As you may well know, TV Tropes is a massive wiki dedicated to collecting examples of ‘tropes’ in media – archetypes, techniques, genre expectations, and other concepts. What you probably don’t know is that I was an enthusiastic member of the site roughly around 2008 to 2011. Beloved Soluter Son of Griff has complained that the decentralisation of media has also lead to a loss of a centralised pop culture education; I can see where he’s coming from, but my experiences don’t quite back that up, because TV Tropes immediately served to open my eyes to a whole swarth of media I was previously unaware of. One of the most common complaints about the site is that it’s overloaded with anime references which I think a) comes from the fact that entries are sorted by medium and the mediums are sorted alphabetically, hence ‘anime’ coming first and b) is wrong, because the site really is impossibly wide-ranging in scope. I learned about Westerns, video games, horror, short stories, noir, webcomics, romance novels, plays, and other pop culture through exploring the many, many, many entries. Being sixteen years old, I had limited access, but what I could get to I would suck up like a sponge, and this served as a basis for my critical faculties today. Being into TV Tropes wasn’t just about consumption – part of the fun was watching something and then racing to the website to get some contextualising interpretation, whether that be an explanation of a character’s motivation, a reference to the creator’s intention, or historical information that made more sense of the values of the story.
From there, its greater importance would be revealed: I began contributing to the site. It’s common to observe that The Beatles became The Beatles when they had a residency in Hamburg; playing two hundred and fifty shows in a relatively short amount of time and in a space where they had just enough feedback and just low enough expectations gave them the room to experiment, learn, and improve dramatically, and TV Tropes ended up serving as a similar experience. For such a famously sprawling wiki, the actual structure of the site is simple and accessible, and this goes right down to the language. I’ve gotten a lot of unintentional laughs from the way fansites can write about, say, American Dad with a po-faced imitation of Wikipedia’s journalistic formality; the ‘house style’ of TV Tropes asks contributors for a casual and friendly tone whilst still conforming to basic standards of spelling and grammar – so none of the punctuation-free stream-of-consciousness rambling you get on Tumblr or the caveman-like structure of 4chan’s greentext stories. Both of those approaches have things they can achieve (Tumblr’s style works great as an expression of messy emotions) but TV Tropes has a jack-of-all-trades flexibility that lets it shift from serious to silly as needed. Its one unique aspect is a willingness to embrace italics (and sometimes bold) to stress individual words, allowing it to add an element of shock or incredulity to stress the emotional impact of a moment.
These parameters, along with the relative anonymity of the site, gave me the room to write. At the time, I was insecure enough in my own perspective and abilities that it gave me both an achievable level of purpose and some kind of cover for my own identity; for the former, I simply had to write a single entry at a time explaining how something in a story related to a particular trope, and for the latter, I was freed from any kind of responsibility for making stylistic decisions. “If you don’t like semi-formal language and use of all kinds of punctuation, don’t look at me – it’s your fault for being on the wrong website!”. Of course, I was drawn to TV Tropes in the first place because I happened to like those basic choices, and I probably would have admitted to that if you prodded me. Given time, I got more ambitious, radically expanding the pages of a few shows and even creating a few from scratch. More importantly, I found room for primitive attempts at the kind of thing I do here every day. I came to the site just before it became more organised and even systematised – right when people were recognising that contributors were adding subjective opinions, questions, and trivia on top of the more abstract conceptual stuff the site was created to explore, and categories like Your Mileage May Vary or Just Bugs Me (which was later renamed to Headscratchers) were created to corral these contributions to somewhere they could be easily ignored if you so chose. I ended up drawn to these places as somewhere to do more philosophical analysis; somewhere on the site is a page that’s effectively made up of the notes of my Metal Gear Solid 2 essay.
The day-to-day act of, for lack of a better phrase, living with the site was interesting and informative to my understanding of what an anonymous collective with a clear vision and limited oversight can, cannot, and will do. The collective’s tendency to fall into waves of fads was something that frustrated me at first, but I eventually came to live with it; on TV Tropes specifically, it would be that a big group of people would watch something all together and then become extremely enthusiastic about not just sharing details from their favourite work, but about jamming it into every single page no matter how tenuous the connection. Part of the reason I got used to it was, uh, it kept happening (it was right about when the whole site seemed to become obsessed with the anime Hetalia: Axis Powers that I was like ‘okay, so this is a thing that happens and I just have to get used to it’), but part of it was because it was just a louder expression of stuff I saw on the site every day. The real meat of TV Tropes is in the main articles, which were often written by one person, and back when the site was less organised, I quickly learned that the more interesting and thoughtful entries were at the top of a page and the further you went down, the less relevant and detailed the entries would become. I eventually came to realise this was a logical result of the way the site was run colliding with human nature.
