“Reading Lord of the Rings: The Final Attempt”:

an analysis of a web community

Janet Brennan Croft and Jay Shorten, University of Oklahoma

Presented at the Popular Culture Association Annual Conference, Toronto, March 2002. Janet Brennan Croft is Head of Access Services at the University of Oklahoma Libraries; email jbcroft@ou.edu.  Jay Shorten is Cataloger for Monographs and Electronic Resources at the University of Oklahoma Libraries; email jshorten@ou.edu.

‘This is certainly an interesting community that has assembled here.  I have an almost uncontrollable urge to run scientific experiments on it.  “People who read the Lord of the Rings once a year have a 43% lower incidence of heart disease, report above average levels of job satisfaction, and love citrus fruits.’” ("Kevin")

 

  1. Introduction

 The Internet has had an enormous influence on fan communities of all kinds.  Soap opera fans discuss plot twists, Xena fans trade fan fiction, Star Wars fans analyze movie trailers frame-by-frame, and so on. The Internet has made it extraordinarily easy for devotees of any subject to find like-minded people with whom to exchange news and discuss their passions. Lord of the Rings fans are no exception; there were hundreds of sites devoted to J.R.R. Tolkien’s creation worldwide before the Peter Jackson movie project began, and the number mushroomed as soon as it was announced. As a contributor to one discussion group noted:

The amount of Tolkien fan interaction which occurs over the Internet every [day] is simply staggering.  I tried to develop an approximate picture of it over two years ago for a project I finally had to abandon.  I counted over 200 forums before I gave up. (Martinez)

 What we hope to do in this paper is to contribute to the ethnographic study of fan web site users in general and Tolkien fans in particular, and make some observations on the topic of community on the Internet, especially as it relates to fan communities.

 First, what goes into an online community? Jenny Preece offers this list of components:

 People and Purpose

 In April 2001, Toronto writer, musician, and cartoonist Debbie Ridpath Ohi decided she needed to read The Lord of the Rings before the first installment of the movie trilogy came out at the end of that year.  As a filksinger1, she was already familiar with many elements of the story, but had never managed to read the trilogy the whole way through (Ohi, Reading) . She was also an experienced web forum host, with an online diary called “Blatherings” and a number of associated discussion forums on filk singing and other topics. For six years she managed an online writers’ community with a 50,000 member mailing list (Ohi, Permission) . Posting reports on her web site as she read each chapter was a logical extension of her online diary project, and she felt that inviting her friends to comment on her observations would encourage her to finish the book.

 The first participants were mainly Debbie’s friends and people who read her online diary regularly. But when her site was reviewed on the unofficial movie site TheOneRing.net (TORN), a diverse group of people from around the world was made aware of her project and joined the discussion.

 Policies and Computer Systems       

 Debbie initially set her site up as an unmoderated bulletin board.  As she read each chapter, she would post a brief essay about what she found interesting or boring, how she felt about the characters and plot, and so on.  Sometimes she added questions to stimulate discussion.  Readers did not have to register to use this site; anyone could post a reply to the list2. Replies would include the poster’s name, linked to their email address if they wanted to include it, and the date and time they posted.  There was no way for the writer to go back an edit a post in this format.  Earlier chapters remained open for posting even after Debbie had moved on, and in fact they are still open, but we cut off our analysis as of the day we posted our consent form.

 

  1. Statistics and comparisons

 The authors of Frontiers of Human-Centered Computing outline a framework for gathering information about online communities.  This framework includes: the demography of participants (how many members, their gender, age, occupation, and so on); their behavior online (number of posts per person, for example), and the characteristics of their interaction (type of posting, length of message, type of moderation) (Earnshaw et al. 273-4) . We’ll follow this framework in examining data about the “Final Attempt” community, but we’ll expand the definition of “characteristics of interactions” to include more than just statistical data.

Demographics

 Who participated in this discussion?  This was an amazingly heterogeneous group.  Members reported ages as young as 12 and as old as 51.  Some were reading The Lord of the Rings along with Debbie for the first time; most had read it several times, and many had read it over ten times and owned multiple copies. Occupations varied widely, too; there were schoolteachers, soldiers, graduate students, homemakers, software writers, and so on, all united by an interest in one book. As Wellman points out, “[t]he relative lack of social presence online fosters relationships with people who have more diverse social characteristics than might normally be encountered in person … This allows relationships to develop on the basis of shared interests rather than be stunted at the onset by differences in social status” (Wellman 191) .

 Participants were primarily from Canada and the United States, and other English-speaking countries such as England and New Zealand were well represented. But other posters wrote in from places as diverse as Sweden, Greece, and South Korea. Everyone posted in English, but there were several discussions on translation issues.

