Without context, fanworks might not seem like something worth preserving—a problem that long predates the web. Many fanzines and other collections have been lost forever; as the Fannish Estate Planning article on the communal wiki Fanlore puts it, family members of deceased fans often “have no idea what they are looking at, and sadly, much fannish material ends up in the trash and other inglorious destinations.”
When AO3 was being built a decade and a half ago, many of the site’s creators had already lost fandom friends—and as a result, they’d also lost their friends’ fanworks. “FNOKs were brought up very early on, as they were starting to discuss what sorts of things they wanted in the terms of service,” says Heather Smith, AO3’s policy and abuse committee cochair and primary FNOK facilitator. “People also had the question of how their own works would be handled after they were gone, so the OTW [the Organization for Transformative Works, AO3’s parent organization] wanted some sort of arrangement that would benefit both creators and fans.”
Though FNOK set-up is straightforward, only a small fraction of the site’s millions of users have put one in place. “We hope that an FNOK arrangement is something users take seriously, that both people in an arrangement trust each other a lot and have talked about the possible future of becoming incapacitated together,” Smith says. But, she adds, “I think the majority of our users will never decide to set one up.”
Smith herself created one when she joined the FNOK team in 2020—a year that saw a significant increase in requests. “Covid-19 seemed to have put that possibility at the forefront of everyone’s minds,” she says. “For me, it helped make the conversation easier to bring up. Everyone had thought about it at least once that year, and it was a small relief to know my existence on the Archive would be handled by someone I trusted.”
FNOK arrangements are one of several ways AO3 users’ creations can be preserved independently of the user. Nearly half a million of the site’s 10-million-plus works have been “orphaned,” remaining online but severed from the account that posted them. Orphaning is an act of permanence on a web full of broken links and abandoned profiles, deliberately putting the work in the hands of the Archive itself. Both features create a sense of the platform as a communally constructed space—one that’s built to outlast any individual.
This stands in contrast to the increasingly precarious feel of a lot of our digital platforms. From the slow, occasionally chaotic decline of Twitter to the ever-expanding detritus left behind from earlier eras of the web, the connections we make online and the places where we put our creations can feel ephemeral, subject to the whims of corporations or ultrarich individuals.
Even with her affairs in order on the AO3, Carpenter feels this acutely in the rest of her digital life. “I’m constantly terrified that Automattic will suddenly decide Tumblr’s not worth it and shut it down overnight, and my past 11 years on the site will be erased in the flip of a switch,” she says. “That’d be like losing my journals and photo albums, letters from friends, scrapbooks, keepsakes, and things like that to a house fire.”