You’ll never guess what happened next

Niall Anderson pleads for people to lighten up about spoilers

Kirk responds badly to being spoiled for Friday Night Lights

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.

“I’m gonna spoil them for Stuxnet *so bad*.”

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.

“The fuck did I do?” The Wire’s Dominic West struggles to accept that it’s his fault

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.

“I … am the one who SPOILS.”

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?

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11 thoughts on “You’ll never guess what happened next

  1. Your talk of exported community values really gets to the core of my problem with spoiler culture. I tend not to spoil for the reasons you suggest but there have been occasions when I’ve written about a film and been chastised for ‘spoiling’ in the eyes of a particular community.

    For example, about a year ago, I wrote a piece on a British film starring an actor with a very fannish following. I put my review online, the review got picked up by a forum and I got shit for ‘spoiling’ the film.

    A) I don’t think that I had actually spoiled the film’s plot.

    B) The film is a mood piece rather than a plot-piece so I’m not sure that you would be spoiled even if you did read my review.

    C) If people are so worried about spoilers, what are they doing going out and reading reviews from websites whose attitudes to spoilers they’re not used to?

    What really bothers me is the imperialism of spoiler culture… it’s not just that they want their own corners of the internet or that they’ve managed to influence most of the mainstream movie sites… it’s that they want every review venue to respect their attitudes to spoilers. I know it’s silly but I can’t help but feel that this is a bit oppressive.

  2. Generally, I agree, but then when someone on the talkboard I go on casually said what happens to Chigurh in No Country for Old Men (he gets a haircut that really changes how he feels about himself) it kind of killed the film for me. I sat there sulking, thinking, oh man this would have been really tense.

    I suppose a really top class spoilerphobe would oan that I have spoiled the film now because now they know SOMETHING happens to him and they’ll be thinking about that the whole time. The maniacs.

  3. I felt really bad the other week, when a celeb spoiled the end of the walking dead series 2, and I sent him a miserable tweet saying ‘gah you didn’t have to do that’ and he sent me back a lovely tweet saying sorry. and really the moral of this tale is that a celeb tweeted me back.

  4. I disagree with the majority of this article – the following especially:

    “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.”

    Are feelings not spoilery? Aren’t spoilers ruining that exact sensation of experiencing an emotion? A narrative is constructed so that, amongst many other things, you feel something at a particular point along the journey. Not only is the point itself important, so is the journey there. You seem to contradict yourself later when you say that “…in dramatic terms, what happens is never as interesting as how and why it happens.” A spoiler often doesn’t just spoil the ‘what’ but also often distracts from the ‘how’ and ‘why’.

    “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.”

    This is almost the opposite of the truth. Children don’t fully understand the concept of plot (or story). For them, the story is a collection of emotions and events – not a tangible set of facts that they consciously recognise. Ask a child what they liked about a film and they will point you to a disjointed set of events. We, as adults, see a set of events that make sense when you link them together. But we also associate them with a collection of emotions similar to children. People often avoid spoilers so that they can watch a film in the same way a child does – free of constraints and preconceptions.

    1. I think you’re coming at this from a viewpoint where works of art (for want of a more inclusive term) are always aiming for a direct, singular and unambiguous response.

      From that point of view, sure, me telling you that I really dug Finn and Rachel’s song in the last episode of Glee could be taken as spoilery – but only if we presume that I’m feeling something that the creators explicitly *meant* me to feel, and that my feelings will be reflected (with greater or lesser intensity) throughout Glee’s entire viewing audience. But I don’t think we can presume any of that, and I definitely think slapping an omerta on this kind of observation on fansites produces limited and – by definition – conservative readings of culture. The upshot is, very broadly, that there is a single proper way to read a show, and that your appreciation of it can only be expressed in a fairly narrow vocabulary. This is where the univocalism I was talking about comes in.

      I think we disagree less about children than you suppose. When a kid tells you the plot of a film, they’re reconstructing it from memory so it makes sense to them. And yeah, sure, they’ll get it scrambled up – but they’re creating meaning as they do so. Every adult viewer does this too when they watch a film, or at least they should. A word I didn’t use in the piece – but perhaps should have – is “passivity”. If you presume that a viewer’s role is primarily to correctly interpret the creator’s designs, then what you’ll produce are passive readings. And fair enough, if that floats your boat, go and do it – there are worse crimes. My objection is that spoiler culture institutionalises and reinforces that passivity all along the line. Enjoy what you enjoy, but don’t ask me to enjoy it the same way.

      1. I understand that spoiler culture reinforces passivity, but only to those already invested in it – those that subscribe to seeing a definite, perhaps discrete, and singular meaning from art. But this doesn’t negate others from deriving an ‘active’ reading. If you’re in that ‘active’ camp then it shouldn’t affect you either way. Those who are in the other, far more fragile one, aren’t forcing you to enjoy it in the same way or change any of your other behaviour – they’re simply asking you not to spoil their enjoyment.

  5. But if spoiler culture actively promotes passivity, it *does* have an effect on the rest of us.

    As the example of The Wire demonstrates, we’re not really being introduced to shows anymore: we’re being given a roadmap to superfandom. We’re being told how to like stuff before we’ve even watched a minute of it. And if enough people follow that roadmap it has the effect of ‘framing’ the debate – anything you or I say that comes from outside the frame still has to pass through it. And this is very limiting on all of us. Spoiler culture is just the most obvious and aggressive form that this limiting effect takes.

  6. Is the roadmap to the wire, coming as it did from critics and the national press, the same sort of spoiler as the online objection to spoiler culture? Are we not discussing several different things here?

    1) Spoiler, literal – eg. telling someone the villain of the piece in What Lies Beneath before they have seen it knowing that whilst its a well made and enjoyable film just the same that is a big part of its first viewing experience.

    2) Spoiler, moan – eg. can’t believe you said there was a cameo by Bill Murray in it, now the film is totally ruined for me!

    3) Spoiler, frame the experience – eg. if you watch this and don’t appreciate that it is the greatest TV series ever made then you are a complete dunderhead. Or conversely, anyone who watches this and doesn’t appreciate that it is a cultural wasteland and eats more brain cells than alcohol really is a dunderhead.

    With regards to how people process art and their viewing experience, everyone is different and people express themselves in differeent ways just as they enjoy/experience elements of that art in different ways. For instance cinematography can make or break the viewing experience for some and not others. So too a lack of narrative cohesion can be more frustrating for some than others.

    With regards to the “emotional” experience of a film. It is a more substantial element of some films than in others. So passivity, as you put it, is a key ingredient. The surprise factor for instance can be vital in a horror movie. Chemistry between characters is pretty vital in a rom com. I agree that the better the film, the less vital this is (perhaps not so much with the rom com) but it plays a part in the viewing experience does it not?

    I have a feeling that the two of you are agreeing with you more than not – although it appears otherwise.

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