At the recent April Showers Import Party, the topic of tagging came up. Unsurprisingly — there were fanworks finding homes on the Archive of Our Own, after all. And one of the most amazing things about the AO3 is definitely its tagging system.
What makes this particular tagging system so amazing? It’s specifically designed so that users can use any tag, in exactly the form they want it on their works, while keeping those works as organized as they would be in a strictly classification-based archive. Perhaps even better organized, since AO3 tagging not only allows users to search for works using tags based on traditional classifications like fandom, character and relationship, but also tens of thousands of canonical “additional tags” that go far beyond the limits of genre. And the more you tag, the better it works overall (more on why that’s so later).
So, you may be asking, what’s a canonical additional tag? And how does a tag come to be one?
First, a bit of tagging history is in order. The indexing of information using keywords isn’t a new practice, of course. When del.icio.us launched in 2003, the new part of their model wasn’t the link collections or the keywords themselves — those had been around on the Internet pretty much since the start. Their innovation was to give users the power to attach keywords to those link collections. Nearly ten years on, the AO3 has made a great start at putting that sort of descriptive tagging power in the hands of fan creators when it comes to archiving their fanworks.
A great deal of that power comes from additional tags (originally called freeform tags). They’re tags that don’t fall into the standard fandom/character/relationship groupings, and include kinks, tropes, genres, story elements, word counts, recording lengths, video formats, fan art media, POVs, episode tags, additional warnings, and whatever else users can think of! And all those additional tags gain their useful descriptive power when they’re made canonical, appearing in the search filters and the auto-complete box as the most useful, general forms of particular tags, with many other synonymous tags linked to them. Tag wranglers — fans who have volunteered to curate the tags belonging to particular fandoms — do the linking, so for a tag to have been made canonical means that a wrangler has either recognized it as complying with tag wrangling guidelines or created it in compliance with those guidelines specifically so they can attach another tag to it.
What that means is that when an additional tag appears in the archive, a tag wrangler assesses whether people searching for works would like to be able to search for works tagged with it. Often the answer is yes, but sometimes it’s no — and that’s fine! That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t tag your works using whatever tags you like; those tags will still bring up works, after all, even if they aren’t canonical! A tag wrangler making your tag canonical just means that they judged it a useful addition to the filters — and one that other people might want to have the option of tagging works with, as well.
So if you can tag with whatever you want, how do you effectively use additional tags to shine a spotlight on your work?
This is where we return to the question of how more tagging makes the system work better. You see, additional tags make it possible to bring up works tagged everything from Accidental Marriage to Zombies — and everything else in between. So, using tags which highlight tropes or kinks (among other things), means that people interested in these topics can more easily find your works containing them. And this isn’t just limited to fanfic — there are additional tags which describe aspects of other types of fanworks that people might be looking for, as well — whether it’s a crochet pattern, a short podfic, or an example of digital fan art.
What it comes down to is this: your were-creature accidental marriage fic/podfic/painting/quilt with zombies and a female BAMF character of color lead might be exactly the work Fan X was looking for. And they might never know it exists, if you don’t tell the world exactly what awesome stuff it contains. There’re a lot of awesome fanworks featuring a lot of awesome stuff on the AO3 just waiting for people to spotlight those awesome qualities, so go forth and tell people that your fic is epistolary or your comic features a mythical being or creature or that your podfic is a cast recording.
While many of us love the diversity that additional tags bring, if you don’t like seeing additional tags on works, you can always choose to ignore them, or even hide them completely using a custom skin and the Blurblings Hide freeform tags skin.
If you’d like to know more about tagging on the AO3, or about what tag wranglers do, the Tag Wrangling Committee is having an open house on Sunday, April 22, from 19:00 to 21:00 UTC (see when this is in your timezone) in OTW’s public chatroom on Campfire. The chatroom can be accessed at: https://fanarchive.campfirenow.com/c6440 Feel free to drop by at any time during the session to ask questions or just to hang out.
The AO3 and its tagging system are funded by fans, for fans. To help keep it growing, please donate today.