Inspired by some posts I saw today:
When I joined fandom in 1995, we had usenet, which was pre-world-wide-web, but was basically a nonthreaded messageboard. Usenet and email lists were the only way we had of distributing fanfic digitally at the time, and I hung out on both, but both were split up by fandom – you had two usenet groups for X-Files, a mailing list for Due South, et cetera. By the time I went to college three years later, the web existed for most of us and was accessible, so we also had archives, but all of the archives had started out as ways of storing fanfic posted to usenet (Gossamer, an extensive x-files archive, is an example).
You could also put up a personal archive at geocities or tripod or angelfire, which were the precursors to “build it yourself” sites like Wordpress and Squarespace, in that you had to hand-code all your html or build it in programs like DreamWeaver. Once you had put up a fansite, you could join a “web ring” which was a bit like a friendslist only there was no post aggregator – you had to visit each site of the ring in turn in order to see your friends’ sites. Web rings were really more so that once you found ONE fansite in a fandom, you could go to all the rest as well. They weren’t for the webrings’ actual members. And unless you were super fancy at coding, people would have to email you if they wanted to leave feedback.
So when I went to college in 1998 and essentially dropped out of fandom (because college), the closest thing to AO3 that existed was a single-fandom archive where you could only get your fic uploaded by contacting the owner of the archive and asking to add it, or being contacted by them to see if they could (Gossamer actually was an exception, it auto-archived any fic posted to alt.tv.x-files.creative).
It was much more likely you’d just have a fanpage you owned and maintained, and you’d post fanfic there, and then you’d send out an email announcement to your readers. Using a mailing list that you probably kept stored in a text file because contact lists in email wasn’t really a thing yet.
In 2003, five years later, I came back to fandom because I started re-reading the Discworld books and wrote a bit of fanfic for them, and I googled “where to post discworld fanfic” because I just didn’t know anymore.
(Things that also didn’t exist when I left fandom: Google, in any meaningful sense. We used Dogpile or Altavista or Yahoo.)
I had thought I was going to have to build a fanpage and then find a mailing list or a messageboard to post to in order to get the word out, but what I found was fanfiction.net.
Now, FFN is a pit, don’t get me wrong. But in 2003 it was also revolutionary, one of the only archives of its kind and certainly the only one with any significant population of fans. AO3 didn’t exist. Neither did Dreamwidth or Tumblr. LiveJournal was invite-only. I got a LiveJournal account by begging an invite code off someone who left nice comments for me on FFN. And in 2003, in particular, it took a long time to realize FFN was a difficult, terrible place; back then the “no adult material” was basically a show-rule nobody followed, and if you were in a civil fandom like Discworld was (and continues to be) it was quite a pleasant place.
AO3 was a leap forward. The user interface is so much better and it’s a smooth-functioning site which allows for adult material, easy tag searching, custom skins, and fast downloading. But I have fond memories of FFN, because when it first appeared, it was the only one of its kind, and a multifandom archive was pivotal in bringing fandoms together in a way nothing else up to that point had been. Before FFN and LiveJournal, multifandom gatherings were almost exclusively contained to conventions and meetups, which were expensive, tough to get to, impossible for kids to attend without alerting their parents to their fannish ways, and tended to be exclusive of – well, from what I’ve heard, any fan who wasn’t a middle-aged white male or spouse thereof. Panfandom mailing lists didn’t really exist; I think we would have seen them as weird, because to our minds we didn’t really have anything in common. We were fans of X; why would we hang out with fans of Y? Fannish culture did exist in the macro sense but a lot of us weren’t conscious of it, even when we moved from one fandom to another.
I guess what I want to say is that the history of where we are today doesn’t begin with FFN or LJ or any of the other early-millennium hellsites, obviously. But in the history of fandom they are one spot that the big obelisk from 2001: A Space Odyssey would show up. And I thought it might be interesting for kids who came into fandom with AO3 already established would like to hear about the earlier days.