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  • Writer's pictureJessica Porter

The Fanfic Terrorizing AO3 Users

Users are questioning AO3's open and permissive stance toward moderation after "Sexy Times with Wangxian" fic threatens usability of the entire platform.

The Story Behind the Controversy

The controversy started when AO3 user virtual1979 posted "Sexy Times with Wangxian", an erotic fanfiction based on The Untamed tv series. The story featured 279 chapters and a total of over a million words—the equivalent of 12 average-sized novels.

What separated the story from others on the site was an extremely overzealous use of tags. The fanfic was tagged with over 1700 keywords, including everything from "Sexual Fantasy" and "Smut" to nonsensical or irrelevant tags like "Snow Angels", "Fish & Chips", and "Gay Chicken.

All 1700+ tags for "Sexy Times with Wangxian", made smaller to show in one single screen.
Above: The full tags list for "Sexy Times with Wangxian", shown at 33% of normal PC screen size.

Since AO3 doesn't put a limit on the number of tags they allow per story, this strategy didn't violate any platform rules, but it did cause major headaches for users. When the story would appear in search, users' screens would be flooded with hundreds and hundreds of tags. Readers on PC could pass by these relatively quickly, but mobile users would end up effectively trapped in an endless scroll. This would render many searches relatively useless and, in effect, break the functionality of the site.

Users also complained that it hindered accessibility for disabled users, like those who may use screen readers or other assistive technology.

Who is to Blame?

Frustrated users asked the author, virtual1979, to remove the excessive tags, but they have refused to do so and have since added even more tags. Some believe that the author has responded to the pushback with more intentionally troll-like behavior. Despite the frustrations caused, it's important to acknowledge that the author has technically operated within the rules of the platform in their tagging strategy.

In an interview with Vox, virtual1979 said that the responsibility lies on the site creators and moderators, and not the authors, to create a working, accessible site. AO3, on the other hand, has had a long-standing hands-off style of moderation, which puts most of the responsibility on the reading and writing community to self-monitor.

AO3 has a history of widely permissive policies and a general anti-censorship policy, but is only now being confronted with the complications that come with such an approach. They're now being forced to answer a question they've been avoiding for a long time: How should fanfiction handle censorship to avoid bad actors?

Community Backlash

Many users have complained that the story has made the site completely unusable and are looking to AO3 to manage the issue.

In an attempt to counteract the effects of the tagging overload, many writers have created blank stories with the same title or instructional stories about how to block the fic from searches.

An End to "Sexy Times"?

After the substantial backlash and media coverage, AO3 unceremoniously removed "Sexy Times with Wangxian" from their platform. It is unclear if the story was restricted in some way, possibly marked private, or actually deleted.

Removing the fic rather than dealing with the larger issue of how to handle trolling is the safe move for AO3. Since the platform has already gotten significant pushback over their handling of racist, triggering, or objectionable content, any moves to drastically change their policies would likely be seen as prioritizing this problem over more serious societal issues.

AO3 will inevitably have a reckoning with these questions, and it's only a matter of time before they're obligated to integrate more filtering options for users. In the meantime, the move to pull "Sexy Times.." is a sort of kick-the-can approach that puts off the problem for now, but fails to address it to the degree that is truly needed.

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