Sunday, February 9, 2014

Troping Considered Harmful

My wiki sucks.  Actually, it isn't just All The Tropes; TV Tropes sucks too.

I guess it shouldn't come as a surprise that I'm open to criticism about TV Tropes, given that I founded my own fork of that wiki.  Well, not *mine* per se, but never mind that now.  But given that I'd bother to fork the wiki, I must be a hardcore troper, right?

Well, not really.  Mainly I just wanted to have a website to talk about fiction without worrying about crazy censorship.

What is it about?

But there are legitimate criticisms to be made about the nature of both All The Tropes, and its parent wiki, TV Tropes.  For some reason, my eyes were drawn to the Encyclopedia Dramatica page on TV Tropes.  And it's kind of depressing.  You should read it, though it's highly NSFW -- mostly thanks to some Trope-tan Rule 34.

In particular, I was looking at the sections titled "Article Style" and "Why it sucks".   Here's this gem:
This in a site supposed to scrutinize fiction's impact on culture. Or is it? What is TV tropes about? What is it about? What is IS IT about? WHAT IS IT ABOUT? WHAT IS IT ABOOOOUUUUUUT?  Tv tropes isn't governed by any single vision. Instead, it is about thousands of competing plans all trying to spread their own brand of faggotry over the whole site.

Okay, that's maybe not the best organized argument, but there is a major point there.  The TVT front page says this:
What is this about? This wiki is a catalog of the tricks of the trade for writing fiction.
Okay, that's an idea.  But do trope pages really talk about writing fiction?  Or how to use a trope in writing?  Or any pages about the writing process at all?  I guess if we take it as a literal "catalog", it makes some sense -- like ordering from Amazon.  One-click™ checkout for a FourStarBadass and a BrattyHalfPint.

But what about all of the random forum crap and CMoA pages?  The TVT home page goes on for three paragraphs about what the website is not, which is entirely unuseful.  They are not a stuffy encyclopedia or a wiki for bashing things.  They are also not a rhyme for "orange" or the goddamn Batman, either.

All of this criticism applies to my own wiki too, since it comes from the same source.  And as part of restarting the wiki, I have to rewrite all of the policy pages, ranging from "we have very few rules" to huge documents of rules to inline comments stating that if you add an specific example to a page, you will be permabanned.  It makes sense if you know the history of the site, but the movie Eraserhead also made the same kind of sense to me.  That disjointed, "ramblings of a madman" sort of sense.

So task number one was to restore sanity to the rules, and that's still in process (because my wiki sucks, natch).  But it also comes down to figuring out what the we want to do with the new wiki.  Anyway, Topozan started this really great thread on the forums: What can ATT do to distinguish itself from TVT?

In that thread, we throw around ideas like more analysis, more recaps, awards and userboxes (for free!).  I mean, wow, all we have to do is take the TV Tropes website, and then set it Up to Eleven!  I think I'm one of the worst offenders on that count. But then, Topozan offers this:
One of the complaints I hear about tvtropes is that it's too focused on listing things rather than analysis. I'm not really sure how easy it would be to change that, though.
So um, what is this site about?  What is it about?  Really.  In my mind, All The Tropes is a P3 wiki (which is entirely different from the P5 wiki that TVT has become).  The very first wiki, The Portland Pattern Repository, is about programming.  More specifically, it is about 3 P's: the People, Projects, and Patterns of programming.  In tropespeak, this is the same as Creators, Works, and Tropes -- which is incidentally what the vast majority of pages are about.

Looking at the PPR wiki is useful, because they solved a lot of the common issues of wikis over a decade ago.  And if troping wikis are the same sort as Ward's Wiki, then things are really off-balance.  The PPR is, in it's own terms, a Content Creation Wiki ("analysis").  TVT and ATT are, in their current state, Content Classification Wikis ("listing").  The policy of suppression on Natter at TVT proves the rule, as Thread Mode is at the heart of collaborative content creation.  I'll address each of these points in turn.

Twenty Thousand Tropes

For being a site about story telling, why the heck do people want to put so much effort into breaking stories down into a collection of tiny bits?  Heck, this image that makes the case that TVT users think stories can be put together like a collection of LEGO blocks.  And helpfully it notes that Tropes come in 20,000 shapes.  Wow, twenty kilotropes.

Now I sure as hell can't remember Twenty Thousand Tropes under the Sun, or under any other object for that matter.  This is both good and bad, because it leads to the addictive nature that allows our readers and tropers to lose hours of their life a time just reading one more page.