 Gender was an important factor in the demographics of this group. More than one participant felt that there were probably more female than male posters in this forum because of the tone and style of the exchanges.  A psychology student from Sweden, for example, wrote

I remember sometimes thinking that “it’s so nice here, that’s probably because there’s so many women around”. Was I right? Or was that just prejudice? ("Katarina", Tolkien)

 Allison Durno is a close friend of Debbie’s and one of the major contributors to the “Final Attempt” project.  She also noticed this “feel”:

…it intrigued me how many women in general were posting over in that board, though I’m not sure why.  Part of it is that I think of Tolkien fandom as heavily male-based, though I’m not quite sure if that’s true.  Part of it is because other Tolkien message boards I’ve lurked at do seem to be heavily male.  So, I wonder if women posted more because the board was run by a woman, if there was a tone to the discussion that was less-intimidating, if issues came to the foreground that women found they had more to talk about, if female-oriented reports (from Debbie) just generated more female response. (Durno, Progress)

 Interestingly, however, the statistics show that 50% of the users used a masculine or probably masculine name or identified themselves as male, and only 22% were female or probably female. 27% of the posters used gender-neutral names and did not identify themselves as male or female3 (see figure 1).

 But the number of posts by gender is also surprising, given this distribution (see figure 2).  Most studies of online communities conclude that men post more and longer posts than women, but that isn’t the case here.  The male participants posted 46% of the posts; the female participants, only 22% of the total posters, wrote 40% of the posts; and the gender-neutral participants wrote 14%.

 However, the type of post by gender seemed to follow the theoretical norm for Internet posting behavior (see figure 3). We divided the posts into three groups: primarily discussing the chapter under consideration; discussing anything else related to Tolkien’s writings; and posts that went completely off-topic, including discussions of the upcoming movie.  Of the total posts by women, 32% were on-topic, 16% were Tolkien-related, and 52% were off-topic.  For men, 43% were on-topic, 17% were Tolkien-related, and only 40% were off-topic. The distribution for gender-neutral posters was close to that for female posters, which supports the theory that women are more likely to pick a gender-neutral nickname than men (Jaffe et al. 230) .

The fact that the women in this group spoke up more than might be expected, given the gender distribution, might explain the “feminine” feel. Five of the top ten posters by number of words written were female. It is also likely that the gender and the behaviors modeled by the person who originated the board, and by Allison, who was the top poster and took on a  “hostess” role, set the tone.

 Behavior Online

 There is an observable increase in the number of posts per chapter after May 16 and May 31, the two dates when TORN posted short articles and links to her site (see figure 4).   Before the first mention the number of posts ranged from one to eleven, and after each mention the average is higher. Debbie’s last comments were posted on July 2nd, and after a few more weeks posts slowed to a trickle as participants moved on to the other Tolkien forums on Debbie’s site.

 On the other hand, the number of posts per chapter is relatively steady until May 31, when Debbie announced that she would be away for a few days (see figure 5). Allison observed that “it’s more than fun for us to talk amongst ourselves J. (Debbie said at dinner tonight that it was cool to see us doing that more and more) “ (Durno, V:1) .  This was also the chapter where a controversial “spoiler” was posted that could have given away an important surprise, and it generated a great deal of discussion.  We’ll talk about this more later in the presentation. After this date, the number of posts rose fairly steadily until the next-to-last chapter of the book.

 Characteristics of interactions

 From the earliest postings on this forum there was a balance between “scholarly” postings providing background to help Debbie understand and appreciate Tolkien’s works, and “encouragements” that urged her to continue reading and posting.  As time went on and the group got larger, there were more discussions that went off-topic. As noted above, the percentage of women’s postings that were off-topic was larger than that for men.

 In a way, this group was like a scholarly conference.  People came together for a short time for a defined purpose.  The topic under consideration was discussed from all angles and with great enthusiasm. After initially sticking to their subject, the participants began to create a sense of community through off-topic posts, which helped them form a kind of “social cement” (Fox and Roberts 646) with the other participants.  As the “conference” wound down, participants began making plans to meet again. Some of these plans would never come through, but some people would form longer-lived associations and form the core of the next “conference”.

