, but it doesn’t need a headline warning. In this way, archives of sites from the 2000s demonstrate just how much things have changed.
But AO3 importing fanworks still helps keep much of earlier fan culture available. “Even the big corporations have issues with long term preservation,” Yrindor says, bringing up Yahoo Groups, which shuttered in 2019, causing the Open Doors Project to step in to save some of the content that would otherwise have been deleted. “But fan culture in general isn’t something that has the big corporations behind it,” they note, putting it even more at risk of being lost.
“It’s always very satisfying when I see fans who say ‘oh, I really loved something there. I’m happy I’ll be able to access it again,’” says Yrindor. “Or we might have fans who are coming in with certain expectations of what a website looks like that they’re not gonna find on something built 10, 15, 20 years ago. So [it’s] a way to make that more accessible to people; you can still find the works without needing to understand all sorts of different platforms and search functionalities.”
While the Open Doors Project is committed to saving archives of all kinds, the Kirk/Spock Fanfiction Archive is particularly significant. When people talk about fandom, Star Trek and particularly the ship are often credited with being the origin of many aspects of modern fan spaces. But its history and influence are not simple to trace. With a fandom older than the internet, and the fragmentation previously described by Killa, much of the work is no longer accessible.
One thing that is clear, however, is that the Star Trek fandom took off because it was one of the first to make use of the infrastructure newly available to it. “It’s an emblematic fandom for the mass communication era,” says Claudia Rebaza, an OTW staff member. “There have been groups of fans for many things for a long time,” she says, pointing to Sherlock Holmes as an earlier example, “but there’s no doubt that multimedia created a boom in fan activities, as did the fact that it was easier for people to gather and communicate around a common interest.
Killa, too, credits infrastructure for allowing fan hubs to grow during this era. “That might mean … wikis, or discussion groups, or meetups and clubs. But when it comes to fanworks it likely means communities. Events like fests and exchanges, recommendation lists and archives, and people spreading the word that if you like X then Y is the place to visit.”
Star Trek was one of the first communities to facilitate these connections on a large scale. “So if you’re one of the early fandoms creating a lot of firsts, then whatever that fandom centers on will influence other fandoms down the line,” Killa says. “Because the people who built or saw how infrastructure was handled and created in the Trek fandom would go on to influence many other fandoms in the coming years.”
“I’d be willing to bet that a number of people involved in the OTW’s creation were at some point fans of Star Trek, and perhaps even [Kirk/Spock] shippers,” Rebaza guesses. “Those influences would lead to things like how AO3 was set up and how it functions because there would be assumptions about what people would want from it.” Killa, who says she “happened to be present at the original conversation that led to the Archive of Our Own,” independently corroborated this. “One of the women who started [AO3] is one of the first people I met in fandom. So you know, I think that we just kind of grew in the same evolution together.”
Star Trek’s longevity as the internet era grew also allowed it to be “ahead of its time,” Killa says. “There were [Usenet] communities for writing fanfic for Star Trek before you could find pretty much anything else. So if you were looking for something fannish, a lot of times that was the first thing you found.” She and Rebaza both recalled entering online fandom spaces around the era of Deep Space Nine, and from there finding groups dedicated to earlier Star Trek series. Welcomittees were another keystone of the era, helping fans to find one another.
But Star Trek was not the first franchise to have a Welcomittee, zines, or conventions. Rebaza points to The Man from U.N.C.L.E as another key fandom in the era, for example. What did make it stand out was one key thing: the popularization of slash.
The term “slash” was a longstanding term for fanfic that depicted sexual or romantic relationships, and gradually came to specifically refer to those between people of the same gender. (Usually men — the equivalent term for women was sometimes “femslash.”) Though it has somewhat fallen out of vogue recently, the convention of distinguishing between romantic and/or sexual content with the “/” and friendship-only content with “&” remains widespread, including in AO3’s tagging conventions. This, of course, primarily comes from early fans distinguishing between “Kirk/Spock” and “Kirk & Spock.”
Killa and Rebaza, as well as many other writers across the decades, attribute the popularity of Kirk/Spock and the subsequent explosion of slash fic to the prevalence of women in the Star Trek fandom. “Media fandom as we experience it, where people are writing and creating fanworks and sharing and participating in those types of communities — it was women who identified with Spock who started the whole thing,” says Killa. “When [people] say that Star Trek is the birthplace of fandom, they’re really talking about our strongly female-influenced media branch of fandom.”
