Sunday, November 17, 2013

Synthesis of Related Research

In their article "Public Displays of Connection" (2004), Donath and Boyd discuss online identities in-depth; specifically, how simple it is for a person to invent an online identity that suits them, and alter it to their own liking. This caught my interest, as I have been giving the matter of identity some thought in my research project. On the Once Upon A Time (OUAT) discussion board, all members post anonymously, with their (generally nondescript) email addresses as their user names. However, there is a distinct level of identity present on the board. Yet the identities are molded into whatever the user would like them to be, which is something that Donath and Boyd describe in their article:

"Identity deception is prevalent in the on-line world. In the real world the body anchors identity, making it both singular and difficult to change. Identity deception, though not unheard of, is difficult — convincingly representing oneself as a member of the opposite gender is quite costly, requiring extensive makeup, costuming, and possibly surgery, while portraying oneself as a different person requires acquiring another’s documents, avoiding known acquaintances, and risking a lengthy incarceration. On-line, identity is mutable and unanchored by the body that is its locus in the real world.
In many situations, creating pseudonyms has little cost and if one ruins the on-line reputation tied to one screen name, it is
simple to acquire a new name and return afresh. Behind the new name is the same problematic person, but the equivalence between the disreputable old name and the clean new name — the fact that they are both names for the same
person — is invisible. "

Discussion board members can portray themselves in a way that is alien to how they behave in the offline world, and if they decide that they don't like their online counterpart, they can easily delete it and create a new one. On the Once Upon A Time discussion board, this could be the case with any of the four fan groups, though it is most noticeable with the trolls. One discussion board member, with the username yvonne, had been particularly active on the board, frequently making snide comments in response to people's posts, and earning (her?)self a negative reputation. People were offended and aggravated by what yvonne had to say, and even left comments underneath her own, telling others "just ignore her". Then yvonne, a frequent poster, disappeared completely from the board. About that time, a new user, molly_kiss, made her presence known on the board, posting unkind comments in response to posts that were of the same subject that yvonne had such strong opinions about. This change did not pass over the heads of other members; one user went so far as to make a post with the title "is molly_kiss yvonne?" Said post has since been deleted, and although it cannot be proven that the troll yvonne created a new identity for herself, Donath and Boyd's description of creating pseudonyms and hiding behind them fits the situation very well.

Throughout my research, I have noticed that despite the squabbles over trivial things like what actor is the most appealing or how good/bad the latest plot twist is, the members of the OUAT board are generally quite united as a community; they flourish under their shared appreciation for Once Upon A Time. Gee discusses community in his article "Semiotic Social Spaces and Affinity Spaces".

"In such spaces, people who may share little, and even differ
dramatically on other issues, affiliate around their common cause
and the practices associated with espousing it via affinity spaces that
have most or all of the previously described eleven features. Fans of
everything (e.g., movies, comic books, television shows, video games,
various lifestyle choices, etc.) create and sustain affinity spaces"

Affinity spaces is something that Gee describes in great detail throughout his article, and that term I believe can be applied to the OUAT board quite fittingly. All the members, both genders, different ages and nationalities join together in this community because of their affinity for a popular TV show. In both of my data analyses, members were able to form thriving, successful discussions in the comments section of posts that all of them could appreciate. Whether or not conversations are successful, or fans' behavior is civil, it is their continued interaction that sustains the site.

In an online community like this discussion board, participation is crucial for its continued growth. There is no webmaster to keep pushing things along and make posts whether or not anyone responds to them. The only action that takes place on the part of the moderator is to delete posts that are obviously spam or unrelated to Once Upon A Time. The OUAT discussion board is what it is because of its fans. Their contributions are what bring in the gossip, the polls, the theorizing, and the bickering. If there were no fan participation at all, the discussion board would still exist (all IMDB pages have one), but it would merely sit there, blank. Taking into account the importance of the fans, I also researched Henry Jenkins's work; he goes into detail about fans and their participation in his article "Interactive Audiences? The 'Collective Intelligence' of Media Fans".

"As fandom diversifies, it moves from cult status towards the cultural mainstream, with more
Internet users engaged in some form of fan activity. This increased visibility and cultural
centrality has been a mixed blessing for a community used to speaking from the margins. The
speed and frequency of communication may intensify the social bonds within the fan

The TV show Once Upon A Time has quite popular, generating online news articles, magazine reviews, and etc.; this ties into Jenkins's statement about how increased visibility has worked as a blessing for a community. With the more attention Once Upon A Time earns, participation on the discussion board increases.

Jenkins, in his article,  discusses Pierre Levy's book Collective Intelligence. In this book Levy explains:

"The members of a thinking community search, inscribe, connect, consult,
explore……Not only does the cosmopedia make available to the collective
intellect all of the pertinent knowledge available to it at a given moment, but it
also serves as a site of collective discussion, negotiation, and development…….
Unanswered questions will create tension within cosmopedic space, indicating
regions where invention and innovation are required"
A site of collective discussion where all pertinent knowledge is made available would be an apt description for this or any other discussion board. Levy's mention of tension being created by unanswered questions can be applied to certain posts on the board; for example the post "who will die? poll" generated a lot of comments, some just one-word answers but others agitated responses or snarky replies to someone else's opinion. There were also several posts speculating whether or not one of the lead actors on the show is pregnant; with the reports unconfirmed, worried comments piled up: "would they write this into the show?", "is that why snow said she wants another baby?"

On the OUAT discussion board, a significant portion of the fans' contributions to the site are influenced by contributions that have already been made. If someone makes a post about a hot topic, whether or not said post receives lot of comments, other posts will follow, either reinforcing the original idea or presenting a new take on it. Nancy Baym, in her article "Talking About Soaps: Communication Practices in a Computer-Mediated Culture", explores how fans can function on the site more effectively as a group.

"A large group of fans can do what even the most committed single fan cannot:
accumulate, retain, and continually recirculate unprecedented amounts of relevant
information……. [Net list] participants collaboratively provide all with the
resources to get more story from the material, enhancing many members' soap
readings and pleasures"

The continued recirculation of relevant information is very common on the discussion board, with people piling onto what others have said, usually until the issue is resolved on the show, or the topic eventually burns itself out. As mentioned above, hot topics generate multiple posts presenting different opinions about the same subject. When Once Upon A Time introduced in one of its episodes the possibility that a character was homosexual, the discussion board exploded with different posts regarding the issue: "the lesbian twist", "phillip or aurora (poll)", "SICK, SICK, SICK". As Baym states, these fans as a group were capable of doing more than one fan ever could. That I believe is an important part of what sustains the discussion board. Variety in opinions and behaviors helps answer questions and stimulate debates; it helps draw the fans in.

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