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Soap Operas and the History of Fan Discussion: Part IV of V

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This post was originally published on the MIT Convergence Culture Consortium Weblog on June 10, 2007.

Web-Based Communication Among Soaps 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.

As Jennifer Hayward points out through her essay "Consuming Pleasures" which came form her 1997 book by the same title, the Internet provided "a more collaborative forum for soaps discussion" than was possible by individual fan letters or other previous modes of communication (515). 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.

Hayward is among the first to include excerpts from online fan interactions surrounding soap texts She writes about the rape storyline of popular One Life to Live character Todd Manning in the 1990s as an instance to examine the complicated interaction between producers and consumers.

In my research on pro wrestling fan communities, I have previously outlined five ways in which fans interact with the texts of shows: fan discussion, fan criticism, fan theories, fan performance, and fan community building. This framework applies to soap opera fandom as well. In these online forums, soap fans can simultaneously discuss, critique, theorize, write their own written parodies and alternative storylines, and form a community around these shows, along with the potential for explicit political organization to rally for directions in story, casting, or airtime that they see best.

John Fiske writes about the aspects of gossip and oral culture in soap opera fandom in his 1987 bookTelevision Culture. He traces the history of scholarship on gossip in women's culture and its intersection with work on soap opera, concluding that soaps work cohesively within this gossip culture by providing daily interaction that can be discussed and debated by viewers. Mary Ellen Brown expands on the role of gossip and women's talk in framing the enjoyment of soap opera, as she finds her own enjoyment of soaps greatly limited until she becomes part of the fan culture and joins discussions about the soaps in her 1994 book Soap Opera and Women's Talk: The Pleasure of Resistance. The development of Brown's work corresponds with Henry Jenkins' seminal Textual Poachers, which forms some of the underpinnings of both later scholarship on soap opera fan communities and my own work here in the Convergence Culture Consortium, of which Jenkins is the director. For more of this type of academic work, see John Tullock's 2000 essay "Talking About Television Soap Opera," in which he focuses on how this "women's talk" aspect of both the show and the fan community make stories about important health issues and contemporary social issues particularly intriguing.

Understanding that soap opera fan communities can serve these and many other functions simultaneously is key in grasping the power of these online forums in the viewing experience, as well as in the social lives of these fans. In their 1995 book Soap Fans: Pursuing Pleasure and Making Meaning in Everyday Life, C. Lee Harrington and Denise D. Bielby point out that some work on soaps has attempted to frame all audience interaction with soaps according to one particular theoretical framework, while the diversity of interests and interactions surrounding soap texts are much too varied to fit neatly into one overarching explanation.

In his 1985 book Speaking of Soap Opears, Robert C. Allen calls the soap opera an over-codednarrative form in which "characters, events, situations, and relationships are invested with signifying possibilities greatly in excess of those necessary to their narrative functions." Here, the power granted to the soaps audience becomes evident in understanding and interpreting the spaces of the fictional town, the facial expressions of various characters, and the overwhelming amount of weekly dialogue.

As Allen writes, "the spatial worlds of soap operas can be represented as an aggregate of atomistic interiors whose relationship to each other in space is constructed in the mind of the viewer" (84).

In her 2000 book Tune In, Log On: Soaps, Fandom, and Online Community, Nancy K. Baym suggests that Allen's concept of over-coding is particularly appropriate in application to online communities, where "viewers watch soap operas in close and distant ways simultaneously" in order to use all these codes (63). Her point relates to the five categories of interaction around the soap opera text I outlined earlier: fan discussion, fan criticism, fan theories, fan performance, and fan community building.

Baym writes specifically about 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 (85-86). 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.

One aspect of creative generation on the part of the fan community focuses on constructing a cohesive narrative space for the show. On As the World Turns, Oakdale is simultaneously considered a small town and the home of several major corporations. Paul Ryan's penthouse shows a skyline view of a few very tall buildings in the middle of Oakdale, even while other residents complain of being in such a small town that you run into your enemies wherever you go.

