A Saturated Market?
I’ve been a reader of fanfiction for quite some time, and over the years plenty of websites have emerged. Of course, the most common ones mentioned are AO3 and FF.net. Still, there are plenty of others: Kindle Worlds, Fanfic.me, MediaMiner, Fictionpad, Livejournal, Goodreads, Wattpad, Quotev, and Ficwad. There are dozens more websites, especially when it concerns a specific domain (I can think of at least ten websites for Harry Potter fanfiction alone, and a similar situation for Naruto). It’s a deeply saturated market.
And yet, none of them satisfy me very much. Fanfiction.net comes the closest, but that’s only because it is the overwhelming dominant force in the market. It seems like nearly all websites are lacking one or more major features that are essential. Fanfiction.net can rest on its laurels because, for the forseeable future, its network effects will keep it alive. Even now I get engagement (reviews, follows, favorites, etc) on stories that are over six years old, while on AO3 or similar websites even new stories don’t receive any attention. The fundamental fact is that although the market is saturated, it’s also very clearly in a monopoly.
No set of individuals can predict how a network will evolve. FF.net began as a great website back in 1997, but it seems that as the many uses evolved, the site stopped evolving with the community. It’s a very decent first step, but we need to move forward. To be clear, the features I enumerate below are not the vision.
As a community, we need a website that is responsive to our growing needs. We are not a single set of users, but a fluid and dynamically evolving one. The needs of an author are different than the needs of a reader, and obviously, a single user can be both. But even more so, we have beta editors, fic adopters, and those who give away their fanfics. We have reviewers and fanfic aggregators and community managers.
We need a fanfiction website that caters to this incredibly diverse set of needs and groups. More importantly, we need a single website that brings all of these groups together in a cohesive manner. The website needs to connect these various groups seamlessly, and at the same time allow a single user to partake in all of these groups effortlessly.
Better mobile support
Fanfiction websites serve primarily text; there’s no reason to not be mobile-first, and from a coding persepctive, this is a fairly trivial challenge. This needs to happen.
We need to integrate the beta editor community whole-heartedly. Too many fanfictions need a beta, and there are too many betas doing great work and not being recognized for it. Beta editors are the angels of the fanfiction community, and we need to appreciate them more.
At the minimum, we need an integrated way to search for / offer to be a beta editor, and help smooth over the handshake process between author and editor. Multiple beta editors? Why not. Want a different beta for each chapter? Why not. We should also credit the beta formally in each chapter.
Beta editors should have their own profiles, linking to all the other chapters they’ve reviewed. This will help authors choose the beta that’s right for them.
Appreciate a fanfic? Don’t buy. The Kindle Worlds model is fundamentally broken in my opinion; you shouldn’t have to buy anything. Fanfiction is about sharing passions and exploring a universe with various possibilities. Appreciate it? Give the author a donation. You shouldn’t have to buy.
Alternatively, I’m thinking of adopting the reddit-Gold strategy. Running a website has some costs, and I’d rather have a gold star than some stupidly annoying advertisement. Either way, don’t make people pay for fanfiction.
Along the same lines, I hate so much that to use Wattpad I have to login. Seriously? No love for the lurkers
Finding good fics easier
This is the number one problem with FF.net. There are too many fanfictions, and too few good ones (percentage wise). Ultimately, we have to enable readers to find high quality (whatever they consider that to be) fanfitions easily. I have 3 proposed solutions for this:
Recommendations - Get recommendations based on stories that you’ve recently favorited / followed, etc. Often times I recently discover an author that is pure gold, and I go through all 6 of their fanfics in a day. I should get recommendations if this other author starts favoriting some other fanfiction. I think customized recommendations, if done right, would go a long way in minimizing reader effort. Rather than spend hours looking through filth, I should ideally get good fics delivered to me.
Hot / trending / controversial / new - don’t reinvent the wheel. Reddit and many other sites do this really, really well. Why not embrace the same thing? I think this also encourages readers to explore other fandoms. For a long, long time I only read Naruto fanfictions because I didn’t know the proper filters to find great fanfics in HP universe, or any other fandom. This would go a long way.
Better filters - Not only should the entire filter system be upgraded, there should be some sort of notification system based on these filters. I shouldn’t have to come every single day just to check whether there are any new fanfics that meet my stringent filter. Why not let me save a filter and email me when a new fanfic meets this criteria?
I’m considering whether to bother including communities are not. Communities are great ways to enable content aggregators, but in general this is symptomatic of the problems of bad filtering. Why would anyone need communities if not for a fundamentally broken search process? You already have access to others’ favorites, as well as creating your own lists.
Nice to Have Features
Here are a set of features that I think would be nice to have; not essential, but useful.
A section for awesome writing prompts for various fanfictions. It should easily string together all responses, regardless of fandoms (though some prompts may obviously be restricted to a specific fandom).
Each writing prompt should be turned into an instant writing contest, and readers should be allowed to have an easy reading / browsing experience.
