OTW Guest Post: Wenzhan

Every month the OTW hosts guest posts on our OTW News accounts to provide an outside perspective on the OTW or aspects of fandom. These posts express each individual’s personal views and do not necessarily reflect the views of the OTW or constitute OTW policy.

Wenzhan(文栈) created SOSAD.FUN, a website for writers using Chinese to share their stories and receive feedback. Wenzhan taught herself programming to make the website and has been maintaining it in her spare time since. Today, Wenzhan shares a perspective that combines her experience as a reader and writer of both original and fan fiction stories, and as a website founder.

How did you first find out about fandom and fanworks?

I thought I was familiar with fandom and fanworks before I even knew the word “fandom” existed. When I was a kid, one of my friends would share with me her comic book collection, and together we would sit down and draw the scenes and the characters. Later, when the Harry Potter series became popular, I accidentally came across a translated story revolving around Harry but not happening in the official story line. In the story, a war survivor adult Harry time travels back to the beginning of the story, reversing regrets with a mature mind while struggling to hide his knowledge and abilities as an adult.

Just as I was very much dragged into the story and eager to learn what would happen next, to my greatest dismay, the translator disappeared. Apparently, the official Harry Potter ending would soon be available in bookstores, yet to me, this fan created parallel world somehow presented some additional appeal. I tried my best to find out where it came from, and finally, I found the author’s profile on a website full of mysterious foreign words that I could only recognize with the help of a dictionary (I remember it having a lot of blue on the page and I guess it was from Fanfiction.net).

To my astonishment, it was not the translator’s fault — it was that the fandom author had not finished the story. Years later, after finishing the official Harry Potter series in books and movies, and encountering many other fandom stories, I still couldn’t forget that specific story. I had once spent days and nights to locate its ending yet it was very unlikely I would ever be able to do so.

How did the Sosad.fun site get started?

In 2017, after a couple of years writing short stories as a hobby, I felt a loss for direction in my writing. Perhaps it was because I’ve never taken any creative writing courses in school, so I looked for a writing platform where I could openly communicate with others and receive direct feedback on how to better convey the stories that were once only in my mind. I tried many existing platforms and spoke with my writer friends, only to find out that there wasn’t any platform that could fulfill my needs. It was also not just me — many of my friends who write in Chinese also tried and failed to find such a website.

Therefore, I came up with a crazy idea: What if I created a platform that I as a writer would want to use? One that could be inclusive, diverse, friendly, and encourage creativity? My writer friends patiently listened to my plan and said, frankly, that it sounded like a writers’ utopia but practically speaking, would have little hope to survive, taking into consideration the big environment. More importantly, none of us knew how to build a website nor afford a professional service.

Yet, after carefully weighing the conditions, I believed that the technical difficulties were, compared to other difficulties, something that I could overcome by myself. So,I picked an online tutorial and started learning programming. Two months later, I deployed a self-made, very simple, some could even call it ugly, website where registered users could post a couple of sentences to the homepage. I showed it to my friends to prove that what I want to do was not easy but, at least, possible. That’s where the SOSAD.FUN project started.

Starting from there, since there’s someone among us who could almost code, instead of limiting ourselves to the structure and functions of an existing website framework, we brainstormed unique features that would make this the place what we wanted it to be. For example, one innovative function we have on this website is that every book can be converted between two modes, a “library” mode where readers can focus on reading one chapter after another consecutively, and a “forum” mode where the readers can find all the discussions about this book with a clear timeline. This later proved to be one of the favored features among our users. We also came up with something called “homework”, where users can register for a month-long workshop where they would be creating a short story based on a given keyword and receiving feedback from each other to improve their writing.

In the next couple of months, I coded these features, and improved the overall user experience. In November 2017, the SOSAD.FUN website was finally deployed online. Though now we have over 400,000 users, in the first 6 months, there were only a total of about 200 users and no more than a couple of new posts daily. It wasn’t until the end of spring 2018 that we started to be noticed on social media and the user base surged. That’s how SOSAD.FUN got started three years ago.

Fandom and fanworks (“同人”) may mean something different to fans elsewhere in terms of what they consider original or fanfiction. How would you describe these concepts as they apply to your site?

As far as I know fanfiction may mean different things. A narrower meaning of fanfiction may apply to any creative work based on an original story of someone else’s. A broader definition of fanfiction may include everything that is created mostly out of shared love for the community instead of solely for commercial purposes.

On SOSAD.FUN, as you can see on the homepage, obviously the narrower definition applies, as one of the channels is for “Original Novels” and there’s another channel for “Fan Fictions”. Yet speaking for the entire site, all of the novels are posted by their authors to share with the community, and therefore I believe, they somehow all share a similar core value with the broader definition of fanfiction. SOSAD.FUN as a platform tries its best to not divide its users into segregated groups. In its library, users are able to select and filter only “original” or “fanfic” stories. But on the other hand, the default index includes both types of stories. This is important because it increases the chance that an original story may be seen, read and liked by the readers who usually only read fanfiction, and vice versa.

On SOSAD.FUN, many authors post both original novels and fan fictions, and many readers include both types of stories in their personal book collection.

What sorts of challenges have you faced in running the site?

There are definitely a ton of struggles and difficulties we have faced or are solving through the creation and maintenance of the SOSAD.FUN website, from scratch. I will be describing three major kinds in the following paragraphs.

Firstly, technical difficulties. Since its creation, the SOSAD.FUN project has been refactored multiple times to make it secure, stable and adaptable for future functions. We have had to migrate our database a couple of times to finally settled down on a service provider that can actually deal with our visitor peaks and filter out potential attacks. We had encountered situations where hackers broke through our CAPTCHA system and registered accounts for sale to bypass the application process for registering an account. As a young team, we are still learning, exploring the possibilities to combine new technology with existing functions, and to provide our users with a better and safer experience.