So is that the vision, the "catalog of tropes"? Are the tropes wikis a listing of the dissected remains of creative works, mercilessly hunted down in the name of harvesting tropes?  I'm not far enough down the spectrum to enjoy that kind of deconstruction.

Not to mention that a good portion of these "tropes" aren't even patterns at all, but simple indices, or variants of other tropes.  Everything must be broken down into its smallest element.  And like the scientists at the LHC are doing, the drive to subdivide every atom ever smaller is going to create a black hole and swallow the entire wiki.

TV Tropes thinks it is doing serious analysis of works, but the Analysis namespace is virtually empty.  And by empty I mean, "every subpage fits on one page", which is amazing considering how trope pages get so large they routinely break the wiki.  But what TVT and ATT look like to me is a bunch of lists.

Some people like lists.  Lists are useful.  But lists are awful at getting to the soul of a creative process.  Tropes that are useful for analyzing a work's depth and meaning, like Central Theme, have less than 100 wicks.  It turns out that people rarely think the single most important point of a work is worth troping.  Instead, we have tropers noting the subtle difference between Ojou Curls and Royal Ringlets.

No Talking in the Theater!

TV Tropes likes to discribe themselves as a "buttload more informal" than Wikipedia, which they enforce by threatening to emit a buttload of bans.  Page comments routinely note tropers will be for adding specific examples in the page comments.  Or they can be banned for any form of negativity on a page.  Or questioning an administrator, that's a favorite.

However, TV Tropes started from an entirely different place.  It began as a place for a few fans to discuss Buffy and all of the cool things that Joss was doing.  Eventually, more people showed up, and the site was a chaotic place of kudzu growth.  Many got confused, and discord arrived for the first time with the cutting of the Fetish Fuel; and lo did the renaming of Nakama come to pass.  And then with the Second Google Incident, in which works were considered too uncool for Google Ads, the bureaucracy of the 5P Censorship Panel arrived.  For those of you who are Discordians, I don't need to tell you what the stage after bureaucracy is.

A lot of the distrust of TV Tropes started back in 2010, where we got the all the "TV Tropes is dead to me" type of discussions.  Infinitezenith recounts the tales of the One-Week War on his blog, right below a pic of Nagisa and Azu-nyan.  There are a many themes woven into his history, but the main point is that the repeated cutting of the most creative content has driven away the best users, and left behind only those who are convinced they are the doing things the right way with herp-derp posts.

Most of those problems stem from two policies: the "no negativity" rule, and the purging of creative content.   But enough about how TVT sucks.  I want to talk about how All The Tropes sucks.  We obviously inherited this crappy wiki content, because starting from scratch sounds entirely non-awesome.  With the current content base, we just don't have enough content that encourages creative growth of the wiki.

TVT has an active policy of suppressing Thread Mode, to the extent of adding a Natter-fy button on every page history page.  You too can send a friendly note to another user as to why their edit sucked with a form letter.  So instead of engaging in community building, the stock of tropers was reduced to the people who hold the party-line, Happiness is Mandatory opinions.  And we're left with a bunch of non-users who think that troping is just parroting the same memes over and over again.

Critics Missing the Point

Naturally, there are a ton of post out there saying that troping wikis suck.  While that is 100% correct, they then go on to state wrong reasons for the suckage.

The worst offender here are the Something Awful forums, who like to point out every pedo troper out there.  I'd like to note that in some cultures... no fuck that.  Look, the Internet is full of sick fucks, and every website has their share.  A wiki is a commons, like a public park.  Have you ever passed a dude off his meds in the park?  I have. Every major wiki has those guys too, but at the very least we don't have to deal with it in person.

Sarah published a trilogy of blog posts: The first argues that incompetent leadership led to cutting parts without sufficient community buy-in, the second post notes that censorship applies on TV Tropes mainly applies to pages that the core group doesn't like.  The third is a blistering critique of simply bizarre moral relativism from the TVT staff, and ends with:
There’s no fix­ing TV Tropes, so just let it die or shrivel into irrelevancy.
That's cool and all, but it's not helping.  Faith without works is dead.

Moving on to the Encyclopedia Dramatica analysis, mentioned above, I'll note it has few flaws of its own.  First of all, everyone pushing for their own point of view -- that's how a bazaar is supposed to work.  Wikis aren't cathedrals.  But that doesn't mean that there should be no plan, either.  Linus has no problem telling you how Linux should be.  Even though Linus, Eddie, and Fighteer share the same values of management by perkele, the TVT model of leadership is almost entirely reactive.  At least I never saw any proactive planning.