 Communities start defining themselves when they begin to develop rules.  In this case, concerns about “spoilers” ruining the book for Debbie by revealing too much led to some posters appointing themselves “spoiler police” as early as the chapter “Farewell to Lorien”. Even earlier there were hints about the fate of Bill the Pony and the upcoming death of a favorite character that influenced Debbie’s reading.  The situation came to a crisis in the chapter “The King of the Golden Hall,” when Debbie made a comment about how meek and subservient Éowyn seemed.  This of course was a red flag to those familiar with the whole story, and one poster did reveal Éowyn’s later pivotal role. As Allison recalls

That was the spoiler that caused me to call Deb at 7:00 in the morning to warn her off the discussion boards and that freaked her out so much she gave me editing power for spoilers that night…  [T]hat’s how my role stepped up on the page, once Deb gave me “the keys” to be able to erase spoilers from the board.  It rather startled me to see how my role changed on the board from that point on. (Durno, Progress)

 Polite online behavior is distinct enough from face-to-face behavior that it has its own neologism: “netiquette”. And this was an exceptionally polite board. The closest thing to a flame during the whole history of the forum was a single incident of one poster calling another’s post “absolute rubbish”. Even complaints about spoilers were leavened with humor and emoticons to soften the blow (as in one example where a participant suggested posting decoy spoilers).

Several people commented that the overall tone of this board was far more mature than that of other discussion boards they had visited. One went so far as to call the behavior on some other Tolkien boards “orc-like” ("Bodo Hardbottle") . One poster wrote:

…in my opinion, the discussion climate at the Final Attempt board, and the subsequent Silmarillion board, was a lot more openminded, tolerant and welleducated than many others.  That is, most people seemed to be genuinely … and lovingly interested in the works and world of Tolkien, and truly interested in hearing other people’s point of view.  On many other boards where I’ve lurked a bit, I find that … people who don’t have the same opinion as the majority tend to get bashed or ridiculed. ("Katarina", I First Heard...)

Another participant speculated on the reason:

Having lurked a bit at some other boards, the level of deep feeling and thought at this board has seemed to be a good deal greater than the norm.  I have seen some boards that go into a similar level of detail, but without getting down to the real level of meaning … Perhaps this is due to the median age of the participants. ("Turumarth")

 

Unfortunately, we don’t have enough information on the ages of the participants to come to any real conclusions, since only 12 of the nearly 200 posters gave their ages.  But some posters mentioned “fanboy” sites as being particularly flame-ridden; these are forums where the median age and gender skew are probably quite different from the “Final Attempt” group.

 In an intriguing article titled “Politeness in computer culture: why women thank and men flame,” Susan Herring surveyed male and female posters on a variety of boards and came to some interesting conclusions.  Both male and female respondents valued polite behavior online, but actual behavior was skewed by gender.  She speculated that “[f]or women, a cluster of values emerges that can be characterized as democratic, based on an ideal of participation by all and validation of others’ experiences … For men, in contrast, there is a valorization of speed … and rational debate…”. Because of this value system, men may be more likely to be annoyed by incompetent acts on the part of other posters, such as sending time-wasting messages and spam, and may respond like a “net vigilante” and justify flaming as “a form of self-appointed regulation of the social order” (Herring 289-90) .

 But this board was different.  While levels of computer competence and knowledge of Tolkien’s legendarium varied, at all times a plea of ignorance invoked a deluge of help instead of ridicule. Participants in this forum exhibited “reciprocal supportiveness,” a value that builds community and at the same time is “a means of expressing one’s identity” and increasing “ self-esteem, respect from others, and status attainment”.  In contrast to “real life”,

The accumulation of small, individual acts of assistance can sustain a large community because each act is seen by the entire group [italics added] and helps to perpetuate an image of generalized reciprocity and mutual aid. (Wellman and Gulia 343-44)

 

One interviewee, though, may have hit on the real reason why the tone of this board was so comfortable:

[I]t felt kind of like entering Deb’s living room, where a nice, long party was going on.  My guess is that the real life community around Deb has a truly friendly atmosphere, or flavour, and that flavour was contagious.  All us who entered digitally became infested with it, and adapted to it quickly. … I soon got the image of Deb as the host and head of the table, the object of celebration had it been a birthday party, and Allison acting as the perfect hostess, going around and checking on everyone, introducing people to each other and handing out the hors d’oeuvres, if you know what I meanJ. ("Katarina", I First Heard...)

 

  1. Growth of the community

 One way a community grows is by developing its own in-jokes.  Debbie started this early on – on May 3rd, in her initial comments on the chapter “The Shadow of the Past”, Debbie said, “If anything nasty happens to the Hobbits in the Shire, I'm going to be upset (unless it happens to only the Sackville-Bagginses, of course)” (Ohi, I:2) . Participants found it very amusing, and she began using variations of it in her chapter reports, sometimes for a funny effect and sometimes more poignantly, as in her comments on “The Land of Shadow”, where she says “Nothing bad had better happen to Sam!” (Ohi, VI:2) .

