This month the Organization for Transformative Works turns 15! As part of the celebrations, we’re publishing a special 5 Things post with one of our founders, Francesca Coppa. In this post, you can read Francesca’s memories about the early days of the OTW, and the challenges that the organization has faced since then. We’re also hosting a trivia contest (available only in English) and a fanworks challenge. If you’d like to know more, please visit the English version of the OTW’s anniversary post.
Every month or so the OTW will be doing a Q&A with one of its volunteers about their experiences in the organization. The posts express each volunteer’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the OTW or constitute OTW policy.
How does what you have done as a volunteer fit into what the OTW does?
I have had so many different roles in the OTW since we started in 2007. Before we were even an organization, I was in charge of organizing all the many, many fans who declared that they were willing to volunteer. Then I was five years on the Board during which I did Communications, helped to set up Open Doors, and worked on Fan Video and Multimedia.
I got drafted to keep track of the wireframes of the archive back when we were still working on designing the user experience of AO3; that was fun and something outside my normal expertise! Nowadays I work more on the aca-legal end of things; I write arguments (e.g. I worked on the Dr. Seuss/Star Trek case) and give testimony when OTW Legal needs me to, and I also work with Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC), scouting out papers and reviewing. Communications also knows that I’m around if needed, and I still do interviews and give background on fandom to journalists so that they’re oriented. (Though so many journalists are themselves fans now, which helps so much!)
What is a typical week like for you as a volunteer now?
The work I do is much more seasonal than weekly. TWC continues to put out two (and sometimes three!) peer-reviewed issues a year which is just incredible; as I always point out, there are university funded journals with paid staff that don’t have that kind of track record! Most journals last only a couple of years and then peter out, but we’re still going strong. The aca-legal side is very deadline-focused; things come up and need fast responses. (Shout out to the continuing amazing OTW Legal as well, who really ensure that we have a voice in legal issues that affect us.)
When you look back to the OTW’s beginning, what surprises you the most about where the OTW is now?
That there are some people–even people who love us–who don’t realize that the OTW is a fannish project, not a business! That it was cooked up by a bunch of fans who’d had enough of being screwed over by market forces! I guess a lot of fans now honestly don’t remember the pre-capitalist internet; they assume that anything on the web is a business. And the OTW’s nonprofit model might be confusing to some–because fandom does pay to keep it running, just not everyone pays.
The OTW fundraises so that those who can pay support those who can’t, on the model of U.S. public TV or radio, and everyone can use our projects regardless of whether they can afford to. But I think there are people who honestly can’t believe that something this big and successful (and I mean all of OTW, not just AO3 but also TWC and OTW Legal, writing amicus briefs and being recognized by the government as an important body etc.) operates outside the market. We pay for (and actually own) the servers, but all the labor is donated by fandom, from the Board on down. And to be honest, the labor is what’s priceless, not just economically (though economically!) but also in terms of the passionate investment that fandom makes in the org. The OTW is something that a lot of people wished into being and worked to make happen; it’s a boat we built ourselves and it only works because new people continue to step up and work to make it work.
What makes you feel the proudest about your own accomplishments in the OTW?
The looks on my students’ faces when they learn that I was involved in forming the OTW. All of a sudden, I’m a rockstar! They all have AO3 accounts. I can remember a past when I was worried about people finding out about my involvement in fandom, and now my college promotes it as a feature: The AO3 won a Hugo!
What thing (or set of things) has been the most challenging about the OTW’s development?
Oh jeez. There were and still are challenges. When your labor is donated, there’s always a tension between what needs doing and what people like to do, want to do, or are good at doing. And not surprisingly, a lot of people don’t want to volunteer using the same sort of skills they use in their day job; they want a break from work! But there’s an old saying that the gardener plays piano for fun, and the pianist gardens. I’ve always thought that fandom is a lot like that, and the OTW, too.
I’m sincerely moved by what the OTW team does, that so many people turn up and make things happen. I think the talent and the responsiveness of the OTW is actually pretty astounding for an organization where nobody gets paid. And fandom knows it, too–we do better in my opinion than most if not all for-profit sites, and we’re more professional than most not-for-profit sites. (Not that we’re perfect, far from, but people who complain never point at who’s doing it better, because nobody is: some problems are just hard problems.)
That said, now that we’re so big, when I think about the future…like, in my opinion, the next level up for us isn’t a “little” more money than we’re raising, it’s magnitudes more money, a whole other scale of money. It’s a little like (some of you reading this will know what I mean) when someone asks you what you want for your birthday, and you’re like, “Nothing” but what you really mean is, “Nothing you could give me for my birthday–I need, like, a couch. I need to have the house repainted. I need a new transmission for the car.”
And even if we were to raise that kind of money, well–as the great Cyndi Lauper wisely noted, “Money changes everything.” If we had an OTW with a lot of paid employees that we could order to do things, it wouldn’t be the same kind of organization. So, I don’t know, but we’ve done really really well so far by any reasonable metric (she says with intense pride) and that there’s no reason we won’t continue to do well. Fandom re-imagines, regenerates, and invents; it’s what we do!
What fannish things do you like to do?
Fandom is honestly less things that I do and more like the place that I live; I settled here and I’ve lived here now for, like, forty years? It’s my town! Fans are my neighbors, and I’ve known some of them for decades, and sometimes new people move in and others move out. So, I mean–yes, sure, I still read and write and beta fic, and I watch vids in fandoms that interest me, but I also feel like a citizen of fandom, sitting on my front porch, watching what’s happening without always having to do it myself. I take an interest, is what I’m saying; I want to know what the big fandoms are, I want to get the jokes, speak the language: I want to recognize all the blorbos even if I’m not fannish about those shows.
I think I’m drawing the line at TikTok though. (Sigh…but I’ve said that before, so, you know: never say never.)
Now that our volunteer’s said five things about what they do, it’s your turn to ask one more thing! Feel free to ask about their work in the comments. Or if you’d like, you can check out earlier Five Things posts.