Wednesday, February 16, 2011

History: Jackass Genie

One day in YKTTW an individual made a fairly simple trope proposal. In many works of fiction there are beings called genies, based on the supernatural nigh-omnipotent characters of Arabic folklore, who grant people wishes. What this individual noted was that much of the time, the genies in question are in fact really bad about granting wishes. If a person goes "I wish for money", the genie will oblige by giving the wisher various small chunks of copper that would have been used as currency in ancient Sumeria.

The problem with this proposal was noted almost immediately. At the time, this trope's definition came under the purview of Literal Genie, a trope that was about genies just getting wishes wrong by interpreting the language in a really weird way. Here's where the discussion took an interesting turn. Some users, including myself, hypothesized that "literal" is not an infinitely modifiable quantity. A genie who is clueless about the intended meaning of human language may use the copper interpretation of "I wish for money" if this was a genie from ancient Sumeria who genuinely has no conception that other forms of money exist (they're nigh-omnipotent, not nigh-omniscient). By contrast, it is difficult to conceive of a genie so distantly removed from modern culture that he can genuinely interpret the wish to mean "summon dollar coins with arms and legs whose sole desire is to devour the person who wished them into being". That kind of willful obtuseness, we decided, was the real essence of the Jackass Genie-  one who will find a way to turn any wish, however innocent and straightforward, not just into a wasted wish but into a fantastically elaborate plot designed to harm unto the wisher.

In order to facilitate this page modification a basic outline was drawn up. Three obvious subdivisions of the genie mythos were quickly identified- the Jackass, the Literal, and the Benevolent genies. Benevolent genies actually had nothing to do with the Literal Genie page as it then existed, but it was deemed useful for it to exist simply as a contrast to Jackass Genie, as the Benevolent Genie tries to interpret wishes in such a way that things go well for the wisher. The easiest example of this is the genie from Aladdin, who at one point weakly mimes an unconscious Aladdin's lips into a wish for rescue.

This entire page action was emblematic of many points of proper wiki operating procedure at this time. First was the lack of stigma- once the idea of splitting off Jackass Genie was proposed there was no serious opposition to changing the Literal Genie, mainly just questions about proper implementation of the changes. Literal Genie was also, before the split, an unreasonably long page that no one could be expected to fully read. This was not surprising, as until the split literally any situation that involved genies or genie-like entities was placed in it the Literal Genie example section.

The proposal also contained a promise for possible future action. I was the one who enacted the split, and I noticed during the process that there was a fourth possible trope division not extensively discussed in the YKTTW proposal- quite a few of the examples dealt, not with genies, but computer programs which insisted on interpreting commands literally. I anticipated that splitting the existing pages would already be a tiring affair, and stated that I would work on a page called The Genie In The Machine at a later date. After the month or so it took me to remember this pledge, I split that page off, and possibly another one even further than that, though these are all the names I remember. Suffice to say, the original Literal Genie page was so fantastically long that none of the new pages was at a shortage for examples.

In spite of this, it must be noted that Literal Genie was not technically a broken page. The description and most of the examples were fairly well-written. It just needed better organization. Modification of the page to a significant degree seemed relevant to deal with these concerns, though there were also concerns about subjectivity. You can argue fairly easily about whether certain individual genies were making a "reasonable" interpretation of a wish or just being a malicious jerk-ass. Ultimately, we decided that we would just have to trust individual tropers to make that distinction on their own- it's not a distinction that can be perfectly explained in a simple four-paragraph description.

But in my memory, this trope resonates mostly because of odd timing- I can't quite remember when I made these changes on the timeline of centralized page modification guidelines. It could have been before or after the Trope Renames forum was first created. This a feature shared by many of my favorite page changes, really. Arguments about guidelines are easy to place because I know they had to take place after the guidelines were instituted, but such arguments were usually counter-productive. Here, the question was not one of abstract subjectivity, but whether such subjectivity would work for the page. The Genie pages, last time I looked at them anyway, were in pretty good shape, so I think we did well on that front.

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