One of the richest, wittiest pop culture resources on the web is the TV Tropes wiki. A celebration of recurring themes in everything from anime to classic SF, TV Tropes today has 40 thousand contributors. Here is its origin story.
Founded in 2004, TV Tropes and its army of "tropers" was conceived by a literate Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan whose interest in genre was awakened at MIT in the 1970s. Known to tropers as Fast Eddie, he once lived at MIT's Russian House, where he entered fandom via an interest in a role-playing game called Traveller. He continued to consume science fiction and fantasy over years, even as he pursued a career in engineering, and he often met up with other friends to discuss TV on Salon.com back in the 1990s.
Fast Eddie, whom I spoke to by phone earlier this week, recalled those days with a chuckle. "Every time something came up about TV in a Salon story, there was this group that would go on these rampages about Buffy. Eventually we moved our community away so as not to bug everybody." That group, which included the TV Tropes cofounders, migrated to Buffistas, a site where people could discuss the show to their heart's content.
It was there, Fast Eddie says, that they began developing the idea of "tropes" on television. "It was our common vernacular," he says. Buffistas members could talk about the 'maiden in distress trope,' for example, and everyone would know what that meant.
One day, deep in the middle of a thread about Angel and Firefly writer Tim Minear, some of the Buffistas wondered if there was anywhere on the web to find a giant list of all the recurring themes, ideas, and conventions from pop culture that they were discussing. They found nothing. And so the three founders decided to fill that gap with TV Tropes. "It started as a PC in my basement," says Fast Eddie. "But after we were featured on BoingBoing, we had to expand fast."
The first trope on TV Tropes was the Gilligan Cut, described on the wiki thusly:
The Gilligan Cut is a classic staple of comedy. A character protests vehemently, "What, you expect me to wear a grass skirt, stand up on top of the Empire State Building and belt out the chorus of 'New York, New York'? Well, I'm not gonna... I'm just not gonna..." Whip Pan over to the character wearing a grass skirt on the 102nd floor, singing "I want to be a part of it, New York, New York!"
Tropers have listed hundreds of examples of this common trope, organized by media format (anime, TV, movies, etc.)
And this is just one of hundreds of tropes gathered together on the wiki.
In the early days of the wiki, its founders worked hard to create a community that was open to every kind of participation. Fast Eddie mentions a contributor named Gus, whom he says passed away from MS in 2006, was very much the "personality" of the group during the wiki's first two years. He says, "The 'right foot' we got off on was definitely his right foot. He set the tone and led by example in getting people to mutually respect each other and work together."
The group decided early on that they would chuck the idea of "notability" that Wikipedia uses to shape its content into what's "worthy." Fast Eddie says:
One of our big rules and principles is that there's no such thing as notability. There is no work that's not eligible to be written up on the site. That's to make a climate of inclusiveness, and partly a reaction against Wikipedia's approach where you have to have citations on a thing before it's a thing. We think there's culture that's on the net that never sees paper, and it would be a shame to miss out on that.
Though the tone of contributions on TV Tropes is often light and funny, Fast Eddie emphasizes that the point is not to make fun of how stupid pop culture is, or to laugh at cliches:
You do get contributors who think what we're about is bashing on cliches and snickering at people who've done things the same way as others. We try to correct them away from that idea in discussions. We're celebrating these things. We're saying that we're fans, and that maybe some of the reasons you enjoy this stuff is because you're familiar with what these plot devices do.
But what is there to celebrate about repetition rather than originality? Quite a bit, according to Fast Eddie and the 40 thousand tropers out there.
Stories that are enduring have very pared down stories at their core. To capture people's attention, you want to bring them in using a familiar platform like these tropes. Once you get them there, that's where you have the opportunity to extend your viewpoint and offer up what you're trying to say. But first you need to get their attention with something familiar, so they're not struggling to figure out what's going on.
And many writers agree with him. Fast Eddie says that several professional writers for TV and other media have said that they find TV Tropes an invaluable inspiration. TV Tropes is a good place to find ideas that help you get quickly from one scene to another without much fuss; and it's also a good way to get a reality check if you think you've created something completely original and you find out there are 500 examples of it from every media.
At least one creative writing teacher is using the TV Tropes' Story Generator tool as a writing exercise in her classes.
Ultimately, Fast Eddie says, what makes TV Tropes so successful and readable is its community. "It's not about the founders - it's about the tropers," he says. He pauses, then adds:
The tropes speak for themselves. What I'm proudest of is that we're able to maintain our accessibility and humor – humor is important. It's easy for a wiki to be a dry recitation of facts and that's anathema to us. I'm proud that people are using it - whether they're fans, pro writers, or fanfic writers. We want people to have a good time.
Want to get lost in the world of TV Tropes? Start here.