Speculation with Spoilers
by: Jonathan Gray / Fordham University
Lost‘s Ana Lucia’s former profession revealed
(on TV, 11/23/05; online 11/01/05)
As a result of the research conducted for this column, I now have super powers. I can see into the future of television, telling you who will win The Amazing Race, what will happen in January on Lost, and how Arrested Development plans to leave Fox in a blaze of self-reflexive glory. (I promise, though, not to divulge details).
In my last column, I wrote of the previews and hype about shows circulated by the television industry, discussing how we interact with programs before even watching them due to these industry-designed pre-texts. However, it’s not just Hollywood who gets to play this game, as viewers too are releasing information gleaned from leaks from cast or crew; reports from the set by passersby, fan pilgrimages, and sleuthing trips; and sheer textual detective work. This is the world of the “spoiler.”
Many fansites on the Internet have sections for spoilers. Usually carefully cordoned off with threats such as “Spoiler Warning!!!! Do NOT go further if you do not want to know what happens,” these areas grandiosely announce their Pandora’s Box nature. Meanwhile, standard etiquette dictates that outside of these sections, all spoilers must be gratuitously labeled, followed by numerous blank lines, so that the eye cannot betray its owner by glancing down the screen, hence “spoiling” the narrative to come. Indeed, there appears something very pornographic about spoilers, and such rules and etiquette show the degree to which they are similarly seen as holding significant power to corrupt on mere contact and the degree to which many consumers are still guiltily smitten by and drawn to spoilers.
Spoilers may not ultimately attract as many online viewers as does pornography, but spoiler discussion forms a major portion of many popular fan sites. Television Without Pity’s Lost board hosts a spoiler thread (from which I get my title) with, at last count, 316 pages of text; TWoP’s Amazing Race board has a 300-page spoiler thread; while other sites, such as Lost-TV, have literally thousands of posts and boast hundreds of thousands of pageviews. Certain programs attract more spoilers, notably, those that thrive on keeping their readers in the dark, such as Lost, Veronica Mars, and competition reality shows, but even sitcoms and quiz shows have their spoilers.
Part of the appeal behind the consumption and production of spoilers would seem to be play with the narrative delivery system. To put it simply, this system posits an Author who knows, and a group of readers who don’t. Those who hate being spoilt are quite often those who are happy with this relationship; but clearly the system irks the spoilt. Spoiling is all about knowing. To some spoilers, the experience would seem akin to the pleasures felt by video game players who find cheat codes that allow them, for instance, unlimited ammunition. Video games can be devilishly hard, their puzzles irritatingly addictive, and cheat codes allow early gratification, and a pleasurable end to the pleasure-agony of not knowing how to solve the problem. Similarly, spoilers offer a pleasurable end to the pleasure-agony of not knowing what will happen next, what the Hanso Foundation is, or who wins next week’s leg of the race. To know what happens is a small victory, and a pat on the back.
As the size of some spoiler sites suggests, there is clearly a huge social element to this knowing too. Rather than exploring the text alone, thumbing it on all sides for the secret latch, spoiler sites allow what Henry Jenkins, following, Levy, calls “collective knowledge” (2002). Moreover, cultural capital can be earned or lost by knowing more or less, whether online, or in the smug contentment of the living room. As such, this need to know is both collaborative and competitive.
Beyond analyzing their appeals, though, I am fascinated by what spoilers tell us about the individual’s or group’s interaction with the text. After all, spoilers effectively allow viewers to read, decode, and interpret a text before it’s even got to them. Spoilt viewers can experience a text’s effects before broadcast, and can also, therefore, profoundly muddle up the phenomenology of the text, especially a well-written serial text. Good writers often “trick” their audiences, calling on us to react in one way, then adding new information that changes the ground rules. Spoilt viewers, though, can immunize themselves to such strategies.
Meanwhile, there is also the case of the false spoiler. For example, last year, a poster by the name of Old Scooter Dude began leaking information about Lost‘s season finale at Lost‘s spoiler board. Old Scooter Dude became something of a cult figure for a while, with some posters even speculating as to whether he was Lost star Jorge Garcia. But come season finale, he was proven a sham (resulting in his immediate expulsion, per community rules, from the board). Pre-excommunication, though, Old Man Scooter managed to throw the narrative off significantly for his (truly) spoilt subjects: using his bogus facts, they decoded all manner of events, characters, and themes in the lead up to the fateful revelation, only to have these all thrown into disarray. Instead of being episodes ahead, then, they were episodes behind.
