The conversation here and on my tumblr lately has focused on comments and the history of commenting in the Tolkien fandom. (See this conversation with Simaethae on Tumblr for discussion of how commenting has changed in the past twelve years.) I’ve also been thinking a lot about commenting data and how it is best to collect and interpret this data.
In the course of doing the latter, I’ve begun posting again to FanFiction.net, mostly to have access to the very specific statistics they collect about comments. I heard from a few people, when I wrote on my journal about trying this, that they were considering posting again to FanFiction.net because they believed they might get some comments on their work there, whereas they were not receiving many comments on AO3. (I had stopped posting at FanFiction.net when the administration refused to take any action against bullying, especially against teenage authors.)
This made me wonder: Do authors get more comments on FanFiction.net than elsewhere? Is there something of the older fandom culture there? One of my theories about why feedback has decreased in the Silmarillion fanfic community is that, ten years ago, there was a wide perception that people wrote fanfic in order to improve as writers, and we tended to perceive ourselves as all helping each other toward that goal. FanFiction.net still expresses that philosophy, once near-universal in the Tolkien fanfic community, in their Story Guidelines that are available when posting a new story to the site:
3. Respect the reviewers. Not all reviews will strictly praise the work. If someone rightfully criticizes a portion of the writing, take it as a compliment that the reviewer has opted to spend his/her valuable time to help improve your writing.
4. Everyone here is an aspiring writer. Respect your fellow members and lend a helping a hand when they need it. Like many things, the path to becoming a better writer is often a two way street.
The idea that we are all writing because we are aspiring toward writing excellence seems far less prevalent today than it once was, and I wondered if this was behind the drop in commenting in recent years.
So I decided to take a look to see if there is a difference in commenting across the Silmarillion sections of multiple sites. I looked at An Archive of Our Own (AO3), FanFiction.net (FFN), Many Paths to Tread (MPTT), and the Silmarillion Writers’ Guild (SWG). All of these sites make it possible to filter out only the Silmarillion stories.
The methodology I used:
- I started with stories posted two weeks ago, beginning on December 10, and worked back from there. There’s a good reason why a story posted in the last 48 hours wouldn’t have many (or any!) comments: People just haven’t had a chance to read and react to it yet! Going back two weeks made my data more fair toward sites like AO3 that have a large number of stories being posted per day.
- I looked only at one-chapter stories in the Silmarillion section.
- I looked only at stories written in English.
- I listed the number of comments and clicks beginning on December 10 and worked back from there, until I had collected data from ten stories on each site. On AO3, I counted only top-level comments since comment replies count toward the comment count reported on the story stats. FFN, unfortunately, does not make click data public, so that data is missing.
Here is the data chart:
- On all sites except MPTT–which had dismally low comment rates in its Silmarillion section–you can expect to get about the same number of comments: one, maybe two, per single-chapter story.
- You are more likely to get more than two comments on AO3 and FFN.
- You are most likely to hear from at least one reader on the SWG: Only 10% of the stories I looked at had no comments. That number was 20% on AO3 and 30% on FFN.
- Reading rates, however, were much more variable. Surprisingly, your story is going to get the most readers on MPTT*–however, you’ll hardly ever hear from them. I expected higher click counts on AO3, which is by far the busiest Silmarillion section online right now. However, it doesn’t seem like the high number of users necessarily translates into a lot of traffic on individual stories, perhaps because there are enough stories being posted there that readers can afford to be particular. Click counts were lower than I expected on the SWG (although I have suspected they were falling for a while now, I was still startled by how low they actually are), but even with relatively few readers, you’re likely to hear something on your story.
- Comment-to-click ratios were the highest on the SWG, where one reader out of thirty-nine comments. On AO3, one reader out of sixty-four comments.
*See my discussion with bunn in the comments below about this. We conclude that most of those clicks are likely bot-generated.
I wish I had click data for FFN, but even without it, it doesn’t seem like a Silmarillion author is going to do much better there than on AO3 or the SWG.
Overall, I think this data also presents a pretty glum picture of commenting in the Silmarillion fanfic community right now. If you post a Silmarillion story today, in two weeks, you might hear from one, maybe two, readers. Obviously, some authors have much higher rates of feedback–but at the same time, there are authors who hear nothing, or almost nothing, on their work.
On this post about commenting, I suggested that many readers might lack the confidence and skills to write comments that they feel are meaningful to authors. The discussion around this idea was really good, and I won’t say much more on it here, but what did arise during that discussion that changed my thinking somewhat is the difference between small, intimate archives and large, generalized archives and quality of relationships most users form there. I think the data does bear this out, keeping in mind that it is a very limited sample. (I should start doing this regularly to see if these trends hold.) The SWG, based on click data alone, is the smallest of the three sites for which click data is available. My own experience as the owner of that site is that it tends to be a more intimate setting, and most people who participate there tend to be acquainted with each other (and, in some cases, have deep, years-long friendships). And you’re more likely to hear from a reader there than on AO3 and especially MPTT, which seem to have more people willing to read a Silmarillion story but less likely to speak to an author about it.
In conclusion, it seems to me that, if we aspire to raise rates of commenting in the Silmarillion community, it might require a couple of approaches. First is to increase the resources and systems available to help readers develop the skills to write comments. But I think that increasing the intimacy in the community will also help. Talking with some friends–most of them SWG users–in response to my complaint that Tumblr is the primary place where discussions of The Silmarillion occur (and Tumblr is universally regarded as terrible for discussions), many were interested in having the ability to discuss Tolkien in a location off of Tumblr. As I ponder the direction for the SWG site redesign, this is definitely at the forefront of my mind.
And one final footnote about commenting in earlier eras of fandom history: I am perusing old Metafandom posts for a paper I’m researching, and I encountered numerous posts bemoaning the lack of comments and making the same pleas that I hear today about the need for readers to do their part in supporting the work of authors they enjoy. Metafandom was a multifandom community that collected links to discussions in fandom. It was not heavily used by the Tolkienfic community. But it reminds me that dissatisfaction with the amount of comments one receives is certainly not a new complaint.
However, I do think the situation has worsened. I looked back at the Silmarillion section on FFN for 29 November 2004. Unfortunately, the Wayback Machine only saved the first page, so I could not follow the methodology of going two weeks back and looking at the data for the ten single-chapter stories posted on or before that date. Instead, I looked at the ten oldest single-chapter stories on that page, which were all posted two weeks or before November 29. The median number of reviews was two.
By the next snapshot I was able to find for 20 February 2009, activity in the Silmarillion section has slowed to where I could follow the methodology using just the first page of stories; the median number of comments is still two. Same for 3 March 2009: The median is two for the ten oldest stories on the first page.
By 9 October 2013, however–in the heart of the Hobbit film trilogy and with activity clearly picked up in the Silmarillion section of FFN–the median number of comments is down to one per story, following the methodology where all stories had been posted for at least two weeks. Same by 20 September 2015. I’m not sure what happened around that time, but it seems the narrowest I’ve been able to pinpoint a drop in commenting so far: right around the release of the Hobbit trilogy. The easiest explanation is that an increase in activity in a fanfic community does not translate into increased commenting, which could also support my explanation that more intimate communities bring about more commenting. However, I’m open to other theories in the comments.