Spoilers, and Why They Affect Us The Way They Do


Spoilers. They’re everywhere. It feels like you can’t avoid them, and society won’t really let you. Not unless you want to remove yourself from society. Is that right, though? I mean, why do we care so much about a simple TV show’s plot, and how did we get to the point where they have become such a polarizing issue? Some people will defend their want to post spoilers till the end, saying stuff like “Well, it’s been long enough. I shouldn’t have to wait to post spoilers!” and “Well, if you don’t like it, maybe you shouldn’t read it.” I think it’s larger that that, though, an issue that delves into how society has evolved and adapted with changes in media and social media, and how we’re still clinging onto the past.

How It Use To Be

The want to schedule my time around the airing of a TV show always felt alien. I grew up without TV being a central focus in our household. I did have a few favorites, though, like Friends or The Simpsons. When it was on, though, if you missed an episode, you were out of luck. Reading about it and discussing it with friends was pretty much the only way to catch up. It was that or wait months for re-runs. If someone told you about what went on that you missed, they were being helpful and doing you a service.

Today is a whole different story, though. The internet and video streaming services like Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, etc. make it so that it’s not possible to miss anything unless you want to. If you miss a show, if you miss an episode, it’s remarkably easy to catch up on your own time. Even if that time is a couple months later with the DVD releases, or catching up on an entire show after it has long been off the air (I’m looking at you Twin Peaks… I will watch you yet).

That want to discuss it, though, that want to share the experience is still there. It always will be. It’s human nature to want to belong to social groups and prove we are members of said group by adhering to the social mores, in this case sharing plot points of TV shows and movies. We think it helps the person we are telling, and it makes us look good. If we hold TV and these programs as a part of our cultural identity, then we will discuss it with anyone who we thought was interested.

It’s Not How It Use To Be

Social media is the equivalence of standing on a soapbox, shouting to yourself, and hoping other people join in.

Times have changed. Communication has changed. Social media has exploded, and so instead of telling one person, we can tell everyone simultaneously. Multiple birds, one stone. It’s efficient, which is why people have flocked to it. You can send a message out to hundreds or thousands of people with a single click. But as the hackneyed saying goes, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

It’s too easy to make it known to all that we are huge fans of the latest TV shows, that we follow the zeitgeist, that we should be admired because after watching an episode we now know information that is socially valuable. However, it is only valuable for a limited time. So therefore, in order to prove our social worth, we must share that information to all as soon as possible! This drive to prove we belong is very strong. Our social circles are a significant part of our identities, after all.

But that information isn’t really that valuable anymore. As I explained above, it use to be before digital media. How we digest entertainment has changed from being communal to being personal. If I miss an episode, due to life, I can catch up at any time. I didn’t really miss anything. Those plot twists the latest show held is only truly valuable, then, to the person holding it. Those who want to be vested in a show or movie simply will be. Those who don’t, they don’t really care that you happen to love, say, Big Bang Theory, and want to tell of the latest “geeky” thing Sheldon did. But that doesn’t mean they won’t care in the future. Information these days is sought out personally. If I wanted to know what happened on the last episode of Walking Dead, I can find out very easily on my own. Review sites exist for a reason.

Social Belonging

That drive to prove social belonging, though, still very much exists. And mixed with social media just makes it too tempting to restrain oneself. People who are more susceptible to prove their value, then, won’t think twice and will shout spoilers from the rooftops, to inform the world. Only now it’s to an audience that doesn’t really want to hear it, and might feel angered that these spoilers are being forced upon them.

It’s turned 100% around from being a valuable service to being a selfish one. Who really enjoys these spoilers? The person saying them obviously doesn’t mind them, but their target audience is for those that most likely already know it. Other members of the TV show’s social group, they’re trying to preach to the choir. They’re saying it to prove that they are followers, too.  However, they’re simultaneously telling those who don’t care or really don’t want to hear it. To those outside their social group, well, who cares about them?


Those Who Don’t Want To Be Spoiled

And so what of the feelings of others? So what if someone who may want to watch this show on their own time and schedule, as modern technology now allows, so what if I tell them everything that happens in the show ahead of time? These people are not part of the social group. Who cares what they think? They shouldn’t care in the first place.

These people are the people we call friends any other day of the week. These are the people we allow into our private lives, and then, what, we disrespect them? That is how it feels. Posting spoilers shows someone’s colors, that they care so much about their social standing they don’t really care who is affected, which then forces the spoiler’s followers to make a choice. Do we keep listening to this person, whom we call friend, despite the affront, or do we stop listening to prevent the possible spoiling of something we may want to enjoy? It’s terrible we even have to make the choice at all.

