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Tune In, Log On: Soaps, Fandom, and Online Community

Author: Nancy K. Baym
Publisher: Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2000
Review Published: April 2001

 REVIEW 1: Vic Costello
 REVIEW 2: Wendy Robinson

Nancy Baym's Tune In, Log On: Soaps, Fandom, and Online Community is a seminal treatise on the phenomenon of on-line communities and the social interactions of their diffuse and dedicated participants who share a common affinity for television soap operas. This compendium of research takes the reader on a circuitous journey that traces the author's own self-admitted love for soaps, her migration from fan to empiricist, and the development of a large-scale ethnographic examination of soap opera fan behavior within the virtual communities of cyberspace.

In essence, the book has two general parts. First, it has the potential of becoming the definitive text on soap opera fan appeal and behavior. Baym offers a great service by providing a historical overview and comprehensive literature review of the soap opera genre in a single readable volume. Her work, quite literally, is "Everything you wanted to know about soaps and their audiences, but were afraid to ask." The book should have a broad appeal to a wide segment of readers ranging from individual soap fans and viewers, to professional academics wanting to understand or extend their knowledge of soap opera fandom. The second part of the text presents a summary of the author's extensive ethnographic forays into the cyberculture of online soap communities. The two parts of the book are not entirely dichotomous, but rather intricately woven together in a generally easy to understand narrative that is comprehensive and packed with insight. This review focuses on Baym's qualitative research study of the online social interactions of soap fans.

Baym's observations rest primarily on the textual analysis of message content from rec.arts.tv.soaps (r.a.t.s.), a television soaps Usenet newsgroup. These observations are supplemented by surveys of the participants within this group. The participants in r.a.t.s. contribute and/or read the posts of the collective body of its members. R.a.t.s. is a text-based community of geographically dispersed individuals who willingly submit to the agreed upon purpose and protocol of the group in an effort to connect with other kindred fans who are similarly compelled to socially interact. R.a.t.s. is a general gathering place for all soap fans who distinguish themselves within the subject heading of their message posts by indicating their particular show of preference. The author traces her personal experience as a soap fan and participant within the r.a.t.s. community, and her subsequent migration from fan to that of participant observer for the purposes of understanding the dynamics of online communities within cyberculture.

This is an important work because it draws attention to an area of audience research that has been underrepresented in the literature for quite some time. The Internet offers researchers new opportunities for observing the social interaction of television fans in ways that were not previously possibly. While researchers have known for some time that traditional mass communication behavior is mediated by, and fosters opportunities for, social interaction, it has been difficult, if not impossible, for empiricists to gain access to the private communities in which this communication usually occurs. The Internet provides access to public and open channels of social interaction, giving researchers new opportunities for examining the interplay of mass and interpersonal communication behavior.

Anyone contemplating a study of fan-related communication activity will benefit from reading this book. The introduction alone is a worthwhile read given the author's succinct and comprehensive review of the literature. Baym does an excellent job of presenting a historical overview of the salient ideas and research that lays the conceptual groundwork for better understanding the dynamics of soap opera fan behavior.

The research presented in this book centers around social communities that are fostered and maintained by audiences with a common tie to soaps and the ability of fans to utilize online technologies that allow geographically and socially diffuse individuals to meet and interact. Baym views these groups as "a dynamic community of people with unique voices, distinctive traditions, and enjoyable relationships" (1). The author establishes the narrative structure of her treatise upon three stories that give life and meaning to the hidden communities of soap fans who are highly communicative and interactive within the virtual corridors of cyberspace. First, she seeks to tell the story of how online participants utilize the conventional technology and structure of newsgroups "to create practices, norms, relationships, and identities that come to define the group" (14). Second, she attempts to explain how "a collection of previously disconnected individuals took their shared interest in a pop culture text and transformed it into a rich and meaningful interpersonal social world" (21). Third, she shows how the participants of r.a.t.s. "dynamically appropriate a wide range of resources drawn from the structure of Usenet and the soap opera text and combine them with other resources in unpredictable yet patterned ways, ultimately constructing a social space that feels like community" (24).

One of Baym's biggest challenges was culling an extensive collection of newsgroup messages in order to acquire a manageable size of data for textual analysis. She began her quest by collecting the near universe (92%) of message posts in the r.a.t.s. newsgroup over a ten-month period in 1992. Her data collection yielded a total of 32,235 messages covering eleven different television soaps. She chose to restrict her analysis to messages dealing with the television soap opera All My Children (AMC). The AMC collection of messages generated "just over a quarter of the posts" in the sample. Baym chose the AMC group because it represented the largest subset of message content within r.a.t.s., and perhaps more so, because it was the group she was most familiar with through her own participation with and affinity for soaps. The majority of her analysis was further restricted to a subset of 524 messages dealing with a particular story line thread that had been generated within the group.

