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Shrinking Distance from Producer to Consumer

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This post originally appeared on the <a href="http://www.convergenceculture.org/weblog/">Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog</a> on July 25, 2006.  Although it does not deal exclusively with soap operas, I thought it would be of interest to some of the topics I've written about here in the past. 

This entry builds on some of the themes written about in an earlier post about using the Internet as a means of discussion between content providers and fans.

David Edery, who helps manage the Convergence Culture Consortium, alerted me to an editorial on the BBC News Web site regarding the blogosphere and the new levels of interaction between producer and consumer that got me thinking about my own research initiatives regarding the entertainment industry.

In this particular commentary, journalist Daniel Pearl is writing about the relationship between journalists and their readers. In the past few weeks, I've written about how journalism storytelling has been affected by changes in increased transmedia content with instantaneous updates, increased diversity of communication platforms for exchange between news operations and their readers/viewers, and further debate about convergence and the essential characteristics of each medium and how journalists in each discipline can best be trained. This commentary brings up another essential part of the impact convergence culture has on journalism, though--reader/viewer response.

However, while Dan Gillmor writes about the phenomenal impact the blogosphere has on journalism, as we found out a few months ago with James Frey, Pearl takes it one step further--saying that readers no longer even have to contact the station to voice their opinion because sites that track the blogosophere--such as Technorati--can give journalists an immediate barometer of how a story has been received among viewers and some clue as to what directions to follow up, based on audience response.

According to Pearl, "blogging had an immediate impact on Newsnight's running order" because the BBC was able to see what fans were focusing on and adjust their plans for how to structure the show based on the news people seemed most interested in.

My thesis project at MIT focuses on the soap opera industry and how one of the oldest genres in television history is adapting to the current convergence culture. I've had extended discussions with Lynn Liccardo, a Harvard graduate who is one of my advisers on the thesis, about changes in interaction between fans and producers. Lynn has pointed out to me that there has long been such interaction, through mail-in campaigns and through the soap opera press, for instance. However, what has changed is the degree to which producers can find out what fans are talking about and thinking about without ever engaging with them directly, since such discussion is readily available in public forums and can be measured fairly easily.

This has a fundamental impact on how people are observed, as fans in fan forums write in a completely different way than in direct contact with the show or with an official publication like Soap Opera Digest or Soap Opera Weekly. This doesn't mean that soap writers take these forums into account often enough or even that they should be the be-all and end-all in measurement, as fans are usually a fickle bunch that will find something to complain about, no matter what. But it does mean that there is a new and unique opportunity for cultural producers to see what people are saying and to adjust content accordingly. Of course, with as far in advance as soaps are written and recorded, it's a little harder to be flexible there than with programming with much shorter turnaround, such as news broadcasts. But it doesn't mean that writers shouldn't be trying to make the incorporation of fan reaction as involved as possible.

The rest of Pearl's essay focuses on the fact that, now that cultural producers have unparalleled access to fans' opinions, fans shouldn't be surprised to know that they are reading. Pearl writes:

The thing I find strange about all this is that often people who write blogs, or contribute to them, somehow think that they are involved in a private forum. I recently came across a comment claiming Jeremy disliked recording his weekly podcast. I posted a response and the blogger seemed appalled - "the BBC's watching us - spooky" was his reply. But if you write something about us on the internet surely I have every right to read it and respond - that's not spooky.

Since readers often don't comment, I know what it's like to feel that you're just talking to yourself in the blogosphere sometimes, but Pearl has an essential point--bloggers should realize that blogs are a publishing forum and that they are then open to everyone. There have been several times here, such as here and here, that we have written about content only to have the person who created the content find our blog and respond in some way. I found that to be an exciting chance to engage with the creator I had been writing about, but some people find it creepy or angering that their public conversation wasn't kept private.

And fans do struggle with this issue. As I wrote about a couple of weeks ago, when As the World Turns' Benjamin Hendrickson committed suicide, some fans blamed themselves for writing about the actor's looks after his return and some apparent health issues Hendrickson had. Some people believe that the actor's depression had been aided in some degree by fan comments about changes in his look and speaking style, and fans were reminded that the stars they are writing about have Internet access and may actually be reading fan boards.

So Pearl is right in saying that readers and fans, just by having a public forum to discuss and debate, have unparalleled abilities today. But, as Peter Parker would say, with great power comes great responsibility, and fans must realize that their words may potentially have an audience...and that the audience is sometimes the very people they are writing about. This more open relationship between fans and producers is exciting, and it offers great potential for both the fan community and for producers. But fans and readers/viewers must quit being surprised that their communication actually has an audience.

If you want to have a private discussion, get a (chat) room. And, for the world of message boards and blogs, I hope that the open communication trend only grows as sites like Technorati become even more precise in their tracking capabilities. Fans and producers alike have everything to gain from better understanding the potential of such open communication, even though both sides apparently feel a little resistant to giving up any perceived autonomy through a little cultural exchange.

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