Destination Toast creates fanworks out of questions and data, and the results give us a view into what we do as fans, what we like, what we create, and even how we identify ourselves. I’d never thought about looking at fandom from the top down until I came across a post she made on tumblr back in 2013. Her study sliced apart AO3 by pairing categories, ratings, warnings, and word counts. With a few pie charts I suddenly had an insight into what we as fans were writing, and where my works fit into the mix.
Over the past few years, Destination Toast has sought out answers for an impressive list of questions that touch upon all corners of fandom. What are the most common AUs? Why is there so little femslash? What are the most popular tags on AO3? Toasty asks the questions we didn’t know we had and the findings are always fascinating. Her work has been cited on io9, The Daily Dot, and The Toast, because stats, much like bowties, are cool. If you want to see the vast scope of analyses she’s done, check out her epic list of studies.
We met up in a coffee shop in the University District, in the middle of the strange July Seattle heatwave, and I was thrilled to finally get to talk fandom and stats with my favorite fandom statistician. During our interview Destination Toast touched on why she deep dives into data, “A lot of it comes from me having a particular experience and then going, how does this compare [to that of other fans]? Wanting to understand … the diversity of other people’s experiences and what’s the most common. Trying to better understand what the world looks like instead of the narrow view that I have.”
By answering those questions for herself, she also answers them for us.
Can you tell me the story behind your handle Destination Toast.
There are a few answers. The simplest answer is that it was the result of me getting frustrated after typing every combination of words that was actually meaningful and related to fandom. At the time everything I could come up with was taken, so I was sort of casting about for something that was open. And I was wearing a shirt at the time from Questionable Content the web comic, of the little toaster that’s in my avatar — so it prompted me to think “toast” which is great and awesome.
And then — though this is maybe more of a post hoc justification — one of my first online fandom experiences was in the Peter Gabriel fandom, when there were literally about three web pages devoted to Peter Gabriel because the web was tiny. One of them was a run by a teenage girl who had a site devoted to her love of Peter Gabriel and toast. Not together, but those were the two things she really liked, and she wanted to write about them. It was so cute and charming and it made a big impression on me. So in some ways I feel like I’ve carried on the tradition of blogging about fandom things and toast.
How did you get started in fandom? What’s your origin story?
I can’t even really remember not being fannish, to some degree. My family is super fannish. Not in the fandom creation kind of way, mostly, but we were always really obsessed with Star Trek and a bunch of other things. We quoted them endlessly and watched them over and over again. Mostly sci-fi or fantasy, but we also did this with Ren and Stimpy, Brisco County Junior, Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was a really weird amalgam of stuff, but we all had a fannish attitude: you love something a lot, you love sharing it with other people, you know it inside out, you quote it all the time. That was just how I grew up with all the things that I loved. My aunts also had pretended to do newscasts in the Star Wars and Star Trek universes, when they were young — so my family’s fannish history was rich.
In high school or maybe junior high, my friends and I started doing things like writing our own Star Trek stories, mostly parody. I also wrote some Mary Sue fic, about me and Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins. (I recently found and reread some of it. I will not be posting it to AO3…Just because it’s all WIPs, of course. Not because it’s not fantastic quality. Nope.) I also drew a lot of Genesis fanart.
So I was creating some fanworks early on without knowing that this was a thing that anyone did. It was more just me and my friends writing a combination of what we wanted the shows to do and a sort of wish fulfillment, like who we wanted to meet or how we wanted to be in the band. We did all of that without having any context that it was a thing that other people did.
When did you take the next step, getting involved with fandom as a community and creating in that space?
I was on the edges of fandom community for a very long time.
I started out online in the Peter Gabriel fandom, as well as the periphery of a few TV fandoms. There were a few websites out there where I would interact with other fans and there were newsgroups. I was on USENET and IRC and I was finding places where people were talking about Peter Gabriel and Star Trek, and the beginnings of the X-Files. The first guy I dated I met in alt.music.peter-gabriel. I made a lot of friends early on when it was still really weird to meet people on the internet, but I didn’t hit the creative side of fandom so much. It took a while to find where people were producing fanfiction.
I don’t actually remember when I came across other people who were also creating fanfiction and fanart. By the time I graduated from college around 2000, though, I had definitely ran across creative fandom as a thing, including fandom creations.
I wasn’t super into any one fandom by then, so I didn’t dive into participatory fandom when I found it. When Harry Potter fandom was big, some of my friends were sending me a lot of their favorite fics and I was reading some of them excitedly, but I wasn’t into any one ship or author, nor did I feel compelled to create my own fanworks for that series. I didn’t really become part of the community in the fandom, as a result.
I was also on a couple of forums for a humor website called Brunching Shuttlecocks and I was deeply involved in the discussion forum and some collaborative online games they played, so I had some experiences of fannish community there. But I think the Sherlock fandom was the first time that I really got to know a lot of the people in the fandom well and joined in the creation process.
