Analysing r.a.t.s.: Nancy K. Baym's 'Tune In, Log On'
Axel Bruns
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Tune In, Log On: Soaps, Fandom, and Online Community
26 Sep. 2000
  The great deal of public attention that has recently been bestowed on the Web has somewhat overshadowed the other media forms carried by the Internet. In academic circles, too, there is probably now more of a focus on the study of the Web and the various legal, cultural and policy issues associated with it; earlier favourites of researchers, such as the study of real-time interaction in computer-mediated communication (CMC), or the creation of virtual communities in mailing-lists and newsgroups, seem to have been relegated to a minor role. To some extent, that's perhaps also due to a considerable conservative backlash against Howard Rheingold's concept of the 'virtual community', which was seen (particularly by those who know only the term itself, not Rheingold's writings) as too 'utopian' or 'idealistic'.
  Nancy K. Baym's Tune In, Log On: Soaps, Fandom, and Online Community might help to redress this situation -- and what's more, it goes beyond the study of 'virtual community' as an abstract concept to engage in detail with the interaction, and the participants, of one particular real-life fan community which has made its place online, analysing that community not only as a virtual community, but also as a fan community and as a community of shared practices. Baym's object of study here is the newsgroup (somewhat unfortunately abbreviated by its members as r.a.t.s), and she does not hesitate to describe herself as an active member of that community; this in itself already points to the significance of this study, as it enables Baym to gain a far greater insight into and much more detailed knowledge of the inner workings of this community than any outside observer would be able to achieve. In addition, she also begins (perhaps necessarily) with an impassioned plea in support of the soap opera genre itself, which -- despite much public criticism for the 'low quality' of its shows -- provides a great opportunity for the study of audience communities if the researcher can gain access to them.
  Emerging from the book is the fact that, where these conditions are met, newsgroups are an excellent place in which to observe virtual and audience communities in situ, by participating or at least 'lurking' online. Studies such as Baym's are therefore useful not only for the field of Internet studies itself, but also beyond this in television audience studies, since the 'audience community' of TV, distributed across the broadcast area, usually does not otherwise emerge and articulate itself as a distinct entity. The participants of r.a.t.s, on the other hand, appear in this book as a community with a clear understanding of itself, with established practices as viewers and communicators, and with a definite sense of community (and, by the way, as far removed from the 'bored housewife' stereotype). Baym's extensive use of quotations from newsgroup postings and participant questionnaires is instrumental in getting across a feel for the atmosphere of r.a.t.s.
  The study becomes particularly interesting, however, through the fact that in large part Baym's data was gathered in the early 90s, with a return of the researcher five years later to what had become of r.a.t.s. To some extent, this dates its material, of course: the bulk of the book deals with r.a.t.s as it was in 1992/3, and perhaps the time of virtual communities as they existed then has simply passed now, so that today this study has mainly historical value. At the same time, however, Baym's chapter on the 'new' r.a.t.s (now divided into separate newsgroups for individual soaps, and inundated with new users) also contains a telling commentary on the development of the Internet into a mass medium, and could be seen as one of the first contributions to the writing of a history of the massified Net as we know it today (a task that is now of ever more pressing importance).
  While a great sadness for the 'r.a.t.s that was' comes through in this chapter, overwhelmed at first by the influx of newly-arrived AOL and WebTV users, and then dissected into its individual sub-groups, there is also the realisation that the groups continue despite these adversities, and that any melancholy that emerges is perhaps the nostalgia of the old-timer rather than a justified concern for the future. This, certainly, seems an observation applicable to a good part of the criticism of the current state of the Net (and especially of Usenet with its explosion of ever more crowded newsgroups) by its long-term participants. Whatever the answer, to compare and see if 'the good old days' were really better, we must first write our histories, as Baym does here.
  Like any good study, Baym's research also raises many more questions than it can answer -- and in this way, too, it stands at the beginning of a history of Internet studies. Tune In, Log On is not simply the study of a virtual community, but combines its focus on a particular online community with an investigation of a specific audience community and subculture, and so there remains the important question of how representative of community and subcultural interaction the tendencies observed in really are. If daytime soaps are a particularly American phenomenon, for example, how do similar communities interact online elsewhere -- how do Australian newsgroups on Neighbours and Home and Away compare, say? Also, how does the topic of soaps itself (whose fans are frequently ridiculed for following such 'shallow' entertainment) affect the community's sense of itself -- what happens in genres that are less ostracised by public opinion?
  Studies such as Baym's are valuable, then, for moving from the abstract concept of the 'virtual community' as such to the study of individual communities. What remains is the need for more such work, covering a greater diversity of online participation and describing communities from the perspective of the involved ethnographic researcher; once a body of work of this kind is established it will finally be possible to compare between communities and understand the effects of the general nature of CMC systems and particular aspects of the subcultures. If daytime soaps can be a catalyst for this process, more power to them.

Nancy K. Baym. Tune In, Log On: Soaps, Fandom, and OnlineCommunity. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2000.

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