Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Future of TV Tropes

When I first became aware of the TV Tropes website, I was enthralled. Fictional narrative is a significant influence on our collective culture and opinions. Tropes unconsciously shape many of our perceptions of the world, and are a topic worthy of study. The first edit I ever made was on the Incredibly Obvious Bomb page concerning the 2007 Boston Bomb Scare. To this day, I can come up with no explanation as to why the Boston police thought brightly colored LED displays were bombs except by using the "logic" of this trope.

Perhaps once the TV Tropes wiki really was about detailing this level of nuance- at this point, I honestly can't remember. I have heard about what has happened at the site since I was banned, and the direction administration has taken is not encouraging. Apparently, the true villain of the wiki is now negativity- which I suppose explains why the example I gave above, along with plenty of others, has been removed from the site. There's not really any way to describe the Boston Bomb Scare that doesn't make the Boston police look like idiots.

This de-emphasis on analysis is actually fairly fitting, all things considered. Those of you who have been reading this blog all the way through may note that multiple tropes come up in the story of TV Tropes quality control history- Selective Obliviousness, Fascist But Inefficient, Tautological Templar, Internal Retcon, You Know What You Did, and those are just off the top of my head. None of these tropes reflects particularly well on the character or institution that invokes them, and yet administrative staff continues to do so with no sense of irony.

Much of this stems from yet another trope- Protection From Editors. It's ironic, given the wiki context, but all too true. There are now enough TV Tropes purists who are adamant that the wiki is perfect as it is that any attempt to try to fix any of the wiki's multiple problems is doomed to endless gridlock, particularly now that criticism has been outlawed as a "subjective" statement. TV Tropes will now likely follow the path of countless legions of web sites that were clever at first, took a turn for the stupid, and now feel no obligation to improve quality because money equals success. It's a sobering future- and not one I would have previously thought inevitable.

Once an article was written about TV Tropes in the Los Angeles Times. Those were spirited days- the article made TV Tropes a "notable" website in the eyes of Wikipedia, and seemed to greatly bolster the web site's credibility as an academic institution. That day will be TV Tropes' high point. Back then, the site's flaws could be attributed to its relative youth. Today, administrative staff has deified these flaws because that's the way they've always been. No institution, academic or otherwise, is going to give serious scrutiny to a website that is incapable of improving its own content.

TV Tropes was a great idea- it still could be, provided that the objective was intelligent trope-related analysis. But the site's objective now, so far as I can tell, is to be an elaborate listing of a bunch of stuff that happened. Administrative staff are determined to keep it like this, and are prepared to ban anyone who gets in the way. It's a far cry from the days when we worried about a "let up the drop-bridge, all the cool kids are already in" mentality seeping into tropers with a few months' seniority.

I don't know what could be done about any of this, assuming anything can be done. Regardless, I was determined to see this blog through to the end when I started it, and that's exactly what I've done. This blog is to some extent my apology- I still feel crummy about the role I played in all of this, and trying to piece together what happened has been informative, although I've no idea how much good it will do. Hopefully this has provided some illumination as to how TV Tropes managed to get to its present point. I don't know who has much of an interest in all this, to be quite honest- I just hope that you're able to make better use of the knowledge than I was.

Monday, June 27, 2011

And So I Am Banned

I strongly object to the "off-topic" content being thumped. That part of the discussion was relevant and germane to the argument of whether or not Double Standard should be unlocked, and I'm going to explain how.

First, what --------- wrote that set this off was that he argued that the page should not be unlocked. Some of the evidence cited for this point was that my edit history is such that I have a history of "bad ideas". Other tropers promptly exclaimed that his post was inappropriate because it "attacked my character". That wasn't my response at all. I wanted to know why his argument was not being seriously considered on its own merits.
Throughout this discussion no one has argued that the page, as is written right now, is a good page. There has been no defense of the description, the examples, or the image. In fact, several tropers, even those opposed to unlocking, have cited specific examples of possible fixes that would substantially improve the article's tone.

The only argument presented this far for why the page should remain locked is the assumption that if released to the wiki proper, "nothing good" would come of this release, even though all admit that the page at present is at best imperfect. No evidence has been cited for why bad things would happen if the page was unlocked. In fact, the same arguments were presented against unlocking Barack Obama and Useful Notes / Atheism. None of the bad things prophesied have happened to either of those pages, and both have been substantially improved thanks to the Wiki Magic.