However, We Might Enjoy Being Spoiled

This is a valid point. Why do we care or not if our entertainment is spoiled ahead of time? In the long run, it’s not that important. Aren’t there plenty of people who turn to the last page in a novel first? Heck, one of the big issues I have with MMOs nowadays is just this. In order to be a “good group member”, you must have already read up and watched the videos on every fight and encounter ahead of time. It’s expected.

A study conducted by the University of California, San Diego suggests that we do indeed enjoy a story more when the twists are revealed to us ahead of time. According to their studies, which took 30 people and measured their enjoyment after reading 12 spoiled/unspoiled short stories, it was found that participants across the board enjoyed a story more when the ending was told to them first, whether mystery, “ironic-twist”, or literary stories.

Their conclusion was that the plot of a story is, simply, overrated. That we read stories for a lot more than just what happens. Also, it’s just mentally easier to process.

“that once you know how it turns out, it’s cognitively easier – you’re more comfortable processing the information – and can focus on a deeper understanding of the story.”

So, easier to process, and we get to enjoy other aspects besides the plot. I can see this. It’s like if you go to the latest Marvel movies. Do you really expect the bad guys to win and Iron Man to lose? No, of course not. You already know what is going to happen, the experience is in how Stark wins. It also explains why book-to-movie conversions are so successful. A lot of people have already read the books, they want to see the visual translation on the big screen.

Or… Maybe Not. Anticipation and Suspension of Disbelief Count, Too.

But others have pointed out some major flaws in the study. Namely, that these weren’t stories that anyone was particularly vested in in the first place. They had just been told that they would be reading these short stories that day. If anything, the study just proves that this is the case with only short stories you didn’t know you were reading ahead of time.

Other avenues suggest to going to the root of why we enjoy stories in the first place. As this Atlantic article suggests, it basically comes down to the suspension of disbelief and how much we enjoy suspending it. We want to feel like we are with those characters, like we are a part of that world, and a part of us is viscerally there. So spoilers really kill our buzz, then. They remind us that a story really is just a story.

Also, it kills the anticipation of enjoyment. And don’t tell me that you don’t like anticipation. Don’t tell me that you’ll make months worth of plans for your vacation, and then literally count down the days or hours until it happens. That you’ll make reservations long in advance to a fantastic restaurant an then pour over the menu online. Of course we like anticipation! That’s why the first kiss means something. Sure, the 200th kiss means something, too, but it’s not held on such a high pedestal as the first. If someone comes along and spoils our anticipation, we feel cheated!

A Statute of Limitations on Spoilers

So how long does one have to wait, then, to post spoilers? What is socially acceptable? This post suggests that they can start being discussed almost immediately after. However, the post seems to be aimed specifically at authors writing articles and headlines, not to individual conversations or mass posts. I can see that. It’s really easy to ignore an article spoiling a show if you don’t want to be spoiled. Simply, don’t read it. They are considerate enough to give you that choice, so the time period doesn’t have to be that long.

But what about a movie like Citizen Kane? *SPOILER ALERT* The sled is named Rosebud. I’ve never seen the movie, though, but I know this. That plot twist is a part of our collective consciousness over time and has been rehashed time and again. The Titanic? It sinks. Darth Vader? Luke’s father. I can go on. These aren’t spoilers anymore… or are they?

How much do I want to watch Citizen Kane now? Well, it’s Orson Welles first feature film and is considered by many to be one of the greatest films of all time. I would absolutely still watch it, even knowing the twist. But, I won’t lie, still knowing it possibly kills some of the potential enjoyment, and I can’t say how much enjoyment was lost. Maybe a little, maybe a lot. Either way, knowing some enjoyment was lost makes me less likely to pick it up. I’d pick it up for every other reason than the plot, but I like plot. Plot is one of my favorite things!

Another article a friend of mine wrote posits simply, there is no statute of limitations. None, and I happen to agree with a lot of his points. Who is it that determines, about someone else’s personal entertainment, when it is finally okay to ruin a story for them? Game of Thrones is going to be around for a LONG time, both the books and the TV shows. What, really, is the rush? Why is it so important to watch it the second that it airs, and why am I then considered deserving of spoilers if I don’t? People work. We have lives. Commitments. Other hobbies. If I want to watch it 10 years from now, who are you to make the choice to spoil any of it for me? Whether to spoil or not should be a personal choice and not be forced upon you.

Spoiler Alert Banner

Avoiding All Media

I hear one of the greatest arguments for pro-spoiling is simply that if you don’t want to be spoiled, just avoid social media. Really. That’s the best argument? In this age of social media, the main argument to avoid spoilers is to avoid social media completely. Can we talk about how lame of a sentiment that is?

