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Snark out

In a 2002 episode ("The U.S. Poet Laureate", season 3 episode 16) of The West Wing, one of Aaron Sorkin's alter egos, Josh Lyman, discovers he has a TV fan site ("LemonLyman.com") and decides to set a few of his backseat drivers straight about some things. Because you are better versed in how socializing on the Internet works than he was, you can probably guess how that went. He made some stupid posting blunders, one of which attracted the attention of a Washington Post reporter, and explained the mess to the enraged White House communications director thusly: "It's got a dictatorial leader who I'm sure wears muu-muus and chain-smokes Parliaments". Said communications director informed him that, "The people on these sites, they're the cast of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest", and ordered him offline.

The real-life site on which Sorkin based this (first) complaint about all things Internet was Television Without Pity, where he posted briefly and sporadically under his middle name, Benjamin. Being better versed in how socializing on the Internet works than he was, you can probably guess how that went: initially happy and then a big bust-up which his later works suggest he's never really gotten over. The full story is available in great detail.

"Spare the snark and spoil the networks," goes TWoP's slogan, and as it suggests, this is the site where people go to pick apart TV shows. Or I should say "went", because last week NBC Universal, whose Bravo subsidiary bought the site in 2007, decided to pull the plug because it wasn't making enough money. The last freelance-written recaps were posted last week though they will remain online for future enjoyment; the discussion forums will be closed at the end of May and taken down. That gives long-time posters only a couple of months to find a new home. For now, most seem to be heading to PreviouslyTV, since it's run by TWoP's original founders. Other candidates for TWoP refugees seem to be AVClub, Vulture (which was so brilliantly hilarious about Gossip Girl), and even The Straight Dope's TV boards.

That there are so many options speaks to TWoP's influence: it more or less invented the now-ubiquitous recap.

Praise and reminiscences are coming from some surprising quarters: TWoP gave young writers their start; inspired affection; and taught others to think analytically about popular culture, entertained many more.

TWoP began life circa 1998 as a recap site for Dawson's Creek and then was briefly known as MightyBigTV. Its inhabitants, speculate that the site is the last of the Web 1.0 era; the Guardian writer linked above believes message boards are over. Neither is really true. In-depth written discussion has always been a minority pastime. TWoP's antecedents are the WELL and Salon.com's Table Talk; TWoP's competition is not the status updates of Twitter and Facebook but blogs, newspaper and magazine comment boards, and niche forums that survive by never getting quite big enough to attract and disappoint a large corporate purchaser. The brief history of the Internet is awash in memories of shut-down communities, from Geocities (bought and closed by Yahoo!), to CompuServe (bought and eviscerated by AOL), and much of AOL (ditto, when that company shifted away from subscriptions and towards advertising as its main source of revenue). I still miss JumptheShark.com, which had frustrated viewers voting to pinpoint the precise episode when a show lost its spark; that was bought by TVGuide and taken down.

TWoP had two distinguishing factors: the consistently snarky attitude of its official postings and its rather rigid, rule-bound moderation. (ObDisclosure: I posted once a couple of years ago, got scolded for three infractions, one of which was so clearly inconsistently enforced across the site that I thereafter went read-only.) Like early 1990s CompuServe and AOL, the forum moderators were paid to stomp when discussions drifted away from the stated topic, repeated themselves, or become too meta. The snarky attitude was pure mid-1990s, found on early Web sites such as Suck.com and pervasive on Usenet, especially in alt.showbiz.gossip, which caught it from the hilariously sarcastic magazine Movieline. TWoP's special contribution was marrying the two.

The net result was that you could not come away from a discussion, even of your favorite show, without seeing the ways in which it stumbled. Persistent reading of the site turned people from passive consumers of television to active critics - as much a threat to crap network television as cable channels. It was a great place to go when the quality of the show you loved since season one fell off a cliff. Arguably, studying those merciless fans was also valuable to anyone interested in writing creatively: it's extraordinary how harshly people can judge fictional characters.

To TWoPpers I say, take heart. you will find other places to snark collectively. But also take note: communities controlled by others are, to them, fungible. Own your own community. Because here's a thing: I first heard about TWoP on the WELL, founded 1985. And that's the first place I went to discuss TWoP's death. Some kind of irony there.

Wendy M. Grossman is the 2013 winner of the Enigma Award. Her Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of earlier columns in this series. Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.


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