This brings us to ---------'s comments. Were they insulting to my person? Yes, but that's besides the point-
they were an actual argument. The OP clearly states that if this page were to be unlocked, I would re-write the Double Standard description in such a manner that I believe it would encourage editors to be more even-handed in tone. If my edit history is indeed controversial, then it stands to reason that whatever edits I make to the page would be to its detriment.

So far as I can tell, it's perfectly acceptable to tar the entire wiki proper with the broad brush of being troublemakers who will ruin a page like Double Standard given half a chance without so much as a whiff of evidence. I intuit this because comments along those lines were not deleted.
But, when --------- brings up an issue of competency as regards the only troper who's expressed an interest in rewriting the description, this is somehow crossing the line and warrants a massive thumping so that no even knows what was discussed?

I want a clarification on this point because you can't have it both ways. It makes absolutely no sense to punish someone for making relevant, substantiated claims about a single troper, but to declare broad, unfounded accusations against the hoi polloi fair game.

The above post is the one that I believe caused me to become "super-banned". I can't know this for sure, as per administration's policy of not explaining things, but given circumstance it's the most likely. This post is the final one of the thread Unlock: Double Standard. I backed this text up because I thought it would be thumped. I did not anticipate that reaction to this post would be as extreme as it was.

This proposal started the same as most of mine did. There were complaints on the discussion page about the way the page was written, but as the page was locked, there was nothing anyone could do to actually change the page. I offered an argument as to why the page should be unlocked- basically, I criticized many of the assumptions in the writing, and paid particular attention to the atrocious page image, which showed a bunch of Twilight fangirls with "we love Edward" signs or some such nonsense and the caption "if these were men they would be called pedophiles!"

At first the discussion was just bogged down in the regular silly paranoid minutae of Trope Repair Shop, and I didn't pay it much mind. That changed when a casual troper (whose actual handle is represented by --------- above) stated that because of a couple of negative comments on my discussion page, it stood to reason that I had bad ideas and that this was one of them. This person was swiftly chastised by the thread's forumites (though not the other casual tropers who didn't see what the big deal was). Then the original critical post and all others referencing it were promptly thumped.

This all happened a relatively short time after the forum-critical thread mentioned in my last post. This created a starkly absurd contrast. There were the moderators, who went to great lengths to avoid making coherent statements that could actually be translated into effective wiki stewardship. And here was a casual troper who, like most casual tropers, displayed frank, open opinions that could easily be understood. For this, the casual troper was thumped and any information that could explain why the thumping had occurred was also thumped.

Ever since my edit-ban I'd minced words when dealing with the moderators- I didn't have any choice, since they wouldn't explain what specific thing I'd done to warrant an edit ban. But seeing their ridiculous treatment of this casual troper, exactly the kind of person they claimed they wanted to have participate in Trope Repair Shop, put my patience at an end. I decided that if anything was worth risking a ban, it was this. If nothing else, I could force a conversation and a specific example on the troubling paranoia everyone on the wiki was starting to take for granted.

I did not anticipate, or was even aware, of the ban I ended up receiving. So far as I knew, there were edit bans (a user cannot edit), and IP bans (no access from a specific computer). The ban I was hit with only made it impossible to access TV Tropes using the specific "Some Guy" handle. This ban, coupled with the cutting of my contributor page, sent a very clear message- I was silenced. Which ironically enough wasn't that different from my edit-ban. It was just that this time, administration didn't have to put up the pretense that my opinions mattered.

All of the efforts I made in trying to improve the quality of the wiki's content were presaged on a simple assumption- that the moderators were reasonable people and would not ban people for disagreeing with them. I believed this was the case because as erratic as their behavior had been since I left the forums, I had still known them as Internet acquaintances for nearly as long as I had worked on TV Tropes. This, it was now clear, was foolish sentimentalism. I realized there wasn't any point in trying to fight the ban. No culture this hostile to divergent points of view could have any kind of meaningful scholarly future.

