Serious Business (2015 edit)

(I have edited this with my take on all this from 2015, since without some self-mockery it seems unreadable to me).

I said last time  that I felt I was running out of things to say (ED: Post since deleted for containing the suggestion, laughable in retrospect, that I would be “quitting the internet FOREVER!”) . Well, now I’ve decided I’ve got something I really need to say, largely because I think it’s important and if I don’t record it in some way, no-one else will (ED: Did I really think that? Good grief.). To misquote Wilfred Owen, my theme is internet war, and the pity of internet war. He then said that  “the poetry is in the pity”, but there’s not much poetry in this one, although it is a heck of a story; good enough that I actually considered writing this as fiction, until I realised that the reality was better than any fiction I could ever come up with (ED: Thank God I never wrote that. The world does not need fanfiction about pathetic online squabbles).

Of course, the TV Tropes-Something Awful-ItJustBugsMe three-way Mexican stand-off has rapidly become a matter of such grave import that front pages have been cleared, international statesmen have been disturbed at their councils, and intervention by the UN, NATO, the IMF and the World Council of Churches have all been suggested as a solution to the crisis. Oh, who am I trying to fool? Really this is just a typical storm in an internet teacup, but it matters to me (ED: Well, it did in 2011. More fool me.)  and, I think, it illustrates deeper things than the fairly ridiculously trivial subject matter. On top of this, the disproportionate seriousness with which some involved treated the whole affair is funny and sad in its own right (and, to be honest, that probably includes me). Believe me, this Business was Serious indeed.

TV Tropes is a wiki that catalogues tropes – elements going to make up fictional stories. To be honest, some of them would be regarded as clichéd by many (ED: To be honest, a hell of a lot would, in spite of the blatant cliché denialism  that you’ll still find on the wiki frontpage). An illustration is one that I originally invented,  Wacky Americans Have Wacky Names, listing examples of comic American characters who have a stock name of the “Jonas P. Wangdoodle III Jr”-type (ED: Yes, in retrospect, I am pretty embarrassed I did that). It also has a forum, and until recently it had a section called  Troper Tales. The idea of that was for people to write about tropes that came up in their real life. Now, in theory, that’s a great idea (and it stopped them doing this on the wiki itself, which they used to). However, the users of TV Tropes can basically be summed up as young, mostly male and nerdy. And when I say young, I mean a lot of them are teenagers. So these pages were basically an invitation to teenagers to (a) tell stories about their lives in which they (b) compare those lives with those of really cool fictional characters. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, it will probably suprise no-one that Troper Tales rapidly became a trove of comments ranging from the embarrassingly banal to the horrifyingly whiny to the downright disturbing. At best, it was teenagers enumerating their many badass deeds, most  all of questionable factual status; at worst, given that TV Tropes covers what the MPAA might call “thematic elements of a sexual nature”, you got teenagers telling the world that they lusted after their cousin or joining the ever-popular Sir Mix-A-Lot in explaining in detail their admiration for the larger female rear (ED: If only that was the worst of it; the worst of it was a lot of creepy paedo stuff that got into the wiki  and the forum too, and that I was simply too embarrassed to discuss when I first wrote this).

My own reaction to Troper Tales was always along the lines of – “Jesus Christ, have these people no sense of embarrassment?” but it would be a lie to claim I ever did much about it when, after a few years of reading the wiki, I actually registered as a user. Periodically, people would complain about the awfulness of Troper Tales and there’d be drives to edit out the blatant lies and creepy bits, but really a lot of us, from the site admin (ED: Fast Eddie, who survived this drama but no I think longer owns the place) on down, just stuck our heads in the sand. And to tell the truth, none of this would have mattered had no-one but us noticed that Troper Tales was appalling (ED: And other parts of the site too). And this was where CrazyGoggs came in.

Some claim him as a visionary auteur and comic pioneer; others dismiss him as a “gaping asshole”; yet others, chiefly his mother, probably regard him as a “nice young man.” All I can tell you about this user of the Something Awful forum is that he is a skinny white American nerd with the most ill-advised facial hair since The Eagles were in their prime and that, like most SA users, he has an eye for idiocy on the internet and its comic value (ED: In 2011, I was still ill-informed about nerds’ love of ill-advised facial hair, not to mention that SA might not be the paradise of wit and intelligence it likes to claim it is). He also clearly appreciates the proverbial ease of disposing of fish in a barrel through the use of firearms, something he proceeded to show by pumping out a whole slew of YouTube videos under the collective name of “This Troper” in which comedy was achieved by the simple expedient of reading out sections of Troper Tales, and in some cases, particularly unwise forum conversations, in silly voices. To be honest,  even the silly voices were largely unnecessary; Troper Tales ended up condemning TVTropes out of its own collective mouth. We could say (truthfully) that this was the worst part of the site, not necessarily representative of the rest and (less truthfully) that it wasn’t even representative of Troper Tales, but this stuff was on our site. There was no way round that.

