Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Terminology: Admin Fiat

An Admin Fiat is when a TV Tropes administrator declares that a rule is in effect as regards certain kinds of page actions. This declared rule is considered site policy, and not up for debate. When an Admin endorses a certain position, the supporters of that position take it to mean they now have the permission to enact any changes in line with the Admin's wording.

This term requires a bit of contextualization, as you may guess, since this sounds terribly authoritarian on its own. First, the site users who can issue a fiat are a very limited- Fast Eddie, Janitor, and Gus are the founding members of the wiki, and the only ones with the authority to declare a fiat. Gus's ability to make a declaration is admittedly theoretical, as I never actually saw him make one and it's likely that the principle of fiats was only developed after he left.

The second piece of relevant information about fiats is that they don't generally happen all that often. The Admins have gotten somewhat wary of making statements that can be interpreted as fiats. This is because of the third point- the fiats weren't a conscious effort on the part of the Admins to institute authority. Rather, they were simply interpreted that way by common tropers.

It needs to be understood- given the situation with Character Named Tropes, the wiki was at an impasse. Arguing about whether using a a character's name in a trope's title to signify meaning had become a constant bone of contention in YKTTW. Then one day, almost casually, an admin posted in a YKTTW "New Character Named Tropes are never justified". And this ended up changing everything. If it's a regular troper making such a statement, well, whatever. All tropers are created equal, and thus we can debate. But the Admin's created the site- they're the ones who presumably know what TV Tropes is really about, and so their judgment is final.

The wariness Admins now feel about making further statements is understandable when you consider the TV Tropes Home Page- they're not kidding when they say they're a buttload more informal than Wikipedia. The fiats were brought about mainly because too much informality ended up being stifling- as the site grew, we needed some sort of basic standards to keep new pages from degenerating into incomprehensible messes of in-jokes. At about the same time the Character Named Tropes fiat was issued, we had some of the earliest problems with duplicate tropes- tropes that got through the YKTTW process without anyone realizing that the trope was already on the site because the name of the first trope was that terrible. An Admin decision on this issue was actually welcomed because it quickly fixed a lot of uncertainty on the Character Named Tropes issues.

As the wiki today has many problems regarding what "official" policy is (mostly because no one wants to defy the informal environment by making serious rules), direct Admin statements even from forum threads that are several months old are treated with all the seriousness of the US Constitution. This can be a little absurd at points, since one admin (Fast Eddie) is still on the site, and he could give specific answers if he so wished. It's just that most of the time he prefers not to, since there's already this impression that he's a dictator which he tries to avoid encouraging if at all possible.

In light of this the name is somewhat awkward- it's impossible to discuss admin fiats without making the admins sound like abstract, all-powerful deities. I don't entirely recall where it came from- it's possible that I was the first one to actually describe them this way and it just caught on. In any case, whatever they're called, they're an important part of the site. There's no meaningful appeal process in TV Tropes, and without fiats a lot of work would be made a great deal more difficult. For what it's worth, the admins don't like that their opinions can be interpreted as absolute law. It's really something that just can't be helped.

Monday, December 27, 2010

History: Character Named Tropes

Ultimately, the Jonas Quinn debate is symbolic not only of the wiki's development in general major page action, but also of the first specific target- Character Named Tropes. As was mentioned in the previous post, given the earliest identified tropes, it's easy for new tropers to want to name their new discoveries after the shows they're familiar with, much as, we would assume, The Other Darrin and Brother Chuck were originally coined.

Here's the main problem with this reasoning- back then, there wasn't as much TV. It's no exaggeration to say that of the people who were TV aficiandos way back when, all of them were at least familiar with Bewitched and Happy Days. This is a universal statement that simply does not translate into today's media culture. Unless a person knows who Jonas Quinn is (and most people simply don't), it's just a random meaningless name. What's worse, given the way that different media fans are pigeonholded, it's easy to dismiss TV Tropes as being a site of geeks arbitrarily naming things after their favorite characters. Note that, especially back then, this assumption was actually fairly valid.

I'd like to claim that the early renamers were paragons of logic in a world of arbitrary fan associations, but what really did Character Named Tropes in was the fact that different geeks associated the same name with completely different figures. Many early renames got their momentum going by a simple argument- if the trope title is just "the X", how are we supposed to know which X? One such rename I worked on was The Kimberly. This was named after Kim Bauer from 24, but numerous other popular wiki shows had important characters named Kimberly, from Power Rangers to Final Destination. The fact that no one was sure which Kimberly the title was referring to was a strong factor in the trope ultimately being renamed to Damsel Scrappy.