Friday, June 24, 2011

History: Wiki Headlines

Wiki Headlines are notifications that appear on the left side of any TV Tropes page. The headlines are an easy eye-catch that casual tropers could conceivably be willing to read, so once I became aware of this software, I headed to the Wiki Talk forum to see where they had come from and what was planned for them. I found that the software was not publicly discussed in the forums-most forumites were as surprised to see them as I was. But before I could think about the future of them, I spotted another thread of interest- a criticism of Trope Repair Shop.

A non-forumite was objecting to the dictatorial conduct of Trope Repair Shop in modifying major pages without any warning or discussion in the larger community. Within the first five posts, a moderator explained how the thread had been locked for being a "sour grapes" problem heard countless times in the past. The next post was the same moderator explaining how the thread had been unlocked because apparently a great many people were upset that this topic had been abruptly silenced.

Suffice to say, I was not optimistic about this thread's direction, and it wasn't long before things managed to get worse. The opening post suggested that by increasing crowner thresholds (say, a hundred overall votes, compared to the fifty then customary for major decisions) Trope Repair Shop could be less overbearing. This argument was dismissed, fairly reasonably, on the premise that getting anyone to vote in the crowners was difficult enough already, and that such an increase would only make Trope Repair Shop more inefficient.

I was relieved to read this, since an open admittance and acceptance of the premise "the crowners are flawed" could lead to some genuinely useful reforms. But in the truly bizarre debate that followed, multiple forumites and some moderators defended the crowner system anyway, blaming the passage of unpopular reforms on those who did not vote. I'd like to iterate that the keystone of the opening post's complaint was that no one outside of Trope Repair Shop had any idea what Trope Repair Shop was discussing.

From there the thread just seemed to amble in random directions, where any argument negatively brushing Trope Repair Shop was dismissed as opinion unless some sort of factual proof could be offered. The definition of "fact" in this context was fungible- neither the consistently low crowner votes nor the poor solved page action ratio seemed to count. This is before even getting into the question of how exactly one can "prove" bad writing exists- at best we can prove opinions exist, and apparently some (but not all) opinions can turn into facts if enough people believe in them.

This entire debate had taken a bad turn for the toxic and ridiculous- one poster even pointed out the unsettling pattern of these entrenched debate points, citing an ongoing Trope Repair Shop discussion where a person is at first ambivalent to a rename, but then reads the guidelines and quickly becomes defensive and argumentative to any criticism of the trope's name, demanding evidence to prove misuse. Later in the thread another poster admits to engaging in demoralization tactics- technical arguments, then ignoring the thread in the hopes it's forgotten. None of this makes any headway.

The biggest obstacle to convincing anyone that problems in Trope Repair Shop exist is that it all sounds superficially contradictory. How can Trope Repair Shop be both dictatorial and incapable of action? General incompetence, unfortunately, explains both of these fairly easily- a contentious thread with lots of posts has enough "consensus"to get through, even if the anti side has merit. But lesser-known, obscure pages, those most likely to have been written by an inexperienced writer fully expecting that someone would Wiki Magic away the flaws, can never get meaningful consensus, even when all they need is a clarificatory paragraph. I tried to posit evidence for this claim by posting pages I had originally written that I thought were far from perfect that had somehow gotten onto the stale discussion report since the last time I saw them. The only response to this point was why I hadn't fixed these pages myself.

A depressing thought occurred to me. If any of these ardent defenders had put a fraction as much effort into fixing pages as they did rationalizing the current flawed quality control protocols, casual tropers would probably have some actual confidence in the system. I had, by this point, forgotten about the Wiki Headlines altogether. New wiki software couldn't fix TV Tropes' increasingly sophist culture. And by the day, it was getting harder to see how actual people could fix it either.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Infrastructure: Locked Pages

Locked pages are not a concept exclusive to TV Tropes. Most large wikis possess this infrastructure to control pernicious editing. While the general wiki principle of "anyone can edit" usually works, it's a simple fact of life that most people are idiots and will eventually behave stupidly if given the chance. The locked page mechanism on TV Tropes works to protect pages from petty edit wars and untoward behavior by simply not allowing anyone in to edit the page.

Where TV Tropes differs from most wikis is the length of the page lock. Most wikis will unlock a page once enough time has passed for the involved parties to calm down. At TV Tropes, locks stay up indefinitely. This started out mainly because of indolence. Only administrators (to begin with, at least) have the ability to unlock pages, and given all the things an administrator has to do, it's easy to see how they could just forget to unlock pages, particularly since they could easily be at risk for petty sniping as soon as they're re-opened.