To say the shit hit the fan at TV Tropes at this point would probably be to over-dramatise things. I mean, the shit did hit the fan, but in a kind of slow-motion way. Initially, a lot of people took up the predictable defensive postures; haters gonna hate, they’re cherry-picking the worst bits; SA is a hate site whose posters are enemies of civilised behaviour and comparable to Nazi stormtroopers (and yes, I was responsible for both of those gems of restraint). It didn’t help that one of the users who made the biggest deal of this at the earliest stage turned out to be a bit of a Cassandra. In retrospect, he was right to make a fuss, but he was irascible, not a master of persuasion and just ended up being temporarily banned for his pains (ED: After extensive mental gymnastics, I have finally remembered his user name – Myrmidon. I think he was also a goon.). I think we all hoped it would be short-lived, but the videos just kept coming. The mockery helped exacerbate discontent that had been bubbling under anyway with the policies of the site, particularly the perceived heavy hand with which the administration came down on what it saw as complaint or negativity (in discussions about fictional works or the site itself). This had already led to the closure of It Just Bugs Me, a sub-forum which broke away to become a site in its own right, and became a refuge for dissidents to plot in. And then some SA users started up their own thread about TV Tropes.

They might as well have called it “This time it’s personal”, because it was. Philosophically, the posters went beyond bashing Troper Tales to attack the whole adequacy of cataloguing tropes as a form of literary criticism, although that was kind of a serious sideline to the main comedic effort – pointing out how posts and wiki pages proved us all to be anime-obsessed, paedophiliac creeps with weird obsessions, extreme political views and little hope of ever emerging from our parents’ basements in which they decided we must all live. They went for individuals (not me, I might add, either because I don’t fit the profile or because I’m just too dull and unimportant to be worth bothering with) (ED: Hint – it’s the latter. I wrote this post, after all.).

It got under the skin, partly because there was an uncomfortable level of truth in it. There was already in-fighting anyway between pro- and anti-anime factions about things like whether particular tropes should have Japanese names and ongoing unhappiness about anime works that frankly seemed to rely on sexualising children  for their appeal. More generally, the feeling that someone might be publicly critiquing any post you made was not a nice one, and it all got particularly weird when an IJBM thread on the situation started getting into (fairly polite) discussion with the SA thread, whilst conversations on the subject on TV Tropes were getting closed down. Watching them watch them watching us – really, it was completely insane.

The denoument was that eventually a bunch of the dissidents who hung out in IJBM decided to make a push for change and basically forced a vote on getting rid of Troper Tales. I was happy enough to vote for it by this stage, and after basically about a week of heated debate, with running commentary from SA and IJBM, it got the necessary majority. Troper Tales has gone off to be a separate site, although as TV Tropes still links to it, how far it can disclaim it is moot. The admin still thinks personal anecdotes should be on the site, albeit on the forum, but it’s unclear exactly how far his proposed replacement will work at the moment. Some of the anti-Troper Tales party are sticking around; others don’t think what was achieved was enough and/or have got generally so pissed off with the site that they’re off and of course anyone who was very keen on Troper Tales will presumably leave too. SA win, I suppose, but you hardly cover yourself with glory when you kick people up the arse, even people wearing “Kick Me” T-shirts. Hearing the goon who said something to the effect of “our purpose in this thread is to mock these horrible broken people” explain to his Mum/girlfriend/wife/kids why in spite of this, he isn’t a bully, would make for schadenfreude to rival anything on “This Troper.”(ED: I later posted in those mock threads, and it probably would be pretty hilarious to hear me try and justify this. I’m more willing to say that some people deserve to be mocked online now, but I’m still not totally comfortable with it.)

The truth is, no-one really comes out of this situation looking good. Real wars, even trivial and stupid metaphorical ones on the internet, aren’t like fictional ones. They’re not about badasses with cool guns squirting out one liners between bullets (ED: NO SHIT). They’re about people failing to resolve conflicts, they’re all dumb and they’re all dirty. One thing that this piece of Serious Business shows, is that the internet isn’t really a refuge from reality, even though some wish it were. You can’t hide from human nature behind an avatar. It will turn up and bite you on the rear some day.  Odd though it may seem, it also proves that the internet isn’t quite the libertarian Wild West that it probably was originally and that some still think it is. Actually, it’s increasingly hard to get away with the kind of craziness that used to happen. The internet may still be unregulated, but it is increasingly policed, both via corporate power (at about the same time I joined TV Tropes had to remove a load of fetish-related content essentially because Google threatened to stop using them for advertising otherwise) and by way of the oldest method of all – social disapproval, courtesy of the electronic version of the village gossips (ED:Actually, I still stand by this, especially in the light of the various social justice-inspired campaigns against anything remotely offensive to the thin-skinned) .

The other thing it illustrates perfectly is how anonymity facilitates the worst side of human nature. None of the idiots who originally posted the nonsense in Troper Tales would have agreed to have letters published in their school/college magazines or local papers, under their own names, explaining how they used their martial arts skills to beat a bully or claiming that they had such a large stash of porn on their computer that it exploded (ED: I was also naïve about quite how shameless some people are when they can get attention or pity out of it).

In fact, an attempt was made to reform Troper Tales by making people post examples under their internet handles, but the dross kept on coming, largely because the worst that this can do is make the regular posters on a site think of you as an idiot and a lot of the Troper Tales people weren’t forum regulars themselves and didn’t really care what the regulars thought. Likewise, it is unlikely that any of the SA posters would have been as vicious if they had thought it would come back to them, or that CrazyGoggs will be putting his role as producer of “This Troper” on his CV next time he applies for a job (ED: Actually, I would bet he has). Ever since the Romantic movement of the early 19th century it’s become a cliche for artists to complain about the oppressive artificiality of social mores and how terrible it is to have to “wear a mask”. Five minutes surfing the internet makes you think that, just perhaps, that mask is there for a reason. (ED: Nothing since has led me to revise this opinion)

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