The more interesting tropes were interesting because they represented something complex, and the first people drawn to the page could think of detailed examples that fit the archetype closely but were distinct from the other examples. One of the most popular pages was Deconstruction (now known as Genre Deconstruction), which laid out the legitimately interesting concept of a story that showed classic genre cliches with more realistic consequences, and the four big examples – Neon Genesis Evangelion, Watchmen, Metal Gear Solid, and The Wire – were all very different expressions of that idea that were, nonetheless, widely recognised as quality works. The thing is, the concept is so compelling that users started to slap the label onto anything and everything. It was a dual case of wanting to expand the original page because all the cool kids were doing it and wanting to slap the label onto one’s favourite work in order to ‘legitimise’ it. I recognised this as a result of the free reign users were given; there are no true visions overseeing everything, and a side effect of that is a lack of quality control. This is not Wikipedia, brutally punishing people who step out of line; if I wanted the highs (and, crucially, the possibility of being responsible for one of those highs), I had to take the lows.
I also got the pleasure of seeing what might be one of the funniest ways of navigating the problems of a collective I have ever seen. Shortly after I started with the site, people started putting personal anecdotes of tropes emerging in their own lives on pages, which eventually started being organised under ‘Real Life’ which was later renamed ‘Troper Tales’. This very quickly got very silly; it’s where I learned what Miller did in observing public forums, in that if the unwashed masses are given a microphone, they’ll hold it for as long as they can get away with. This was happening right around the same time that categories like Crowning Moment Of Awesome began becoming unwieldy, and some bright spark got the idea to create subpages where these entries could be collected and kept off the main articles. It was widely understood at the time that these entries were an embarrassment to the site that clogged up pages with clearly fictional stories, bizarrely sexual content (the real life subpage for Brother Sister Incest was, uh, horrifyingly long), and tedious bragging (people describing themselves in great detail as Brilliant But Lazy got old really quickly). It was also an open secret that the long-term plan was to wait for the habit to put that stuff on the subpage to set in, then nuke them. That’s exactly what happened, and it worked! Users had been so institutionalised into deleting that stuff off the main page that the site hasn’t had to deal with it since.
Eventually, though, I hit the limits of what I could learn from TV Tropes and what I could achieve with it. It started with the fact that I ended up internalising the biggest and coolest ideas the site had (like Deconstruction) and it failed to generate new great ideas to replace them. But I first noticed it when I started clearly seeing one of the downsides of anarchic collectivism: a tendency towards nit-picking. Now, this was something that came up in the entry sections of the site, and to an extent it was to be expected; someone might write something off-base or incorrect in one bullet point, and someone else, rather than fix the original error, with pick at the incorrect part of it in a new bullet point. The solution is pretty simple – rewrite two bullet points into one, working the correction into the original. I actually found this process very fun, cleaning up a messy work into something both correct and stylish. It was when this kind of pedantic correction entered the main articles that I got frustrated; an article has to be written to flow in a way that a series of bullet points don’t, and I repeatedly got annoyed by what had clearly been a well-written layout of an overall pattern and archetype that had been tripped up at the end by some jackass who felt the need to pedantically correct some detail and just fucked up the rhythm, like someone who keeps talking after the punchline.
The thing about TV Tropes is that it’s very, very good for collecting details but is very, very bad for actual analysis. By design, the flattening of all voices into a single gestalt means that any single statement, no matter how well-reasoned or insightful, is at the whims of someone who absolutely, constitutionally disagrees, no matter how smart or stupid they are. Provable facts like “Star Wars: The Force Awakens exists” are the only thing that can resist being challenged; interpretations like “Rey is not a Mary Sue and anyone who says otherwise is a SAVAGE and an IDIOT” cannot, because there are people who will simply react to that statement like Pavlov’s dog crossed with Cujo. The truths that survive on TV Tropes are the most inoffensive ones, or at least inoffensive to the loudest and most defensive. This meant that my increasing ambition kept bumping up against the very design of the site; the ideas I grapple with are very large – much larger than a bullet point – and are defiant shouts of the truth as I, Tristan “Drunk Napoleon” Nankervis, see it. TV Tropes did not and could not provide the tools to expand on that ambition; smaller points would have descended into pedantry and larger ones, had they even found somewhere to land, would not have found the audience I wanted anyway. Either way, my truth would be warped to TV Tropes truth, and aside from any moral or ethical or philosophical concerns, that’s just not what I wanted.
If this sounds like a condemnation of TV Tropes, it isn’t – it’s wistful nostalgia for a time when I felt like I was on a frontier, and to an extent I was, in multiple ways. For me personally, it was an opening into a new set of skills and a discovery of things I was capable of that would later mature into an actual skillset. For TV Tropes, this was a Wild West time that has since long passed; in the years since I wandered away, it has not only become systematised and organised, it’s gone corporate – sold by the original owner and turned into something slick and commercial (the word ‘buttload’ no longer appears on the front page), covered in ads and requiring registration to edit. It’s no longer capable of being bizarre or offensive but it’s also almost never as interesting or fun; its main development is more elaborate presentations of the same data – videos, comics, podcasts, community creative projects. For those few years, what I was and what the site was managed to mash together into something that worked.