"No Politics Here": Age and Gender in Soap Opera "Cyberfandom"

Article excerpt

"Virtual" ethnographic investigation of soap opera "cyberfan" discussion groups refutes claims of resistive public space, finding that industry infiltration, "netiquette," and other factors construct these Internet forums as sites of "escape" rather than politics. Moreover, "polyvalent" readings tend to reproduce the demographics strategy of advertisers--a strategy which flatters young female audiences at the expense of their older counterparts.

Critical/cultural media scholars debate the extent to which audiences interpret and use hegemonic texts in resistive ways. Political economists examine the issue macroscopically, arguing that the structures, processes, and commercial imperatives of capitalist media institutions determine a range of available content, restrict access and ownership and, inevitably, reproduce hegemonies that help to maintain unequal power relations. Many cultural studies scholars shift the focus to the microscopic, localized consumption of media audiences, with some contending that a repertoire of appropriative strategies regularly confound these forces of domination, particularly in the hands of those whose marginal status cultivates interpretive ingenuity. Some scrutinize fan subcultures, arguing that collective audience engagement facilitates resistive activity. Such claims emanate from ethnographic audience study, generally via focus groups, interviews, and observation.(1)

In an effort to spearhead a unifying direction for critical/cultural media studies, a "multiperspectival" approach blending analyses of production, text, and consumption has been recommended (see Kellner, 1992; Harms & Dickens, 1996, pp. 224-225). While it is difficult to thoroughly dissect all three levels in a single, small-scale effort, attempts have been made to intertwine two levels in one analysis or multiple levels in succeeding investigations. Gender-related work has been in the forefront of this effort. Examples include O'Brien's (1996) exploration of the texts and historical and institutional contexts of Disney animated features and Livingstone and Liebes' (1995) textual consideration of motherhood on American soaps as informed by their earlier audience inquiries (Liebes & Katz, 1990; Livingstone, 1990). As Livingstone and Liebes (1995, p. 157) note, "audience research is in danger of replacing textual analysis by studies of audience response without asking what viewers are responding to." Condit (1989, p. 120) concurs and adds that ignoring the "presumed intents of sources" can exacerbate this blind spot.

This essay examines soap opera "cyberfandom"--computer-mediated communication (CMC) and culture in cyberspace discussion groups devoted to television serials--to assess the ways in which these forums welcome and/or inhibit the voices of traditionally marginalized viewers. The study was conducted through "virtual" ethnography entailing participant observation by this researcher over a four year period in discussion groups on Usenet and information services such as CompuServe and America Online (AOL).(2) This essay will endeavor to interrelate analyses of the contextual/institutional imperatives of soap opera production with the interactions and interpretations of cyberfans and the conditions and structures under which these interactions occur. Ultimately, the investigation refutes claims of resistive public space, finding that industry infiltration, "netiquette," and other factors construct these thrums as sites of "escape" rather than "politics." Moreover, matters significant to older women and minorities are slighted, reproducing the "divide and flatter" demographics strategy of the advertisers and their media cohorts.

Cyberspace and Empowerment

"There is no race. There are no genders. There is no age. There are no infirmities. There are only minds. Is it Utopia? No, it's the Internet." So posits a 1996 commercial for MCI. In fact, the information superhighway, with its numerous web sites, online services, and discussion groups, has been characterized by some as a panacea providing for potentially empowering and open exchanges of information and opinion and by others as another communication technology to be commodified by "the powers that be" and used to protect and extend their vested interests. …