By Frank Moher
The news that Disney had snapped up the Kelowna-based website Club Penguin in a deal worth $700 million US (which, if I’m not mistaken, would be enough to buy the city of Kelowna itself) diverted attention from another Canadian internet-success buy-out story this year: the sale of televisionwithoutpity.com to the US Cable TV network Bravo, with founders Tara Ariano, Sarah Bunting, and David T. Cole intact.
The terms weren’t disclosed, and they didn’t likely amount to $700 million, but the deal is infinitely more significant than the Disney/Kelowna one. Penguins are soooooo 2006, while the TWoP deal guarantees that the snark-driven website, first started as a simple discussion board about the teen soap “Dawson’s Creek,” will continue indefinitely — with all that implies for North American culture.
Yes, there will still be a place for people who give way too large a crap about certain television shows to spend yet more hours of their bleary-eyed lives discussing those TV shows. Televisionwithoutpity.com is like a gathering of medieval theology students (the less-bright ones) cantilevered in the 21st-century and discussing, not how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, but what the shooting of Santos at the end of last season portends for the upcoming season of “Ugly Betty.”
This is way beyond standard water-cooler conversation. This is water-cooler conversation plus ultra, extended back to the office cubicle, to the bar after work, and from there to home. If Al Qaeda wanted to devise a silent method to obliterate the American economy by making sure its workers were as completely unproductive as possible, it could not do better than to buy google ads to drive yet more traffic to televisonwithoutpity.
TWoP’s obsessive nature begins with its so-called “re-cappers” — those hirelings whose job it is to regurgitate the plots of recent episodes of whatever, often with wan commentary interspersed. Checking out the most recent coverage of “Ugly Betty” — a show I confess I have watched two episodes of — I noted 15 links at the bottom of the page. Each, I supposed, must lead to a recap of a single episode. But no; that was 15 webpages for a single 44-minutes of Ugly Bettiness. Multiply that by 31 episodes, and you have — let’s see, carry the five — 465 pages per season. For one show. Granted, some of the TWoP recappers are talented glossists, but really — don’t they have novels to write or something?
And while the original aim may have been, as Ariano told The Guardian, “to concentrate on the kind of show where you get a lot of your friends together, sit around and make rude remarks about it,’ success has rendered the discussion forums about as pithy as, well, most discussion forums. “HOLY CRAP! OMFG!” wrote one discerning Betty-viewer of that final episode. Wrote another: “I HATE THIS SHOW. WHICH IS THE EXACT OPPOSITE OF THE TRUTH BUT STILL.”
OMFG, we just want to, like, hurl.
But TWoP is making one important contribution to the collective good. The founders have set standards for the discussion boards that would make Eve Arden on “Our Miss Brooks” quail. “Let it be known that we at TWoP are strict, and our moderators are vigilant,” they write in the Forum FAQ (after which they rap a student on the knuckles with their pointer). “Don’t type ‘2’ for ‘to,’ or ‘U’ for ‘you,’ or ‘l8r’ or ‘LOLOLOL!!!!!!!!!!!’ or any of that nonsense,” goes another injunction. “Throw in a carriage return now and then to break up the text, and please use proper capitalization.” And best of all: “Don’t start your posts with ‘um’ or ‘uh’ or words like that because nine times out of ten, those words precede a snotty correction directed at another poster. It’s rude and dismissive and it drives the staff nuts, so please, don’t do it. The same goes for ‘sorry, but…’ and ‘excuse me, but…’ and, really, any other snitty post-starter.”
Does anyone else see what’s happening here? They’re trying to teach Americans how to act like Canadians. How to be congenitally nice, and use the Queen’s English properly, and repress one’s emotions for the sake of peace, order, and good government. And I say it’s aboot time. If Americans were nicer, they might not have that little problem in Iraq. Ms. Ariano, whom I once worked with for a nano-second at Saturday Night magazine, and whom I remember as being just as nice as that photo of her up there suggests, has developed a particularly fearsome reputation on the Web for enforcing these rules, under her web moniker “Wing Chun.” In fact, entire websites have sprung up (here and here) catering to disaffected former TWoP-ers, and especially their animus for the one known as Wing.
I e-mailed Tara to ask, rather rudely, how it felt to have become, as Wing Chun, “the most hated woman on the internet. (Okay, in the top three.)” She replied: “I hope I’m not the most hated woman on the internet (or even in the top three). I know there are people who feel that way about me; it’s not something I focus on.” You see? Nice. So if televisionwithoutpity.com wants to use its popularity — a reputed one million-plus visitors per month — to whip the Americans into shape, maybe we can forgive it for turning the vast wasteland of television into a subdivision for the life-impaired. Its users may be drones. But at least they’ll be polite ones.