Learning the Tricks of the Trade:
Wikis as a Space for Learning
As a beginning research project, I wanted to research ways of learning on a wiki because they are influential in my own teaching. I am beginning online teaching for FYC and will need as much wiki knowledge as possible to allow my class the best approach to learning. I want wikis to be a part of my course because the knowledge building and scaffolding of the wiki seems to me unmatched. So, I chose an interesting site to myself to allow my personal interests to guide my research. I did this because I firmly believe in bringing my own experience and interest to the classroom as a way to create a dynamic environment for learning and engagement. I believe that if we as instructors of English allow our students to see our interests, they will value their interests more deeply and that combination will foster deeper learning. I chose TVTropes.org to learn about wiki’s for the simple fact that it is a site dedicated to being an English nerd and a fan.
“What is this about?” is a question that TVTropes.org asks right off the bat in reference to their purpose for existence. They claim to be a site for interaction amongst peers and a learning module for the writing community: “the tricks of the trade” to use their wording. However, I liked the question as well to begin a discussion of this wiki because I am new to online participation, and need the help of the tropers to get into the site. To that end, I began this project by looking over the site and asking questions about how best to learn the tricks of the trade. I wanted to see first what the atmosphere was like, and when I accidently posted my inquiries in the wrong place was quickly pointed in the right direction. That initial conversation with a moderator and a general user was helpful and encouraging.
My purpose was to discover the value of peer-driven content within a space for learning, and the orienting help the tropers gave me was important. TVTropes.org does not require anything besides interest and motivation to post edits, new material, or rants to their site. What they do require is that the editors and contributors keep a professional tone, show respect to the readers and original authors of the works discussed, and post properly formatted text. A look at the self-policing nature of the site is important because peer review and sponsorship/spatiality are keys to understanding motivation in an online space. I commonly hear about the tendency for people to abuse the privilege of the internet and become bullies, conflagrant, or just ridiculous in their behavior but this site seems to dispel that notion in favor of creating a space for encouragement and learning. Where some wikis would allow anonymous posts and users to badger or belittle newcomers and those they do not agree with, TVTropes does not accept such actions. There are limiting and orienting factors but, on the whole, they are positive moves to improve wiki knowledge.
Situating the Inquiry/Lit Review
The TVTropes.org wiki is rarely cited in research as a space for learning or interaction. In fact, I have only so far found one source that references TVTropes explicitly. That source is “A Submersion in Subversion” by David Henrion (2012). This source, a dissertation/thesis from the University of Wyoming, does not focus on relevant issues taking place in digital literacy practices on TVTropes, but on subversion of form in fiction. The helpful idea that this thesis brings is simply that “The real genius of TV Tropes lies in the connections it creates between texts through its mapping of tropes” (8). Henrion uses TVTropes only as an entrance to a conversation about form and the Internet or games as viable modes of creation and intertextual study, not on digital literacy practice. While his article was interesting, I did not find it exceptionally helpful because of the literary focus. My project is on TVTropes more as an affinity space, a community of practice, and a wiki as a model for creation and learning. That being the case, I am focusing my literature review on sources that focus entirely on these important concepts: “affinity space” (Gee (2005), Elcessor & Duncan (2011), Black and Steinkuehler (2009), Lammers, Curwood, and Magnifico’s (2012), “community of practice” (Gee (1999), Gee (2005), Wenger (1998), “sponsorship” (Webb-Sunderhaus (2007), Bowen (2011)), and the idea of a “constellation of literacy activities” (Gee (2005), Black & SteinKuehler (2009)).
