How One Fanfic is Breaking AO3 (and Fandom)

Wangxian Fic Tags Fanfic AO3 Sexytimes

Ah, fanfic. You’ve gotten me through terrible times and I appreciate you for it! Unfortunately, one particular fic is causing a lot of people to have a terrible time and breaking the functionality of AO3, which we absolutely do not appreciate.

AO3 (Archive of Our Own) is one of the most prominent fanfic repositories on the Internet.  It’s so well known that even people who don’t dive too deeply into the world of fanfic have a general idea of what it’s about.  There are plenty of choices for publishing fanworks online, ranging from the old-school to Wattpad, but AO3 is my personal favorite, and my chosen venue for publishing my own works.  It’s even won some awards for how amazing it is.  A lot of people are drawn to AO3 because of the work they do to protect fanworks, the freedom the website allows with content, and the many useful features, such as being able to tag a work with helpful keyphrases.

Tagging is probably one of the best tools that both fanfic readers and writers have at their disposal on AO3.  If you tag a work with Stormpilot, for example, your work can be found by anyone cruising that tag.  My most frequent habit when getting into a new fandom is to seek out a ship tag, sort by kudos (which people leave on a fic to show they liked it, sort of like a thumbs up on Facebook), and then just start reading through the fic from there.  Once I’ve gone through a fair amount of the highly loved fics I switch over to sorting it by recent works and start reading all the new content that gets published within that tag.  This is a long standing habit with me made possible by the tagging system.

Tags can also be used if you want to warn people about potentially triggering content in your work, such as character death, violence, or even certain kinks.  AO3 has the added feature of warning for a couple of major archive warnings to easily filter out a wide range of fics, but you can also filter it out individually as well by using these tags.  I tend to avoid fics that have the tag “MCD” or “Major Character Death” because I just don’t like reading that type of content.  Likewise, I tend to filter out Alternate Universe fics as a genre, not because it triggers me, but just because I don’t enjoy that style fanfic.  Overall, it’s an incredibly useful tool for avoiding things as well as finding things.

Based on my own experiences, most fanfic tends to have anywhere from 3 to 30 tags, depending on the length of the work and how many major themes, pairings, and characters it covers.  Longer fics will likely have more tags as more topics are covered, but they still rarely top a few dozen at most.  For many years, this system has been functioning quite well.  Many of us have spent literally hundreds of hours cruising fic tags for content we’ll enjoy, and having an overall pleasant experience.  That is… until a certain over-tagged fic dropped into the Wangxian tag, which is the current most popular fandom on AO3, and broke the functionality of the system. 

Wei Wuxian and Lan Zhan from Mo Dao Zu Shi
Mo Dao Zu Shi danghua art

Instead of tagging the fic with just themes, ship names, or triggers, the author of Sexytimes with Wangxian has chosen to tag everything that happens in this fic, which has resulted in tags such as: mangos, dungeon, obsession, bread, grandmothers, good, hiccups, soup, pants, shorts, tea….  and so and and so forth for well over 1000 tags.  Some have estimated that the fic has over 3000 tags, but we’ve all spent so much time avoiding the fic that these are just estimations and we haven’t actually sat down to count them. There are more tags to this fic than there are words in many other fics overall, so you’d basically be spending the same amount of time doing this as you would reading a fic, and I just don’t want to do that honestly.  More power to you if you choose to do so.

There’s so many tags that someone created a bot to choose some at random.  What you choose to do with this bot is up to you, but you can use it as some sort of horoscope, writing prompt, madlib filler, or magic 8 ball.  For example, I just clicked on the bot and got: Underwear Theft, Forehead Touching, Chest Hair, Fire, Beach House.  Will I take inspiration from this and write a story involving these elements? I could. You could click on this bot hundreds of times and not get the same tag twice.  It’s absolutely wild.

