On the heels of the breakthrough television series Queer as Folk, The L Word and Showtime provided American lesbians their very own television show. For the first time a show had gone “all lesbian all the time,” escaping the social and network contentiousness of Ellen or the supernatural exoticization and subtextual relegation of Xena. Along with the televised lesbian play-land provided by the show’s narratives, creator Ilene Chaiken, select cast members (Jennifer Beals, Leisha Hailey, and Kate Moennig), and political commentator Hillary Rosen invested in and promoted a spin-off social networking site that was to replicate the inclusiveness the show hoped to project. In the 2007 Showtime promo for the site, Chaiken, Beals, Hailey, and Moenning bubble over with enthusiasm about the community-building possibilities that OurChart could provide. The design and execution of the site, however, is indicative of much fan-directed/corporate-created material that has emerged since networks, producers, etc. have become more heavily invested in media convergence. In spaces touted as providing community and fan-driven communication, the business behind the spaces’ creation helps to frame the ultimate content, interface, and likely user interactions. The powers that be leave a fingerprint of business, social, and ideological goals and preferences on the space promoted as providing fan freedom. In the case of OurChart, the site fails (well, failed, as it was largely defunct within 2 years) to provide the transcendent sense of togetherness and inclusiveness implied by its major shareholders; rather, the site embraces biases of race, class, and region supported by the show, as well as some new ones. Once on the site, one finds a social networking site similar to Facebook or MySpace. More unique to OurChart than its social networking was its blogs and boards. Just as networks and advertisers do overtly through narratives and ads, OurChart itself defines its desirable audience even when overtly promoting its wholly inclusive nature. As the site organizers chose its chief bloggers they selected the valid lesbian voice: urban, intellectual, and artistic and not bisexual, transsexual, or butch. Simultaneously, they defined the topics worthy of conversation through preset major subject-headings and bloggers' identities, again excluding the working class, butch, bi, rural, religious, trans, lesbian mother, etc. As with many sites currently linked to or created by networks or those who create or control the media, OurChart represents not a newly emerging site for the free exchange of ideas within a fan community, but the complex notion of “community” that has come into play as the powers that be invest more heavily in media convergence. They often subtly define how the community should think of itself and how members should interact. Far from the freedom at times assumed by users or represented in earlier studies of independently forming fan communities, contemporary fans who rely on sites provided for them compromise independent thought and action for convenience. Fans of The L Word have been given a bling-ed out, pre-fab place to hang, but at what kind of insidious expense?
where women can connect
I really appreciate your trenchant diagnosis of the structuring ideologies of OurChart, Kelly. The demographics of the paid contributors are definitely a clear example of its target demographics and values. What's remarkable to me is how contradictory this composition seems -- obviously all social networking sites shape how users interact, but most don't farm out professional content. The fact that they felt the need to entice people with these featues evinces a lack of confidence in the appeal of OurChart AS a social network, or at least in its capacity to enhance The L Word's brand without such guidance and gatekeeping. I think this captures the inherent paradox of a promotional social network.
Layered over their upspoken limits on who is welcome are paltry gestures toward diversity: in particular, the evacuation of the sexual aspect of lesbian identity in favor of a sanitized address to "women." This dance between authenticity and inclusivity is characteristic of The L Word's whole marketing strategy. The way the Chart was rendered on the show, it promised a titilating archive of the intimate histories of a community, and then never delivered online ("friends plus" was as gossipy as it got).
What's remarkable to me is how popular it was despite this poverty. Clearly, for all we may criticize it, their formula worked for many, and there was outcry when Showtime pulled funding for the site. You do a great job of pointing out, though, that fan engagement isn't positive/progressive in itself, and we don't have to celebrate OurChart just for being successful in its own terms. But it also raises the question of what a meaningful, diverse, independent queer social networking site would look like, since this is apparently something people crave.
OurChart on MySpace?
Being pretty unfamiliar with OurChart myself, I find both of your comments very informative. Given this unfamiliarity, I thought I'd stray a bit from the particulars of the site and toss out a related site I stumbled across- OurChart's MySpace. The site seems to play off this week's discussions of consumerism, commodification and promotional tactics in some interesting ways. If on its own site OurChart privileges a limited and homogenous lesbian identity, on its Myspace page OurChart literally claims an concrete identity, and, as is almost inevitable on social networking sites, tries to articulate this identity through consumer categories. On MySpace, OurChart divulges “her” interests along with music, movie, and television preferences. As Kelly and Julie's observations would suggest, the answers provided demonstrate OurChart's deceptively inclusive rhetoric, while again constructing a portrait of lesbian “identity” that is ultimately limiting and exclusive. The wall posts also present an interesting phenomenon. Countless fans post to thank OurChart for adding them as MySpace friends, giving rise to a convoluted irony of thanking a social networking site for its shameless self-promotion... via another social networking site. Anyways, here is the URL if anyone would like to check it out: http://www.myspace.com/ourchart
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