On that note, other tropes, such as The Scrappy, were able to survive this early flurry of page action. In the specific case of Scrappy, the omni-presence helped. Thanks to the dreadful quality of cartoons in the Hanna-Barbera era of animation, nearly everyone under the age of forty had some idea about Scooby Doo, and consequently, his annoying nephew Scrappy. As no other other prominent characters to date are named Scrappy, and Scrappy himself has such a memetic Internet reputation for awfulness, the idea of the term "Scrappy" being equivalent to "character the audience hates" caught on fairly well.

Of course, characters like Scrappy are few and far between. They're products of a bygone era when media had much less variety and we consequently had more of a shared experience. Characters so well-known that the meaning of the trope can stand on the strength of that name alone do not number very high, and even most of those have multiple obvious character traits, any one of which could be what is meant by a title. Take The Fonz. Fonzie, another character from Happy Days, may be well-known to people at large, but he is known for several different things. This is quite unlike Chuck Cunningham, who is only known for his abrupt and unexplained departure from the show.

Some names were able to survive this skewering by transforming their names into abstract adjectives by simple association. The most well-known of these is Xanatos Gambit, which survived challenges mainly because people successfully guessed that the trope referred to some sort of elaborate plan- when you're talking about a word like "gambit", there's really only the complicated kind and the uncomplicated kind. It's a very simple rhetorical maneuver (I doubt the troper who originally named it realized how effective it was), but it worked and gave us an exception to the rule.

And then, the rule was officially established. During the very early periods of what would be called Trope Repair Shop an admin fiat was stated during a YKTTW proposal that it was forbidden to name tropes after characters- a sanity-inducing measure designed to keep debate to a minimum and allow tropers to work on different problems. What few characters existed that the title could work with were already on the wiki- the vast majority of new proposals featuring character names in the title were without merit and it was a waste of time to argue about them. Before the reasons against Character Named Tropes were explicitly enumerated on that page nearly every YKTTW proposal written by someone who really wanted to give one of their favorite characters a trope title slowed to an obnoxious crawl.

Eventually, like so much of the wiki, even the Character Named Tropes page was cut, because ultimately it was unnecessary. Now that the culture knows how not to propose tropes named after a character, there's really no need to keep a record of the argument. That fight ended, and tropes named after characters lost. As you may have guessed, however, by the time this fiat was declared, other broad wiki problems had been identified that could not be solved through a mere fiat.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

History: Jonas Quinn

The idea of a central network through which major page action would be arbitrated began in YKTTW. YKTTW, for those not aware, stands for "You Know That Thing Where". It's the place on the TV Tropes wiki where most new tropes are developed with the help of other tropers. It's not, strictly speaking, a requirement that new tropes be developed there, but most tropes that aren't end up being deleted from the site because of insufficient data for the page to be worthwhile.

Anyway, this was the original purpose of YKTTW, and this is the explicit sole purpose of YKTTW today, but this was not the case a few years ago. There wasn't a clear centralized area for page action at the time, so many proposals ended up being put on there for the peer input simply because your best shot at getting a response to a proposal of any type was to put it on YKTTW.

At least, this was the reasoning I used- I'm sure others thought along the same lines. I don't remember who made the first rename proposal on YKTTW or what it was about. It may have been me- I really don't recall. However, I do remember the first contentious issue, and it sums up most of the wiki's initial attitudes toward centralized page maintenance- Jonas Quinn.

Jonas Quinn is the name of a character from Stargate SG-1 who was notorious among fans of the show for being mostly the same character type as Daniel Jackson, who he replaced. This was one of the earliest renames and the first especially argumentative one I recall. Posts counts YKTTW proposals concerning the rename of Jonas Quinn often numbered into the seventies at the very least, and after the old arguments were forgotten someone else would start up a new one.

Jonas Quinn represented the first spirited defense of "quirky names" on the wiki. The name holds no meaning to anyone who's not a fan of Stargate SG-1. That would seem to make it a bad name, but it must be understood- at this time in the site's history, some of the most well-known tropes were The Other Darrin and Brother Chuck. These trope names are several decades old, coined by TV writers to refer to casting phenomenons they'd seen most obviously on Bewitched and Happy Days. These are the same kinds of meta-tropes as Jonas Quinn, so it's not surprising that some tropers thought it made sense to name the trope after a character from "our generation" so to speak.