First, I would like to discuss the idea of affinity spaces within the context of Gee (2005) and Elcessor and Duncan (2011). Black and Steinjuehler (2009) also discuss affinity spaces to some extent. The idea of an affinity space is, as Gee puts it “a particularly important contemporary social configuration with implications for the future of schools and schooling” (214). He defines the affinity space in eleven criteria on 225-228 of the article “Semiotic social spaces and affinity spaces.” These criteria are not entirely useful to the wiki I am looking at, but the important aspects he notes are the idea of a common endeavor, the idea of shared space among newbies and masters, transformation of grammar, and the different forms and routes to participation in the community or affinity space. Gee goes into detail on the eleven criteria, but the majority of his discussion is further than this review will go. I am interested in his concept of affinity spaces more in the context of the Black and Elcessor & Duncan uses. Black and Steinkuehler add some clarity and expansion on Gee’s general idea of the affinity space, noting that affinity spaces “cohere around a common affinity for a certain topic, passion, or endeavor, rather than, say, those features that more traditionally define a given community” (273). Elcessor and Duncan (2011) add to this definition and discussion with the helpful integration of fan community and “star” or “celebrity-based” fandoms and the individual. Within this addition, Elcessor and Duncan argue that affinity spaces are problematized by the use of fan-spaces as affinity spaces, because the Gee definition presupposes group cohesion. Elcessor and Duncan’s article is worth noting, but my research project is centered on the community of practice (and focus here on “community”) that is TVTropes. I find the affinity space discussion in Black and SteinKuehler (2009) or Gee (2005) more helpful in this project for their focus on broader communities. Finally, the community of TVTropes uses what J. C. Lammers, J. S. Curwood & A. M. Magnifico, in “Toward an affinity space methodology: Considerations for literacy research” (2012) call informal learning spaces (again citing Gee (2004)) that are “these physical, virtual or blended spaces [that] are often spread across many sites, such as face-to-face meetings, message boards, blogs and web pages” (45). Lammers, Curwood, and Magnifico’s article centers on affinity spaces in Hunger Games, Neopet, and The Sims to illustrate the need for an affinity space methodological framework they call “affinity space ethnography.” All online affinity space research owes Gee a debt of gratitude, and this review falls short of citing the depth with which affinity space needs to be researched for the TVTropes site. I will turn now to work on the concept of a community of practice.
Again, within the idea of a community of practice, Gee is crucial in discussing online activities. Gee (1999), for example, illustrates the community of practice framework as problematic: “the key problem with notions like “community of practice”, and related ones like “communities of learners”, is that they make it look like we are attempting to label a group of people” (214). Gee changed the notion to “affinity space,” but the concept of the community of practice, to me, seems like a valid one to think about in terms of the TVTropes.org site and other wikis. Wenger (whom Gee cites in creating the concept of the CoP framework) argues that communities of practice serve as motivational centers, and that certainly seems to be the case on TVTropes. The two things that tropers apparently find motivating are their own fan leanings and than the community requests for additions, deletions, and expansions to the project. (The project of course being the compilation of the broadest wiki for fictional tropes in existence.) Wenger states:
A community of practice defines itself along three dimensions:
What it is about – its joint enterprise as understood and continually renegotiated by its members
How it functions – mutual engagement that bind members together into a social entity
What capability it has produced – the shared repertoire of communal resources (routines, sensibilities, artifacts, vocabulary, styles, etc.) that members have developed over time. (Co-i-l.com)
These criteria are helpful in thinking about the TVTropes site because they question the role of the community and its influence on the individual. My research project is focusing on the role of newbies and the sponsorship it takes to enter the community, so this concept is quite helpful. The joint enterprise is both motivating and renegotiated constantly through discussion forums and changes to individual wiki pages. Further, the site does not have much in the way of detractors or “trolls” because of its self-policing habits—a concept I have not yet seen in affinity spaces by Gee. Self-policing is joined by sponsorship and sponsorship activities, which I will now discuss in terms of Bowen (2011) and Webb-Sunderhaus (2007).
Sponsorship, according to Bowen (2011), is “agents who provide beneficiaries with the resources to develop literacy in exchange for some kind of economic gain” (594) and the interaction of them and their sponsored participants. This notion is from Deborah Brandt, who coined the term in 2001. Bowen’s discussion of the sponsorship of Beverly, an elderly woman, is reminiscent of ho I felt as a newbie on TVTropes. I had sponsors (this class, a mod on the site, and my little brother) to help me enter the community of TVTropes. Moving forward then, Webb-Sunderhaus’ article “A Family Affair: Competing Sponsors of Literacy in Appalachian Students’ Lives” (2007) further explains this term (actually in much more detail and earlier, though in distinct ways from Bowen). Webb-Sunderhaus explains Brandt’s term as people who “are conduits for the larger economic forces of literacy” (1601). (In this case, “economy” may be seen as a synonym for greater more fruitful additions to the wiki.) As she states, the sponsors (mods/”masters”) both withhold and enable newbies in various ways. The concept of sponsorship is important to the TVTropes wiki because without that self-police action, the site could not function. There is a definite sense of order created by the experienced participant that sponsors newcomers and the general reader to “fall in line” with traditions of participation. The participation comes from a multiplicity of digital literacies called commonly “a constellation of literacy activities.”
