Sunday, June 23, 2024

On Spoiler Culture

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When writing about fandom, spoilers are a constant consideration. Will I alienate a portion of my readership if I include spoilers on an article? Should I put a spoiler warning on a certain piece? But what exactly needs to be tagged? Only major spoilers or even the smallest plot revelation? Would readers assume that an episode recap contains spoilers for that episode? Should I put spoiler warnings when discussing older media as well? What about plot twists that have already been discussed at length?

Part of those questions come from the different approaches people have when it comes to spoilers. Some people don’t mind spoilers at all, while others like to know as little as possible before watching a new movie or reading a new book. For others it depends on the genre or how relevant the spoilers in question are for the story. All those approaches are fine; you know better than anyone else how you enjoy your stories. The problem is when those approaches collide.

Internet is an amazing tool for fandom discussion—without it I wouldn’t be here, and the only way y’all could hear me talking fandom would be “that loud chick at the uni cafeteria cussing Game of Thrones”. But it was also a major game changer when it comes to spoilers, because avoiding them is nearly impossible sometimes. News fly fast and leaks fly even faster. There are tons of social networking media like Facebook, Twitter, or Tumblr, and most of them don’t give you the possibility of blocking certain contents and not others. A lot of our social media information comes in the form of images, gifs, and visual memes. Do you know how hard it is to avoid image spoilers?

Go ahead, try it.

It doesn’t help that certain spoilers and famous plot twists seem to be already part of our pop culture. Does anyone really not know the truth about Darth Vader’s identity in Star Wars? Or the plot twist from Planet of the Apes? Yet a few years ago my friends stopped what they were doing to watch Psycho with me, because I told them I had no idea what the ending was. So even when it comes to well-known spoilers, we shouldn’t assume everyone is familiar with them.

Sometimes, of course, the franchise spoils itself. The most shocking moment from the first season of Game of Thrones was in the posters for the second season. If you know anything about Terminator 2, then Terminator was spoiled for you. Same thing for Han’s fate in The Empire Strikes Back. It’s assumed you’re familiar with the previous installment, but that’s not always true.

This brings me to another question: do spoilers have a expiration date? Everyone (probably) knows you should be careful with spoilers from the newest episode of a show or from a movie that have just premiered, but what about older stuff? Should I still tag spoilers when discussing Negan’s first appearance in The Walking Dead? Can I openly discuss the finale of Friends? Once I saw a person complaining about Buffy spoilers, but Buffy was over for more than a decade. From the perspective of an old Buffy fan, those spoilers were a well-known and much discussed content. From the perspective of a new fan, however, these were still fresh spoilers. This is something else internet does for us: we can easily catch up on older shows, with years of fandom history and potential spoilers floating around the web.

Internet also means a more aggressive media coverage, and that can easily lead to unwanted spoilers. Many sites covered the fuss surrounding the identity of Legion’s antagonist… by using the picture of a well-known actor as a header for their articles. You know, that header image that shows up when a link is shared, thus meaning you don’t even have to click the link to be spoiled.

And don’t even get me started on the circus around set pics.

That’s another particularity of spoilers in our age. The speed of information nowadays means spoilers will reach the web and spread almost as fast as they’re produced, and frequently faster than we can consume media. This is especially noticeable in streaming shows like Netflix originals, where all episodes are dropped at once. New season of Stranger Things? Isolate yourself at home and binge-watch all episodes before even touching social media.

To be honest, this is more true of certain stories than others. A few years ago, not watching the new episode of The Walking Dead or Game of Thrones as soon as it aired felt like becoming the Titanic in a sea of iceberg-spoilers. Any second online brought you closer to being spoiled on the latest character death and even workplace conversations were dangerous. On the other hand, I’ve only seen the first season of Breaking Bad, a show that ended a few years ago, and I’m mostly unspoiled. 