 While the on-topic discussions were the main purpose of the board, it was the off-topic exchanges that provided the social glue. As we noted above, we counted posts that discussed other Tolkien works as on topic.  But discussions also ranged farther afield to other fantasy writers, Tolkien-inspired music and art, the Peter Jackson movies, and so on. At times participants also talked about their personal lives, sometimes tying it in with the chapter under discussion. 

A viable community grows and changes over time. One way a computer-mediated community can grow is through members interacting outside of the forum where they met, and thus reinforcing their bonds.  Etzioni and Etzioni conclude that a “hybrid system” that combines the best features of face-to-face and computer-mediated communication would “allow the special strengths of each system to make up for the weaknesses of the other;” a group that communicates both ways would have the superior level of interpersonal knowledge generated by face to face contact and the memory capabilities of a computer community (Etzioni and Etzioni 247) .

 In this case, aside from Debbie, Allison, and one other filk musician whom they already knew, only two of the interview respondents seem to have met in person.  However, many of the interviewees reported that they have exchanged private emails with other participants from time to time or visited their personal websites. Wellman calls online ties “intimate secondary relationships” – they are moderately strong, but operate only “in one specialized domain.” Yet they can become more intimate over time, and he speculates that the “limited social presence and asynchronicity of computer-mediated communication” only slows the development of stronger ties and does not mean they will never occur (Wellman 198) .

 But the main way this community has grown has been by branching off into new projects.  Reading The Lord of the Rings with Debbie was from the beginning a finite project, and on June 4th, about two-thirds of the way through the trilogy, Big Mike observed:

There are lots of web sites where we Tolkien fans can get info, but this has really become a gathering (or Moot) of regular Tolkien loving people.  Just like the feeling at the end of the book (wishing there was another 1000 pages to read) I hope some how we can continue this small community after Deb finishes. ("Big Mike")

 Almost immediately another poster suggested a group reading of the Silmarillion, and many other readers chimed in agreeing to the suggestion. Soon Allison stepped in to organize a forum for a chapter-by chapter discussion, and it got under way in July . Other forums were soon added to the “Talking Tolkien” section of Debbie’s site: there are now eight very active forums discussing different aspects of Tolkien’s writing and related works. 

 

  1. Conclusions

 The question remains:  Is this a community?  And more generally, can any group that rarely or never meets face-to-face really call itself a community?

 Wellman and Gulia offer an interesting perspective on this question:

Although people now take telephone contact for granted, it was seen as an exotic, depersonalized form of communication only fifty years ago … We suspect that as online communication is rapidly becoming widely used and routinely accepted, the current fascination with it will soon decline sharply.  It will be seen much as telephone contact is now and letter-writing was in Jane Austen’s time: a reasonable way to maintain strong and weak ties between people who are unable to have a face-to-face encounter just then. (Wellman and Gulia 348)

 

What would Tolkien himself have thought of a web community?  Would he have considered it one more incarnation of his “deplorable cultus” (Carpenter 231) ? Would it have confirmed his deep distrust of technology?  Or would he, like Pippin, say “I wish we could have a Stone that we could see all our friends in … and that we could speak to them from far away!” (LotR III:260) 

Community is always a good to be striven for in Tolkien’s world, and the “Final Attempt” web group is an example of a supportive, but limited, community that serves a need of its members that may not be addressed by other relationships in their lives – a need to examine and discuss the meaning of The Lord of the Rings in a mature and thoughtful environment, and encourage new readers to do the same.


Methodology

 Approval by the University of Oklahoma’s IRB was required for this research since OU regards this type of project as research with human subjects.

 We developed a consent form and a list of interview questions. These were disseminated two ways: posted on a special forum where other “Final Attempt” participants might be likely to see it*, and emailed to specific users whom we wished to quote or whom we thought would contribute thoughtful and interesting answers.  They were also posted on Ms. Croft’s website as a backup location (http://faculty-staff.ou.edu/C/Janet.B.Croft-1/).

 Participants who wished to answer the questions on the forum had the option of posting their answers publicly or emailing them to Ms. Croft.  Many chose to post them, and online discussions grew out of some of these posts. A total of fourteen “Final Attempt” posters participated, and seven of them are quoted in this short presentation version of our paper.

 When the paper was at its final draft stage, about ten days before it was due to be presented, it was emailed to all the quoted participants for their approval and insights.  This procedure will be repeated before the paper is submitted to a journal for publication.

 *Debbie graciously allowed us to set up a discussion board on our project in her “Talking Tolkien” forum, where we could post our consent and interview forms and give progress reports on our paper: http://electricpenguin.com/cgi-bin/ubb/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=forum&f=37.