The discussion of Baym's research methods is not presented as succinctly and clearly as other portions of her text. The author's research spans many years and utilizes multiple methods and strategies at various points in time. The methods seem to be derived largely from convenience and the author's desire for interpretive coherence. As the author notes, "the choice of a single story line is limiting as well in that any story line raises some issues and not others, but the sacrifice seemed balanced by the opportunity for coherence that this focus allowed" (27). The author explains her choice of dealing with a single group of soap opera fans as follows:

    More challenging than narrowing the soap opera (and hence the community) was to select practices for close examination that would demonstrate the range of the group's practices as well as how those practices are interrelated. A further dimension of this challenge was to find a way in which to select data that would be comprehensible to readers who were not participants themselves. In narrowing to specific practices, I was guided by a sense of the group I had gained in my time before becoming a researcher and by four qualities that emerged repeatedly as participants described r.a.t.s. in their survey responses. First, the talk was described as framed in different genres with different social meanings. Second, the interaction was described as filled with diverse perspectives, which was seen as one of the group's greatest appeals. Third, the talk almost always was described as friendly. Fourth, the interaction was seen as both fun and friendly (26).

The methodological considerations of the study are somewhat at the whim of the author and appear to be influenced by her prior experience as a soap fan and participant within r.a.t.s. At times, Baym appears to be on a mission to validate her own love of soaps while extolling the virtues of the group she has grown so personally fond of. One may wonder if the author was able to maintain the detached objectivity of a true participant observer given her personal interest and involvement prior to the research. Taking the path of least resistance and investigating only that portion of the terrain that the author is most familiar with raises concerns of compromised objectivity and interpretation of the results. To Baym's credit, however, she is more than honest about her own biases and goes the extra mile in attempting to justify her methodological choices. She accepts the limits of her research without pretence and attempts to provide a legitimate rationale for her study. In short, the book provides a great deal of exploratory insight and data on a phenomenon that other researchers have only scratched the surface on. Her personal passion for the content and the communities it represents may actually work in her favor given the enormous scope of her investigation. Her observations are intelligently written and represent a level of astute awareness that may not have been possible had she not totally immersed herself within the culture of soap opera fandom.

Because of the social taboos typically associated with soap opera viewing, hard core fans often feel isolated within their "real worlds" social networks in which kindred fandom is not as highly concentrated. The Internet offers fans the opportunity to connect with other fans within a social network or community that is geographically boundless. These virtual communities provide a sanctuary of support and interaction for people with similar interests. Baym discovered that these communities function similarly to "real worlds" social communities in many ways. Her analysis revealed that these online communities have the innate ability of attracting groups of total strangers and fostering an environment where friendships develop and grow.

According to Baym, "people create an atmosphere of friendship on r.a.t.s. by treating one another as they would treat their friends -- with kindness, breadth, depth, and an accepting attitude that goes beyond what is called for by the task at hand" (135). As one fan personally noted, "I define r.a.t.s. as a group of folks who got together because of a single particular interest, in my case All My Children, but who have discovered that we really like each other as people (or at least Net personalities)" (136). Sometimes these friendships move beyond the setting of the newsgroup to private one-on-one relationships that are sustained through personal e-mails.

A large, but unknown segment of the r.a.t.s. community remains silent, maintaining the posture of lurkers who simply glean from the contributions of others while opting not to post to the group. The author contends that the development of online identities is predicated by the need to post. Thus, much of her analysis is based on the vocal minority who sustain the interaction of the group and are more easily observable than their silent counterparts. Surveys helped to supplement this void, because interestingly enough, while lurkers may abstain from group participation, they appear willing to participate in surveys. It is interesting that Baym found the full complement of social interaction from none (the Lurker) to highly interactive participants who tend to post habitually to the group.

According to Baym, r.a.t.s. is a vibrant community that contributes to the formation of individual identities. She notes that "people in r.a.t.s. and other online communities define themselves not just in relation to their offline selves or to the medium but also in relation to one another and to the group as a whole" (158). Active participants may develop areas of expertise centered around various genres of information associated with soap opera fandom. There are "updaters, spoiler providers, and trivia and FAQ posters" who "gain their identities in part through the increased visibility of their informative contributions" (161). The community tends to validate the identity of individual members through a collective process of confirmation and agreement. Baym notes: "People affirm identities by responding to the posts of individuals by name in their posts, and (perhaps most important) through praise. Anne's comment that 'probably seeing my name in some sort of header or quoted made it even more exciting for me' indicates the importance of responses in affirming and encouraging ongoing participation" (171).

