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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
 AUTHOR RESPONSE: Nancy Baym

Clicks, Cliques, Soaps, and Posts

University of Kansas professor Nancy K. Baym's Tune In, Log On: Soaps, Fandom, and Online Community extends the work of American and British cultural and television studies of the 1980s, bringing an audience-centered approach to an ethnographic content analysis ofa Usenet discussion of soap opera. Baym traces the shared identities and sense of community that clustered around the rec.arts.tv.soaps (r.a.t.s.) newsgroup in 1991-93, limiting her scope to a subset of r.a.t.s devoted to All My Children (AMC).

Part careful discussion of two overlapping, distinct yet similar communities with fandom in common, part quite useful literature review of the serial genre, Tune In, Log On forms an admirable bridge between prior cultural studies scholarship on the viewing habits and interpretative practices of middle-aged housewives and the disenfranchised shut-in elderly to a notably different audience of somewhat early adopters of the Internet, which means, as the cliché would have it, geeky young men who were responding to a form of entertainment primarily geared toward a female demographic of 18-49 years.

Tune In, Log On recalls an earlier time of pre-Web, pre-dot-com application stability when nascent Internet studies was largely restricted to drawing on text-only Usenet posts, mailing lists, and email messages. The limitation of choices for both researcher and audience proved compatible with a carefully controlled exploration of the audience and online community dedicated to AMC.

Text-Only

The primary strengths and weaknesses of Tune In, Log On lie with its ethnographic and application restrictions. Baym's Internet is tidy in the way that the British countryside of a Jane Austen novel is well manicured and socially precise. Her online community reflects the relative stability and obscurity of practices enjoyed by a self-selected cognoscente just before the tidal wave of the Web in 1993-96 that would bring with it AOL members perhaps indifferent to established newsgroup Netiquette and a broader range of users who had also been fans of AMC well before they discovered the Internet.

To state the obvious, a significant affinity-based, yet atomized, group of AMC community members who were not yet online, but may well be considered long-term users by today's standards, are not represented in Baym's study. Tune In, Log On "only" addresses that relatively small group who were both AMC fans and members of r.a.t.s., or members of both audience community and online community, and who not only were relatively comfortable with textual discourse but who chose to speak up rather than to lurk privately in participativelistening, be it assent or disagreement (144-47). "Only" appears in quotes because in a ten-month period in 1992 Baym collected well over 30,000 messages, which she coded according to genre and subject header (24-27).

Although Baym returned to r.a.t.s. in 1998 for a wrap-up survey after a five-year hiatus, her primary research largely ended in 1993, the publication date of Howard Rheingold's more journalistic and utopian The Virtual Community, which also focused on newsgroups, specifically within the WELL, and their offline implications. Nineteen ninety-three represents a high water mark for Usenet but also a time when it would soon be supplanted by an Internet application with a point-and-click graphical user interface by most continuing users as well as by soap audience members new to Internet communication. Of course, the Web has enabled additional objective means of tracking user interest, such as through page views and length-of-stay measures that are taken for granted in determining site popularity today.

Thus a reader's appreciation of Tune In, Log On necessarily will largely hinge on his or her familiarity with and appreciation for pre-Web, text-based, primarily linear Internet communication and its research thereof. For what used to be called "newbies," as well as undergraduates with a slender grasp of digital history, this may prove to be a considerable obstacle. Yet it's a journey worth taking, since Baym uncovers a thriving, early-stage Internet community enjoying provocative gender reversals, shared interests, and diverse perspectives.

Subjectivity

Baym begins by revisiting the realization that her semi-guilty avocation -- an appreciation for "low brow" soaps as both open narrative and escape from graduate student labor -- has become her adviser-approved vocation. The introduction and first chapter follow her subjective and growing scholarly interest in the topic and the academic discourse on fandom from which she will draw, such as Allen (1985), Ang (1985), Hobson (1982), Modleski (1984),Radway (1984), et al.

Baym discovers that she is hardly alone. Other soap watching, Usenet participating fans are similarly uncomfortable with audience stereotyping and find release through literate, friendly discussion about story lines and episodes. Baym cites a response to a 1993 survey: "[It's] refreshing to find a place where adult, professional, intelligent people admit to liking and even becoming emotionally involved in soap operas. As a woman with an advanced degree and a thinking, rational mind, I have always been insulted by the stereotype of soap viewers as passive, overly emotional housewives who have nothing better to do with their time" (45).