Or in another instance at the same site, it was revealed what the show’s mysterious “French Lady,” Rousseau, was on the island to study. By all accounts, the spoiler came from an actually shot scene, and thus was completely legit — but the scene was then cut, with no subsequent allusion to the research. How is the spoilt viewer to make sense of this? Does this mean simply that writers Abrams and Lindelof decided to withhold that information for the time being, or does it mean that they changed their minds? Clearly, such examples show how spoilers can confuse the viewer. But they also show how the text has truly moved beyond its textual body, existing across all sorts of media. John Fiske called such intertexts “secondary textuality” (1989), while Will Brooker (2001) dubs them “overflow,” and although both terms are helpful, spoilers such as this offer something quite primary, and would seem to start the flow as much as they continue it. This one cut scene potentially answers many of the island’s, and hence the show’s, mysteries, allowing us not only to go back and make sense of past episodes, but to make significant sense of episodes-to-come.
Spoilers, therefore, also suggest something not only about our capacities to interact with and interpret texts before we actually receive them, but also about the significant pleasures in doing so. Much work into textual pleasure (logically enough) focuses on pleasures during or after the encounter, but the pleasures of anticipation, and pre-decoding can prove themselves just as strong to many. Certainly, reading through spoiler sites, it is hard not to conclude that many spoilt fans enjoy the experience of the text at the level of the spoiler significantly more than they claim to enjoy it when it is actually on the television in front of them.
Personally, I prefer not to be spoilt. But (and frustratingly so), many of those close to me love to be spoilt. And it is sometimes odd, therefore, to watch an episode with such creatures. While I am entranced by the narrative, waiting to see what’s next, they are either watching me for their enjoyment, or searching the text for other things: for character complexity, for cinematography, for minutiae. Much the same way that a repeat viewing of Seinfeld or The Simpsons allows that layered reading, spoilt viewers can make end-runs, so as to experience those aspects of the text in the first reading, while covering the narrative in the pre-reading.
Perhaps it is ultimately fittingly ironic that with the industry saturating everyday life with hype and overflow, many viewers are interacting as (or more) meaningfully with rumors of the text as with the text itself.
Brooker, Will (2001). “Living on Dawson’s Creek: Teen Viewers, Cultural Convergence and Television Overflow,” International Journal of Cultural Studies 4.4, 456-72.
Fiske, John (1989). Understanding Popular Culture, New York: Routledge.
Jenkins, Henry (2002). “Interactive Viewers,” In Dan Harries (Ed.), The New Media Book. London: BFI.
1. Lost’s Ana Lucia’s former profession revealed
Please feel free to comment.
Why be spoilt?
Jonathan raises some great issues here concerning the practice of spoilers, yet I am left with one mystery still unsolved: why would anyone want to have a compelling and pleasurable narrative spoiled? The pleasures of watching while knowing the plot make sense to me, as you can admire how the story is being told from a removed distance. But these pleasures can be achieved by re-watching the narrative – this is why Sixth Sense got such strong repeat theatrical business. But the pleasures of being manipulated, fooled, and surprised – which I believe crucial to the artistry of Lost, Veronica Mars, and other complex TV narratives – cannot be regained once spoiled. Why abandon those pleasures in exchange for another set of pleasures that can easily come later? This unspoiled fan wants to know…
Re: Why be spoilt?
My experience with spoilers and those who desire them (which, admittedly, stem much more from gaming than the realm of TV spoilers) suggests that there are two primary reasons people like to have surprises “spoiled”.
The first reason is that some people like to feel like they know more or have more authority on a topic than others. For these people, the spoiler (if partial) can be the stepping stone for advance speculation on other, as yet unspoilt topics, while complete spoilers give them a feeling of power and superiority over those who are still being manipulated by the text. Such a relationship to complex TV narrative deprecates the importance of the being surprised by a show’s artistry and prioritizes the ability to feel superior and in on a secret.
The second reason is that to some viewers, the agony of anticipation and uncertainty becomes too much, usually because they are extremely emotionally invested in one particular event or outcome. These spoilees, whose nerves are already stretched to the limit, want to skip past any further tension directly to catharsis: Will he or won’t he? Who actually dies? Answering the question allows them to watch *how* the show leads up to the event without being continually distracted by uncertainty and dread.
I’ve experienced both these impulses at various points in time, in different contexts, but there may well be other motivations for people to seek out spoilers that I’m not aware of.
Hi Flow people and thank you Jonathan for an insightful piece.