Similar to r/prompt, we need to support writing contests as well. There should be community voting, and easy browsing amongst the submissions. I’m thinking of integrating and combining the prompt and contests, but arguably the difference could be the voting process (along with a stringent criteria for what a fanfiction has to do to meet the contests).
For example, in the old days of Heaven and Earth, we used to have small 500 word ficlets around a particular theme. Contests should be a limiting version of r/prompt, with word count, theme, and everything else. Admittedly, I need to flesh out the implementation of this more fully.
Fanfic adoptions! I moved this down from “Essential Features” because I think I have a bias; the thing that bothers me the most is a fanfic that I’m really, really into, but then to discover the author has given up on it. But I fear that I’m in the minority on this, and overall it doesn’t hurt the experience too much. Afterall, if an author doesn’t want someone else to continue their work but also has given up, there is not much anyone can do (or should - don’t steal people’s work!).
Still, for those authors who are willing to continue another’s work, and for those authors who are willing to let their works be adopted, we need a section to easily facilitate this. More importantly, we need more than just a text blurb at the top saying ‘Hey I adopted this from XXX’. The story should be the same, it should have the same link, and anyone already following the story shouldn’t have to change anything.
A lot of this has to be implemented in r/adopt anyways, but stories with multiple authors should have an easy way of recognizing each of the authors besides just a blurb somewhere before the chapter starts.
All authors should have an integrated link to their profile, and this should be done on a chapter-by-chapter basis.
Guest author support should be enabled as well, and all authors who have contributed should be credited accordingly.
Better crossover support
I’ll admit I’m not a fan of cross-overs. I hate them; in my head, it doesn’t make sense to combine entirely separate universes and then try and make some sense out of them.
Still, I feel for my X-Over bretheren; cross-over support is horrific today, and I can never really navigate this area. It needs to be entirely redone.
Overhaul the review / rating system
I put this not in essential mostly because my ideas are not 100% fully fleshed out yet.
For me the main problem is that not all reviews are equal. Some reviews are clearly better than others, and this should be reflected accordingly. Not only are there serious spam issues, but many reviews simply aren’t helpful. ‘Cool’ is a fairly useless review. FF.net seems to encourage “reviews” simply by showing that as the primary metric by which people measure the weight of a story, though in recent times it’s added views and followers and favorites, but that still doesn’t really solve the problem.
In fanfiction, we are all novice authors. We have fun, share our passions, and seek advice. The review system needs to reflect this. If someone offers a particularly compelling review, there should be a discussion around this. Other viewers should be able to upvote a review or respond to it. If a fanfition is particularly compelling, there needs to be a place where people can discuss it with ease.
I briefly contemplated the idea of in-paragraph reviews like the ones you find on blog posts, but I think this would be more distracting than anything else.
Also intriguing is the idea of a numeric rating system, but I’d want to hide the number for the first couple ratings so that an initial small sample doesn’t influence other reviewers / raters.
Better polling support
In a lot of stories I’ve seen recently, authors seem to ask reviewers for feedback on a specific issue, or questions as to a particular plotline development.
FF.net’s default solution is reviews, but that only compounds the problem of having bad reviews. As a reader, if I want to see if the story is good and all I see are reviews of “yes. definitely. nope. don’t do it” - that’s not helpful at all.
I’m considering making a native polling / comment solution so people can take these discussions elsewhere - perhaps in the centralized location where fans can communicate to the author and vice versa.
Better author / reader communication
A new chapter may not be the best way to announce the status change of a story (hiatus, discontinued, adopted, etc). It’s quite annoying to me, and I seek for a cleaner experience.
I also hate 99.99% of the blurbs at the bottom and top of the chapter. Yes, you obviously don’t own Harry Potter. If you’re truly concerned about being sued, I doubt your trivial disclaimer would hold up in court anyways.
No, I don’t care which pairing you choose. You’re obviously grovelling for more reviews; choose one, or don’t. Don’t make me decide - you’re the author, gosh darn it!
We need a central location where authors can communicate all of this, and even where fans can discuss amongst each other about particular stories. I think this would be super useful for those select fanfictions that go totally viral (Methods of Rationality, anyone?). Even if that means the author creates a sub-domain website and makes that customizable.
Better Publish Support
Publish your fanfictions super easily in all major Ebook formats.
Take in all major formats.
This isn’t that complicated. Why hasn’t this happened already? ‘Nuff said.
Where to Go From Here
I’m going to be working on this regardless. Will it become a full fledged website? I don’t know. I’m a full-time developer, and this is a side project. Mainly I want to do this as a proof of concept, and the idea is that once it’s done completely to open source the code so that (hopefully) the major fanfiction websites will adopt this, and we all win.
Why not open source it from the beginning?
Open sourcing is not a trivial matter. Some comments I write to myself when I’m stuck debugging should not be seen by anyone, especially not by children. It involves a lot of linting and code clean up and minute style changes. All in all, I want to write the code, and then release it, rather than having this constant overhead of being watched.
Don’t like any of the ideas? Contact me. Have some input on the ideas? Contact me. Are you a developer interested in working on this project? Contact me.