Fandom is in the midst of a comment drought. It has been for a long time. For some reason, reader engagement is critically low, and authors are very frustrated by this. Instead of whining aimlessly, I want to have a productive discussion analyzing the causes and proposing possible solutions.
To begin with, I want to emphasize that we should prioritize the accounts of reviewers themselves. Because the conversation takes place mostly among authors, we tend to see a lot of speculation from authors on why readers don't comment, and not a lot of tangible accounts from the readers themselves. It is, obviously, hard to get the thoughts of people who don't comment. But when we do, we should take that as evidence over speculation. You can see some responses from reviewers in the linked threads, and I will try to provide links to reader accounts to corroborate proposed theories.
The reasons listed in AO3 Comment of the Day were broken down into several categories by Tumblr user yeswevegotavideo:
I Just Don’t Want to Comment
- enjoyed the fic but didn’t have anything to say
- didn’t like the fic / didn’t finish reading
I Want to Comment, But…
- not a native speaker of the author’s language
- worried that a general “I love this!” wasn’t a good enough comment
- reading on a device where commenting is difficult
- was going to say something but another reader already commented it
- not enough mental/emotional energy to try to craft a ‘good enough’ comment
- worry about bothering the author
Not Sure If Want??
- so overcome by emotions after reading that words were impossible
- doesn’t have an AO3 account (+ doesn’t know about the guest option or isn’t comfortable using it)
- shy / social anxiety
- intended to come back later and didn’t
- intends to come back later and hasn’t yet
- reading fic before bed and fall asleep
- reading fic while sick and in a haze
- interrupted while reading the fic and thought they finished it/commented but whoops!
I believe this is a useful breakdown. We can't do anything about accidents, pure shyness, or "just don't wanna". It's the second category that is the problem: Readers who want to comment, but are held back by some other factor.
Notice that none of the reasons here are that readers are just too inherently lazy, entitled, selfish, or stupid to give meaningful comments! So can we stop saying that, please? Readers can see you badmouthing them, and it just makes everything worse.
While we can't do anything about technical difficulties such as reading on mobile, the other stated reasons have a common thread:
Readers are too scared to talk to authors.
This seems a reasonable explanation, but my example cited in the Reddit thread casts a lot of doubt on this theory. If readers are discouraged by fear, they are only afraid of leaving certain types of comments. That they jumped at the chance to give bug reports for a fangame would imply that they are not just inherently socially anxious and intimidated from any interaction at all. This is, at most, only part of the problem.
Obviously, some people are always going to be more shy than others, and there's nothing that can be done about that. However, the overwhelming prevalence of shyness in fanfic communities implies there is an external factor causing it, and I believe my example in the Reddit thread provides support for this theory. If the fear theory is correct, readers were not afraid to give bug reports, but were afraid to give any other type of comment.
The key question here is What is making readers so afraid? We will need to answer that question before we can build effective solutions.
Answers I have seen proposed:
1) Fear of harassment and bullying from the purity brigade
This is a major community problem that many people are already aware of, but cannot stop. It is particularly insidious because even if a particular author never engages in this behavior, they can still be robbed of comments by the fear of what others will do. I believe the most that can be done here is what communities are already doing to resist harassment campaigns, though perhaps we should try to make that resistance stronger. Unfortunately, I am pretty far removed from these areas of discourse, so I don't know much more about what has been done and what can be done further.
2) Fear that the author won't want the comment
This has multiple flavors: That authors want detailed comments, that authors don't want detailed comments, that authors only want objective errors like SPAG, that authors only want story commentary, that authors only want praise, that authors only want concrit, that authors don't want comments on old fics.
...As you can see, this is a mess of contradictions. If you try to avoid anything that could potentially offend an author, you will quickly find yourself with nothing left. My proposed solution here is to push back against the maxim of "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." Authors should take the effort to more clearly communicate in advance exactly what types of comments they prefer, and which comments they don't want at all. Community engagement is opt-out, not opt-in; if authors provide no instruction, that should be taken to mean readers should comment, not that they shouldn't.
Farla brings up an additional factor: Readers cannot trust authors even when they do say they want comments.
[If] I say, "Hey, I'd like to hear if this part worked?" I mean I'd like to hear if that part worked but other people mean I don't think it's good and I'd like reassurance and will take criticism on that specific part hardest. Desperately begging people that no really, you just want to get a response of some kind seems like it should be unambiguous, but again it can mean that they're fishing for something specific with that desperation and will absolutely lose it if they're not given it precisely. Someone with the former interpretation is going to be more likely to comment now that you're narrowed down potential topics, but someone with the latter interpretation is going to clam up. I've seen multi-paragraph begging to know what people think and how they love concrit and want to improve and please please please, followed by yelling at me for flaming and blocking me over a SPAG issue in the next author's note that concluded with another request for concrit because they want that so much. The words used by people who want comments and people who want very specific comments are identical. There's nothing anyone can say sincerely that hasn't been said in bad faith a hundred times. At this point, the problem is thoroughly that bad behavior on the author's side of things is accepted unconditionally - if someone blows up at a commenter, everyone will agree they deserved it no matter what the author said about acceptable comments and no matter what the comment actually contained.
