This is something festering in my mind for the past week or two; a blog post that can hardly be considered “hackery”. It’s really a shame that I’ve sidelined myself into blogging solely about British political minutae. I’ve got more things to blog about than just how awesome and cool Nick Clegg is.
I’m pretty sure we know what a wiki is: a community-edited resource of information, usually open to pretty much everyone (sometimes registration is required). TV Tropes is a wiki geared, obviously, to tropes (storytelling devices) in television. It’s not an accurate description, really; its remit has ballooned from television to all media, and some real life examples; and it’s not a good example of a wiki.
You see, creating a wiki requires that you open up a large part of how it’s run to a wider community, unlike a blog, which is controlled solely by the people who write the posts. And when people contribute to a wiki they want to see a return on their “investment”. This is the way Wikipedia went over the past ten years; gradually, Jimbo Wales has relinquished most of his power to pretty much all kinds of people: most policy discussion and implementation is done by the public, actions are taken by the administrators, complex dispute resolution by the Arbitration Committee, and sorting the legal and public side of it to the Foundation. This has served Wales well; even with little non-delegated power, he is still seen as the “head” of Wikipedia and his opinions carry a lot of weight; essentially, he is the Wikipedia equivalent of Queen Elizabeth II. In theory.
On TV Tropes, however, this is not the case. The main administrator and site owner, Fast Eddie, doesn’t seem to have got what a wiki is about. Wikis by their very nature have a very egalitarian, anarchic structure “on the ground”. Sure, the Wikimedia Foundation has a clear power structure, but that’s partially for legal reasons. TVTropes is mostly at a level that doesn’t need legal structures to keep it afloat. Anarchy on the web at its most, huh?
Not exactly. You see, Fast Eddie runs a tight ship on TV Tropes. As tight as Andrew Schlafly, infamous
control freak at large owner of the far-right blog “trusworthy” wiki Conservapedia. It can be excused, to a point, by saying “well, he owns the site”. But as I’ve said, wikis need to have some sort of democracy, or at the very least, consultation with editors, to survive. FE doesn’t do this, though. He’s widely known by his administrative fiat decisions which seem to go relatively uncriticised by the editors. Sure, getting rid of things such as the Fetish Fuel index was the best thing for the site, but where Jimbo Wales would use his reserve powers in an emergency, Eddie has more active powers, to the point of an absolute monarchy of the type seen in pre-Revolutionary France.
Fast Eddie also locks pages that he sees as “troll magnets”, but the criteria aren’t really defined properly. The result is permanently static pages because he just forgets about them. Contrast with Wikipedia, which says that permanent full protection is a last resort only. The moderators have a warped sense of priorities too. When I came across the Troper Tales page for Rape as Comedy and tried to get it deleted, I encountered significant resistance despite the obvious inherent problem with the page.
And, of course, the piece de resistance: the great subjective trope cull. Now, I’m no fan of pages on TV Tropes that are unduly positive or negative, but the cull on these tropes really goes too far. Wikipedia has the right idea when it comes to neutrality: present facts, and present the facts of opinions, but try to find a balance between those opinions. But we can’t even say if a work is good or bad, even if most people believe it’s bad, because it’ll somehow upset the people who think it’s good. Now, when it’s something like a recent Hollywood film, the chances are that there are a sizeable amount of people in that second column. But surely we can make judgements like saying that the Atari 2600 port of Pac-Man was completely terrible, can’t we? I mean, a game that was partially responsible for the Great Video Game Crash of 1983?
Wrong. Apparently, saying that is “subjective”. And herein lies the problem with TV Tropes. Opinions about a work don’t exist completely outside the work itself. Take a look at the film Lady in the Water, where the character of a obnoxious film critic was M. Night Shyamalan’s response to critics who lambasted The Village. Or, indeed, television series where unpopular characters are written out because the people hate them: Nikki and Paulo from Lost, for example. In all works other than one-and-done works, critical reception is essential for furthering a work. And indeed, there is a trope for characters such as Nikki and Paulo: it’s called “The Poochie“, after the fictional dog from the industry-mocking Simpsons episode “The Itchy and Scratchy Shoe“. Luckily, it’s not a subjective trope, yet.
But it doesn’t stop there. One of the most overreaching and stupid policies of the site is the whole “if you can’t say anything nice” guideline that pervades even writing. This, however, makes for incomplete coverage. To explain why, say, Seltzer and Friedberg aren’t making spoof movies any more, we have to explain that Disaster Movie and Vampires Suck were bad and they bombed at the box office. To explain why Rob Reiner fell from an award-winning producer of The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally, and This is Spinal Tap to the joke seen in the South Park episode “Butt Out“, we have to look at North, and why the film was so bad Roger Ebert famously said “I hated hated hated this movie”. But none of this matters there. The problem is so endemic that real-life examples of a “People’s Republic of Tyranny” was deleted for being “rude”.
Which brings me onto another short point: Fast Eddie has encouraged the removal of real life sections because it doesn’t fit the remit of the site. But any evaluation of real life exposes this argument as bare. People use tropes all the time: for example, the “suspiciously specific denial” gets used in politics: for example, “I’m not being racist, but”, followed by a racist remark, or as I pointed out six weeks ago, “a fair impartial debate” between two people of one viewpoint. Tropes can easily describe Real Life too: take the example of the Orwellian Editor, which, like most of Nineteen Eighty-Four, was a not so veiled slight at Josef Stalin, the undisputed king of that kind of censorship.
And finally, the otaku nature of the community. No greater example can be found than the Nakama page. Nakama is, as the page describes, a Japanese word for a close-knit group of friends or characters. So why use “Nakama” rather than the alternate titles of “Fellowship”, “Comrades”, “Coterie”, or even “Ohana” (which, as any person growing up at the turn of the millenium, knows means “family, and family means no-one gets left behind or forgotten“)? Well, it’s solely because of an outrage by anime loving tropers when an attempt to move it to a more helpful title happened. This smarts particularly when some tropes named after western media (e.g. “Encyclopedia Browned” to “Conviction by Counterfactual Clue”) got changed for being “obscure” and “confusing”. And, as people have come to expect of the otaku, they tend to be socially stunted shut-ins who try to hide behind fake diagnoses of mental illness, which, of course, belittles genuine suffers. But I digress.
There is a point to Fast Eddie’s changes: it’s to increase the reputation of the site. But the damage has been done. From a control freak administrator to missing the entire mission of the wiki (and not as Fast Eddie repeatedly changes it) multiple times, and its userbase, making small changes like a ghettoising “subjective tropes” is all full of sound and fury that signifies nothing. Reputational change will only come when the site treats itself seriously, instead of the clusterfuck it currently is.