August 13, 2012 You’ll never guess what happened next
Niall Anderson pleads for people to lighten up about spoilers
The first recorded use of the term SPOILER ALERT is from 8 June 1982. It occurred in a Usenet film group (net.movies) and related to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, which had been released the previous Friday. A group member called Hamilton from the University of Chicago employs the term as a warning to other users before speculating [SPOILER ALERT!] on whether Spock is genuinely dead or if he could be brought back for the sequel.
It feels strange to see a meme so fully formed a good twenty years before it hits the mainstream. But it’s all basically here, including the tendency of spoiler etiquette to skew towards cultish material. Look further in the Usenet archives and you’ll see the term being adopted as a simple matter of course and courtesy. A spoiler hierarchy also develops. Minor plot points are preceded by a throat-clearing SPOILER ALERT, while complex or major plot points tend to be translated into a substitution cypher like ROT13 (which replaces a letter with the one thirteen places after it in the alphabet). This way, you couldn’t be spoiled inadvertently.
It’s all nice and civilised, in other words, and it seems to have developed within Usenet without friction: that is to say from a commonsense recognition that not everybody who’s reading will have seen the film that you’ve seen, and would just like to know whether you thought it was good or not. The Usenet archive isn’t exhaustive or particularly easy to navigate, but of the 300 uses of the word “spoiler” I was able to find from the 1980s, none was preceded by a complaint, a tantrum, or a threat of excommunication from the community for apparently saying something too revealing. The anger and the aggression surrounding spoiler etiquette in the Net age simply aren’t there. I don’t often wish I was living in the past, but for this one topic I do.
Open a TV or film discussion thread on just about any online forum these days and the following things will happen. Someone will cry firsties, someone will call foul on the firstie, someone will propose an alternative firstie that makes an oblique jokey reference to something that happened in the thing under review. At which point someone else will appear threatening to kill you and your children if you even think of spoiling the plot. A dozen similar messages will appear at intervals until your scrollwheel goes elastic from the effort and your eyebrows knot themselves into a permanent V at the sheer bad-tempered entitledness of these people. The unintended consequence being that I now read more complaints about spoilers than I do actual spoilers.
And it’s not just plot spoilers that get people angry. It’s casting spoilers. It’s location spoilers. It’s mood spoilers. Somewhere on the internet, people are genuinely being asked not to reveal whether a particular episode gave them feelings. Really. Because feelings are spoilery. This is madness.
It’s also, you might think, a bit of an outlier. Mood spoilers are largely the preserve of tweenagers, goths and superannuated Livejournalists, so not a regular feature of most people’s internet life. All I can do is point to the Usenet example again: outlying culture – particularly when it has a technological basis – has a remorseless tendency to become the mainstream.
It might also be objected that even the most extreme examples of spoiler etiquette are just evidence of people abiding by community standards. Signalling spoilers is actually a pretty modest way of ensuring that no one voice dominates a discussion. But this is to miss that fan forums tend towards the univocal. Oh, there are spats about whether particular offshoots count as canon, or when exactly a particular show lost its edge, but even this sort of argument is designed to produce a singular reading of the work in question. (It’s no wonder that prolonged spats tend to result in schism – the breaking-off of one part of a community to form its own – rather than grumpy tolerance.) On any fan site, a single voice does eventually dominate the discussion: it’s just not a voice that belongs to anyone in particular.
Does any of this matter? Surely we can let the hardcore fans have their forums and their arcane behavioural strictures while the rest of us carry on with our lives? Would that we could. But in the last few years fandom has gone militant: it has become the defining style of even a lot of supposedly highbrow criticism.
You’ll remember when it happened: in the two-year gap between The Wire seasons 3 and 4. In that interval, while the show itself was struggling to get renewed, The Wire went from being a little seen but well-regarded cop procedural to being The Greatest TV Show Ever Made. Now, it did this through honest word-of-mouth and strong DVD sales, but it was boosted by one of the most extraordinary (and protracted) newspaper campaigns outside of an actual war effort.
For well over a year, you couldn’t open a copy of an upmarket newspaper without being twatted in the head by some bright spark’s opinion of the show’s “realism” or “humanity”. And more striking even than the volume of coverage The Wire provoked was its tone: this was going to be your new favourite thing, and just in case you were wavering, here’s a bunch of top-end talking heads to tell you why. The entire critical reception of The Wire was built on a coercive notion of fandom imported direct from darkest geekland.
This was bad (actually, it was intolerable), but what’s worse is that there’s barely a glossy TV serial since that hasn’t got the treatment: the same wraparound frotting welcome from the mainstream media. Success is no longer counted in sheer number of units sold, or the number of viewers. Success now looks like the ability to turn your audience into a clique. And when your audience is a clique, it means a lot of people behaving like dicks about spoilers.
Just to be clear here: I don’t spoil. It’s presumptuous and plain bad manners. But at the same time I don’t particularly mind being spoiled. This is because in dramatic terms, what happens is never as interesting as how and why it happens. Write down the plot of your favourite film/TV show/play/game and it will either be revealed as basically silly or pretty uninspiring. Even something as apparently plot-focused as The Mouse Trap can’t really be spoiled by revealing the identity of the murderer: what you take away from that play is its slyly prescient message of social optimism in the post-war era. The murder mystery aspect is – in several senses – merely a parlour game.
The real problem with a spoilercentric culture like ours is that it stops even this very mild kind of critical engagement stone dead. The very narrow pleasure of suspense is held to be paramount, and acts to crowd out all other kinds of response. It encourages us to think of all the narrative arts as essentially locked-room mysteries (‘How’s Walt going to get out of this one?’) while at the same time discouraging us from looking at what it is that actually makes particular scenarios plausible and gripping. It values sensation over depth and shock value over resonance. It makes cultural criticism into a jock-filled locker room where only the things that are most easily said will be heard, and only the most obvious listened to.
When you ask a child what they liked about a film, they will tell you the plot. This is how kids process their enjoyment – by accumulating facts and putting them in an order they find pleasing. And this is where spoiler culture puts the rest of us: in a realm where the most basic information is the most prized. Isn’t it time we all grew up?