Any fan work creator will tell you there’s a very specific process we go through when we create a new work. We finish it, pretty up the formatting for web, shoot it out into the great yawning void of the internet—and then we wait. We watch the hits count up, and we continually refresh our inbox waiting for the most anticipated of interactions with other fans: comments.
Whether you’re posting on FanFiction.net (in which case they’re called reviews instead), Archive of Our Own, Wattpad, DeviantArt, Tumblr, or any number of other places to publicly share the thing you’ve created, having someone respond is an exhilarating feeling. Our hobby is unique in that not only is there no gatekeeper to prevent your work from being made public, there is also no barrier between content creators and their consumers. Ideally, this lack of barrier means that content creators (writers, artists, vid and gif makers) receive instant feedback from the consumers, in this case other fans.
In practice, though, comments are increasingly rare gems that content creators hungrily crave. Some point to AO3’s kudos feature as a form of wordless comment—a thumbs up that says someone liked your work. They aren’t wrong, exactly. I know I wake up every morning in anticipation of my daily email from AO3 rounding up all my kudos from the previous day. But nothing makes me giddier than getting an email notifying me that someone commented.
Explaining why comments are so intoxicating to content creators could fill up an article all on its own, but in my opinion, it boils down to the fundamentally human desire for validation and connection with other humans. A kudo or a favorite is like a passing wave. A comment is a conversation, and it allows us to form a temporary bond over the shared experience of fan works. Content creators crave comments like a college kid craves a free hot meal—we may not need it to function in our everyday lives, but it makes us feel awesome.
Comments are all too rare (or is it that we simply can’t enough?) When creators try to come up with reasons to explain the lack of comments on their work, the discussion seems to boil down to four reasons:
1. The consumer is intimidated by the content creator.
This seems to be a phenomenon that occurs more often with Big Name Fans (BNF) or content creators that have gained name recognition within their own fandom. A BNF may have a very large following and interacts with only one or two other BNFs on a regular basis.
“They won’t want to talk to me,” the consumer might say. “This person is internet famous. I couldn’t offer them any kind of interesting discussion.”
With very few exceptions, the majority of BNFs are regular people who were fortunate enough to gain popularity. This isn’t necessarily a reflection on them, since any number of factors can influence whether someone’s work gains notice by the fandom at large. Maybe they got into the fandom early when there weren’t many people creating fan works and have consistently stayed in the fandom as it grew larger. Maybe they’re good at making eye-catching, attractive banners for their fanfic or have a talent for art composition to attract a viewer’s attention as they’re scrolling through Tumblr tags. Maybe they regularly participate in or organize exchanges that result in getting their name out there.
However this person gained the popularity of being a BNF, they are usually no different than your average fan. They also crave validation and connection in the form of conversations with people who are consuming the works they create. More than likely, they’ll be thrilled to receive your thoughts on their work.
2. The consumer doesn’t want to bother the creator or seem creepy/obsessed.
This is somewhat related to the preceding point, but it doesn’t just apply to BNFs and seems to be related to social anxiety in general. It is perhaps unsurprising that a significant portion of fandom deals with anxiety of one kind or another. Fandom seems to attract people who might have difficulty forming social circles in meatspace (a term I prefer instead of “real life,” which implies that interactions with other humans through the internet are somehow less “real”). Sometimes it’s because they don’t share interests with the people they encounter in meatspace, but sometimes it’s because social niceties don’t come easily for them.
This can be even more difficult on the internet. Text lacks tone, inflection, facial expressions, and body language, which are things we use in meatspace to determine whether the person we’re talking to is being sincere or sarcastic. As fans, a lot of our text communication comes with a palpable, over-the-top enthusiasm; we scream in caps lock, we keymash, we flood our posts with emojis and gifs and flailing. We love the things we love with incandescent joy—and to outside, non-fan people, that can seem obsessive and off-putting. Many fans might have even been told to dial it back or calm down.
This has the side effect of making those fans want to mute their enthusiasm. When they encounter a fan work they enjoy and admire, their first reaction might just be that incoherent, caps lock flailing enthusiasm, but their first instinct is to keep it to themselves. They’re worried they will be seen as creepy or obsessed.
If this is you, then you shouldn’t be worried. Enthusiasm is an incredible compliment. To have someone enjoy a work so much that they can’t even form a coherent sentence means that the content creator has emotionally affected this person, and that’s the goal of any creative work. It means that we succeeded. Don’t be afraid to caps lock, or keymash, or to be visibly joyous about what you’ve just seen.