If you don’t want to hear me, maybe you should stop listening. … Right.

Maybe you should care less about what I have to say. … Really?

By coming on social media, you’re just asking to be spoiled. … Wow.

I was even told something like this a few days ago in a discussion I was having about spoilers. It was a group of friends who always change their profile picture to the latest character who died on Game of Thrones. I called them out on it, and got the reply:

“Mike, you have to have been paying attention to my profile pictures and the show to be spoilered…” 

This harkens back to my main points above. Why do I have to be paying attention to the show? I may in the future decide that I really want to watch it. The media isn’t going anywhere and I’m not actively searching out sites that tell me anything about the latest storylines, just in case I may want to.

Then paying attention to my friends profile pictures? That’s one of the major parts of social media! The images that you use to represent yourself digitally to the world. You post it to your social media, and then expect those who are your friends… to just not pay attention? To just un-see what you’ve already shown them?

As I said, I grew up without cable television and I’ve lived my whole life without it, but I am definitely a creature of the computer age. As such, social media is important to me. I have embraced it fully, having a Facebook account, Twitter, and many other smaller networks and online social groups. So, if I want to avoid being spoiled, I should give up a large part of my own social identity? Sacrifice my own life on the off chance you feel like talking about your favorite shows? Not happening. If social media was such a fringe element to the social spectrum, it might be easy to avoid, but this is a new age and it’s not a small part anymore.

No, I’m sorry. The answer isn’t to avoid social media entirely. It’s sadly to hide or unfollow those individuals who feel the need to spoil. As I said above, it’s terrible that this choice would have to be made at all, as these are our friends, but it’s much easier to avoid one person than avoid social media entirely.

Spoiler Alert!

But what else can someone wanting to post spoilers really do? How about, simply, think before you post! Think about what effect your post may have on others, and if you think it may possibly affect them negatively, either post a warning or maybe not post it at all. I have seen plenty of people posting their “reviews” of just-seen movies, but most are generally very aware of the possible spoilings and make a note of that. It helps them look good as they can still show belonging to the social group, but then it also shows that they care about those around them and know that not everyone wants to see it. Best of both worlds, really.  I have skipped many a post or article due to these warnings, and I’m appreciative that they’re there.

So, What Are We To Do About Spoilers?

I try to be happy person, I really do. In the end, it’s never about the individual spoil itself. It could be a character death, it could be a huge plot twist, the ending of Lost, or the Sopranos, a Harry Potter book, or even your favorite Broadway play.

But I’m just going to come out and say this: If you post spoilers, without giving others the option to avoid them, if you essentially force them upon others, with the only choice being to avoid you entirely… Stop.

It’s inconsiderate, socially unacceptable, and just rude.

The age old saying truly comes into play. Treat others as you would want to be treated yourself. If you don’t want to have your favorite shows, movies, or games ruined, then maybe you shouldn’t ruin them for others.

But hey, we all aren’t perfect. I use to *be* a spoiler, and didn’t realize the damage I was doing until *I* was called out on it. Posting spoilers, unless it’s purposeful and malicious, is a minor offense at best. If these people are truly your friends, it’s very easy to forgive and forget. Live and learn.

As always, thank you for reading.

// Ocho


18 thoughts on “Spoilers, and Why They Affect Us The Way They Do

  1. It’s increasingly hard to avoid spoilers however hard you try, and I try pretty hard.

    I’ve just read Game of Thrones book 1, and just the publicity shots for the TV series that you come across in random places like TV guides or newspaper sites reveal quite significant things about what will happen. I’d give examples but that would in itself be spoilery.

    Frankly I feel like I’m asking for trouble reading and commenting on a post like this that even mentions Game of Thrones, because someone is bound to come in and casually mention stuff in comments that I didn’t want to know.

    • Ha! Well, it won’t be spoiled by me. 😛 I have the first book just sitting on my e-reader, and I keep debating reading it or not. I’ve heard it’s good… but then, right, even passively, I know some of the plot points already. Desirable to some, maybe, but not to me. I’m more likely now to pick up a book that I really don’t know anything about. Ahh well. Maybe I’ll get around to it someday.

  2. I’m of two minds on this one. I can certainly understand the desire to avoid spoilers for stories you’re interested in or that show you TiVo’d or intend to watch on Hulu the next day. But there certainly is a point at which you can no longer expect people to tailor their desires to discuss and rehash around yours to avoid such discussions. Basically, I think you can expect a reasonable amount angst over spoiling something someone is particularly interested in but hasn’t had a chance to watch/read. But if you have decided you are not interested in a given story (regardless of media), you can hardly expect people not to talk about it until you decide you are interested at some indeterminate time in the future.