Me and My Nakama

The other half of the criticism from ED is even more bullshit, though.  More complaining about names of tropes.  Yes, I do get that it's a charlie-foxtrot of jargon, but it's not like these things have established names from "real" literary critics.  Instead we got complaints, which in turn lead to renames like "Inspector Zenigata" to "Sympathetic Inspector Antagonist" -- the first one is animu fanthink, and the second is a blandtastic word amalgamation that only a committee could come up with.

Yeah, jargon sucks, but after years in college learning about geostrophic wind, Rossby waves, the PDO, dBZ, the Second Indirect Effect, and hook echoes, I think everyone can stand to deal with the jargon of whatever field they're interested in.

The time that this issue came to a head was with the Nakama page, which was evenutally renamed True Companions.  The discussion happened twice, and was full of stupidity on every side.  Tropers suggested exchanging "nakama" (a Japanese loanword that doesn't mean the same thing to native speakers) to "coterie" (a French loanword that doesn't mean the same thing to native speakers).  Nakama supporters talked about how important their word was in the anime community.

And then, when it was all said and done, virtually every link was changed to the new name.  Because language, obviously, is a winner-take-all game. *facepalm*  So here we have the "writer's toolbox" website, where we are limited to using only one way of expressing a concept.  I don't think that there is any question that this is harmful to would-be writers.

Harm, Foul

This essay is titled "Troping Considered Harmful", after the computer science trope pattern, $thing Considered Harmful.  But I really think that a lot of things tropers do are in fact harmful, both for themselves and for readers.

The emphasis on listing and content classification creates the impression that simply by stringing a bunch of tropes together, you get a valid story.  There are quite a few bad fanfics that are based on this problem.  Encouraging bad storytelling is causing harm.

The long-term suppression of Natter has suppressed creative views and alternate opinions.  And because of this, many creative writers have left troping for greener pastures.  This in turn leaves behind a subset of tropers, who are growing more and more homogenous as creative works grow more diverse.  And we all know what happens to populations without enough diversity in changing environments

Finally, dissent has been enthusiastically quashed, leading to troping being a game played by a small club of folks with similar views.  Tropes are forced into the One Name to Rule Them All.  Examples with multiple opinions are removed -- here NPOV stands for "No Point of View".  This is not healthy for the people who are tropers, nor for the writers who use this as a toolbox.  They are left in a culture that thinks troping is serious and important, but is ultimately creates shallow and vacuous analysis.  This is the user base that All The Tropes is forced to recruit from.

That's not even mentioning the probably-illegal copyright stuff going on at TV Tropes, which is a major harm to the commons.  Or the fact that the TVT staff claims ownership of its users work, both morally and legally -- this is not a good way to build a healthy creative community.

But fixing this -- that's going to be the hard part.

What is IS IT about?

The thing is, most critiques don't realize that the problems of the troping wikis aren't about specific issues, but lie at their very core.  There is no clear purpose, just a sprawling mass of pages that periodically got hit by delete sprees in order to maximally piss off users.  I'm fairly sure that this is the underlying cause of most of the problems I've mentioned here.

If we had a clear purpose, we wouldn't go through the periodic ungoodthink purges.  We could offer more help to creative writers.  We could have a place to screw around and have fun; why not?

But coming up with a purpose is actually a hard task.  It took three horrible years before Abraham Lincoln finally spelled out the purpose of the American Civil War in the Gettysburg Address.  I took six months to write a purpose statement for my university student government (obviously a task of equal import).

Fast Eddie is a leader without vision, which is about the worst thing I can say about a leader.  (Except maybe, "He killed 6 million Jews.") But I don't know what the vision should be for All the Tropes, either.  I wish I did.  Maybe I'm as bad as Eddie.

For now, all I can say is what I want All The Tropes to be.  I want it to be a writing resource.  I want it to be a place where fen can collect information on their respective fandoms.  I want to offer real lit crit, not just a bunch of fucking lists.  But I want there to be lists too.  And I want it to be fun to read and write.  I want it to be defined based on things we are, not things we're not.

And most of all, I want it to spur more creative work.  Good storytelling is more than the sum of its parts.  Right now, ATT and TVT are less than the sum of their parts.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

First Sunrise 2014

This is the second entry in my series on watching the first sunrise of the year, which is known as Hatsuhi no De (初日の出, "first day's rising"), or simply hatsuhiLast year, I tried out the ritual just as kind of a curiosity, but I thought it might be interesting to repeat this year as well.  And I think I just may have learned something new.