Black and Steinkuehler (2009) call the “constellation of literacy activities” a set of required skills that come together to make playing an MMORPG possible. In the case of TVTropes, then, I am looking at this concept as the need to understand multiple levels of online interaction, html coding, and traditional text-based literacy (which includes reading/writing/analysis). Black and Steinkuehler use “in-game text based interaction, in-game literacy practices (largely formed out of those interactions), and out-of-game, online world of fandom” as required constellations for gaming online (277). I agree with the principles in these premises, because on TVTropes participants need in-wiki text based literacy (the jargon, spoiler avoidance, and general affinity language), in-wiki literacy practice (including editing practices, code of conduct, and formality), and out-of-wiki literacy/literary practices (don’t add tropes you know nothing about).
To conclude this section, I would like to discuss the concept of wikis in education from Knobel and Lankshear (2009). In their article, Knobel and Lankshear articulate the importance of wikis in the classroom as having “great potential for promoting online and offline collaboration and for disseminating research and practical resources among educators in accessible ways” (631). Most researchers would agree that the breadth of knowledge sharing in a wiki is impressive. Not all would agree that the FYC classroom is the place for wikis or the type of learning that focuses less on grammar and syntax and more on critical abilities and thinking; however, as Knobel and Lankshear argue in this article, wikis are prime candidates for teaching students how to build on an existing discourse. Students are also required to move outside their probable comfort zones and, as Knobel and Lankshear point out, learn more than simply writing: “it is usually necessary for wiki users to know at least a few basics of the simplified HTML code” (632). It is in this requirement for expansive literacy activities that my research takes place.
In gathering information and data for this study, I wanted to focus on two questions. First, I asked what it takes to become an accepted member of the TVTropes.org community of practice. Then I asked what literacy activities one would require to make a wiki edit that was acceptable for this affinity space. My research was included a few aspects: I had to understand the concepts of affinity space, community of practice, and constellation of literacy activities first; and I had to understand the underlying concepts of sponsorship and spatiality for the purpose of finding out which obstacles were site-specific, which created by users. The work surrounding these terms was instrumental in my understanding of the area of TVTropes I focused on for this analysis.
As an interested outsider, I have not been involved in the workings/compilation of the massive wiki. Yet, the site is an intersection between the fan, the scholar, and the critic of a more general type, so I have always enjoyed perusing the wiki pages. TVTropes is a compendium of knowledge about writing for writers and dedicated fans; however, the site also caters to the casual fan of literature, television, and movies. As with any affinity space, it is difficult to imagine, as an outsider, that entry into the community will be easy. Within TVTropes.org, I sought to determine the knowledge and commitment it takes to participate as more than a simple observer. Through researching digital literacy practices over the last few months, I have come to realize that TVTropes is two things: first, it is not as simple as the casual visitor might think; and second, that little research is concerned with the community and its impressive use of literacies both traditional and digital. I believe this lack of knowledge about TVTropes will cease, because we cannot for long ignore such an interesting and important site that eliminates racial, socioeconomic, and gender divides to create a sense of community based solely on mutual interest and learning. TVTropes as a wiki is an exemplary model for study of personal, public and student learning habits.
I wanted in this study to represent the TVTropes wiki and its value in learning to become a member of such spaces. That is, I asked initially what TVTropes could offer us in terms of new literacy practices or improved sense of learning within existing ones. With that in mind, I focused my data collection on the edit page, a forum post about editing, and the instructional page set up by a moderator on the site.