    A good statute of limitations at the very least would be for works published before your own birth. Combonaut’s examples of Moby Dick and the Odyssey have long since entered into the cultural zeitgeist. After all, what is culture, but the collection of stories of a society? Citizen Kane also falls into that category for most of the people alive on the earth. Adaptations are another sketchy matter. There isn’t a Harry Potter film or episode of Game of Thrones that wasn’t substantially spelled out in the books, at least in broad strokes, though details may differ.

    Unfriend or hide your spoileriffic GoT fans if you want. Given that I know GRRM is a character murdering fiend, I am not surprised nor too worried about characters dying whom I know nothing about.

    • I wanted to say also that a study consisting of only 30 people is hardly scientific, even after factoring out the short-story specific conclusions that might be drawn.

      • Yeah, 30 is a low number, but then psych studies rarely have huge numbers. Normally, they’re tailored for small groups.

    • But that’s the point. I don’t hear people blurting out the endings of older material. This is because it is more advantageous for them to hold their tongues than to spoil it. Remembering plots of older shows doesn’t make you socially valued. So you look better if you don’t spoil it.

      These people know that the show is still popular, know that a lot of people have vested interests, and willingly make the choice to force spoilers on others. And so I think, yes, you CAN expect them not to do that. We are adults, yes? I expect people to act like adults, which includes them thinking of more than just themselves.

      And who’s to say I’m NOT interested? Medieval fantasy with a more adult lean? Of course I am. But because I don’t have HBO? Because in order to get the shows, I would have to risk delving into pirating? GoT is the most pirated show for a reason. So, then, the only ones who *truly* care, I guess, are those that pay up, or those that steal it. The rest of us unwashed masses, who think paying hundreds per month for TV is ridiculous, but are moral enough to not steal, we must be asking for it.

  3. Darmok… one of the best. Serious contender for best ever Trek episode, That’s all that needs to be said about it. 🙂

    re Older shows, I suspect it’s that there are no ongoing conversations about them where people blurt stuff out without thinking more than that there is kudos to be gained by avoiding giving spoilers.

    I think with “current” shows, people have a hard time remembering that everyone hasn’t seen what they’ve seen. GoT seems like it’s everywhere, but the majority of people don’t have HBO, and lots of people haven’t got around to ever reading the books. Easy for those who have to assume that they’re in the overwhelming majority, when in reality, they probably aren’t.

    All I’d say to people that want to share spoilers is: Sure, go ahead, but just be a little bit thoughtful about warning people. Most of us that don’t like spoilers already try pretty hard to avoid them. A tiny heads up is all we need so we don’t walk right into them when they turn up someplace unexpected.

  4. Btw I cannot find any way to reply to comments on this blog, only to add new comments. Obviously it’s possible to reply cos people are doing it, but I have no idea how! Maybe it works in some browsers only or something? I’m on Firefox.

  5. Excellent post. Totally agree, spoilers are a plague upon modern social media. It’s like the pointless chest-puffing that went on in forums, to be “first”. The two sides to being one of the “true fans” that watch it the second it’s released, for me, are 1) I love being the first to know the new plot details, and being smug and knowing (but not actually spoiling anything) to friends/family who are fans but haven’t seen it yet, and 2) the pain of not being able to talk about it until they HAVE seen it, which generally leads to nagging them to watch it because c’mooooonnnnnnIwannadiscussitttttttt.

    It’s definitely a social respect thing – if you respect the people around you, you don’t accidentally spoil if you can help it, and you never deliberately spoil.

    I do think there is a statute of limitations, though, which only relaxes the injunction about accidental spoilers. I’d say different people have different time limits for different stories – I would hate to be spoiled on, say, anything X-Files or Lost because I have yet to watch the series, but I’m not really fussed about Star Trek spoilers from any season, as I’m not really invested in wanting to watch it.

  6. When the few shows I was actively watching were airing on TV(which I do not have cable) I would have to avoid most sites I go on a few days prior and a few after just so I wouldn’t spoil the episode. I usually got to watch it a day or two after it airs but its horrible to have to “avoid” places you frequent just because some person decides to dump out a bunch of things about it. Thankfully(and sadly) the one main show I was keeping up with that was big on folks posting things early (before they aired) about them is now finished for the season until late this year.

    I am just of the mindset that I want to go into a show with no prior knowledge about what its about, what happens, etc. I do not care if its walking dead, game of thrones of a kids show with nothing serious to spoil like MLP.

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