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:
Text – statements, asynchronous dialogue, timestamps, links, invitations to comment...
Emoticons – including a “thumbs up” graphic, indicating to me when someone else likes an update
Images – a photo icon accompanying each update, photos posted by friends of events (mostly work Christmas parties!)
Video – shared either for amusement or for education
Games – 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!