The fic takes over 30 seconds to scroll past on mobile, which may not seem like long but it updates almost every other day, meaning it’s consistently at the top when sorted by the date fics are updated.  You basically have to deal with this fic every single time you open the Wangxian tag.  The list of tags grows longer with each and every update, which means our scrolling grows just a little bit longer each time.  I have not sat down and done the math, but at this time I’ve probably spent 20 or so minutes of my life just trying to scroll past the fic  while checking out what’s new in the Wangxian tag by now.  With how long these tags are getting and how frequently it updates, I’ll probably have spent an hour or so just scrolling past it within a couple months time. And with the amount of tags being used, many other people with other pairings are also wasting time just trying to get past it to new fic in their tags, which means more and more of us are having to deal with this monster every day.

Basically, this fic has destroyed the usage of many tags, a lot of which are hugely popular.  Is this that big of deal?  Perhaps not.  Thirty seconds every other night, while it adds up, is certainly not world shattering.  But there’s another component at work, too.  While the fanfic seems to tag everything the characters feel, touch, see, do, wear, and eat, along with every character interaction and pairing even if it’s tiny and in the background, it does not tag for trigger warnings.  That means that fans who haven’t been bothered by this brutal tagging system and continue reading the fic can potentially stumble into a triggering situation.  But honestly, if you were trying to find a trigger in those tags, you’d have a hell of a time finding it in this mess anyway, so perhaps this number of readers is relatively small, but it’s still a risk.

What is this fanfic even about? It appears to be a series of ‘oneshot’ fics, which basically means each chapter is self contained and doesn’t necessarily tie into the next one, though it certainly could.  Some may or may not relate to one another, but at well over a million words, I don’t think anyone in the fandom has actually read through the entire thing to figure out if there’s an overarching plot hidden within the prose.  There seemed to be a few fans in the beginning, but the comments on the fic (which have now been shut off and mostly deleted) switched from the usual supportive fannish comments to complaints about the tagging system as the absurdity of the situation grew. I honestly don’t know if anyone is even reading it anymore to explain what’s going on to the rest of us.

The situation appears to be about to get a heck of a lot worse, though.  The author has recently stated they are going to make this fanfic a crossover with several large fandoms, including My Hero Academia, Attack on Titan, Final Fantasy 7, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  That means literally tens of thousands of fic readers who haven’t had to deal with this tagging monstrosity are going to have it thrown into their tags very soon.  And, unless they are also in the Mo Dao Zu Shi fandom and have been keeping up with the situation, they probably have no idea it’s coming.  What tags in these fandoms are gonna get hit by Sexytimes with Wangxian? All of them, probably. Nobody is safe.

I’m so sorry to everyone in these other fandoms.  Your fanfic experience is about to get incredibly frustrating.  Thankfully, the Wangxian fandom has been dealing with this issue for quite some time and we have some work arounds.  If you’ve stumbled across this article looking for solutions, here’s a few:

I won’t be directly linking to the fic here, and if you seek it out yourself (it’s not hard to find), please don’t try to make contact with the author.  Many people have reached out to them already – many quite politely! – and the author has just chosen to double down, keep tagging more and more onto the fic, and threatened to report anyone who takes an issue with their tags to AO3 (which likely won’t lead to anything actionable, but is still a potential headache).  As a result, people have now begun harassing the author, which doesn’t do any good to anyone.  Yes, it’s annoying, but it’s not worth your time to throw harsh words at them because we’re frustrated.  If anything, it’ll just make them dig their heels in even more and we may never be free.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think the author started out to be intentionally malicious with these tags, though they’ve seemed to become so once they received pushback.  I feel this writer is probably young and unfamiliar with how the tagging system works.  Once they got some criticism, they just got worse, though, so your frustration and salty feelings towards them are pretty valid.  It’s just not worth the effort to try and ‘teach’ them how to use these tools, because they don’t seem to be interested in learning or engaging with wider fandom overall.  They are going to do what they’re going to do and there’s nothing we can do about it.

