One of the first shows on the expanded site’s roster was a new NBC series that seemed destined to be a ridiculous mess. Bunting recalls thinking: “A show about the White House with Rob Lowe in it? Like, that’ll be killed in three episodes.” The West Wing ran for seven seasons and won 26 Emmy Awards, and its popularity on the site showed that there was demand for (and a way to write) recaps of quality shows. Then Survivor debuted in 2000, and networks began rolling out reality shows. The site had plenty to work with.

By the time Mighty Big TV changed its name to TWoP, its success was well-documented (Time rated it as one of the 50 Best Websites in 2002). Other sites wanted a piece of TWoP’s action; soon Salon began recapping shows. Josh Wolk started his “Real World Watch” column on Entertainment Weekly’s EW.com in 2001. One of Wolk’s first orders of business when he moved to Vulture in 2009 was to “multiply” its TV-recap output so the site would become a destination in its own right. “They’re good for traffic,” Wolk says, “provided it’s A: the right show, and B: the right writer.”

And the right writer doesn’t have to wait around to be discovered. Rich Juzwiak, one of the genre’s better rags-to-riches stories, started by recapping Being Bobby Brown on his personal blog. That led to VH1 offering him full-time recapping work. He’s now a staff writer at Gawker, where one of his early pieces was “Tune In, Recap, Drop Out: Why I’ll Never Recap a TV Show Again” (filed under Gawker’s “Television Without Pretty” category). Juzwiak is quick to credit recaps as being “integral to [his] career,” but he’s not sure if they’re worth much beyond that. “Like, who cares about the seventh episode of the eighth cycle of America’s Next Top Model?” he asks. “Well, I did, so much that I spent, like, 10 hours writing about it. But now, who cares?”

Even The New Yorker feels the recap’s influence. Its site does not (yet) offer recaps, but its television critic is Emily Nussbaum, previously of New York. She recapped Lost for Vulture, a process she says she found “brutal.” In one of her earliest Slate pieces, 2002’s “Confessions of a Spoiler Whore,” Nussbaum detailed her obsession with the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer and drew parallels between “plugged-in” TV fans’ discussions on the Internet and literary criticism. Nussbaum read TWoP’s Buffy recaps and posted on the site’s forums. A few years later, she ran afoul of TWoP’s strict comment-posting rules and was banned after defending the show Firefly from its recapper’s criticism (Nussbaum: “Je ne regette rien!”). She credits TWoP and immersive TV sites like it with starting her career as a cultural critic, and for helping her realize television’s place in the culture today.

But Nussbaum has mixed feelings about the value of recaps these days, with good reason. In the last five years, the Internet has become saturated with them. Whoever posts a recap first has a competitive edge. Television producer and writer Garrett Lerner discovered TWoP about 10 years ago and says he felt like he was reading the work of “a new brand of critic” who was “younger, hipper, edgier, meaner, and snarkier”—but just as legitimate as the old guard. (Lerner knows what it feels like to get the recap treatment, including from me—he was a co-executive producer on House.) A decade later, he finds that other sites’ recaps seem “slapdash”—just a few paragraphs and a request for comments. “It’s kind of turned me off to it,” he says. Nussbaum agrees: “I don’t think the entire environment should consist of people’s first drafts.” More and more, though, it does.

Sara Morrison is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @saramorrison.