When you know what's coming next in your favorite TV or movie series, does it ruin your enjoyment? Do the plot twists fall flat? We don't think so. In fact, spoilers fuel our love for thrilling science fiction stories.
Oh, and there are spoilers in this post, but only fairly old ones. Like, who's in the coffin. And who's the final Cylon.
There are many reasons to love spoilers, all of them totally valid, in my book. (Inflicting spoilers on people who don't want to be spoiled? That's a different matter, and it's something we agonize over a lot at io9. We do inadvertently put spoilers where spoilerphobes can see them, on occasion, but it's always by accident or misjudgment, and we agonize over it a lot more than you might think. Generally, though, we try to include spoiler warnings before going over to the spoiler side.)
But at the same time, there's a pervasive misconception about spoiler-lovers floating around out there that I'd like to clear up: that we're power mad. That the only pleasure in reading spoilers, or sharing spoilers, is to feel powerful. To know something that other people don't know. The spoiler-phile, in the view of some media people, feels powerful because she or he is robbing stories of their power: the power of suspense, their ability to surprise.
J.J. Abrams writes in a recent issue of Wired Magazine:
It's telling that the very term itself-spoiler-has become synonymous with "cool info you can get before the other guy." What no one remembers is that it literally means "to damage irreparably; to ruin." Spoilers make no bones about destroying the intended experience-and somehow that has become, for many, the preferred choice.
But to be honest, knowing spoilers doesn't make me feel powerful or one-up on any one else. And i don't feel like they ruin the experience of consuming stories afterwards. It just makes me more excited about the narratives I already love. And, often, more curious about the narratives I don't know anything about — or have already lost interest in. The more I know, the more fascinated I become. Because I'm a geek, duh.
So here are some reasons why we love spoilers.
The lure of the forbidden:
Okay, sure. We just got done saying that we don't love spoilers because of some crazy power trip. But at the same time, the fact that spoilers are regarded as "naughty" or even sleazy certainly has its appeal. It would be hypocritical to pretend otherwise. Here at io9, we don't publish gossip: Edward James Olmos could do nude gymnastics in public every single day, and we'd never mention it on our blog. But we decided early on that spoilers are to us what gossip is to Perez Hilton. It's our naughty indulgence, and the stigma attached to it only makes it more exciting.
The more you tell us it's wrong, and we'll go to Hell or grow hair in places our Brazilian waxer won't go near, the more we crave it. It's just human nature.
The grand conversation:
Paradoxically, the Internet has fueled my love of old media. I would have given up reading comic books years ago, if it weren't for the fact that writers like Gail Simone and Kurt Busiek are so accessible online. Commenting on their work, answering fans' questions, responding to your harshest criticisms. I'm much more excited to pick up issue #5001 of Super-Blasting Mega-Dorks when I know that my $2.99 is, in part, buying me a chance to participate in a huge ongoing conversation online.
And it's not just creator participation — it's reviews, previews, and yes... spoilers. Part of the thrill of taking part in fan communities is piecing together the clues about what's coming next. Movie studios, TV companies and comics companies know this, and they try to use it to their advantage, with viral marketing, clever hints and promos that tease you with upcoming plots. When fans get together and geek out about upcoming TV shows and movies, a big part of that is always going to be speculating/guessing/clue-hunting about what the next thing is.
Like I said, the big media companies know that this is going on, and they would like to control it. In fact, they know that eventually, this conversation will become the entertainment you consume. Television will be moving online slowly but surely, and "webisodes," awful as they usually are, are just the thin end of that wedge. Entertainment is going to become more and more interactive, and harder and harder for big media to control.
But that's a meta-topic for another day. Suffice to say, for now, that obsessing over spoilers, rumors, leaks and sometimes outright lies is a huge part of the way we're all building community around the shows and movies we love. Just like fanfic, it's not authorized, or under the big conglomerates' control, but it fuels our shared love. And often the speculation about what's coming is more entertaining than the reality turns out to be. (See: Almost every movie this summer.)
The unconventional seduction:
I gave up on Star Trek after Deep Space Nine went away. I tried to watch Voyager, but it made me feel like my brain was being squished into a jello mold very, very slowly. And Enterprise just left me totally apathetic.
But then a funny thing happened: long after I stopped watching Trek, I kept reading spoilers for it. I also read reviews of episodes I'd missed, on Cynic's Corner or Jammer's Reviews or Television Without Pity. But reading spoilers for upcoming Trek episodes was more fun, partly because they sounded more crazy and over-the-top when you heard about them in advance. ("Kes gets a barbarian warrior's personality stuck in her brain? Tucker gets pregnant?")
The weird thing is, reading spoilers for Trek — and for other shows I barely watched, like Smallville — made me feel like I was still following them, to some extent. And the spoilers and rumors actually helped recharge my interest in those shows. I actually came back to Voyager in its last season, and also started watching Enterprise again after a couple years away, because I was reading spoilers and they seemed excitingly weird and/or potentially awesome.
Ditto for several comic books, and more than a few movies. Hollywood's official marketing machine gives away plenty of details about the storylines of upcoming stuff, but at the same time, the blandness of a lot of trailers and blurbs tends to turn me off. But sometimes, coming across a really outrageous set photo or gonzo rumor can spark my curiosity in the way a hundred peanut-butter-smooth promos never can.
The dreadful admonition:
And then there's the other side of it: Sometimes we need to be warned. "Trip gets pregnant" actually isn't necessarily a good thing. Neither is "Satan annuls Spider-Man's marriage." Or "we'll be meeting Hiro Nakamura as a young boy." There's almost no way "Kid Hiro" could have turned out to be a good thing.
Sometimes, a television show or movie or comic has so much pain in store for us, we need a giant warning buoy flashing crazily and sounding a banshee siren, letting us know in advance. Of course, you can't really judge a piece of media based on advance plot info — especially stuff you read on the Internet. But at the same time, when a particular franchise has an established track record, you have to be vigiilant for the warning signs. Suppose Voyager was still on the air, and you started seeing reports that an upcoming episode would feature Janeway and Michelangelo going white-water rafting on the Holodeck. You would panic! And you'd be right to do so.
And then there's the case of Terminator Salvation, which originally ended with John Connor's face being transplanted onto Marcus Wright's cyborg body — after which a red-eyed Wright killed Kate Connor, Kyle Reese, and the rest of the supporting cast. The filmmakers were serious enough about this ending that they apparently filmed it. But after Ain't It Cool News leaked the ending, McG and company scrambled to replace it with the slightly-less-ridiculous heart transplant thing. So there's a case where spoilers not only warned us of a horrendous storyline, but actually averted it.
Getting back to what Abrams wrote in Wired, I don't actually think knowing who's in the coffin on Lost actually ruins your enjoyment of the storyline. The fun of a show like Lost, for most viewers, is seeing the characters grow and their relationships shifting. And finding out how Locke got into that coffin. (Which, for me at least, was a bit of a let-down.) A good plot twist is one that, even if you know it's coming, you still enjoy the ride getting there.
As I said before, I think entertainment is going to become much more interactive and much more audience-driven in the next decade or two, and the battle over spoilers is just one small piece of that. Traditionally, being a storyteller has meant having control over the narrative and deciding what the audience gets to know, and when. Maybe eventually, we'll have a new balance of power, one in which there's more of a give and take. We don't yet know what this'll look like, but here's hoping it leads to richer stories, in which strong characters — not closely guarded plot twists — are the real source of creators' power.