According to the author, "Online identities are built out of, and situated in response to, a group of other voices and a value system that makes some types of voices more appealing than others. The value system that shapes identity in r.a.t.s. emphasizes honesty, information, insight, and wit, all of which can be attributed to the group's purpose of interpreting the soap opera and the problematics of being intelligent fans of the genre that sometimes suggests otherwise. Such values are continually reinforced through the selective affirmation of the many identities put forward in the group. Perhaps one can be anyone he or she wants to be online, but if one wants to be admired or even liked, then he or she would be wise to attend to the very real social constraints that groups develop" (173).

Baym's research is the most comprehensive effort to date on the study of online soap opera fandom. In appraising the totality of her work, one must realize that the majority of Baym's data is nearly a decade old. Since this research project began, the culture of cyberfandom on the Internet has grown considerably. There are many other portals of entry besides newsgroups that currently facilitate the interaction of fans. Official and unofficial fan pages, message boards, mailing lists, chat rooms, etc. are being used to appease the growing appetites of fans to connect with each other and gain information about their favorite shows. And still, the r.a.t.s. community continues to exist and grow, although a new hierarchical structure now lets fans group according to the network affiliation of their favorite soap. I can only assume that this is due to the ever-growing number of fans who are now connected to the Internet and participating within online groups.

As Baym so effectively demonstrates, a great deal of conceptual insight can be gained through the study and observation of fans. McQuail and Gurevitch (1974) encouraged "the observation of "fans" . . . either of a particular and established type of content or of an item typical of a genre, or possibly fans of a given medium in general. Established genres [like soap operas] are most likely to give rise to clear expectations in prospective audience members, and fans are more likely to have, and to be aware of, motives for exposure than are casual members of the audience who simply 'drop in' " (295-296).

Fans have been identified "as spokesmen for the less committed or articulate consumers of the same media content, who are then perceived as paler and less distinct versions of the former" (296). Fans are highly conscious of their personal media behavior: "Media use is regarded as an act of free choice by an actor who seeks to gain some immediate or delayed future benefits, to be or do what he wishes" (295).

Baym has found a creative way of penetrating the social and cultural world of a growing segment of soap opera fans that is supplementing the television-viewing experience with online social interaction. Her research extols the potential merits of the Internet as a tool for accessing niche populations of television viewers that conventional research methods cannot easily identify or tap into.

While Baym's research is restricted to a single program genre (soaps), a single Internet channel (newsgroups), a single Usenet newsgroup (r.a.t.s.), and a relatively small sample of cultural text, it serves to illuminate many important and previously hidden dynamics of computer mediated fan interaction. Baym sacrifices external validity for greater internal validity in her quest to delve more deeply into the cognitive and affiliative activities of online soap fans. The study is not too unlike David White's (1950) often-revered gatekeeeping research that was based on a case study analysis of a single wire editor at a single newspaper. While that study received criticism for its limited scope and generalizability, White's work served as a catalyst for an entire era of research dealing with issues related to media gatekeeping. In the same vein, what could appear to some as a rather narrow orientation to the study of soap opera fan interaction is more than offset by Baym's expansive depth of analysis. The book has compelling heuristic value and cultivates a fertile field of thought and ideas about the nature of social interactions within the television fan culture of the Internet.

As Baym herself concludes, "It is in the details of their talk that people develop and maintain the rituals, traditions, norms, values, and senses of group and individual identity that allow them to consider themselves communities. Rather than judging from the outside, we need to listen closely to what members of new media communities have to say to one another and to those who ask. Only then will we understand their diversity and the opportunities and challenges they offer" (218).

D. McQuail & M. Gurevitch, M., "Explaining Audience Behavior: Three Approaches Considered," in J. G. Blumler & F. Katz (Eds.), The Uses of Mass Communications: Current Perspectives on Gratifications Research (Beverly Hills, CA: Sage, 1974): 287-301.

D.M. White, "The 'Gate Keeper': A Case Study in the Selection of News," Journalism Quarterly 27 (1950): 383-390.

Vic Costello:
Vic Costello is Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, North Carolina. His dissertation, titled, Interactivity and the 'Cyber-Fan': An Exploration of Audience Involvement Within the Electronic Fan Culture of the Internet, received the 2000 Kenneth Harwell Outstanding Dissertation of the Year award from the Broadcast Education Association.  <vcostello@carolina.rr.com>

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