Spotlight on Abuse

Today, we’re doing a Spotlight on the Abuse Committee! Abuse is the committee that is responsible for responding to complaints about content uploaded to Archive of Our Own. We interviewed staffers Sherry and Joanne to spotlight their experiences working in Abuse. Sherry, who is the current Chair, has been on the Abuse committee for three years while Joanne volunteered during the last term. Some of their answers have been combined and edited for readability while others have been left in their original format to reflect Sherry and Joanne’s unique experiences in the committee.

What are the most common complaints you get?
Sherry and Joanne: The most common problems are plagiarism cases and inappropriately warned stories. [We also] receive complaints about incorrect tagging, inappropriate content (advertisements, thank you notes, requests for fanworks, meta, etc.) Harassment via comments, dog-piling and attempted intimidation are also issues we face and continue to investigate.

What kind of complaints do you receive now that you didn’t in the past?
Sherry: More recently we’ve seen an upswing in complaints regarding inappropriate content – not spam, but meta. Those who are in favor of meta inclusion are deeply committed to it; those who dislike meta are equally vociferous. This issue is being debated by quite a number of people involved with the OTW and the discussion is likely to go on for some time. We try to follow the Terms of Service in making our decisions, but as the ToS evolves over time, there will be new rules and possibly new outcomes to these cases. For now, we’re chiefly concerned with responding to complaints about meta that has no fannish content — that, at least, seems a clear issue.

Joanne: The newest type of complaints that have been coming up are ones about fan playlists. So authors are posting a link to a torrent site to download a playlist they’ve made for their fandom. It is an issue which we’ve been asked to look at more closely over the upcoming months: authors can link to a legal playlist on the web but they can’t link to an illegal download.

How have the problems changed from the time you started with Abuse to now?
Sherry: I’ve been with the Abuse team for three years (three years! How did that happen?) under two Chairs before becoming Chair myself. Anyway, when we began, there were virtually NO Abuse cases…imagine that! We had boilerplate responses ready to go, expecting all sorts of complaints about underage participants, advertising spam and protests from published authors about fans appropriating their characters (we called that the “Anne Rice” issue). But really — virtually none of the above happened (I think we got one “cease and desist” and turned it over to Legal).

Are there any specific patterns you’ve noticed as fandom evolves and takes on new kinds of fanworks and new forms of presenting fanworks?
Sherry: The first recurring trend was plagiarism – and we still see that today, sometimes unintentional, sometimes blatant. Even more common than that were cases of mislabeled warnings (calling a work gen when it’s slash, saying no Archive warnings apply when there is major character death, and the like). Both of these issues are recurring ones, complaints we see all the time. It seems plagiarists are getting more arrogant — or lazy — every day. Over the last month we’ve received a half dozen complaints where someone took a story in one fandom, stripped the names and inserted characters for a different fandom, and then posted it intact — sometimes under the same title. We find it amazing that they don’t expect to be caught: “Oh, no one will ever notice!” Really? On the internet?

Final thoughts: is there anything you’d like to tell Archive users?
Sherry: One of the most important phrases in the Terms of Service, the one we seem to quote a lot these days, is this: “You understand that using the Archive may expose you to material that is offensive, erroneous, sexually explicit, indecent, blasphemous, objectionable, or badly spelled.” The point is this — a number of complaints are really just one person disliking what another person has written; it’s not Abuse’s job to remove the works, notes, comments or tags they don’t like! As long as authors abide by the Terms of Service, we will support them.

Joanne: If you’re in doubt then email anyway, the worst that happens is that we tell you we can’t do anything.

  1. vissy commented:

    Are you able to tell us from whom the C&D came? I’m curious now!

  2. Kate S commented:

    I really hope Abuse isn’t policing this. I’ve often written stories that I’ve labeled as gen, even if there are canon gay and het pairings. Those weren’t the focus of the story though so I labeled it gen.

    I’ve read through the ToS, and all I can see are rules regarding ratings and warnings. Am I missing where it talks about categories? Even the posting page says is “While here we have given an interpretation of the abbreviations, the exact definitions of these vary from fandom to fandom and fan to fan; use whichever you feel are applicable..”

  3. sherry nehmer commented:

    We don’t police this. We respond to complaints, and in cases as you describe, there’s very little likelihood we’d ask for a change in tags if the story’s focus is not the pairing or sex. We tend to err on the side of “the author is right.”

    • Kate S commented:

      I still don’t see where Abuse has grounds to enforce it even if someone does complain and could be considered “right” depending on whatever AO3’s definition is. It says nowhere in the ToS that categorizing a story “wrong” is a punishable offense. If nothing else, the ToS should be updated to address this rule.

      I’m sorry to be difficult, but I’ve posted on other sites with fuzzy guidelines and have learned my lessons. Since categories aren’t even a required field, it sounds like I should just leave that section blank.