by Andrew Bates
There are certain unspoken rules amongst aficionados of media. One must always have a personal list of at least ten favorite works to call “the best” when called upon by others. When topics such as Twilight and 50 Shades of Grey come up, they must immediately refute them as terrible and trite. Using your cell phone in a dark movie theater is sacrilege. The arguably most important rule, and the one that is most common amongst media absorption, is that one must not reveal important dramatic turn of events.
In other words, tag your spoilers.
The term can be traced back to the early days of newsgroups and Usenet, where users would appropriately put enough blank lines to shove the spoiler into a new page. During this time period, a majority of media absorption was communal as just about everyone experienced it at the same time. The VCR was expensive and was not financially viable for most. With the incorporation of social media and the prevalence of DVR technology, those blank lines are shrinking.
The desired need of spoiler alerts is, at the very least, commendable. The very existence of the idea of spoilers shows how much emotional respect there is for the power of the narrative. A lot of this respect comes down to our desire to be emotionally moved and engrossed by the plot. In a 2005 article by the late Roger Ebert, he noted that “moviegoers do NOT want to be informed of key plot surprises.” Content creators often put in their whole heart and soul into a work, and experiencing the reactions (see: reactions to The Red Wedding) is one of the most fulfilling rewards of being an artist. At the same time, a large majority of modern content creation is geared towards getting eyes in front of advertisements. This is where we come to a conundrum.
The very goal of social media is to get audiences constantly interacting with the brand. For example, television channels need their viewers to remain on their channel to increase exposure to advertisements, or gain a higher cost per thousand (CPM). A higher CPM allows the stations to charge a higher rate for advertisement space. To do this, television marketing often incorporates hashtags into the show to encourage live tweeting and will have cast members or show creators participate in social media discussions. Networks barrage media platforms with GIF reactions and a play-by-play take on the audience's emotional viewpoint In addition, content aggregators such as Reddit and 4chan often feature discussions literally moments after a work’s release. Along with the advent of social media, technology now allows us to partake in media at different times. Only recently did Nielsen, a viewer measurement service, began documenting DVR use days after an episode’s debut. With the phasing out of communal viewing, it’s getting to the point where we literally avoid Twitter, Facebook, and even other viewers to avoid having the plot spoiled.
This utmost respect for the narrative and the plot is ultimately destroying the purpose of partaking and experiencing media. We, myself included at times, are no longer interested in the aesthetic qualities and thematic elements of a work. Very rarely do I see discussions, whether online or in person, that go beyond the topic of what will happen on the next installment or which character will be killed off the proverbial island next. In other words, we care more about the plot than we do the story. This overarching focus on plot rather than the story and its themes ultimately takes away the emotional power of media. Whether it’s a film, a novel, or even a book, media and culture should challenge the way we look at the world. Humanity has natural desire to be voyeuristic and media thrives on that, allowing us to observe the world through a new light.
The issue is that we come so engrossed in the plot and avoiding spoiling that we fail to recognize why we are moved. I find that outside of academic circles, there’s no true discussion on the emotional power media has. There’s such a fear of ruining the experience for someone else that we don’t acknowledge our own. Most marketing campaigns discuss the awe and amazement that comes from work, with very few highlighting the emotional effect that comes from it. I find myself silently reflecting on my experiences with a selected work and ultimately coming up even lonelier because there’s more interest in the “what comes next” rather than “why was this moving.” We censor ourselves and by failing to be true and honest with our relationship to the work, we fail to connect to others. We don’t discuss how the view presented differs from our own. There’s no talk of the emotional effect of seeing a different world. We’re just simply absorbing the media for the sake of absorbing it.
I find myself being reminded of French cultural critic Roland Barthes’ essay Leaving the Movie Theatre. As Barthes discusses his enjoyment of leaving the theatre, he begins to note how he begins to get engrossed in the film, but also in the people around him and how they react. Seeing how they react makes him feel a part of something – it gives a welcoming communal feel. Whether it was the Red Wedding from Game of Thrones or the death of Agent Coulson in the 2011 comic book actioner The Avengers, experiencing something and sharing it with others has tremendous emotional power. Even if we’re aware of what happens, we can still feel that emotional impact. Our focus on spoilers does just the opposite, it takes away the communal feel and makes us numb to the effects of others. We are too worried about spoiling that we’d rather just be by ourselves. We’d rather feel that shock alone than feel it with others. It’s a good thing to have something spoiled every now and then. A spoiler, in a way, is the band-aid rip that we need. It removes us from our own world and opens our eyes to the larger world, both the world of the creator and the world around us.