In their article "Public Displays of Connection" (2004), Judith Donath and Danah 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.
“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… On-line, identity is mutable and unanchored by the body that is its locus in the real world.”
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. 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, which is something that Donath and Boyd discuss in their article:
“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.”
On the OUAT 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 as the board members engage in discussions about the show, 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. James Gee discusses community in his article "Semiotic Social Spaces and Affinity Spaces", describing it in terms of an affinity space:
"In such spaces, people who may share little, and even differ dramatically on other issues, affiliate around their common cause and create and sustain affinity spaces."
Gee’s definition of an affinity space 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 mutual fondness for a popular TV show.
As I studied the discussion board, I observed members with noticeably different values unite over a common affinity. To clarify: sometimes social issues like ethnicity, adoption, or sexual impropriety are brought up on the board in regards to how they play out on OUAT. When members voice their opinions on the matter, they are often drawn into disputes with other members that have a different ethical standpoint. And yet when the topic of discussion is how excited you are for the next episode, or how intense the cliffhanger was, I watched those very same members chat in harmony, all personal differences forgotten for that moment.
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 OUAT. 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. Henry Jenkins's goes into detail about fans and their participation in his article "Interactive Audiences? The 'Collective Intelligence' of Media Fans"; his discussion focuses on how the growing fandoms spread outside of the original community source:
"As fandom diversifies, it moves from cult status towards the cultural mainstream, with more
Internet users engaged in some form of fan activity.”
The TV show Once Upon A Time has quite popular, generating online news articles, magazine reviews, and etc.; this ties into Jenkins's statement that “increased visibility and cultural
centrality has been a mixed blessing for a community used to speaking from the margins”.
With the more attention OUAT earns, participation on the discussion board increases. For example, one of the actors on the show posted on Twitter that he had seen a lot of people “hatin’” on him on the discussion board. Within 24 hours of that tweet, it had been copied and pasted multiple times on the discussion board, all of those posts earning a high number of comments weighing in on the subject. An even quicker response took place when Adam Horowitz, one of the OUAT writers, brought up the IMDB discussion board when giving an interview about the then-undiscovered identity of one of the characters. Horowitz said, in regards to the discussion board, that he had heard several good theories, including the correct one. His remark generated about half a dozen posts within the hour; not long after that, the “Baelfire Appreciation Thread” had been posted on the board and earned dozens of comments wondering which theory was the correct one. As Jenkins put it, “The speed and frequency of communication may intensify the social bonds within the fan community."
Pierre Levy, author of Collective Intelligence, explains in his book how community members interact together, and the resulting effect.
"The members of a thinking community search, inscribe, connect, consult, explore……”
His description fits the OUAT online community, or indeed, nearly any online community. As the members engage in said actions, they form what Levy calls a “cosmopedia”, which can “make available to the collective intellect all of the pertinent knowledge available to it at a given moment”.
The discussion board, being a site of collective discussion, ties in quite nicely to Levy’s characterization of communities, particularly considering that the internet makes all information available at once. The collective intellect of all the members helps shape the board into a veritable hive of information, though OUAT being an in-progress TV show, there are still questions that fans can’t answer. Unanswered questions, according to Levy, “will create tension within cosmopedic space”.
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 (“henry”; “regina”) but others agitated responses (“omg im worried theyre gonna kill off rumple!!”; “if the writers get rid of hook I’m going to march down to their houses with a shovel!”) or snarky replies to someone else's opinion (“Are u stupid? they cant kill prince Charming”; “don’t be a dumbass rumple’s fine”). 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. 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”.
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. 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. Baym describes this as “[net list] participants collaboratively provid(ing) all with the resources to get more story from the material, enhancing many members' soap readings and pleasures"
As mentioned above, hot topics generate multiple posts presenting different opinions about the same subject. When OUAT introduced in one of its episodes the possibility that a character was homosexual, the discussion board exploded with different posts regarding the issue, e.g: "the lesbian twist"; "phillip or aurora (poll)"; "SICK, SICK, SICK". These fans as a group, like Baym describes, were capable of doing more than one fan ever could. Variety in opinions and behaviors helps answer questions and stimulate debates; it helps draw the fans in. That I believe is an important part of what sustains the discussion board.
Baym, Nancy. Talking About Soaps: Communication Practices in a Computer-Mediated Culture. New York: Hampton Press, 1998.
Donath, Judith & Boyd, Danah. Public Displays of Connection. BT Technology Journal, Vol. 22 No. 4. 2004.
Gee, James. Semiotic Social Spaces & Affinity Spaces.
Jenkins, Henry. Interactive Audiences? The 'Collective Intelligence' of Media Fans.
Levy, Pierre. Collective Intelligence. Cambridge: Perseus, 1997.