How can the town be both? By never definitively showing us the setting, the creative team requires viewers to make sense of these various comments and settings into a comprehensive Oakdale. In his 2002 book Fan Cultures, Matt Hills defines these spaces implied but never shown as hyperdiegesis, "the creation of a vast and detailed narrative space, only a fraction of which is ever directly seen or encountered within the text," but which still tries to have some sort of internal logic (137). Of course, as Steven D. Stark points out in his 1997 book Glued to the Set: The 60 Television Shows and Events That Made Us Who We Are Today, the reason these exteriors are never shown has to do with budget and filming, since on-location filming is extremely rare for soaps.

Nevertheless, these narrative gaps empower much of the fan energy surrounding immersive story worlds (look here and here, 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. In my thesis, I argue that the shows can and should create new tools to tap into this aspect of fan creation by providing spaces that could help turn user-generated content into official content for the story world.

Baym points out, though, that these creative activities on the fans' part also address flaws in continuity on the writers' part and that fan communities particularly focus on the "violation of the truth of the fiction established through prior shows," and particularly on character inconsistency (99). While aspects of fandom like fan fiction are not popular in most of these soap fan communities, community members often establish followings from other fans through their ability to both find breaks in continuity and also to create potential ways to make sense of those breaks in relation to the history of the show. Some of these community members who gain followings of their own I have written about previously as creating the phenomenon of "fans of fans."

This open-ended process of understanding and analyzing the text of the show fuels much of the fan communities' discussion, even as the other elements of fan communication take place. Baym finds that only 16 percent of the postings in the fan community she studied were "non-interpretive," and each of those threads often contained some interpretive responses, with 53 percent of the responses she studied focusing specifically on character motivation (71-72) For instance, in a soap opera love triangle, it is common to have almost as many fans support one side of a relationship as the other. Since the text does not provide answers but only visuals, it is up to fans to debate the meaning that might be implied by images. Producers and writers can help facilitate these types of discussions by providing "shades of gray" scenarios which do not clearly privilege one character's perspective or leave a particular character in the clear moral right.

Audience members will openly bring up their own histories to help explain characters' actions in many cases. If a character on a soap opera is raped or is the victim of domestic abuse, members of the fan community who have been victims or who have known victims of these atrocities may have the courage to share their own stories and then use that information to evaluate why characters may act in certain, initially puzzling ways.

Baym claims that, "in one sense, soap operas are a game in which the text offers clues to how the plots will unfold and viewers use those clues to unravel the shows' puzzles" (80). If one accepts the veracity of this statement (which I do), then it becomes easy to see why soap opera fans might be particularly receptive to transmedia storytelling or alternate reality games. Although projects likeOakdale Confidential, the successful novel based on ATWT and used in the television narrative while also being sold in stores, have only scratched the surface of this potential, the ability of online fan communities to interpret and communally digest and discuss the story world of Oakdale indicates that the soap genre might be particularly able to expand its narrative, due to such a rich and over-coded narrative universe for these longtime shows.

As opposed to the more aggressive spoiler behaviors of Survivor fan communities examined by Jenkins in Convergence Culture, Baym points out a particular fan who indicates that the term spoilersare a misnomer because, in a genre where how and why matter much more than what happens, nothing is spoiled when an upcoming plot is revealed (88). This particular view ignores the fact that soaps often build to scenes in which an astonishing truth is revealed or in which a character's return is meant to be a surprise, though, moments that are certainly dampened considerably by the pervasiveness of spoilers. Even as soaps are driven more by reaction than action, it is important to keep in mind that this does not mean that the plot is not important.

However, it is also important to realize that a significant portion of soap opera fans are probably not online. Soap operas air on broadcast television, and the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that 98.2 percent of households had at least one television set in 2001. Look here and here.

Meanwhile, in 2003, 61.8 percent of American households were estimated to have a computer in the home, while 54.7 percent had Internet access in the home. Having a computer and Internet in the home was least prevalent for Americans 65 and older, with 34.7 percent having a computer and 29.4 percent having Internet access. Look here.

A significant portion of the behaviors and storyline extensions examined in this thesis require an Internet connection, and some even require a broadband Internet connection for streaming video, for which a significant portion of online users do not have access at this point. This study is completed with that limitation in mind. Nevertheless, the Internet provides a significant platform for extending the social networks built around soaps, and a significant number of new soap viewers are joining discussion boards or reading soap opera sites each year, as the consistent introductions of first-time posters in fan forums emphasize.

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