Some people take care of orchids. Others take care of guinea pigs. Barbara takes care of tropes.
Most of the day she's a 51-year-old seamstress in Illinois and a caregiver for her husband. But in her spare time, Barbara tends to four tropes: "Cool Bike," "Badass Longcoat," "You Fail Logic Forever" and "Silly Reason for War."
"They were a mess, they needed to be cleaned up, and nobody else was doing it, so I adopted them," she says. "It's equivalent of wiping down the sink every morning after I brush my teeth."
Her obsession takes place at the website TV Tropes (tvtropes.org), a catalog of thousands of pop culture tropes -- conventions or devices that pop up repeatedly in storytelling. Each trope has a Web page listing examples, not only from television but also film, theater, literature, comic books, professional wrestling and other media.
TV Tropes is a wiki -- a site anyone in the world can contribute to and edit, like Wikipedia. Since its founding in 2004, more than 42,000 people have volunteered to be "tropers" like Barbara -- a mixture of fans, writers, educators and amateur academics smitten by pop culture and accessing their inner Joseph Campbell. The site now gets more than 2 million unique visitors a month, according to Google Analytics. Pop culture consumers know many of these tropes intuitively, even if they've never articulated them. For instance, one of Barbara's, "Silly Reason for War," is when a war grows out of a laughably trivial dispute and eventually becomes a lesson on intolerance. The trope's 50-some examples include the film "Duck Soup," the novel "Gulliver's Travels," episodes of "South Park" and "Star Trek" and the Web comic "Sluggy Freelance," in which a war was "waged partly because the king of Mercia said the Trent king's mustache smelled like Parmesan."
Many tropes are familiar, such as "Distressed Damsel" and "Pie in the Face." Some are inspired by icons, such as "The Boo Radley" -- a mysterious loner who's assumed to be creepy but actually has a heart of gold, named for the character in "To Kill a Mockingbird."
The site has entire sections for hair tropes, kissing tropes and varieties of flashbacks. Race tropes point out media stereotypes, such as "Where Da White Women At," about how black men are portrayed as especially attracted to Caucasian women, named for a line in "Blazing Saddles." Porn tropes include "Pizza Boy Special Delivery" and "Deus Sex Machina." There's a section called "Troper Tales," about the ways tropes have shown up in the tropers' real lives. All of these elements mesh into a messy, fascinating exploration of the engine that drives audiences to consume stories. TV Tropes is Aristotle's "Poetics" for the digital age.
Know your tropes
The site's founder is a 55-year-old computer programmer near Rice Lake, Wis., named Fast Eddie -- not his real name but his online "handle," which he asked to use for this article for fear that drawing too much attention to himself would go against the site's collaborative spirit. He thought up the site during a discussion on Buffistas.org, a community of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" enthusiasts, a group of whom became the first tropers.
Eddie's interest in tropes stems in part from his day job. "I think about how chunks of things fit together to make a whole," he says. As in storytelling, programming has certain elements that are used over and over, such as a "model" or a "controller." "If you're not aware of how to wire those things together, you're not going to make a fresh-feeling story, or you're not going to solve your programming problem," he says.
Since pop culture inevitably stirs up strong emotions, Eddie polices the site and its many discussion pages with five other moderators including Barbara, who goes by Madrugada online. The main divide is between "lumpers" and "splitters" -- those who prefer to group several ideas together into one trope, and those who try to break tropes into component parts.
Certain tropes become controversial. "Mary Sue" -- a character who's too good -- became a battleground among fan fiction writers and fans, who take offense when their favorite characters are thought to have too few flaws to be interesting.
As it's grown, the site has grappled with how to balance its identity as a resource for outsiders and a way for contributors to express themselves. Unlike the sober, evenhanded Wikipedia, TV Tropes is more informal and accepts a certain degree of subjectivity. The site has its own jargon, such as "phlebotinum," defined as a "magical substance that may be rubbed on almost anything to cause an effect needed by a plot."