The main data that I collected was three screenshots that entailed important aspects of TVTropes.org and its policies regarding posting/editing works. The interaction between moderators and general users is important because TVTropes is not a stagnant or micromanaged database, but a free upload wiki that is maintained primarily by the users themselves. That said, TVTropes also maintains a high standard for posting, which the second piece of data I collected represents. This piece was from the section “Trope Repair Shop” (which is where needed work is submitted if it is large enough to take teams/skilled editors), and specifically from the introductory statement to that page of the wiki. Next, I detailed one of the conversations taking place in the discussion board titled “Ask the Tropers” where people can present problems with the wiki they feel need to be addressed. I wanted this specific interaction because it represents the nature of participation and editing on TVTropes. Lastly, I took a screenshot of one of my own edits to the site, because I wanted to show the needed literacy activities when editing, as well as the sponsorship/spatial orientation provided. My interest in these three pieces of data was what they showed us in terms of sponsorship from the community when edits were made, what rules the site employs to create pushback, and what set of literacy activities are expected and taught through actual editing.
I collected data in the beginning of this project that portrayed the difficulties of becoming a member of the TVTropes wiki. That difficulty is represented in the datasheets below: the first is an introductory section about posting edits on the TRS “Trope Repair Shop” (a more in depth space for editing on the wiki). The second is from a conversation between a few participants of the site. And the third piece of data is an example of my contributing to the site. My focus is on the affinity space, sponsorship, and constellation of literacy activities concepts at work within TVTropes. I also want briefly to touch on the ideas in communities of practice, spatiality, and code mashing. This analysis will focus on a discussion of the data collected earlier mostly with a small ending section on a new data sample, and specifically on portions of each screenshot that refers to the abovementioned concepts.
The data collected on the welcome to TRS page represents interestingly the spatiality and sponsorship concepts.
Spatiality and sponsorship are closely tied, and I discuss both because I want to delineate spatiality and sponsorship as different concepts. Spatiality I see as the site itself and its use of sponsoring activities. Spatiality is the pushback and orienting of users either in positive or negative ways by the space being used such as the need for certain literacy practices outside participatory motivation, while sponsorship is the individual use of authority and influence on participants by affinity group members of higher standing. “Cutmaster-san” is a moderator (noted by the “M” shield under his name), and made this welcome page to orient editors to the specific practices of the wiki. He makes statements rather than suggestions, which both limits pushback from editors and gives positive reinforcement to tropers hoping to fix problems. For instance, Cutmaster-san writes, “we only allow preselected names” for new threads “in order to force people to state the problem” and not get “overly-dramatic” or presumably unclear titles. While spatiality and sponsorship has within them an issue of pushback against users in negative ways, this example shows a clear positive orientation as well.
Cutmaster helpfully points users to several areas of TVTropes that will guide them. A good example of this is under the “when to create a Trope Repair Shop thread” heading: “First off, read the What Goes Where In the Forums and the Projects Directory for topics that have their own threads.” This simple statement does a lot of things. It obviously acts as an orienting piece because Cutmaster-san follows a standard TVTropes affinity language practice when he hyperlinks the other sites in the sentence, which directs users to helpful tools and forums. Cutmaster-san orients readers by stating the need to understand the practice of the community before jumping in. Not just the general site TVTropes either, but the specific practices in this particular forum as well. Also, this example uses the sponsorship concept that is closely related to spatiality; sponsorship is the moderator trying to simultaneously stop bad practices and encourage good ones through use of language that is sometimes commanding (“Keep in mind that the forum rules apply here just as much as anywhere else”) sometimes accepting and supportive (“Please take time to read these, it can avoid embarrassing errors and complaints later on”). Cutmaster-san seems to understand the role of sponsorship and does not abuse the privilege and simply hand down rules. Rather, he supports the main page statement about the wiki being a place to discuss tropes without judgment and without fear of cyber bullying in a community of practice.
The community of practice discussion in Wenger is helpful in looking at the welcome page. It is helpful because Cutmaster-san represents a minor leader in the community of practice that negotiates meaning for the tropers as a whole and ensures the joint enterprise will continue to thrive. As Cutmaster-san lays out the reasons for posting threads on the TRS forum, we can see Wenger’s three principles at work. Helpfully, the bullet list represents certain types of practices and changes, such as the attempts in the first few to categorize tropes correctly and enforce the use of clear language when editing trope pages. Note the attempt to rename tropes, redefine them, and decide whether they are in fact tropes or just “Useful Notes.” Cutmaster-san and the community of tropers strive for improvement to the wiki by users, and that creates a cohesive community of practice, even though sometimes deliberation is necessary.