How did you find the Sherlock fandom? What drew you into that one in such a deep way?
I was going through a rough time in my life. When I’m coping with such a rough patch, I often reread my favorite books, or revisit favorite TV or films, seeking out the ones that are comforting and positive. This time around for whatever reason it occurred to me to seek out fic, I’d watched Sherlock relatively recently, so as well as rereading some of my favorite books, I thought to myself you know what might exist? There may exist some fic out there about John and Sherlock — that seems like something that might possibly have attracted fandom’s attention.
So I thought, I’ll just do a search and see if there is any nice fluffy romance. And I found some! I didn’t realize until later that this was one of the largest ships or fandoms at the time. I just thought, wow, fanfic has gotten so much easier to find than it was a decade or even five years ago. There’s lots of great stuff! There’s AO3, and I can sort by kudos and search easily. So I went on this reading binge for something like three months where I read all of the JohnLock fic that I could, mainly sorting by kudos and going down the list. Then I started finding some of those people on tumblr and following them, as well as looking through the #sherlock and #johnlock tags for artists I liked. It was a revelation how much stuff there was out there, and how easy it was to find.
At some point I suddenly had three different fic ideas. I hadn’t seen any of these things yet, and these were things that I wanted to exist. I’ve always written fiction for fun, though it had always been original works previously — and eventually I just thought, okay I’ll jump in. I’m also a long-time blogger (previously for non-fannish purposes), so I started a tumblr. Initially I used it mostly just to reblog things and give fic recs, but was soon posting meta and fic myself.
So, when I fell into the fandom, it was very strongly via JohnLock. I wrapped myself up in the fandom and the warm fuzzy feelings it gave me, and it helped me through my hard time — and then I stuck around after!
What kind of fanworks do you create?
I write a lot of fic and meta in the Sherlock fandom and occasionally for other fannish things. I used to do a lot of fanart in high school but I haven’t drawn anything in so long that now I’m badly out of practice, and it’s a frustrating experience. I’ve occasionally done other one-off fanworks, like when I figured out how to get custom printed tights with the 221B wallpaper pattern, and I printed up a whole bunch of wallpaper tights for my friends — but mostly, I stick to writing fic and writing about fandom.
So how did you go from fic and meta to stats analysis?
By way of background, stats is one of the tools that I apply to everything in my life that I get interested in. I studied psychology and computer science in school, and I had to learn a lot of stats for that. In my professional life I’ve continued using stats. So stats have long been in my toolbox, but I also like to apply them to my hobbies.
I had come into fandom via this one ship in this one fandom and I was just laser focused on it — and mostly on finding explicit fic relating to that ship. Because it was so easy to find, at first I had assumed for a while that no matter what you wanted from fandom it was much easier to get these days. So one of my first questions was whether or not that was true. I didn’t actually know if this was just my experience versus everyone’s experience. I knew what I was reading a lot of, but I didn’t know how representative it was of everything else.
I think what specifically prompted me to dig into the numbers and investigate is the AO3 filtering system. If you click on a tag on AO3, the site offers you a Sort and Filter sidebar. It will give you all kinds of breakdowns, by rating, relationship category, additional tags, etc. Because AO3 was putting those numbers in my face, I was probably quicker to be curious about what kinds of fanworks people were producing, and what things were like for people who weren’t in this one ship that I had a good view of. So I looked at those breakdowns that they have on their Works Search page and I thought, I’ll just do searches on each of those categories — each rating, each warning, etc. — and I’ll make some pie charts and see what the Archive looks like as a whole.
That was the first thing I did, a bunch of pie charts. (In retrospect I wish I hadn’t used pie charts for some of those, because they’re misleading for things like Warnings where the different options are not mutually exclusive). I thought it would be one quick look at AO3, and I’d have satisfied my curiosity and be done. But then I thought, maybe somebody else cares besides me. So I posted it on my tumblr and it’s one of my most popular posts ever. It got thousands of notes. And I got all kinds of people asking interesting follow-up questions. I also started to see my graphs being used to make arguments about fandom, e.g., people saying there’s too much slash, or there is not enough femslash, or there’s too much romance and not enough gen. People who had a particular point they wanted to make were citing my data in the context of questions or points that I had never considered. I learned a lot from watching people’s responses and hearing their questions, and I ended up with some more questions myself and ended up doing more stats.
That process continued for a while, with me gathering more data about AO3 from a readers’ perspective — and eventually doing some investigating of other platforms, like Fanfiction.net and Tumblr. And then as I became more and more of a writer, I also had more and more questions about what the experience was like for other writers — what’s typical in terms of number of kudos per fic? How does that vary by fandom? What tags and relationship categories are most popular to read vs. to write? And so forth.
A lot of it comes from me having a particular experience and then going, how does this compare to that of other fans? Wanting to understand the diversity of other people’s experiences and also what’s the most common. Trying to better understand what the world looks like instead of the narrow view that I have.