As I’ve analyzed the data on commenting in the Tolkien fanfic community, there has been one group that repeatedly caught my interest: authors who do not leave comments. 13.5% of authors who responded to the survey replied that they did not leave comments on Tolkienfic–not a huge number but nonetheless surprising to me, who assumed that nearly all authors would recognize the value of comments and would therefore comment on others’ work. (And, for the record, all of these authors replied that they did read Tolkienfic.) For some time now, I have wanted to look closer at this group, but other sets of data beckoned and seemed more important, so I kept setting this work to the side.
But the discussion on my most recent post Please R&R! … or the Practices and Perils of Leaving Feedback on Tolkien Fanfic made this group a priority because I think they can shed some light on the questions raised in that post and the detailed, thoughtful discussion that followed.
This is an interesting group because they negate many of the reasons people often give for why readers do not comment on the fanfic they read. These readers are comfortable enough with the craft of writing to compose fan fiction. Among those who publish their fanworks, they clearly have the self-confidence to share that writing. And they possess a device on which they can write and access fandom spaces, negating the claim of many non-commenters that they only access fanfic on their phones and cannot comment on their phones. Presumably, this would be the zero-excuse group that should be churning out comments left and right, no?
As “Please R&R” claimed, however, commenting is a unique writing skill that is perhaps more difficult and intimidating than some authors acknowledge. The comments on that post also emphasized the role that community plays in opening the floodgate of comments: When one feels like one is a part of a community, it is easier to reach out to authors than if one feels disengaged. Yet, on archives anyway, becoming a part of the community often involves, well, commenting, inciting a chicken-and-egg cycle where one doesn’t feel comfortable enough with the community to comment and yet needs to comment in order to become comfortable with the community. Authors who don’t comment would seem to be the closest we have to a perfect group for testing these ideas.
Experience and Confidence
Demographically, authors who don’t comment are very similar to authors as a whole. They are a median 23 years old; authors as a whole are a median age of 24 years. They have a median three years of experience writing Tolkien-based fanfic, compared to four years for authors as a whole.
However, authors who don’t leave comments show a lack of experience using other measures. After all, one can participate in the fandom in varying degrees: reading the occasional story and writing a few, or diving full in, reading constantly, and writing frequently.
The data suggests that authors who don’t comment do not write as many stories as authors who do. Non-commenting authors had written a median of five stories, compared to ten stories written by authors as a whole. Perhaps these fans are simply less involved in the Tolkienfic community, which also creates an apathy around engaging with other authors through comments.
But perhaps more intriguing–and important?–is that authors who don’t comment publish their fan fiction at far lower rates than authors as a whole.
- Of non-commenting authors, 28.4% had written at least one Tolkienfic but had published none. This was true for only 11.8% of authors as a whole.
- Among non-commenting authors, only 40.5% had published 81% or more of what they wrote, compared to 56.9% for authors as a whole.
Writing fewer stories suggests a reduced investment in the Tolkienfic community, but publishing less of what is written suggests a lack of confidence. It is impossible to speculate on the reasons for this lack of confidence–these authors could be beginning or ELL writers, they might feel more anxiety around sharing their writing (stories and comments) publicly, they might not feel like they belong to a community, or any number of reasons–but it is easy to see how this lack of confidence could extend to writing comments as well, no matter the reason.
The survey did ask about confidence as a writer. 91% of authors agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “Writing fan fiction has helped me to become a more confident writer.” Only 84% of non-commenting authors responded similarly to the that statement. This is not a huge difference, but it does suggest that low confidence may influence these fans’ behavior. Furthermore, whereas participating in fandom causes gains in confidence that encourages further participation in fandom, it may be that these authors don’t latch into this cycle as strongly as some of their peers. They are reaping fewer rewards in terms of self-confidence from fandom participation, which can have implications for commenting behavior as well.
Comments, Interactions, and Encouragement
As I am writing this post, I am also chatting with my long-time fandom friend Hrymfaxe about our recent Tolkien projects. For both of us, we have created fanworks in the past few months that were inspired by the other’s work and through discussion of that work with each other. This is how fanworks communities often operate: far from the lone, artistic genius that commands the Western imagination, fanworks are often collaborative in nature. Even if the creator does not directly collaborate with another creator, they are often responding to discussions, comments, and fanworks produced by other creators: a constantly ongoing, evolving conversation where fanworks become artifacts of one’s canonical stance, values, or social affiliation at a single moment in the conversation.
85% of all authors agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “Comments from and interactions with other fans encourage me to write fan fiction.” Less than 5% disagreed/strongly disagreed. But for authors who do not leave comments, comments and interactions offer far less encouragement: Only 66% agreed/strongly agreed, and 12% disagreed. (None strongly disagreed.)
Again, it is hard to know the direction of causality here. An author who doesn’t comment–for whatever reason–is possibly not engaging as often in conversations with fandom peers. As many mentioned in the comments on “Please R&R,” there is also a norm of reciprocity in fanworks communities: showing interest in an author’s work by commenting often encourages that author to read and comment on the commenter’s stories. So it is possible that this data simply reflects the fact that these authors don’t comment and so miss out on important conversations and relationships.