Over time, though, tropers from all over the wiki would run into random locked pages and were mystified as to why they were locked, since no explanations were ever given for these states of being by administration. Eventually this manifested into paranoia. As tropers increasingly saw problems of the wiki being a result of the nefarious actions of other tropers, it was a small leap for them to conclude that these same other tropers were such a danger to certain pages of the wiki, that the pages had to be locked up just to protect them from whatever damage such other tropers would perpetuate upon them.

I've been aware and accepted this attitude for almost as long as I've known about locked pages- it's an easy attitude to acknowledge. I started to question its validity when a discussion broke out on the page of Metroid: Other M shortly after its release when some tropers suggested locking the page to keep it from being wrecked by the Metroid: Other M hatedom, wherever they were- this page hadn't experienced significant damage yet. When other tropers objected to this, I found myself agreeing with them- locking a page should be a last, not first resort. Especially for a title like Other M, which was criticized mostly because of its perceived poor use of tropes.

The page was not locked, mostly because I don't think an admin ever saw the discussion- admins, after all, were the only ones who could change "locked" status. Consequently, when I returned in basic capacity to the forums, I realized I could try to alleviate some discussion page complaints of "why is this page locked" by taking the matter up in the forum. My first target was the Barack Obama page. Conventional wiki wisdom stated that political pages were just too dangerous to edit, but I had previously rewritten the Sarah Palin page in a way to make it more relevant to tropes, and indeed, the very fact that a non-vandalized Sarah Palin page existed to begin with seemed to prove that relevant pages about political figures could be created.

In Trope Repair Shop there was opposition to the page being unlocked for the same reasons already mentioned- a fear that political people would come to the page and somehow ruin the site. I attempted to dispute this on the grounds that there was no proof this would happen (see, again, the Sarah Palin page), but this went nowhere. Fast Eddie didn't seem especially convinced, either- until someone arguing against me actually made a statement, nearly explicitly, to the effect of "we can't give those nebulously defined other people a chance to ruin the site!" This statement was so extreme and counter to the wiki's "anyone can edit" principles that Fast Eddie unlocked the page right there.

Unlocking pages is surprisingly easy, all things considered. Even though only an admin can unlock pages, the nature of this authority can easily force some sort of decision to be made, because either the page is unlocked or it isn't, and the person who makes this decision can't be second-guessed because he kind of runs the wiki. Contrast this with consensus, which has an extremely vague authority and seems to be redefined to fit whatever discussion it happens to be brought up in.

Incidentally, Fast Eddie isn't the only person who can unlock pages- he's simply the only one likely to, because moderators with unlock abilities run the risk of offending him if they try to make a decision he disagrees with. Of course, I had to worry about that, too- I only made four or so unlock proposals, spread out over time and only made by direct request. I didn't want anyone to think that I was strongly challenging a core wiki idea, even if it was an idea as unsavory as paranoia against fellow tropers. Such challenges to operating procedure were indeed dangerous, as I was soon to find out firsthand.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

History: CROWBAR

I had realized that much of TV Tropes quality control protocols and policies were not working. Unfortunately, any attempt I made to seriously broach these topics in the forums met with failure- before any discussion could even start as to whether to fix the problems, most of the time forumites simply refused to acknowledge that any problems existed. At best they would acknowledge the problem, but simply assume it was a problem that would always exist and thus there was no way of stopping it. In an effort to try to force some sort of action on the wiki's issues I tried to develop an in-wiki organization called CROWBAR.

CROWBAR (Coalition for the Restoration of Original Wiki-Based Article Repair) was based on the same basic principles as SPOON (Society for the Prevention of Overly Original Names), an old wiki-based organization whose members made a proactive effort on YKTTW to discourage non-intuitive names from being used for titles. CROWBAR was envisioned, like SPOON, as having no real power, and would serve primarily to show that a broad variety of tropers did not like the often arbitrary enforcement of trope repair protocols.