Being a habitual night owl, I woke up this morning to the sound of the alarm on my new iPhone.  Last year, I used an old, original model iPhone, but my new job bought me a shiny new gold smartphone as part of the hiring package.  This might seem like bragging, but it's actually an important part of the story.

I pulled on some warm clothes, I had set aside last night, went outside, and scrambled once again up the ladder unto the roof.  Unlike last year, this New Year's was a beautiful day, with a clear blue sky and nothing but the faintest wisps of cirriform clouds draped over the horizon.  The weak Santa Ana winds of the past week had done their job, making me feel quite comfortable, even on the cold black roof.

I looked to the south first, and paused to recognize that the giant ficus tree I mentioned last year is truly gone.  A bowl of green tilted towards the afternoon sun, it had stood nearly six stories tall.  The Friday before Christmas, a crew came and trimmed the tree down to a mere Mohawk-cut of leaves; they returned the following Monday to finish the job, working into the evening to remove even the stump.  All that effort from sixty years of growth, gone in mere days, shredded into tiny chunks.

And in the place of the giant tree, there was a void.  It revealed small houses, small cars, and the tiniest bit more ocean view -- but mostly, empty sky.  The crows that had been my companions the first time remained distant, their home destroyed by the saw.  My closest companion this year was a lone pigeon, but he seemed interested in neither me nor the sunrise, and soon flapped away.

The world, however, was still coming alive.  I could hear plenty of crows' calls and finches' tweets all around.  And the first few people started walking past, into the calm morning dawn.  However, it was still quiet at my neighbor's, where the remains of last night's party littered the concrete-capped courtyard.

Another neighbor had a mural painted on his backyard fence, and from this angle I could see the edge of the blue sky and verdant hills in the image.  This couldn't be a bigger contrast to the actual hills to the north, which remain a stubborn, unseasonable brown, the result of three years of drought.

Part of the hills were masked by brand-new, six-story structure of steel beams, with white work lights glowing dimly on four of the floors.  The uppermost beam bears an American flag and a rather beaten-up Christmas tree, while another beam proudly proclaims in spray-painted letters, "HAPPY BIRTHDAY BABY OWEN".

The building is still new enough that I can see through to the brown hillside behind, but I know that this can't last.  Last year, the space was nothing but empty air; this year it is a bustling construction zone.  Next year, it will be a new wing of a hospital.  And every day will bring new stories to the building, of illnesses treated, lives saved, and lives lost.  What was empty space will become a place where people get a new start on life, or will have to grieve for their loved ones.

It is not that place yet.  But as I took my first look around in the morning twilight, I couldn't help but be struck by how different things looked.  Here I was, standing on the same roof in the same place, exactly one year ago, but the world around had changed.  And in my own pocket was an iPhone, a token showing how much I had changed too.  Brent the NEET had been transformed into Brent the Salaryman.  And just like that hospital, I would continue to change.

Even nature itself never stops changing -- the hills behind the hospital began to pick up patches of light and shadow.  The sun was coming up, for real this time.

Out of the northwest, a jet passed directly over my head (though I didn't notice the extra weight on my head).  And in its wake, it left a lone contrail, a single straight line clear across the entire sky.  And as the plane flew into the southwest, the Sun just began to peek over the mountains, with the first direct rays filtering through a star pine.

And as the Sun rose to assume its full sphere, I let out a little cry of joy.  I had seen the first sunrise this time!  I had made it to this point in time and space once again, and there's something beautiful about that.

I lingered a little longer, looking at the world bisected by the contrail.  The lost giant tree and long shadows lingered to the southwest; the new hospital, drought-parched hills, and the rising sun lied in the northeast hemisphere.  And here I was in the middle of it, my world divided in twain at the new year.

It was clear I had only one way to go.  And that was back towards the "past", because I sure as hell wasn't going to get off the roof without a ladder.

Just as before, I crawled back into bed, and began to ponder what I had seen.  Now, I finally get the point of staying up this early to see the first morning sun. I saw a reflection of Japanese concept of mono no aware (物の哀れ), the awareness of the impermanence of things.  Sometimes, it's important to reflect on past and how things are always changing, and this ritual is but one way.

Some changes are good, some are bad, but we must go on.  The tree is lost, but the crows of last year, Phobos and Deimos, have hopefully found a new home.  I've lost much of my free time, but found an excellent job.  And somewhere out there, eventually, Baby Owen is going to have the time of his life.