This piece was originally published as part of an entry on January 13, 2008, on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog.
Online fans are more active than the casual viewer model the Nielsen ratings system is based on, with its focus on impressions without relation to the level of engagement. The shift to balancing quantitative measurements with qualitative ones requires acknowledging and valuing that active engagement, however, as I explain in further detail in the third chapter of my thesis.
Further, many of the "unique" and "niche" aspects of online fan communities actually echo offline modes of engagement with the text as well, albeit on a much larger scale and in published form. These discussion boards can often seem full of noise, especially for the television executive approaching these fan forums with no history in the fan community.
It is important for those exploring the reaction of these fans to be a part of that fan community in an active way and to understand it not as an outsider but as a native. Generally, this means that researchers are best recruited from the fan community rather than trying to become anthropologists studying that community from a distance.
Veteran Fans: As fan insiders, these veteran fans are particularly important in the online fan community, even if they are smaller in number. A transgenerational approach to soap opera storytelling and viewership especially privileges these veteran viewers as proselytizers, even if they are fewer in number in online spaces than younger fans. These fans who have watched a soap opera for decades are elders in the dual sense of the meaning, not just older viewers but also authorities in the fan community. Veteran fans are often needed to help these neophytes truly understand the relationships among all the characters on the canvas, and the entirety of the narrative's history cannot ever be completely learned and understood by any one person. As noted before, older fans should be valued for their part in gaining and retaining older viewers.
Community Building: Only a small minority of soap opera viewers participates in any one discussion group, but several thousand fans participate in one of the many online forums for the show, and even more lurk on these sites on occasion. Further, the vast majority of the soap's viewers likely have some sort of social connection built around the show, so understanding a soap opera's place in people's lives requires a continual awareness that these shows are not produced in a social vacuum and that, while these interpersonal relationships and online communities may be built around the shows, it is as often these social relationships that drive continued interest in the texts during times when the viewers are not as engaged by the stories. In short, these social connections, particularly membership in an online community, become as important if not more important than the show itself to many of these viewers. Empowering the social connections around a show is of financial interest to networks and soap opera producers, since building these communities serves not only to bolster and generate the quantity of viewers but also greatly enhance the depth of the connections these viewers have to the text.
Collective Intelligence and Fan Proselytizing: While soap opera fans have always gathered their resources and memories together on the most micro-level, online communities provide a forum for intelligence gathering that is unparalleled among other modes of engagement among audience members. These activities provide the chance for audiences to deepen their engagement and to supplement an understanding of the show's main text by providing background information, challenging characters' motivations and decisions, and linking current events with the show's rich history. The large number of longtime fans, many of whom are outside the target demographic, on these discussion boards play a pivotal role in the intelligence-gathering aspects of these online communities, and they also act as strong proselytizers for the brand by spending a considerable amount of time catching new viewers up on social connections among characters. Many of these fans may be surplus audience members, outside the target demographic, but they become important agents in recruiting new fans to a show.
Fan Lobbying: Activities often occur within the fan community to draw on the collective knowledge and sentiment of online fans to lobby for particular actions from a show's creative team. This hope of using the written word to influence TPTB has its roots in fan mail and letter-writing to the popular and soap opera press, but online fan communities become the amalgamation of this collective expression. Petitions, organized e-mail and letter-writing campaigns, and threads dedicated to expressing support or more often disappointment or disgust with a creative decision or rumored storyline are a regular part of most fan communities, and fans are keenly aware of the public-ness of their discussions.
Taking Advantage of Fan Engagement: The social networks described here are built around soap opera texts. While those within the industry may be correct in that any one of these communities have little control over the Nielsen ratings, the social connectedness and deep engagement that these communities encourage are key parts of a long-term brand-building approach to soap operas that could increase the numbers of viewers over time. The transgenerational composition of these communities, bringing together younger, newer viewers of the show with longtime fan experts, draws on the collective intelligence of the viewership as a whole, shifting from a view of soap opera fans as solitary impressions to an understanding of the ways in which soap opera fandom is tied not only to the show but the interpersonal relationships, both online and offline, that surround the viewing experience.
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