Facebook: The Transliterate’s Soap Opera?

B is having a baby

B's finds out she might lose the baby and goes to hospital for tests

B's test results come back fine – the baby is ok

B can't wait to meet “the bump” and is driving everyone up the wall with baby talk

B's “bump” is going to be a footballer – kicking a lot and making B feel rotten

B is beginning to get the jitters about giving birth….

This could easily be a soap opera plot line. But instead, it is a series of Facebook updates, each accompanied by typed dialogue and comments from supportive friends, photographs, scan images, illustrated “gifts” and polls to predict the baby's name. This is just one storyline of many that could be populating your news stream on Facebook – effectively bringing a television soap opera-type narrative into your online experience.

However, analysis of any reasonably active Facebook news page will demonstrate that that a far greater range of literacies is required to engage with this type of soap opera. On my own news feed today I have received the “stories” of my friends' lives through:

– statements, asynchronous dialogue, timestamps, links, invitations to comment…

– including a “thumbs up” graphic, indicating to me when someone else likes an update

– a photo icon accompanying each update, photos posted by friends of events (mostly work Christmas parties!)

– shared either for amusement or for education

– updates when friends play or progress in Facebook-based games, such as Farmville, or quizzes.

This stream of content is then effectively framed by adverts, much like a a television soap.

Although Facebook may appear to be predominantly text-based, to engage fully, I must be able to navigate and understand this entire range of literacies. And engage I must to find out about all of the plot and character developments. For example, the designers of Facebook have restricted the amount of space any one update may occupy, thus truncating messages or conversations and forcing the user to click to view it in its entirety. However, this forced engagement does also offer the convenience of choice – if I am not as deeply interested in a particular character – sorry, friend! – or plot line – sorry, life development! – then I can gloss over them.

But is this what a soap opera is supposed to be about? There are many reasons viewers of television soap operas give for their often addictive viewing: seeing how other people handle issues, character association, familiarity, the cliff hangers, chatting with friends about the most recent plot line… However, they also cite convenience and escapism. The scheduling of soap operas at times when people have just returned from work make them a relaxation mechanism. Active – or rather, action-based – engagement is not mentioned.

Facebook The Soap Opera is increasingly easy to access – particularly via mobile devices – making it a convenient addiction at any time of day. You can see, in real time, how other people handle life's dramas and influence them more effectively than by shouting at the television. You can associate with the familiar characters – they are people you know personally after all. Some of the characters may be people you have little physical contact with, so may as well be fictional characters within the Facebook soap opera. Real life narratives also feature cliff hangers, just like constructed ones.

What I am beginning to see in Facebook is an interactive, transliterate soap opera – a narrative space in which I can relax and be entertained by the ordinary features of life. But I am encouraged to engage and I am encouraged to “read” in different ways within the same space.

All of this leads me to wonder, perhaps not uniquely, whether constructed soap opera narratives could be delivered within the Facebook platform? Would people want or need further ordinary life stories delivered within this environment? What could a constructed narrative bring to this existing, self-perpetuating mixed media soap opera?

In fact, the thought is not unique. In researching this I discovered “Boymeetsgirl” an experiment in interactive storytelling which relied heavily, although not exclusively, on Facebook. What I found particularly interesting about producer Jill Golick's website was this statement: “Together we can create branded entertainment that's targeted, inexpensive and highly effective.” Soap operas originally gained their name due to the soap company advertising that funded their production. This statement from Golick highlights the potential for ad-funded writing in this area, with stories crafted as desirable brands. This brand aspect also links into a popular feature of the TV soap – the cohesive effect which binds fellow viewers in conversation after the broadcast. So maybe there will be a market for constructed narratives….

The reason for my thinking about this is that I have recently started drafting a short Facebook-based story about gossip culture and constructed identity entitled: “What do you think of Josie?”. The aim is to enable users to post comments/observations to a group, jointly creating the character of the new girl at work (Josie), and the happenings that pertain to her. This was conceived as an interactive, collaborative writing exercise. However, thinking about Facebook as more of a soap opera platform, I am reassessing how I should manage the delivery of my story to make best use of the strengths of the platform. It is also helping me to get a better understanding of my potential audience – something I admit I have struggled with since I moved into writing for new media.

So, is this the future of the soap opera as television viewing figures and advertising revenues fall? Possibly. Or are we seeing a new, transliterate audience emerging for ordinary life stories – including some who may not ever consider watching a TV soap?

I will admit that I consider myself in that latter category with regards to TV soaps, despite the common indoctrination techniques of parents and house mates. However, I think I could become a fan of a Facebook soap…. Make of that what you will!


3 thoughts on “Facebook: The Transliterate’s Soap Opera?

  1. Soap is one of my favourite genres because — on the one hand, it is focused on daily human stories and on the other, it can encompass every other genre (sci fi, romance, mystery, thriller, etc). My definition of soap opera includes not only the day time shows like Days of Our Lives but also prime time continuing dramas like Greys Anatomy.
    When I first joined Facebook and Twitter, I was fresh off working as head writer on a low budget nighttime soap. It had been a ridiculously fun experience.
    My first impression of the social networks was that they were narrative tools that I could use to create character and explore story. From there came my storytelling experiments with the characters of Ali Barrett and Simon Beals; boymeetsgrrl and blogwars.
    Developing these stories, I became convinced that the best business model would be the one on which conventional tv is based: advertiser pays (as opposed to the HBO model in which the user pays)
    I still believe that Facebook is a dynamite platform for soap style stories, especially ones that are financed by brands, but unfortunately Facebook does not agree. Their terms of service forbids fictional characters. When they were alerted to my work (which was completely self financed btw and did not include any advertizng), they removed all of it. All that remains are a few screenshots and some memories.
    Before you build too much narrative into the Facebook platform, take a look at their terms of service. If you do decide to build characters and story there, be sure to keep records of everything, just in case.

  2. Thanks, Jill 🙂
    I did come across this in the Ts & Cs when I was looking at using Facebook in a customer service context, but didn’t realise that Facebook actually policed it!
    In that context, I ended up using my personal account to set up a business”fan” page – which will also deliver updates to fan’s news/live streams along with updates from their friends.
    Short of Facebook changing its Ts & Cs, I think the fan page is probably the only way that soap operas could proliferate within the platform. On the plus side, this makes it easier to ensure that everyone is very clear that the characters and events are fictitious.
    Having said that, I agree that Facebook is the perfect new media platform for soap operas. I didn’t originally conceive my project as a soap – more a short piece examining how it is possible for a group to create an identity around a person through gossip… so the character does not necessarily need to have a profile. However, I do very much believe in fitting the story into the conventions of the platform if it is going to be authentic to the audience, so thinking about soaps and looking at your account of your work has really helped 🙂
    Thanks again!

  3. I see what you mean, Kirsty, about Facebook as soap opera and I think it’s a very interesting idea. However, it brings to mind a talk I went to on Cyber Psychology by Dr Monica Whitty and Dr Jill Arnold from NTU at the National Media Museum (podcast available: http://www.nationalmediamuseum.org.uk/mediafest09/audio.asp ). The talk was about “how being under constant scrutiny impacts on our understanding of the digital world” and how that affects the way we present ourselves. One assertion was that it’s not socially acceptable to talk about how miserable you are on Facebook. Whereas displays of human misery are a staple, if not defining feature of soap opera!

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