The single greatest obstacle to making any headway in the forum is the dogged insistence by forumites in general and moderators specifically that no real opposition to the quality control protocols exist. Every time I or anyone else wrote something to the effect of "lots of people on the wiki are real cheesed off about the way Trope Repair Shop operates", proof would be demanded that such tropers existed, since they did not participate in these forum discussions. A membership list I could point to and say "here is a list of people who want change" was about the only response I could think of that would satisfy this demand.

Now, it must be noted that the moderators were not so dense as to claim that no opposition existed- criticism of the wiki exists outside it, and every so often a disgruntled casual troper creates an accusatory thread in Wiki Talk. These dissidents were dismissively labelled as "sour grapes". This term came up so often and with so little explanation I think it's likely another product of clandestine moderator conversations.

Unfortunately, my plan ultimately failed. The first, and main obvious reason for this was a failure on my part to accept basic troper psychology. Not everyone knows very much about what exactly goes on in Trope Repair Shop- indeed, many tropers primarily blame Fast Eddie for the wiki's problems, when in reality most of his decisions (or lack thereof) take their lead from discussions in the forums. Beyond that, I've already mentioned how many tropers have no idea any problems exist because they only visit one part of the wiki where (as far as they know) no problems exist.

There was another darker element to my failure as well. Many of the individuals I asked refused to sign up for CROWBAR because they were scared of being banned. These were primarily forumites- not in Trope Repair Shop, but in the more communal forums like Yack Fest, It Just Bugs Me, and Roleplaying. Try as I would to convince them that such a fear was unreasonable, that no one had been banned for openly discussing wiki direction, some valued the community too much to take that risk anyway.

Incidentally, these reasons are why this blog does not mention any wiki handles save for my own. If tropers are really scared of reprisals, I have to respect their wishes. Admittedly, I had already been banned once, and I knew I was taking a risk trying to recruit anyone. I wanted at least a couple dozen troper handles signed up before I made a page simply to insure that the whole enterprise wasn't dismised as "sour grapes". I never made that quota- finding dissident tropers to contact was difficult enough, but I also still dedicated most of my TV Tropes time to trying to edit pages into a more readable form. I was increasingly getting the feeling that if I didn't do this work, no one else would.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Culture: Example Organization

Examples are classified alphabetically by genre, mainly because when pages got large enough that example sorting became confusing, this was the main obvious way to classify them that anyone could think of. This was an effective solution for trope pages which are, after all, the main part of the wiki, though eventually example listings grew to be so long that folderization infrastructure, which allows for the opening and closing of individual example groups, had to be developed. But none of these innovations carried over to works pages, which were still as large and unwieldy to read as ever. Many casual tropers would complain about this state of affairs. I also considered it less than ideal, and so decided to do something about it.

In my last effective attempt to try and reform wiki policies, I proposed a new rubric by which to organize examples. Rather than simply making the whole thing completely alphabetical, pages could be organized into lists of tropes that fit a certain category. "Setting" tropes to describe the universe of a series, "Narrative" tropes to describe events that happen during the course of a series, "Meta" tropes to describe critical reactions to a series, and so on.

This had been a long-standing problem, which had already been somewhat solved accidentally by the development of character sheets. Early on in forum history, a dispute had arisen over Neon Genesis Evangelion character pages- pages constructed a long time ago by a fan of the series who described the characters metaphorically and critically in the narrative. These pages did not match the general format of TV Tropes as it developed. After protracted discussion, it was decided that rather than delete the pages, they would be repurposed into character sheets which would describe various individual characters in a series. These new pages were ignored for some time, until casual tropers picked up on their existence to solve the page length problem, moving character-centric tropes to the sheets so they would take up less room on the main page. My proposal functioned on the same basic principles.

The classification system I proposed had another advantage. Effective spoiler use has been a chronic enigma for most tropers, and this new schema did a fairly good job of negating the need for spoiler tags. After all, if you're reading the "Narrative" section of a page, chances are, there are going to be spoilers there. So no need for unsightly spoiler tags.

The proposal languished in Wiki Talk. I think overall there were twelve posts in the relevant thread, including my own. As usual, tepid support was offered, but nothing definitive, not even any objections. Actual progress was only made when a moderator made an offhand comment that the Gunnerkrigg Court page had been using a similar schema for quite some time. I seized on this, stating that as my justification for enacting these changes, a moderator's favorite series page had used this schema for some time with no objections, therefore, it must be all right.