Personally, I avoided the early Jonas Quinn debates. Primarily this was because the very existence of a debate implied a great deal of ambiguity to me. Yes, it was a bad name, but it held clear meaning to a lot of people. Its popularity was in a sense a vindication of itself as it managed to catch on in spite of all logic. I preferred then, and I still prefer now, to deal with debates that aren't particularly argumentative. There were plenty of terrible trope names that no one was really sorry to see go, and these were the proposals I spearheaded. I developed a simple rule that later caught on with the wiki proper- if a significant and vocal minority is against a major page action on a reasonable principle, then avoid action. To do otherwise is just kind of rude.

It should be noted that Jonas Quinn was eventually renamed to Suspiciously Similar Substitute, but this was long after the YKTTW phase of renaming was over with. I did participate in this rename, mostly because the name was the first alternative suggested that was actually pretty clever (it has added alliterative appeal). By that point wiki policy had made a sharp swerve against the existence of any character named tropes, so the rename actually went through. How wiki attitude on character named tropes was shaped in this matter to begin with I'll address in my next post.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Purpose of this Blog

Three years ago I happened upon a site called TV Tropes. You may have heard of it. For those who haven't, TV Tropes is a wiki that deals with the archiving of tropes, the rhetorical devices used in fiction to tell stories. It's a very broad definition- chances are just about any event or character you've ever seen in a work of fiction manifests multiple tropes. The site's purpose is to define them all- no simple feat, as there's far more tropes in fiction than we can at this point realistically count. It's quite literally unknown territory. This is the reason why TV Tropes still has strong editor contributions on a daily basis adding new and largely unedited information- the site is the first place to define many of these things. Contrast Wikipedia, where much of the contributor angle has devolved into fighting over scraps of new information, since so much of the notable world has already been defined.

The purpose of this blog is not to discuss tropes, at least directly. One thing I'd been keenly interested in every since I joined the site was where it came from and where it was headed. A clear explanation of the early history of TV Tropes has not been compiled in an easily findable space- my own understanding of the timeline is quite hazy. But somewhere along the way, something queer happened. While the baseline of the site (it's about tropes) is unchanged, there's been a great deal of action behind the scenes that defines how the wiki is moderated. I myself was responsible for much of this- I spearheaded many of the early renames, crowners, and page action decisions. I pushed for the creation of Trope Repair Shop and had a hand in most of the modifications that brought it to its present form- Trope Repair Shop is actually about the sixth name and purpose that was crafted for it.

I've realized that having contributed so much to TV Tropes that I myself have become an authority on its history, at least over the last three years- and I am quite possibly the only one remaining with much of an interest in explaining what exactly brought it to the place it is today. Most of the other tropers involved in this process were either only present for some of the modifications or have since become moderators themselves. The former only hold an incomplete picture of what happened, and the latter, well...

One thing I wish to make clear is that this blog is not about gossip or blaming people. I'll be upfront on one fact- I do not like the direction that wiki repair procedures took. I regret that I acted as I did in pushing for changes in the past, because I believe many of these ideas were badly flawed and have resulted in an ineffective infrastructure that is unresponsive to most of the wiki's real problems. This includes an unwillingness to acknowledge the fact that Trope Repair Shop is a source of resentment for many casual tropers and that most of us want to see a serious effort to reform repair protocols.

This is why I feel it's necessary for me to start writing about what happened to the site- people have a right to know. Most of the old discussions relating to the issues I plan to discuss in this blog were deleted some time ago for bandwidth reasons. Few remember what was discussed in these posts, and even fewer have considered the idea that the directions these discussions took may be of interest. If anyone besides me has a recollection feel free to speak up, as it's entirely possible I'm not remembering the whole picture myself.

The blog will try to distinguish between history and editorial. My opinions on the direction of TV Tropes are somewhat infamous, and need to be taken in mind when reading my posts. Be that as it may I will try, to the best of my ability, to avoid claiming that other tropers used such-and-such reasoning to oppose such-and-such point in a subjectively negative manner. I hope my decision to not give the names of any tropers (aside from my own, of course) will assist in this endeavor, though I will confirm the identities of anyone who correctly claims to be part of any group who I describe.

That's what I'm starting out with. Future posts, I promise, will be more clearly written with the title of the blog in mind.