Some of Jonathan’s points cross over with some of my research interests. I am interested in what happens in fan or enthusiast communities in the period between ‘fan-events’. My original thinking was focused on film, but now I have shift gears to focus on car enthusiasts. I thought about the rituals of expectations and anticipation that fan/enthusiasts participate in. Both expectation and anticipation involve relations of futurity. The two terms I used were defined as follows: Anticipation is a modulation of an affective tension with a future event, and thus relates to a (temporally present) affective intensity. Expectation is a calculus of futurity, an extrapolation of narrativised past events into the future.
“Spoiling is all about knowing.”
Well, at the minimum, I would insist on a caveat. The knowledge in itself does not necessarily mean a thing. I could have knowledge of Johnathan’s favourite TV show and it wouldn’t necessarily matter to me. The knowledge has to matter and has to relate to an ‘interest’ (in the Silvan Tompkins sense of the ‘interest-excitement’ affect). I would know that the knowledge probably means something to someone else, but only because I am familiar with the social conventions of ‘spoiling’.
I would rather suggest that, firstly, ‘spoiling’ is an action that disrupts the normative distribution of the screening-event (for want of a better term!) and produces an illicit convergence in the affective tension experienced by fans. It is a particular qualitative intervention that displaces ‘author-produced’ (ie PR company produced) expectations and anticipations. Production companies and the like are very well aware of this capacity of fan communities to intervene in the passage and circulation of the screening-events. Examples include The Lord of the Rings where information was ‘leaked’ to fans and various limited-participation ‘beta’ testing of computer games.
The ‘spoiler’ also has a secondary function, which I would argue is actually its primary function, in the sense of a spoiler being a piece of affectively charged knowledge. That is, spoiling is about belonging. Here I am drawing on the work of Brian Massumi (_Parables of the Virtual_ “Political Economy of Belonging” chapter). The screening-event is not just a screening, but a fan-event, too. Fan-events do not nominally involve only fans, but anyone who has an ‘interest’ (again in the Tompkins sense of ‘affect’). There is a ‘becoming-together’ of fans that occurs over the season of a TV series (or between sequels in a film series, or between cruises or racing events for car enthusiasts).
It does not surprise me that in the case of Old Scooter Dude was expelled for his ‘false’ spoilers (were they not, then, ‘spoilers’ in a real sense?!), he wasn’t merely expelled from the boards, but from participation in the togetherness of belonging. His ‘false’ spoilers produced a convergence of a corrupt set of expectations and a traitorous feeling of anticipation. Ironically, however, his actions may have actually served as another singularity in the fan community and produced a stronger becoming-together of other fans who all felt (in different ways) resentful and cheated.
spoiler warnings as default critical position
Hello. I’m here on a link from Glen Fuller.
I like your point about spoilers & p0rn. Spoiler warnings interest me because I’m increasingly seeing them in places where they really don’t belong – in a student essay on a novel we studied together, for instance.
I wrote something about spoilers for The Valve not so long ago – here’s the link, if you’re interested: http://www.thevalve.org/go/val.....osomd_foe/
Spoilers Work in Serial Texts
It truly is amazing how spoilers can be such guilty pleasures. I think your keen comparisons to that of porn culture and video game cheats key into this idea of “I know its taboo, but I can’t help myself” moments with spoilers.
One thing I thought about while reading your article was how spoilers differ depending on the text itself, especially between serial texts and single texts. With film (when not a remake or sequel), I would generally be very upset if someone ruined the story for me by giving me the ending. Here I am paying a fee to enjoy two hours of high production entertainment and I’m already feeling anti-climactic and disappointed. With a televised serial show however (or perhaps a film sequel), I sometimes take pleasure in knowing what will happen. Perhaps the fact that this is a long series of episodes and ruining one part of what will be many exciting scenes does not seem too dissatisfying. In fact, as Alec Austin has pointed out above, I feel like I am in the know and for that one moment which I am already spoiled, I can feel like I have one over my peers who are watching the show not knowing what will happen. Since television is a very social medium, having the advantage in a group of people does make me feel somewhat empowered, but also at the same time not knowing for certain of the legitimacy of the spoiler information and also knowing that there are plenty of other parts of the show I cannot predict, I feel I am in the same boat as my peers. It’s a strange hybrid of being in the know and not.
In this sense, I feel that spoilers (for me anyway) can only work effectively as a gratifying element when applied to serial texts (television shows and/or film remakes and sequels).
This is what I love about Flow: I can write a column that hopefully offered a bit of substance, but that skirts around the issue I can’t answer (as Jason pointed out), and within a few days get some great answers and help from others. So thank you all very much.