While they may seem to live through favorite characters as well as to spend significant time logged-in, Baym's subjects argue that it's false to assume that they necessarily lead impoverished, when unmediated, lives. The lion's share of the first chapter cites participants'attempts at explaining away self-reproach with soap viewing, but oddly enough not with time spent talking on r.a.t.s. about that viewing or discussing where the post activity is taking place or what they are giving up, who they ignoring to participate.

These AMC aficionados seem to seek normalization through conversations with each other about interests they consider marginalized offline. Online, difference evaporates or can be safely explored in an environment that is, if not completely guilt-free, then a sanctioned additional guilty pleasure, one that perhaps intensifies the pleasure of the soap itself. The fourth chapter of Tune In, Log On traces the transformation of the enthusiasm for watching AMC into an enthusiasm for talking, or more accurately for typing, with like-minded others online.

Above all, the r.a.t.s. participants take pleasure in their text. On Usenet they are unabashedly fans. They gush. They rant. They enjoy the potboiling conventions of the sufferings of the cuckolds and the manipulative antics of the villains. They hang off the weekly cliff together, which Baym calls "pooling perspectives" (92-94). She cites Joan, "a 28-year-old computer programmer," interviewed in a 1991 survey: "If there's a scene between characters Netters dislike a lot . . . it encourages me to read r.a.t.s. and read the anguish felt by them. It's kind of amazing to me how intensely some people feel about certain characters on the soap" (94).

Initially Baym's subjects are loosely members of the AMC television interpretive community but isolated as viewers, unaware of each others' presence. They become online habitues somewhat accidentally through the process of spontaneously reaching out, discovering kinship and catching up on missed episodes and trivia. The discourse encircling the drama heightens appreciation of the show itself, which heightens interest in the discourse about the show; interest in characters leads to interest in which and what members of the r.a.t.s. community will speculate on their motivations and feelings; plot twists and turns are partially of interest for the threads they may elicit and so on. The relationship of soap to its Net-based membership community is symbiotic as are the vicarious pleasures and discoveries.

Masculine Accommodation

One of Baym's most surprising findings for this reader is the other side of the intersection of soap fandom and online culture, which in the early 1990s was largely White or Asian, young, educated, and male -- a profile more that of her sons than of the stereotypical middle-aged, soap-viewing mother. Indeed, according to Baym, more than one-quarter of the members of r.a.t.s, like the soap viewing public, is male (48). She writes: "[Although] r.a.t.s. is a warm and loving community based on shared interest, it is not a paragon of White male homogeneity, nor is it disconnected from "entwined, contradictory, sensual" communities. As we have seen, r.a.t.s. is a realm in which men abide by a value system traditionally associated with women, where women's concerns are centralized and taken seriously, and where diverse viewpoints on some of life's most important matters . . . such as how people ought to treat one another -- are considered an asset" (207).

Male discourse in the soap communities is shaped by the dominant female value system. Moreover the male participants, far from behaving like stereotypical asocial nerds, hiding behind superior access to technology, seek inclusion based on mutuality and the desire for connection despite their status as contributors rather than leaders.

Baym's community may foreshadow current developments in Internet demographics. According to metrics compiled by the Industry Standard, most of the leading market research firms place the online population in the U.S., as of mid-2000, at greater than half the adult population. Jupiter Media Metrix gives a slight edge to women, reflecting the real-world population as well as the changes wrought by popular acceptance and ecommerce, including peer-to-peer shopping such as on ebay with Meg Whitman in the CEO role. Perhaps the Internet is becoming a woman's medium.

Clicks and Suds

What Tune In, Log On obviously is not and does not intend to be is a consideration of the Web's enormous impact on interactive discussion, the subsequent mainstreaming and commercialization of the Internet, the online adoption of network soap operas and corporate-sanctioned interpretive communities and chats (nor the entrepreneurial failure of many such planned suburban developments as a cursory glance at recent issues of the Online Community Report attests), the economics and innovations of clicks and mortar merchandising, or the historical precedent of soaps from radio to television and perhaps to online, converged networks with serial drama poised as an early-adopter form of mass media colonization. As a form of entertainment so thoroughly identified with advertising and brand positioning through industry pioneers such as Procter & Gamble, with "soaps" these omissions are keenly perceived. It's an undeniable fact that daytime drama exists to sell detergent and related products. Baym's study seems to stop just as things started getting interesting in terms of commerce online.