3. The consumer doesn’t know what to say.
More than either of the preceding two reasons, this is the one I have seen cited most often by people who don’t leave comments.
“The only thing I can think of to write is ‘I liked it,'” they say, as if that isn’t good enough.
That is good enough. Saying “I liked it” or even “I loved it” is compliment enough. It tells the content creator that you formed a connection with their work and that you enjoyed it. Creators put their work out there in the first place because they want someone to enjoy it, so receiving that kind of comment is not in any way inadequate.
If you do want to say more than that, though, there’s a few things you could include. You could tell the creator what specifically you liked about it, whether it was the way they wrote a particular character, the color choices in their art, or the way a certain scene was paired with a certain lyric in a music video. Content creators work very hard to carefully choose what goes into their composition. Chances are, you’ve picked up on something that they deliberately spent a great deal of time on. It’s rewarding to know that someone out there in the audience understood what they were trying to do.
You could also include how you felt when you saw the work. If it made you laugh or cry or yell at your monitor, we definitely want to know. Art of any kind is meant to evoke emotion in the consumer, and if you tell us what we made you feel, it means that what we did was successful. If you’re reading fanfiction and you come across a line that takes your breath away, absolutely do include that line in your comment and say that you particularly enjoyed it.
Essentially, the dream comment of pretty much any content creator will dissect the work like you’re writing a report for a class. A fic author wants a comment that’s basically a book report with quotes and citations and maybe even thoughts on symbolism, style, or composition. An artist wants a comment like you’re presenting their piece for an art class, bringing up composition, use of color, lighting, and shadows. A gif or vid maker wants you to talk like a film student, referencing editing choices, filters, effects, or anything else you noticed. We want to connect with someone about our craft and the way it was perceived by the consumer.
4. The consumer didn’t like something and is unsure if they should say so.
There is a fierce debate over whether constructive criticism should be offered on fan works. One school of thought is that content creators don’t improve unless criticism is offered, and if consumers stay silent about the flaws in a piece, that creator might go on to make more flawed works without understanding why those works aren’t being enjoyed. The other school of thought is that fan works are created as a hobby, for free and without pay, and consumers who don’t enjoy that particular fan work should move on to find something they do enjoy.
Some content creators specifically ask for constructive criticism when they post their work. In that case, it’s fine to share your thoughts on how they might improve. Generally, when offering criticism of any kind, it’s important to lead in with a compliment and end with another one. That way, the creator sees that you did enjoy the work, you just have some thoughts on how it might be better. This feels better than getting a comment that’s loaded with criticism without any positives to balance it out.
If you genuinely did not enjoy the work as a whole, it’s probably a good idea not to leave a comment. The work is simply not to your taste or isn’t of the quality you prefer, and that’s fine—but if you don’t have anything nice to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all.
The sticky part comes when a creator has not specifically asked for criticism but hasn’t specifically said it’s unwelcome. In this case, I would advise against criticism. If you felt that something was off, chalk it up to the content creator’s style or a personal disagreement and don’t mention it. Not every fan work will be something you immensely enjoy, but if you enjoyed it a little bit, leaving a comment about what you liked shouldn’t come with a laundry list of things you didn’t like.
That said, most content creators want to know if you found a typo, a sentence that didn’t make sense, or a glaring continuity error. Most of them will thank you for pointing it out, because it means they can edit their work to get rid of it. Personally, even after my work has gone through a beta reader, some errors still make it to publication. I definitely want to know about these errors, so I can quietly fix them and improve the experience for future readers.
Comments or reviews allow consumers of fan works to interact with the creators of fan works. This connection allows them to have a conversation about something they have mutual enthusiasm for. It lets the content creator know that someone out there in the vast expanse of the internet found what they poured their heart into and enjoyed it enough to communicate that feeling of enjoyment and appreciation. It makes the content creator feel validated and motivates them to keep producing fan works.
Fans make content because they love the source material and want to share their experience of it with other fans—and without feedback from those other fans, it can feel like you’re throwing your heart out into nothingness. After a little while, that can get very discouraging, and it can make content creators feel like nobody is connecting with the art they’re producing. They may even stop creating, which would be a shame, because every content creator has a unique experience and voice to lend to the fandom, just like every consumer has a unique perspective on a particular piece of fan work.
Next time you run across a work that hits you right in the feels, don’t be afraid to interact. Don’t feel like you’re putting people off with your enthusiasm. Reach out and make a connection with the person who made you smile, or cry, or slam your hands on your keyboard because you just couldn’t form a more coherent response. Fandom is a space for us to be unapologetically enthusiastic about the things we love, and that should include the works of other fans.