If this sounds like a completely ridiculous argument, well, it kind of was. Unfortunately, I had found that when I came back to the forums, issues like content, efficacy, and pragmatism had even less relevance to page action justification than they did before I left. The main guiding principles were precedent, consensus, and whether the proposed change followed the rules. This was problematic, considering the existence of purges, the ambiguous nature of consensus, and an insistence by administration that rules did not exist.

The situation was so dysfunctional I had no expectation that any forumites would help- I knew I would have to perform the changes to various pages myself, and hope that casual tropers would catch on to the effectiveness of the organization and repeat it on their favorite series pages. The best I could hope for was that no one would try to prevent me from making changes based on some unfathomable abstract reasoning. Suffice to say, even though I wasn't banned. I still found the current state of quality control protocol to be rather incorrigible. With this in mind, I came up with a plan to try and force forumites to acknowledge the sorry state of affairs the wiki was in so we could do something about it.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Infrastructure: Reviews

The only major cultural effort to try and combat complaining in TV Tropes since the failure of Darth Wiki was the the creation of the wiki's review infrastructure. The theory behind it was pretty basic- if the wiki is not supposed to have subjective opinions, but people still want to air these opinions, then they can be placed on a new part of the wiki where any degree of subjectivity is allowed and appropriate.

I participated in the discussion leading to the implementation of this infrastructure, and was glad to see it appear. I wrote several reviews myself and planned to write more, but as is often the case, I found the reviews to just not be as important as the many other ways I could spend my time trying to deal with various quality control issues, and just ended up forgetting about it unless I really wanted to write a review for the odd work of fiction that didn't have any already. I don't know if I ever read any reviews myself, save for the occasional curiosity about others' opinions.

In spite of all this, I still believed in the basic principle of the reviews infrastructure and believed to some extent that it worked. This changed when on one occasion in the discussion pages, I found a dispute over some trope listings for a TV show. An unknown troper was arguing that the show is objectively So Bad Its Horrible, and very hostilely defended editing the offending line back in when others tropers tried to take it out. Rather than try to argue with this person, I simply wrote that the Edit War was going to be stopped, via moderation if necessary, and that if this person really hated the show so much it might be wise to write a review, since it didn't yet have one. The person kept being belligerent and hostile, so I reported the page to the moderators- the only time I ever had to do so.

This unknown troper didn't give a reason for not writing a review. Which, unfortunately, ended up being the real takeaway from all this- most tropers would never even consider reading or writing a TV Tropes review, preferring to work in the wiki proper instead. That troper, aside from this particular bout of offensive editing, made fairly decent factual, compressing edits. Abstractly, this was exactly the kind of person who ought to have been amenable to the idea of reviews, but ended up being banned instead.

The review portion of the wiki was doing fine last time I saw it, but particularly on reflection it's quite obvious that it has failed its intended purpose. Rather than affecting the way people edit in the regular part of the wiki, it's just another fun little feature / community of TV Tropes. Many find the idea of reviews to be interesting. This does not mean that they think of it as having anything to do with the main site except to the extent that Wiki Words can be put inside the reviews.

Comparing review infrastructure to the many changes that have taken place a TV Tropes over the past few years, it's hard to escape a pattern. People come up with lots of ideas on what to do, and some of them are implemented by the admins, but the actual results of all this are a complete crapshoot. The typical forumite discussion of what major changes to implement involves about as much mental focus as used by a bunch of buddies drinking booze trying to decide what to do over the weekend. Given that the wiki is maintained entirely by volunteer work, this is about as well as can be expected.

In fact, it's not even necessarily a bad thing- in terms of driving traffic to the wiki, the review section is likely a boon compared to the work involved in making it. However, the fact still remains that it did not achieve the goals it was intended for. I'm not sure any broad concept developed like this even could hope to do much for wiki development save for increasing traffic. Well, the TV Tropes Interactive Text Game might have, since its explicit purpose was to teach willing tropers about effective editing. That project ended up falling apart, though, because not enough scripts were written to create a final game- that, and awareness of it almost certainly plummeted once the forum thread died. The longer a project takes, the less likely it is to be finished on TV Tropes. This is a bit of a problem, since quick solutions seldom work for very long.