Also understandably beyond the scope of Tune In, Log On is a Turkle-inspired examination of mutable online identity through asynchronous viewing with simultaneous multiple windows and dual television or time-shifted VCR watching and computer-enabled discussion that disrupts narrative flow and point of view; chat and IM that encourage immediate, periodic engagement with abbreviated text, both of the soap operas and dictated by the device, home-shopping with celebrity endorsements and viewer testimonials; or consumer-to-consumer auctions with their tremendous audience loyalty and profitable trading in second-hand or purloined soap souvenirs that may take place in forms notably at odds with the intent of networks and sponsors, including photo- and clip-sharing practices.

Opt-in participants of online audience communities today can proudly display mementos from their favorite shows on home pages and provide hyperlinked unofficial information, updates and services, and horde show and advertising artifacts offline in collections as treasured relics or treat them as fungible goods for swap-meet resale and as downloadable, disposable, portable pop culture. The fans of nearly a decade since Baym's study, with many more forms of media and devices at their disposal than text and telnet, have discovered encroaching forms of ownership, identification and access that often challenge networks' copyright restrictions as well as their stars' personal comfort levels.

If such considerations had seen the editorial light of day, they might not only have brought Tune In, Log On a bit more up to date and placed Baym's study in an historical and socioeconomic context, but might have enlarged on the liberation, personal investment, and resistance manifested by mainstream, middle-brow fans, long celebrated by cultural studies practitioners, particularly those working along feminist or Fiskean lines. But again, such a discussion would be well beyond the stated confines of Baym's methodology and move into the speculative and anecdotal, for which, in the often hyperbolic cyberculture field, Tune In, Log On is a welcome corrective.

Open-Ended

Tune In, Log On forms a highly recommended, highly readable, and much needed bridge between the groundbreaking analyses of fandom of the 1980s with the emerging field of digital culture and its interpretation that's been growing since the early 1990s. Baym's consideration of soaps, gender, and the fluidity of social relations in cyberspace may prove useful to a broad range of cultural studies scholars and students working within on- and offline culture, and may help others draw parallels between different forms of electronic culture and their mediated intersections.

A reader need not share the interests of the author's AMC aficionados to enjoy Tune In, Log On. A reader need not be particularly interested in soap opera at all, since there is much to be gleaned from the structure of Baym's study. The author connects up some of the most influential thought of an earlier stage in the study of popular culture with the Internet, much as feminism and gay studies have served as paths through different branches of cultural criticism. And if Baym can take that approach with soaps, than others can and will follow her lead, employing these techniques with other genres with other types of fandom and with other forms of Net-based communication. Moreover this fusion of old genre with new media appears alongside a comprehensive, well-documented content analysis that tells its story through example and survey response as well as through statistics. Baym thereby avoids totalizing generalizations about The Internet, a form of mass communication notable for its protean reinvention.

The world of Tune In, Log On is no larger than Miss Marple's village. But then, community is inherently local. Yes, its members arguably are television viewers first who "merely" use the Internet as a convenient way to key-in and mouth-off on posts with their AMC insights du jour. The text nevertheless brings out that community is about personal investment, about finding a social structure that supports and affirms the paradoxically public yet deeply private discovery of self. The networked online medium may offer a more hospitable environment than most for searching through multiple relationships and diverse opinions semi-anonymously in pursuit of a clearer reflection of personal, often pluralistic, identity.

If Baym doesn't quite advance the Internet's applications and its audience implications as far as this reader might wish -- regrets the author herself expresses toward the end of the volume -- she nevertheless offers rich veins of inquiry on individual expression and shared cyberspace that may be mined in CMC studies for many years to come. Tune In, Log On is less the last word on soaps or mediated social space than part of a continuing interpretative narrative, open to revision and reconsideration by the author and her ever technologically empowered readers, viewers, correspondents, and community members.

Wendy Robinson:
Wendy Robinson has taught Ethics and the Internet in the department of religion at Duke University for the past five years and until recently was the director of corporate communication at KOZ, an online community and ecommerce company. A member of the RCCS advisory board, Robinson currently is persevering to complete her dissertation on telepresence, identity and the social construction of embodiment in computer-mediated space at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, school of journalism and mass communication. 

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