This piece was originally published as part of an entry on January 13, 2008, on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog.
Soaps do not exist in a vacuum, and a show's daily texts can only be completely understood in the context of the community of fans surrounding them. Instead of imagining the audience as a passive sea of eyeballs measured through impressions, this approach views soaps as the gathering place for a social network. Acting as dynamic social texts, soap operas are created as much by the audience that debates, critiques, and interprets them than through the production team itself. Here are the various ways fans have interacted with and around soap opera texts through the years, as described in detail in the second chapter of my thesis:
1.) Interpersonal Relationships: Soap operas have, from their very origins, been texts that spark conversations and debate among friends and families. The lack of documentation about the power of social connectedness in soaps in these earlier days is not surprising because these discussions happened informally and in unobservable everyday conversations. Even as the channels through which fans can discuss soaps have changed, this personal interaction with family and friends over the text of the show that was at the heart of the social connections surrounding soaps texts from the beginning of the genre has not.
2.) Fan Clubs and Fan Letters: The earliest attempts at official connection for soaps, not surprisingly, came through letter writing to the network and fan clubs. In her study on soap opera production, Elana Levine describes the more recent handling of fan mail for General Hospital on ABC, pointing out that fan mail is considered negative if the audience member says he or she will quit watching the show, but fan mail is considered positive even if it is criticism when the viewer does not threaten to quit watching, and that the actual comments of fans almost never make it to those making decisions about the creative direction of shows.
3.) The Soap Opera Press: While soaps were often covered in some degree by TV Guide and certain big events might be mentioned in newspapers or magazines, daytime--despite its visibility and popularity--was left behind, even as primetime television programming was granted an increasing amount of attention from serious critics. Whereas previous forms of fan communication involved private exchanges (local discussions, fan mail, and fan clubs) and most publications did not regularly report or include reader letters about soap operas, soap opera magazines provided a new forum in which the reception of soap operas could become texts themselves, through official industry news and behind-the-scenes information, official columnists, and fan letters and polls. These publications might not have completely satisfied the fan community's interest in "official" and fan-produced media about the soap opera industry, but they provided the first forum for such writing nonetheless.
4.) Web-Based Communication Among Soap Fans: While these previous modes of communication lacked the potential for a large community of fans to build around daily discussion of texts, the Internet created a space where the one-on-one interpersonal model of fan discussion that empowered soap opera viewing could take place on a wider scale. With a forum for a concentrated discussion that was public, the Internet empowered fans with new ways to organize themselves to get the attention of "the powers that be," or TPTB, as fans often abbreviate. Further, the Internet's hybrid of concentrated niche spaces that are nevertheless public gave fans unprecedented ability to create their own texts based on their reception of the show through public commentaries and discussions. In my research on pro wrestling fan communities, I have previously outlined seven ways in which fans interact with the texts of shows:
- fan discussion
- fan criticism
- fan theories
- fan performance
- fan community building
- fan proselytizing
- fan archiving
This framework applies to soap opera fandom as well. Researcher Nancy Baym points out how fans perform through writing synopses of episodes or updates for message boards, becoming storytellers themselves and gaining a following for their performances through their analysis, interpretation, and cynicism. In this way, fans help bolster each others' support of the show so that, even if the show does not meet their expectations, fan discussion and even griping and parodying of the show can actually help keep people with the program through a creative draught.
Fan communities often like to:
1.) Give more shape to the narrative space these shows take place in, such as Oakdale or Springfield. These narrative gaps empower much of the fan energy surrounding immersive story worlds, in that the shows raise as many questions as they provide answers, and the fan communities use much of their time to bring up issues of continuity and fleshing out the space in which these shows take place.
2.) Point out character inconsistencies and flaws in storyline continuity.
3.) Bring their own knowledge of the show or their personal lives into discussions of the show. Since the text of these shows can only rarely share what characters are thinking but rather only visuals from facial expressions, etc., it is up to fans to debate the meaning that might be implied by images. Audience members will openly bring up their own histories to help explain characters' actions in many cases.
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.
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