May 4, 2007
The manufacturing of opinion in a telenovela online community
For years now I've been observing an online bulletin board whose intended focus is Venezuelan TV, but most of its posts are about telenovelas. It's important to note that studying these online communities posits the same challenges as most research on computer mediated communication (CMC) do:
-Issues of identity.- How do we define identity when there is no body associated with a name? Most of the people who post in bulletin boards do so behind a nickname or pseudonym: therefore we don't know their "real" identity.
- Is that online community representative of the entire population?
Observing this particular community, I've noticed that, following a similar pattern to that of the larger societal formation, public opinion is constructed based on reiteration and perceived authority. I've also observed that there is a general sense that the community is representative of the entire population. Therefore, every day the bulletin board is the site of a struggle to define the meaning of what happens in the world of Venezuelan telenovelas. In addition, this bulletin board is used by the two main networks--RCTV and VV (Venevision)--to influence opinion, at least among the members of this particular online community. Hence, it's a common occurrence that when a new telenovela airs, suddenly the number of posts increases, and their content is predictable: some extoll the virtues of the new telenovela, and some deride its competition.
This week, RCTV premiered Mi Prima Ciela, a remake of two previous telenovelas written by Pilar Romero: Elizabeth and Maite. Even before the telenovela aired, the bulletin board was filled with posts celebrating the promotions of the new telenovela. These promos truly impacted the community. There were also many posts qualifying the (very successful) competing telenovela as "boring". The night that the first episode of Mi Prima Ciela aired, many posted messages expressing that it was the best thing they had seen in years and that they were sure that this telenevola would win the ratings war, giving RCTV its first win in more than a year. The next morning, again, there were many celebratory posts, several of them assuring that they had heard "through their sources" and even on the radio, that MPC had definitely won the night before.
Finally, at the end of the day, the ratings were posted and even though MPC had raised the ratings of its unfortunate predecessor by 4 points, it did not win the crucially important 9 p.m. spot.
The online community exploded. Those who favor RCTV wrote angry posts questioning the validity of the ratings, assuring everyone that it was impossible that the new telenovela had not won the ratings because "everyone" they knew had watched it, and they had heard people in the streets singing its musical theme. Participants who favored the competition, VV, were relieved to see that Voltea pa' que te enamores which had been winning since it premiered months ago, was still unbeaten. This online storm raged for about 24 hours.
This is one example, among many, of how these online communities are a mix of useful information, manipulation and opinion formation. It's a reminder that opinion formation is never pure and always prone to manipulation. It's also a reminder to me, the researcher, that I need to be constatnly aware of the limitations of the information that these communities provide for my studies.