I want now to discuss the second data sheet because it represents the personal interactions and deliberations that take place on the wiki, and therefore is better suited than the welcome page to code mashing, constellation of literacy activities, and affinity space (as well as community of practice).
This forum post is an attempt to put into action one of the instances laid out in the welcome page. Catbert is attempting to initiate change to a discussion page because “expressing personal opinion on creepiness is not what the discussion page is for.” The second comment is a moderator exercising authority to nix the comment, saying “seems valid to me. Discussions are all about personal opinions.” In another space, this comment likely would have killed the initial complaint, but because TVTropes values the tropers as a community of practice, other users are quick to the defense of Catbert. It is notable that this discussion (at the time of collection) has no resolution, but the direction of popular opinion (All except the moderator agree that the comment is invalid) suggests that Catbert will succeed in removing the arrant comment.
As an affinity space, TVTropes is for the celebration and dispersal of interesting tropes and idioms that span many works of art. The audience clearly takes the addition of tropes and discussion threads seriously, as “Catbert” shows in his voluntary policing of the site and the use another member has put it to: Catbert’s comment is that “opinion on creepiness is not what the discussion page is for” because the bylaws and spatial agreements on TVTropes provide separate spaces for different types of interaction, and the discussion page within works’ pages (in this case the work is “Vocaloid”) is strictly for, as “Kuruni” helpfully tells us, “[talk] about the article itself.” Catbert and the general users are trying to protect the affinity space from damaging uses, and the moderator seems to be backed into a corner by the majority.
Another interesting piece of this data sheet is the use of code mashing. In Fraiberg’s definition, code mashing is the multi-use of literacy practices in teaching and research. This definition fits well when looking at TVTropes forums (and the entire wiki), especially in the use of specialized language in different forms. HTML language, trope naming, and the specific language of the site are interesting to look at as keys to understanding the literacy practice of TVTropes. The HTML coding for hyperlinks to specific tropes, pages, or users is a necessary literacy practice for being deeply involved in the site. Further, trope naming and understanding what it means when someone refers to a trope like “uncanny valley” is helpful in tracking both conversations and summaries of either works or tropes within many works. TVTropes use of code mashing is closely tied to the concept of a literacy constellation. The tropers commenting on this request represent the need for situational language (“mod”, “troll” and the more subtle discussion of what goes where), formality, and general literacy practices such as proper reading and writing skills. A constellation of literacy activity requires, I think, a new piece of data as an example.
I would like to discuss the constellation of literacy activities on the TVTropes site through analysis of a data collection from my own activity on the wiki edit section.
The yellow arrow to the left of the screen represents one of my edits in progress, in which I wanted to include what I saw as an important trope not yet included but at work in the novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. The trope is called (All of the Other Reindeer). There is no need to explain the reasons for my choice in editing this particular site at this time; what I am interested instead is the steps I had to take to make this contribution. I had to learn less in fact than I thought I would in order to make this post because the wiki is streamlined in adding tropes. As we can see in the example, there are asterisks next to each trope name to indicate it as a trope. The use of an asterisk automatically denotes that as a trope, and the hyperlink takes care of itself. Whereas I thought all levels of trope editing needed html skills, the simple editing of pages requires one less literacy activity than I originally thought. That does not diminish greatly the number of necessary skills tropers must either possess or acquire. In order to make posts, I had to read the general set of rules for when to edit (data sample 1 is an example), read and familiarize myself the etiquette (data sample 2), and familiarize myself with the specific digital literacy of editing practices.
Some of the interesting practices at work in this data are the tabs or hyperlinks to “show markup help,” “How Indexing Works,” the “full list of editing tips,” and the aptly named “Index Index.” Each of these links or drop tabs helps tropers learn the tricks of the trade for editing. Other than these helpful articles, this data exemplifies the simplicity of the TVTropes site, and emphasizes as well the intense desire the tropers have for properly edited wikis. The orange box in the center of the screen in fact changes its tip every time. I had to redo this edit a couple of times, and when I was making the edit on one, the tip read “The idea is to make articles in 'Main/' look like they were written by the same person. A person with a good sense of humor, who doesn't talk about himself with 'I' or 'this troper', or get in arguments with himself, one who just corrects errors he might have made earlier without drawing attention to them.” The attempt to normalize language on the site is ongoing, and TVTropes has a good sense of humor for the most part, but as we can see in the second data sample, they are willing and able to suspend or delete accounts that ignore the rules of the affinity space.