“Being half-human [and half-Vulcan], his place in his world and his struggles to maintain a sense of identity was something that was fascinating to people,” Rebaza says. “There has been a good deal written about how he particularly appealed to women, not just in terms of being sexually attractive but as a stand-in for many women who also found themselves misunderstood and struggling to establish their place in workplaces and the culture generally.”
“It was scientific and mathematically minded women who didn’t see themselves represented. It was Black women who didn’t see themselves represented. All these people that were suddenly having a character [they] could relate to because he was not masculine-coded,” says Killa. “But he was, you know, probably sexually attractive to most of them,” she adds.
It was likely this combination of relatability and attractiveness that led fans to wanting to explore Spock’s potential relationships, particularly with Captain Kirk. “The two were lead characters and had a close bond,” says Rebaza. Many fans across Star Trek’s 50-plus year history would say that this is an understatement, and expressed that by creating their own work to explore their relationship.
“Although a good deal of early fiction [featuring Kirk and Spock] was neither sexually explicit nor even always specifically romantic, there’s no doubt that many writers wanted to step beyond what was already a strong friendship forged under often dire circumstances,” she says.
But at the time, these slash fics were very far from the openly discussed genre that they are in today’s fanfiction. At first, the tradition was one that took place deeply underground. “There was tremendous demand for these stories even if their nature sometimes meant literally exchanging zines and mimeographed stories under tables,” says Rebaza.
She says that Kirk/Spock may have gained a little more openness when Gene Roddenberry alluded to the interest in the novelization of the first Trek film in 1979. He wrote that Spock thought of Kirk as his t’hy’la, noting that the word could mean “friend,” “brother,” or “lover.” It goes on to suggest that “Kirk has had sexual experiences with many beings that are not human women,” Rebaza summarizes. Though it did ultimately deny any romantic connection between the pair, fans typically saw this as an acceptance that the ship was an open secret in the fandom, leading to a greater willingness to be public with their opinions.
“As a result, the longer reaching impact is that writers of [Kirk/Spock] in Trek fandom went on to write other [male-male] pairings in other fandoms, and fans in other fandoms were aware of what Trek was doing and created their own publications and slash groups,” says Rebaza.
However, due to potential IP issues, fanworks were still carefully guarded when Killa joined their circles in the ’90s. “When I first got into the Kirk/Spock fandom it was very under the table. You did not get in unless you knew somebody. … You don’t ever post about it online, you don’t ever talk to anyone who doesn’t come referred by a friend.”
She recalled the story of attending a 1995 Trek convention, where she wanted to attend a room party for Kirk/Spock fans. “People literally barricaded the door and said ‘you girls are in the wrong place.’ … They thought that we had just come in by accident.”
When she started the Kirk/Spock Fanfiction Archive, she says “it felt risky.” As a result, she had a policy of not taking any money for her work, which she thinks may have kept her out of trouble. (AO3 also has strict rules preventing authors from asking for compensation.) “I think I’ve been very lucky that nothing has impacted me personally. I have friends who’ve had IP issues, cease and desist letters, things like that.”
This was one of the key issues that OTW wanted to tackle through its creation of AO3. “They have lawyers,” Killa summarizes. “And money.”
Another key goal for AO3 was to tackle “the way the rapid development of the Internet meant that locations where fans gathered and created were often short-term and cared nothing for the continued existence of their hosted content,” Rebaza says. In many ways it expanded on the same framework as the Kirk/Spock archive — an all-inclusive site that nonetheless allowed for robust tagging and searching. But this one was for all ships, and all fandoms.
AO3 had such an impact that Killa says she finds it difficult to remember exactly how things were before its conception. “[Things] changed so quickly when AO3 became a reality that it’s hard to even remember back to the way that we thought about things then.”
But she does summarize the piecemeal upkeep of earlier fanworks as a matter of fortune. “Somebody has the specific passion for the specific kind of archiving and then it happens, and we’re just lucky that there are enough people out there that each little piece has a chance of being preserved,” she says.
With AO3’s status as a central hub for current fanworks, their dedication to hosting them long term, and their lawyers, there won’t be such a need for luck. In the meantime, Open Doors is doing what it can to preserve what passion has carried as far as today.