  

Notes

 1.       ”Filk” is the folk song of the science fiction and fantasy community.  Filk can be totally original compositions, or new words to established tunes.  It can be about writers, characters, or worlds.  It can be parody, or loving homage, or a form of science fiction or fantasy writing in itself. Debbie plays harp in a Toronto-based trio called Urban Tapestry.

2.       We found that since participants were unregistered, they sometimes varied the names they posted under, which may have skewed some of our statistics. The same person may have used several variations of their name.

3.       This may be higher than in other online communities; many Tolkien fans create Elvish names for themselves, and people who are not scholars of his invented languages would have trouble figuring out the gender of the name.

 

Works Cited

 Note: Posters to the “Final Attempt” forum are identified by their screen name if different from their real name, in order to protect their privacy.

"Big Mike". The Return of the King: Book V, Chapter 2. 4 June 2001. Online posting. Available: http://www.electricpenguin.com/blatherings/lotr/archives/00000048.html.

"Bodo Hardbottle". Hope This Isn't Too Late... 2 February 2002. Online posting. Available: http://electricpenguin.com/cgi-bin/ubb/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_topic&f=37&t=000003.

Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien : A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.

Durno, Allison. Re: Progress on My Paper. 23 August 2001. E-Mail to Janet Croft.

---. The Return of the King: Book V, Chapter 1. 31 May 2001. Online posting. Available: http://www.electricpenguin.com/blatherings/lotr/archives/00000047.html. 1 March 2002.

Earnshaw, Rae, et al. Frontiers of Human-Centered Computing, Online Communities and Virtual Environments. London: Springer-Verlag, 2001.

Etzioni, Amitai, and Oren Etzioni. "Face-to-Face and Computer-Mediated Communities, a Comparitive Analysis." The Information Society 15 (1999): 241-48.

Fox, Nick, and Chris Roberts. "GPs in Cyberspace: The Sociology of a "Virtual Community"." The Sociological Review 47.4 (1999): 643-71.

Herring, Susan. "Politeness in Computer Culture: Why Women Thank and Men Flame." Cultural Performances: Proceedings of the Third Berkeley Women and Language Conference. Ed. Caitlin Hines. Berkeley, CA: University of California, 1994. 278-94.

Jaffe, J. Michael, et al. "Gender Identification, Interdependence, and Pseudonyms in CMC: Language Patterns in an Electronic Conference." The Information Society 15 (1999): 221-34.

"Katarina". I First Heard... 20 January 2002. Online posting. Available: http://electricpenguin.com/cgi-bin/ubb/ultimatebb.cgi?ubb=get_topic&f=37&t=000003. 24 January 2002.

---. Re: Tolkien Paper. 16 August 2001. E-mail to Janet Croft.

"Kevin". The Return of the King: Book VI, Chapter 8. 21 June 2001. Online posting. Available: http://www.electricpenguin.com/blatherings/lotr/archives/00000064.html.

Martinez, Michael. Re:A Profoundly Depressing Article. 14 December 2001. Online posting. Available: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/mythsoc/message/4572. 23 January 2002.

Ohi, Debbie Ridpath. The Fellowship of the Ring: Book I, Chapter 2. 3 May 2001. Online posting. Available: http://www.electricpenguin.com/blatherings/lotr/archives/00000005.html. 27 February 2002.

---. Re: Permission Letter for Paper on Our Web Community. 30 August 2001. E-mail to Janet Croft.

---. Reading Lord of the Rings ... The Final Attempt. 13 July 2001. Website. Available: http://www.electricpenguin.com/blatherings/lotr/. 5 March 2002.

---. The Return of the King: Book VI, Chapter 2. 9 June 2001. Online posting. Available: http://www.electricpenguin.com/blatherings/lotr/archives/00000058.html. 27 February 2002.

Preece, Jenny. Online Communities: Designing Usability, Supporting Sociability. Chichester, West Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons, 2000.

Tolkien, J. R. R. The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of the Lord of the Rings. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1965.

"Turumarth". Paper on Debbie Ohi's Weblog. 1 March 2002. E-mail to Janet Croft.

Wellman, Barry. "An Electronic Group Is Virtually a Social Network." Culture of the Internet. Ed. Sara Kiesler. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1997. 179-205.

Wellman, Barry, and Milena Gulia. "Net-Surfers Don't Ride Alone: Virtual Communities as Communities." Networks in the Global Village: Life in Contemporary Communities. Ed. Barry Wellman. Boulder, Co.: Westview Press, 1999. 331-66.