Secondly, the difficulty in management. So far, our volunteers have to use their spare time and maintain a balance between their real life and the needs of a growing online community. For example, one of the daily tasks includes moderation of toxic content from the community. This requires extensive time and energy, and in addition easily burns out our volunteers. We once made a mistake, believing the conflict can be solved by simply having more volunteers. This turned out to be more complicated. Now, we learned to switch our focus to creating a more meaningful work environment for our volunteers, instead of recruiting and burning out new volunteers. We slowly learned the lesson that a member being cared for and respected for their contribution, will have a deeper feeling of belonging, and grow with the project, and contribute more for it in the long term.

The third kind of difficulty might not be a problem for a community as prosperous and diverse as OTW, but I really want to share it as well. It is the difficulty to maintain diversity of the content on our platform. With the widespread use of smartphones and micro transactions, online reading has never been this easy, yet the creators, especially Chinese writers, immediately realized there is a limitation. On SOSAD.FUN, similar to many other platforms, we use tags to help readers filter for the genre, topic, and character setting they like. Though in theory every tag should have the same unlimited possibility for creative writing, some tags easily gain more attention than others. That is to say, what matters most is not how an author finishes his or her story, or anything traditionally thought of as important for a story, but what tags the story fits into. Using a saying that might seem inappropriate: “Though all tags are created equal, some tags are more equal than others.” As the top ranked stories on most commercial novel platforms become more and more similar, almost every reader I have talked to appears to be unsatisfied with the amount of effort it takes to find stories that fit their tastes.

What the majority of readers might be missing, however, is that the total number of stories has in fact skyrocketed in the past 10 years. Yet, a large amount of this growth is limited only to commercially successful topics that proved to have mass appeal. Obviously, platforms are not willing to assign enough resources for new and risky topics, but rather encourage authors to confine themselves within proven successful ones. It is not only the external pressure on authors that push them towards guaranteed topics, the inner anxiety — striving to earn recognition — also plays a factor. Is a book that happens to get 1000 times more clicks and comments, with a hot tag, necessarily 1000 times better in quality than another one that carries an unpopular tag? Almost certainly not. Yet not many writers can avoid taking to heart this simple evaluation of their ability as a writer by these numbers.

Whenever a popular book emerges, more with similar topic and character settings will appear in the next couple of weeks. I’m not claiming that rankings based on the tagging system should not exist. To the contrary, I believe the tagging system is necessary for readers to find their books. Yet almost every day I see writers giving up their initial ideas, choosing hot topics instead, believing this is the only way to stand out among all the new books online. Though this strategy has proved to be very effective, I cannot help but feel sorry for the potentially good stories that could have been created.

To help with this problem, on SOSAD.FUN we have a special editors’panel(we call it editors’recommendations) where the “editors” will review, select and recommend books based on the quality of the stories, as versus taking much consideration of whether the topic/tag is popular. As a result, our recommendations cover topics that are often not as hot as the most highly ranked ones. By doing this, we hope to ease some of the anxiety authors might feel in deciding what to write. And help good stories to catch the eye of the potential reader base.

How did you hear about the OTW and what do you see its role as?

I had done a broad survey of web platforms before I started to work on SOSAD.FUN. AO3 and the OTW organization behind it was among the websites I looked into. I had some knowledge of the story of OTW, the scale of AO3, the users of AO3, third-party software based on AO3, and the source code of AO3. One thing I confirmed by reading the public financial report of AO3 is that I won’t be able to pay such a bill if I don’t code myself. That kills all the potential excuses I might have during my learning of programming.

I appreciate the existence of OTW. I believe that the projects currently supported by OTW, including AO3, Open Doors, and others, have provided a valuable record for fandom culture and will continue to do so.

What fandom things have inspired you the most?

Based on the broader definition of fandom, I think one of the most important aspects of fandom is the connection among each other in the community: it is the priority and sole reason for creative writing, not anything else. I do believe that the ultimate goal for any writing is to overcome the barrier between individual human minds, and to let each other fully understand different feelings, different experiences, and ultimately, the existence of unfamiliar but possible lives. One of the natural barriers, and also the strongest one, is that we tend to feel reluctant and uneasy once something described exceeds our own knowledge, experience,or imagination.

And all of the novel techniques, as far as I interpret them, are to open our readers’ minds, so that they can have the courage to expose themselves and immerse themselves into the stories. My sincerest wish to every reader and writer, is that no matter how much we write or read, be it fandom or original stories, we never forget our initial impulse to share and connect with each other.

We encourage suggestions from fans for future guest posts, which can be left as a comment here or by contacting us directly. Visit our Pinboard account to catch up on earlier guest posts.

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  1. Jim commented:

    Thank you for this fantastic interview! I have enjoyed feiwen/sosad for several months; it’s a wonderful site and community. It was a delight to hear how it all began. Thanks so much to 文栈 and team for the hard work and passion that produced such a great result. Also, you’re so eloquent!

    “One of the natural barriers, and also the strongest one, is that we tend to feel reluctant and uneasy once something described exceeds our own knowledge, experience,or imagination.”

    So many gems like this in this interview. What a treat.

  2. Acts of Tekla commented:

    Thank you for the interesting interview! It’s so much fun to learn about fandom experiences outside the English-language US/UK based.

  3. mags commented:

    This was a fantastic interview. Thank you for sharing!

  4. theirprofoundbond commented:

    I really enjoyed this interview! I honestly felt pretty emotional at the answer to the final question, too. Beautiful words. I’m glad you persevered in creating SOSAD.FUN, and I’m pleased about its success!