One has to wonder if this is due to the value placed on “shock” in certain shows. When your show becomes just “go, go, go, go. Shocking moment to shocking moment”, the plot twists are part of what draws the audience in first place and represent a good portion of the fandom discussion afterwards. It’s all about have you seen THAT and look how far they went this time. It’s even worst when that shock won’t matter next season, or even in a couple of episodes, because then we must milk whatever discussion we can now.

But hey, creators need to show how bold they are.

Leaks are becoming more frequent these days, also changing the scenario when it comes to spoilers. Leaked scripts, leaked production pictures, leaked episodes… Some people will choose to ignore them, but others won’t. There was a particularly famous case in Brazil a decade ago, with a popular movie called Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad in the English translation). An unfinished version of the movie hit the internet and millions of people had seen it before the movie officially premiered. Everyone was talking about it and a pirated copy was ridiculously easy to get. Would you stay out of fandom discourse? Of the memes that came from it? Of the relevant political discussion? Most people I know watched the leaked copy, myself included.

See, the thing about contemporary spoiler culture is that it all but forces you to be up to speed with the latest news, the latest episode, the most discussed media. But that’s not really possible, is it? Sometimes you’re a few episodes behind. Or you actually watch the show live, but it airs later where you live. Or you don’t want to watch the trailers fearing they will spoil the movie. Or you have just joined a fandom that is a few years old. Or, you know, thousands of other possible reasonable motives, because we simply can’t keep up with everything. We’re not machines.

That word is ruined forever for me, isn’t it?

When you spoil the fun for your fellow fan, you’re also hurting your favorite creators. Chuck Wendig points that storytellers design their narratives in a certain way and spoilers undermine that. You’re removing the twist from the context that made it powerful in first place (though, to be honest, certain “canon” stories do that too). Spoilers may also cause a person to stop being invested in a story, depriving this media from their audience and support. You wouldn’t want that, would you?

Avoiding spoilers these days is already hard as it is. Don’t be a dick. Don’t be that person that ruins fandom experience for other people. Most spoilers are not revealed out of malice, but come from a lack of consideration for your fellow fans. What I’m asking is: think about them. Even if you don’t care about spoilers, even if you’re assuming this is old news, even if it’s not that big of a spoiler in first place.

Sometimes you may not even know you’re spoiling somebody else. Have I told y’all how I was spoiled for the Red Wedding in both Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire? I had just started the books and the corresponding episode was a few weeks away. I knew something huge would happen, because my brother couldn’t shut up about it, but I had no idea what. Until a guy on Facebook wrote it. Mind you, he didn’t simply wrote “character X dies”. He wrote “C-H-A-R-A-C-T-E-R dies”. Because that’s not eye catching at all, is it? He probably doesn’t know he spoiled it for me, but he wasn’t paying attention to how either social networking or eyesight work.

My reaction when I realized what I just read.

So today, in The Fandomentals’ guide to not being a dick, I’ll give you a few suggestions. Don’t talk potentially spoiler-y content unless you’re sure the other person already knows them or doesn’t mind being spoiled. Tag your spoilers as appropriate. Hide them under a “read more”, use tags, warn people upfront that you’re gonna be discussing spoilers for something. Nobody is asking you to stop freaking out about that fandom you love, but allow people means to avoid information they prefer to avoid. Resist the urge to immediately post visual spoilers to sites that offer no means to block specific content, like Facebook or Twitter. Think about who may read or hear you, and if you’re giving them means to avoid being spoiled. I know you really MUST discuss that thing that happened, but do so with people who are willing to do that with you. And don’t, for the love of God, write your spoilers on Caps.

Please don’t feel like I’m trying to dictate your behavior in fandom; those are just points for you to think about. Spoilers are subjective and avoiding them can be a hard task, so don’t make it harder for other fans. You gain nothing by ruining their fun. Fandom can be an amazing and wonderful community for people everywhere, let’s keep it this way.

Images courtesy of HBO, AMC, and 20th Century Fox.

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