June 10, 2007
Soap Operas and the History of Fan Discussion: Part V of V

My Focus on the Online Fan Community

Nancy Baym's research in Tune In, Log On provides a solid foundation to build on, but the online world has changed significantly from the discussion groups she studied in the 1990s to the new technologies and forums available in 2007. During the time Baym was studying, online discussion groups were still in relative infancy, whereas there are a much wider variety of soap opera discussion forums today in a variety of formats. A much greater portion of the viewership has signed on in the past decade, even as the overall number of soaps viewers has declined. Further, these contemporary discussion groups exist alongside a variety of soap opera Web sites, blogs, podcasts, videos, and other new media products, both professional and fan-created, that did not exist in the 1990s.

While the majority of Baym's focus is on how soap opera fan communities are built and maintained and how they function on a daily basis, I am particularly interested in the perceived and actual ways that these fan communities interact with each other and the producers of the show with the explicit hope of making an impact.

In my thesis, I incorporated conversations I observed and occasionally participated in as a fan on Michael Gill's Media Domain board for As the World Turns as well as Procter & Gamble Productions' officially maintained discussion site for the show, the PGP SoapBox, and other online forums. I did not initiate the conversations, even if I responded in a similar vein with other fans along the way. Further, although I publicly informed members of the fan community about my study and even pointed the way to various conversations of the community I had quoted in various Weblog commentaries on the Convergence Culture Consortium Web site for MIT, these types of conversations were occurring before I ever became an active part of this community, when I was just lurking.

It is important to consider the public discussions these fans have and the sophistication of these debates about the fan community's autonomy and political influence on the shows they watch. These fan communities often have complex conversations, looking at the show not only from their own perspective but also from the mindset of marketers, producers, networks, or actors. The fans also often take into account various economic and cultural factors that may explain why creative decisions were made for a show when criticizing or trying to ascertain the reasons behind a character leaving the show or a storyline changing course.

The intent in consulting the expertise of specific discussions from the fan community throughout this study echoes the understanding of the idea of vernacular theory as expressed by Thomas McLaughlin in his 1996 book Street Smarts and Critical Theory. McLaughlin writes about consulting a popular music fanzine for its theoretic questions about "artistic authenticity and the realities of economic life" when the author is reacting to a certain situation that he finds to be "legitimately theoretical practice (that) arises out of an intensely local commitment. It is situation, not distanced and systematic, but it asks a question about the socially constructed terms that define the local, and that is what critical theory does" (6).

Online fan discussions shares close ties with the history of interaction among fans and between fans and producers that have been documented in the past several pages. It is important to emphasize that online discussion groups have not replaced the lively debate fans have always had when watching a show or after the fact in telephone, workplace, or dinner conversations, nor has the rise of online forums brought about the demise of fan clubs, letters written to a show's producers, or the soap opera press. Instead, fans often participate in a number of these activities, generating more of the type of hypersocial environment than a disconnected media viewing experience that removes fans from social interaction.

As described by Mizuko Ito in the 2003 essay "Technologies of the Childhood Imagination: Media Mixes, Hypersociality, and Recombinant Cultural Form", hypersociality is the tendency of cross-platform content to increase social interaction among members of a fan community. The concept is intended to challenge and circumvent previous understandings of media consumption which focused on individual media consumers in isolation. Ito finds that games like Yu-Gi-Oh encourages stronger social ties by encouraging fans to share stories and exchange cards. These social bonds not only help in community-formation but also strengthen the bond each fan has with the franchise and the depth of their engagement with related media products.

Instead of replacing these older modes of conversation, online fan communities make more explicit and public the type of activities fans have long engaged in while in small groups. Fans also see these forums as providing extensions to the limits of previous modes of engagement: a more collective organization in disputing their dislike of particular storylines that may garner more attention than a letter-writing campaign; a more diverse conversation with other fans of the show, not limited to the more intimate social circles of previous generations; a more critical engagement with the show than the more passive nature of the fan clubs allow for; and a space to provide for themselves the critical responses to the show that they see the soap opera press as lacking.

Along with the rise of online fan communities, not surprisingly, came a rise in online sites that also provide coverage of soap operas, such as Soapdom, Soap Opera Network, and Soap Central. However, these sites still tend to be lacking the critical engagement with backstage politics, shifts in creative teams, and organized understandings of what is set to happen in coming months on various shows, so fans still largely fill this gap themselves. In fact, fans on message boards scour various documents from the soap opera press and put the details together to provide a more cohesive, balanced, and comprehensive account of what is coming up and what is happening behind-the-scenes on their favorite shows. I have not found any subscriber numbers for these discussion boards or extensive user data for the most popular soap opera sites, but the soap opera magazines at grocery store checkouts are likely to get much greater readership (especially if one counts the number of people who read them without ever buying a copy).

These online sites provide a rich space for fans to organize and debate their existence as a politicized whole and to articulate their interests in where they want "their story" to go. What most producers still fail to realize is that fan criticism is not a sign of anger at the show but rather a deep investment. Even when fans aren't satisfied, it is often their ability to have a space in which they can communally vent, complain, parody, and argue that renews interest in the show, even if the show is not at its most creative.

As Baym writes, "the soap opera regularly falls short of what fans would like" (97), but soap producers have much to gain by the fans' ability to voice complaints because the very act of participating keeps their interest in the program going longer because the fans also entertain each other. Baym identifies humor as especially important here because fan parody empowers fans and often brings enjoyment out of a text that they would otherwise have little to gain from (107).

Baym says that, "by using the show's flaws as material with which to entertain each other, the community becomes amusing enough to hold the participants' attention through the show's lows" (113). When soaps attempt to gain younger viewers with characters the longtime audience is uninterested in or even openly disdain, that hardcore audience can often use online venues to express their communal dislike for certain actors or characters.

In my thesis, I look at some specific debates within the fan community in hope to tap into the fans' collective articulation of a vernacular theory. These examples will help give form to the social dynamic of these networks of fans that empower the new media terrain soap operas--and all television programs--find themselves in. Understanding how these communities are formed and maintained can not only help illuminate the importance of the social network surrounding these media texts but can also help media producers better understand how to shift their storytelling and communication with fans to more effectively utilize new ways of reaching these fan communities that are so ready to engage more deeply with these shows.

This series has presented a trajectory in which fans have increasingly sought out ways to gain greater access to a social network which allows them to collectively discuss, critique, perform their own creative writing on, theorize, and build community around these shows. The online fan discussion board provides a particularly strong venue for these deeply engaged activities. Here, the importance of social engagement around these texts becomes more apparent, and the collective intelligence of the fan base in trying to make sense of the immersive story worlds presented in these texts is highlighted.