Like the purity brigade, this is particularly bad because it means others can poison the well even if you personally are doing everything right. My proposal here is to be more critical of authors who react to comments. Don't give them unconditional support -- ask to see the actual content of the review and the context of what the author requested before passing judgment. If the author was acting in bad faith as in the above example, we as a community need to enforce that that's not okay.
Another element I believe might help here is providing good responses. If commenters can see you responding favorably to even potentially controversial comments, they may feel safer in commenting. This requires you to have comments to start with, however, and can't be relied upon because not everyone reads comments before commenting.
3) Fear that the author will start an argument
This often occurs because of a past experience with an author overreacting to a mild comment. This can be solved by holding yourself and others to a higher standard. Don't snap at and chase away readers, especially if they didn't even say anything negative. Don't hold readers to unwritten rules, either. If you don't say what you want, it's not the commenter's fault if they don't give it. I encourage the rest of the community to step in here as well, and push back against abusive behavior when you see it. Let readers know you have their backs.
A corollary to this is big-name-fans with hordes of rabid followers who can dogpile commenters the author dislikes. Obviously, this presents an even bigger risk than just the author themselves reacting badly. If you are such an author, I would implore you to be aware of the power you hold and rein in your fans if they cross a line.
4) Fear that their opinion is wrong, that they have nothing to contribute, or that it is not their place to question the author
This is a difficult problem, because it requires the catch-22 of talking to people who don't want to talk. However, I suspect it may be caused by the other fears in turn; if someone truly believes and internalizes a nasty response they got in a 3) situation, or sees posts detailing the ever-growing list of things you're not allowed to say in 2), it is reasonable to conclude that this will damage their own self-esteem and self-worth for the future. Therefore, by solving 1), 2), and 3), we may solve this problem as well. Additionally, clearer requests and directions from authors may help here, if authors make it clear that they consider any comment valuable.
5) Readers do not comment if they fear their comment will be deleted
Corroborated by me: This is the sole reason why I don't comment on AO3 anymore, only on FFN. Comments, especially good comments, take work. If readers have reason to believe that work is just going to be destroyed, they won't do it. I would implore authors to be more judicious with their deletions, and not destroy comments just out of disagreement. Someone put work into giving you their opinion, and that should be respected.
6) Most readers don't understand/believe how important their comments would be to the author / Commenting is a learned skill
This feels related to "Readers worry the author won't appreciate it", but is less insidious. A lot of users who aren't authors themselves genuinely may not realize how desired comments are or that they're important at all.
This one seems like it should have an easy solution: Just say in tags or notes that you want comments. But that alone doesn't yield results, implying there are other factors.
7) Readers resent feeling pressured to comment
Yeah, don't hold your story hostage, people. I don't know why this needs to be said. I can understand being frustrated, but you can't force readers to comment.
Given the amount of overlap between Tumblr and AO3, this seems likely. Unfortunately, I don't know what can be done about this other than generally pushing back and encouraging comments.
9) Readers feel pressured / don't have the energy to craft a "good enough" comment
This is a nice intention, but if it makes you not comment at all, that's, uh... bad. Sorry if that makes you feel more pressured, but it's true. Authors overanalyze lack of response and easily convince themselves that lack of comments means their story was terrible, even if they have lots of kudos. Anything is better than nothing, even if it's not perfect.
I think it's helpful to point out that on AO3 at least, you can leave as many comments as you want. It is perfectly okay to disgorge your raw feelings right after you finish, and then come back later when you've processed your thoughts more. Please don't let that stop you.
Additionally, if you find it difficult to note down all the things you want to comment on as you read, here is an add-on that allows you to undock the review box and keep it with you as you scroll through the story. Hopefully this will reduce the barrier to commenting.
10) Readers don't want to say when and why they're dropping a story
Like a lot of things, this is a reasonable thing for an author to not want, but the fact that has become the default assumption is a problem. I, personally, would really like to know this and consider it incredibly valuable information. I think this is another thing that should be considered opt-out, not opt-in. If you don't want it, you can say so, but that doesn't mean that has to be the default for everyone.
11) The liberals are ruining everything! Cancel culture! Cancel culture!
The use of "cancel culture" in mainstream politics is a bastardization of actual cancel culture, which started online, and has little to nothing to do with it. Not everything is a massive conspiracy. (Incidentally, my comment section is not a soapbox for your political tracts. If you go off on one, they are the one type of comment I will delete. You have been warned.)
These solutions are simple in theory, but difficult to enact in practice, as they require widespread changes in community attitudes... which is why I'm posting this to the world. I encourage you to talk to other authors and spread these ideas.