The staff of AO3 has also been notified about the struggles this fic is causing, and how it’s essentially breaking the carefully curated tagging system, but no action has been taken at this time.  The staff of AO3 is full of volunteers, however, so I can’t really blame them for not taking immediate action and creating a new feature all because of one single fic.  They’ve got a lot to do already so whatever.  I wouldn’t bother reaching out to them again unless something new happens with this fic.  The people who run the website are aware of what’s going on.  They may even be working on it behind the scenes, or it may not be a priority.  Whatever you do, don’t blame them for this mess.  The people that run AO3 are fandom heroes, after all, and they don’t deserve your ire for what someone else has chosen to do on their website.

At this point the best thing you can do is to use one of the above workarounds and wait for the author to eventually get bored and move on.  We’re watching a bit of fandom lore take shape, and while it’s very frustrating for anyone in these tags and potentially triggering for the readers still following the fic, there’s nothing else we can do about it.  Look at it as being on the ground floor of something that could be remembered with the same sense of awe and humor as My Immortal.  Years from now we can look back at this and say “hey, I was there when that mess was unfolding! What a wild time!” But for now, we just have to use the custom skin or plugins, or prepare for an extra few minutes of scrolling every week as we cruise our fic tags.  We’ll survive.  Annoyed as heck, sure, but we’ll get through.

To the other fandoms about to get dragged into this nonsense, welcome to the party! I’m sorry, but you’re in good company at least.  Hopefully this article provided some help for you to make your fanfic reading experience a little easier, and you can get back to your reading.  Your OTP awaits! And now you have the tools to make enjoying them a little easier.  Happy reading!

Author: Angel Wilson

Angel is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. They earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. They have contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. They identify as queer.

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14 thoughts on “How One Fanfic is Breaking AO3 (and Fandom)

  1. Thank you for this explanation! I’d heard about the fic that was breaking A03, and thought it was because it was a mega-fandom where people were completely excited for the updates. I’m kind of glad I’m not missing something big…but disappointed that the tagging system’s being used in this way. 🙁

  2. Collections of oneshots posted as one fic seem to be one of the weaker elements on AO3 at the best of times – this one just seems to be taking it to ridiculous new lengths. I assume people do it in the first place to catch people sorting by wordcount?

    1. I think so too. And by Kudos and views and comments. Basically they want to rank at the top however people search for fic and throwing unrelated oneshots together seem to be their primary strategy in doing so. It’s annoying.

      Thankfully with most of them I can scroll past in like 2 seconds. But not this monstrosity! Oh no. This one demands our time *sigh*

  3. When I have to scroll past a few dozen tags per fic on search results on my phone, I’m annoyed. This almost seems to be a statement about that, like “you want lots of scrolling past tags? OK be that way”

  4. I might not mind so much if they weren’t being so irredeemably ableist about it. It’s been civilly pointed out to them exactly how much worse it is to have to scroll through (because using most screen readers, one can’t simply bypass something like this fic) all their tags just to move past the story, which could, as someone has pointed out, take as long as reading an actual fic (it may even have been you, but my memory is that bad) … and they really don’t seem to care. Not even a little.

    I think what they’re doing may finally get OTW to enable user or work blocking, which people have been pleading for to be able to avoid harassment and bigots for a while now (which has painful implications about what that may take), but, I don’t believe that that’s a result they intended. Had it been so, I suspect they’d have been more likely to give a toss about the impact their story is having on accessibility for disabled site users and, as I’ve said already, they’ve made it very clear they don’t care a whole lot about that — if at all.

    The people trolling in the backlash are only making life harder for everyone, too. There are a limited number of volunteers involved with AO3, whether on the abuse teams or tag wranglers, and most aren’t able to spend all day every day managing or working through problems such as these. If anybody wants to get attention to the problem of the original story by doing this, this is NOT the way to do it. All this will do is make it less likely they’ll be able to fight through the onslaught of new complaints and the like. *smh*

    (P. S. Issue with the site: when viewing in mobile browser one can’t click to subscribe to comments or posts. I had to save my comment, switch to desktop view and re-enter it all just to be able to click them. I’m using Chrome for Android, if it helps, but I figured you might want to know.)

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