It is also possible that these authors have received comments and simply don’t find them rewarding, encouraging, or inspiring. There was also much discussion on “Please R&R” about authors who complain about sincere, well-intentioned comments and the chilling effect that these complaints can have on the reader gathering their courage to comment. Some of these authors may live in this group. There was also discussion about flames and abusive/harassing comments. It is possible that these authors may have received negative or otherwise unpleasant feedback that soured them on interactions with readers, making a comment notification in one’s inbox a stressful experience.
Commenting Norms and the “Gift Economy”
Fanworks communities tend to place a high value on comments, feedback, and other forms of interaction between members. A few disgruntled authors notwithstanding, the data above shows that most authors value their readers’ feedback, and communities tend to encourage commenting in various ways. A common refrain whenever discussing commenting is that readers wish they could comment more and regret that they allow temporal barriers to commenting–like not having time in the moment or reading on a device where commenting is difficult–to prevent them from ever telling the author that they enjoyed the author’s work. Indeed, 78% of participants wanted to leave feedback more often on the stories they read.
Of authors who don’t comment, however, only 63% agreed or strongly agreed with that same statement (“I want to leave comments and other feedback more often on the stories I read.”) They also disagreed almost twice as often: 16% of authors who didn’t comment compared to 9% for participants as a whole.
Two statements addressed the positive value placed on comments in the fanworks community. 78% of participants agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “I think it’s important for readers to leave comments and other feedback on the stories they read.” Only 60% of non-commenting authors agreed with this same statement, however, and again, twice as many (8%) disagreed with the statement as among participants as a whole (4%).
92% of participants recognized that commenting is a reader’s way of contributing to the so-called gift economy, agreeing or strongly agreeing with the statement “Commenting on stories is a way to give something back to the authors.” A gift economy–often proposed as the economic basis of fannish exchanges–is not based in a market but in gifting one’s contributions and services to the community without asking directly for payment. Gift economies are nonetheless driven by social norms, including norms of reciprocity, and a major source of tension in the Tolkien fanworks community has always been–and especially lately seems to be–the obligation of a reader toward an author whose work the reader enjoys for free. However, I believe that most community members would say that readers should comment on stories they enjoy or by authors whom they read frequently (even if these same community members don’t always act on that belief).
Among non-commenting authors, however, the value that commenting “give[s] something back” to authors is less pronounced: only 79% agreed or strongly agreed, compared to the 92% for participants as a whole.
This data suggests that there is a pocket of authors within this group that do not ascribe to dominant values concerning commenting and feedback. They are not, however, the entirety of this group, and it’s important to point out that the majority of non-commenting authors want to comment more often, feel that commenting is important, and see “giving back” to authors as an important component of the gift economy.
Barriers to Commenting
The whole purpose of “Please R&R” was to acknowledge barriers to commenting that I’d downplayed for many years, namely the difficulty of writing to the unique purpose and audience demanded by a comment on a fanwork. The barriers for authors who don’t comment, for the reasons identified above, seem particularly salient in testing whether my ideas are correct or not.
Non-commenting authors and participants as a whole differed little in their agreeance with the statement “I sometimes want to leave a comment but am not sure what to say”: 76% and 78% respectively.
To the statement “I sometimes want to leave a comment but think that my comment might not mean much to the writer,” 55% of all participants agreed or strongly agreed. A higher number of non-commenting authors agreed or strongly agreed with the same statement: 65%, suggesting again a lack of confidence more so than a lack of skill.
I think this points to an idea that arose in the discussion on “Please R&R” rather than the post itself: Community, and feeling like one belongs and has the right to speak up in a community, is hugely important as well. This doesn’t mean that I have discounted the role that lack of skill in writing comments plays; I think that is important as well. Those 78% of participants who wanted to say something but didn’t know what shouldn’t be easily brushed aside. But I also think that feeling like one belongs to a community often provides the impetus to overcome those skill deficits, to reach out because one wants to support an acquaintance or brighten a friend’s day or simply contribute positively to a space one enjoys.
Community may even be the most important factor.
It certainly explains why authors have found their comments drying up in recent years as the Tolkien fanworks community has shifted away from Tolkien fandom-owned–and often small, highly specialized, close-knit–archives toward An Archive of Our Own (AO3). In addition, and perhaps more importantly, social media participation has shifted from Yahoo! Groups and LiveJournal to Tumblr. While the former two encourage interactions between people–including getting to know each other as people, not just authors or artists as seemingly distant as a professional one admires–Tumblr does not.
This suggests that a solution to the lack of comments is building stronger fandom communities. The challenge is how to do this. Fandom activity has shifted into vast, impersonal, multifandom spaces over the past several years. I understand the convenience of such sites–I really do–but I also lament the lack of human connection and the damage this has done to the Tolkien fanworks community. It makes me wonder what we can do on the SWG–as one of the few remaining small Tolkien archives that is active–and other small sites and groups still hanging in there to strengthen our own community and empower people to talk to each other again, even if just in our tiny corners of the fandom.