Discussion and Implications
The implications of TVTropes are that it is an exemplary model of the affinity space and wiki. As a group, the intentional community at TVTropes seems committed to their craft; they do not hesitate to discipline transgression, but they do not hesitate to be inclusive of those who want to participate in knowledge building either. I believe we can learn a lot from this site and use that knowledge to inform our own pedagogies and best practices. I feel that TVTropes has shown an ability to foster creative, useful, and important additions to classroom learning through wikis. They present complex and vast material in manageable ways that to a first or second year composition classroom would seem daunting.
By incorporating the atmosphere and encouragement of a site like TVTropes, FYC and other classrooms could benefit both students and instructors through incorporation of editing practices, sharing, and workload dispersal on the wiki. For example, an English 111 class could utilize this style of wiki space to build an advocacy page that incorporates everyone’s experience of Alaska issues in one place, with one goal, and with a more definite sense of being a community of inquiry and or learning. First, I might have students create new posts on the site to familiarize themselves with the wiki space, and then branch out to create their own wiki. This would create a model that, presumably, would keep student interest because the site allows them to go into their own fandoms and be contributors. The TVTropes model is a good one for continued study if we want to understand student/individual motivation in creating dynamic and informed wikis. It would be imprudent to ask students to learn wikis from scratch, and this community I believe is well situated to both keep engagement while they figure out the space and create a constellation of literacy activities that would be valuable to learning.
In this analysis, I tried to maintain a focus on what it takes to become an active member of what seems like a closed-off affinity space. What I found, though, is that the site is quite welcoming and expansive in ways I did not realize. Because of the scope of the site including TV, books, movies, video games, fan fiction, cartoons, eastern and western canon, etc. TVTropes really is for everyone. And as a learning activity, I believe this breadth places it in a definite position of power from a pedagogical standpoint. It is no easy task to create a learning space that is relevant and interesting to a large group of students, but in creating a wiki site together based on TVTropes, I believe a definite sense of interest could be maintained while teaching the in depth functions of a wiki.
Black, R.W. (2005). Access and affiliation: The literacy and composition practices of English-language learners in an online fanfiction community. Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy, 49 (2), 118-128.
Black, R. W., & Steinkuehler, C. (2009). Literacy in virtual worlds. In L. Christenbury, R. Bomer, & P. Smagorinsky (Eds.), Handbook of adolescent literacy research (pp. 271– 286). New York: Guilford.
Bowen, L.M. (2011). Resisting age bias in digital literacy research. College Composition & Communication, 62 (4), 586-607.
Ellcessor, E, & Duncan, S.C. (2011). Forming The Guild: Star power and rethinking projective identity in affinity spaces. International Journal of Game-based Learning, 1 (2), 82-95.
Gee, J. P. (2005). Semiotic social spaces and affinity spaces. Beyond communities of practice language power and social context, 214-232
____. (1999). The New Literacy Studies and the ‘Social Turn.’ The Norton Book of Composition Studies. Ed. Susan Miller. New York, Norton: 2009. 1293-1310.
Henrion, D. (2012). Thesis: A submersion in subversion. (Order No. 1510284, University of Wyoming). ProQuest Dissertations and Theses, , 80. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com.proxy.consortiumlibrary.org/docview/1016183326?accountid=14473. (1016183326).Jayne C. Lammers, Jen Scott Curwood, & Alecia Marie Magnifico. (2012). Toward an affinity space methodology: Considerations for literacy research. English Teaching, 11(2), 44.
Knobel, M., & Lankshear, C. (2009). Wikis, digital literacies, and professional growth International Reading Association.
Thorne, S. L. (2009). ‘Community’, semiotic flows, and mediated contribution to activity. Language Teaching, 42(1), 81-94. doi:10.1017/S0261444808005429
Webb-Sunderhaus, Sara. (2009). “A Family Affair: Competing Sponsors of Literacy in Appalachian Students’ Lives. The Norton Book of Composition Studies. Ed. Susan Miller. New York, Norton: 2009. 1600-1616.
Wenger, E. (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Web accessed 15 November 2013 < http://www.co-i-l.com/coil/knowledge-garden/cop/lss.shtml>.