What's the deal with all these "year's best" lists I've been posting?
(see e.g. Best of 2012)
Note: a version of this essay has been uploaded to AO3: Dates Matter
Basically, it started with me being frustrated that I couldn't always tell when a work was first published (see long discussion of this problem under the cuts). Consequently, I began noting the original posting dates in the lists I kept of all the fics I'd read. As this sometimes involved a fair amount of sleuthing (see below), I thought it could be helpful to share this information publically. But the world really doesn't need a list of all the hundreds of fics I've read, some good, some not so good. And so instead I decided to create the series of "Best of Year X" lists I've been posting so far. It was really just a way for me to feel that this detective work I'd been doing had a point :)
So, why is it so difficult to determine when a fic was first published, and why should anyone care other than me? Well, I'm so glad you asked.
Why should fandom care when a fic was first published?
From time to time you might see someone claim that "fandom is dying" or somesuch nonsense. But how can you argue one way or another without verifiable facts? Just how many Drarry fics were written in 2007 vs. 2014 anyway? You can try searching an archive like AO3 for the answers, but they won't be accurate. AO3 didn't open for business unil 2008, and then only on a limited basis. Even though many authors have since uploaded their older works to AO3, the "date published" field defaults to the date the author uploaded the fic, not when the author actually first wrote the fic (authors can adjust this field, but many either don't know this or don't bother). So even if more Drarry fics were uploaded in 2014 than were uploaded in, say 2010, that doesn't necessarily mean that more fics were written in 2014, just that AO3 has gotten more popular and more authors are uploading their older works.
Furthermore, it's just more professional and disciplined to date one's work. Authors of fanfiction may work for free (and we love them for it) but that doesn't mean they aren't good at what they do. Most of them are extremely talented and they deserve to have their work treated with respect. And part of that is respecting their own work enough to leave an accurate verifiable record of it for posterity.
Why do I personally care when a fic was first published?
Well, first off, if a fic was published before July 2007, then I know not to expect DH canon compliancy. I didn't start reading HP fanfiction until well after the last book was published, so my default setting is to expect canon compliancy. I'll still read fics that aren't canon compliant, I just like to know what to expect in this regard before I start reading a fic.
Second, if I find a new-to-me author that I like, I want to know if they are still writing in the fandom. Yes, I could go check their LJ, but not every author has an updated LJ (even the active ones). Sometimes a fic will get posted to AO3 and I'll think "ooh! new fic!" and only realize later that while the posting is new, the fic is quite old. Again, this doesn't mean the fic won't be good, just that it may not be canon compliant, and there may not be more fics coming from this author.
Third, if an author has been writing for a long time, her style may have improved or changed in other ways over time. There are some authors who I've learned that I much prefer their later work to their earlier stuff. And surprisingly, there are even some authors for whom I prefer their early work! (There's one author I can think of who early on wrote several Hogwarts era and 8th year fics that I loved to bits, but who now avoids that era entirely, and seems to prefer writing older H/D. I still like her work, but I loved her early work even more).
And last, I like to rec fics, and I if I'm reccing a classic fic, I want to know I'm reccing a classic and not come off all like "hey I found this new fic you've got to read!" and have people think "duh, we all know that fic. It's been around forever, you idiot."
OK, but how hard is it to tell when something was posted? Isn't the date right there on the page?
No it's NOT, at least, not always. And sometimes even when there is a date to be found, the date is not accurate. You have no idea the frustration this brings me! There are four main types of problems when it comes to dating a fic:
Type 1: fics with no dates at all
Mostly this is a problem with earlier fanfic, say prior to 2009 or so. Take a frequently recced fic like amalin's Reparo. So far as I've been able to tell, this fic is only available at the original Big Bang Baby fest site. Which is fine, but did you click on that fic link? The page itself is beautiful with lovely readable formatting, but...where's the date it was posted? I can't find it anywhere, can you? Even on the fest's main index page I can find no indication of when this fest took place. When did it take place? Well thanks to fanlore we can see that this fest took place in 2005, 2007, and 2008. Since Reparo was posted in the third and final fest (inferred from the URL) we can surmise that it dates to 2008. Whew. That was a lot of effort to date just one fic!
Type 2: fics with hidden dates
Take another well-known classic fic like A Frayed and Threadbare Wish by libby_drew (aka sansa1970). Once again, there's no date on the fic page itself. Oh, but there's an alternate link here! And that's the author's LJ site, so surely the page will be dated. Unfortunately, the page linked to is f-locked. So unless you're on the author's friends list, you can't find out when the fic was writen. And I still don't know. Using the wayback machine I can see that the fic dates back to at least June 2009, but it is probably older than that. Frustration!
Type 3: fics with incorrect dates
I love it when authors upload their classic fics to AO3. In 2013-14 annafugazzi uploaded Bond--one of my all-time favorites--which had previously only been availble on ff.net (which is not nearly as reader-friendly). She also very helpfully included an author's note explaining that Bond was conceived and written prior to the publication of HBP. However, because the fic was only recently uploaded to AO3, the "published" field on that site gives the date as April 2013, not the true date of July 2005 (which you can find on the ff.net page). If it weren't for her author's note, new readers would have no idea when the fic was first published. But not all authors add notes! Also, as I mentioned previously it is possible for an author to provide an earlier date for the "published" field on AO3, but not all authors do that, or know that you can.
Type 4: deleted originals
OK, I'm not talking about authors who purge all of their stuff from the internet forever (grr!). Here I'm just talking about works which are newly available on sites like AO3, but where the orginal postings are gone. So take another fic (which I've seen recced but haven't gotten around to reading) such as ab epistulis by cornmouse. Once again we have a work on AO3 which gives the date it was published as 2013, but which the author's note says was actually first published on skyehawke prior to OoTP. So for most people that would be enough, but because I'm crazy, I really want to know exactly when. Ok, no problem, just go look up the original skyehawke page (which I had to hunt around old recs to find!) and see what it says. Well you can't, because the fic is no longer there.
Turns out, if you know the URL from an archive like skyehawke or hexfiles or AO3, then you have the information you need to infer the posting date to that archive (if you're super crazy and OCD like me). The skyehawke URL for ab epistulis ends with the numerical string "4603". This means it was posted after whatever fic is numbered "4601" (4602 has been purged too) and before whatever fic is numbered "4604". Those dates are Nov 5, 2004 and Nov 6, 2004 respectively. So I can confidently say that ab epistulis was first published to skyehawke in early November 2004.
That was entirely too much work to date one single fic, but at least it was possible because the original post, although deleted, had been to an archive. But if the orginal post was to an author's LJ page, and that page is gone, well, there's no hope for it. You can't even use the wayback machine on most LJ pages.
In sum, accurately dating fics is good practice, and is useful to both individual fans and the fandom as a whole. Yet finding accurate publication dates for many fics is nearly impossible: some fics don't have dates at all, some fics have hidden or lost dates, and others are incorrectly dated when they are re-posted to a new archive.
A plea to authors
Please, please, please make sure your fics can be dated. If possible, provide a link to the original posting in your masterlists. If the original work is no longer available, at least give a date. And if you add older works to AO3, please add an author's note explaining where and when the work was first published, and adjust the "published" field to show that date if you can.