Requiem for Television Without Pity: The Death of an Online Community

When I was a professor, I was asked about the potential for online communities. Never having been in one myself, I was skeptical about their overall value as a way to connect with people. “It’s impersonal,” I explained to my protesting students. “You need people with whom you can go have coffee and talk.” While I was right about the need for in-person relationships, I was wrong about virtual ones. There can be tremendous meaning in vibrant online communities and Television Without Pity (TWOP) – a website dedicated to snark (a combination of snide and remark) about television – taught me this.

I discovered TWOP when I left teaching. I quit what I thought was going to be my dream profession to start my own practice (something I was uncertain I wanted to do) but my life at the time demanded the switch. So, I was grieving the loss of something important to me, conflicted about my future and, as I waited for my practice to pick up, bored. Somehow I stumbled across TWOP and it literally changed the way I viewed television. It also gave me something I was missing at the time: community.

Before I came across TWOP, I watched television as an isolated entity. I had my own thoughts about the entertainment factor, the meaning behind each show and the characters involved but they weren’t something I shared. The enjoyment of the show was temporary and, in some ways, kind of lonely. I had no idea television could serve as a way to bring people together but TWOP had other ideas.

TWOP was founded in the late 1990s and was one of the first sites devoted to television recaps. Various recappers would combine plot synopses with humorous analyses and then offer a forum for other people to comment upon and talk about the show. People came in droves. Traffic and new registrations increased every year. Suddenly fans had a voice, one that actually could be heard by the people involved in creating the shows. It also gave people a place to talk with other fans, a way to communally analyze and enjoy popular entertainment intelligently, just like we do with great literature.

TWOP did this in a way that was unique on the internet at the time. Topics (threads) were created and maintained so that anyone could track, join or revisit discussions at any time. I have watched shows that ended years ago but still found people willing to dialogue about them with me. It was this dialogue – the actual exchange of ideas – that was so meaningful because nothing can feel lonelier than putting your thoughts online (e.g., through Twitter or Reddit) and then watching them be swept away amongst the din of a thousand disembodied voices before someone else can “hear” them. In the TWOP forums, people might respond to your thoughts minutes, hours, weeks, months or even years after you offered them.

One reason why so many people visited TWOP was because they insisted on certain rules. Unlike many other sites, posts had to demonstrate proper grammar and writing skills because such things are essential to good written communication. They also made sure that etiquette was obeyed. Trolls were quickly banned, fighters were dealt with and people were warned about bad behavior. Everyone’s opinion was to be respected and if you disagreed, you had to do so without being offensive or getting personal. This kept things friendly and made the forums a much more welcoming place than it would have been otherwise. The internet would be a much better place if every site insisted upon these rules but they don’t.

TWOP also encouraged intelligent discourse. People pointed out things like symbolism and ongoing themes. They shared their views on the acting and whether plots worked or not. Others commented upon the musical, lighting and directing choices – things I had never before considered but now can appreciate how much they add to the experience. Plus, both the recappers and posters were funny! I cannot tell you how many times I have laughed out loud at the snarky commentary provided on the site.

Like I mentioned, I stumbled upon TWOP during a hard time in my life and it really did make me feel better. It made me laugh, opened up new avenues of thought and even created new friendships. TWOP made me feel like there were other people out there who were like me. In the midst of my sadness at the time, I felt the strength of a community I could not find in real life.

I was not alone in feeling the significance of TWOP. Since the report of its’ demise, people have been posting about how much the site has meant to them throughout the years. Posters talked about how TWOP helped them grieve various losses, got them past hard times, or aided them in developing new careers and relationships. In short, it was a great meeting place and soon it will be gone.

The reason for TWOP going offline is not well understood. The parent company abruptly informed their employees and participants in March that they would be ceasing operations at the end of May without giving any official explanation but a few news sites made it apparent that the main reason was money. Isn’t it always? I know that TWOP earned money; it just wasn’t as profitable as they wanted it to be.

The ending of TWOP makes me sad but it also makes me angry because it appears as though money once again trumped human experience and feelings. Sure, people need to make a buck but at what cost? When does increasing a bank balance pale in comparison to the joy of human connection, laughter and the benefit of our planet in general? At what point do we insist that intangibles like community, good will and fun are more important than monetarily enriching the lives of a few? Yes, TWOP was just a website about television but perhaps its demise can give some incentive for addressing these larger issues.

As for me, I feel like I’m mourning the loss of a good friend, someone who assisted me through hard times, made me laugh and even made me feel good about myself. I hope that I will make new friends who will do the same things but it is difficult to let go of a relationship that changed your life. It is challenging to rebuild a community that was so long in the making. And, if TWOP wasn’t profitable enough, will we ever see its like again? So, goodbye Television Without Pity. It was great to have you and you will be missed.

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