Spoiler Alert!
A brief look at spoilers in the Internet age

September 24th 2019

Spoilers are nothing new. From the truth behind “Rosebud” to the secret ingredient in “Soylent Green”, people have been avoiding spoilers pretty much since the medium started. One of the earliest uses of the term dates back to a 1971 article in the American humour magazine “National Lampoon” where they just listed spoilers from famous films and shows. Though many debate the validity of the “spoiler” and how much it affects our viewing experience, one thing is for certain: they ruin the surprise. Without the surprise the experience changes; sure, you may be able to enjoy the film but the fact that you know the twist alters your perspective.


Let’s take one of M. Night Shyamalan’s plot twist driven films as an example. On first viewing of the Sixth Sense we may see a relationship grow between an adult and a child as they try to understand the latter's powers - but, after learning that the adult was in fact one of the ghosts the child was seeing, the dynamic between the two changes, with Bruce Willis’ character now taking a more tragic and melancholic tone as he slowly realises what he really is.


Another issue with spoilers is that, in films that rely on a specific plot point or twist to surprise the audience, a simple spoiler could ruin that intended effect forever - as they say: ‘you never get a second chance to make a first impression’. So, spoilers are bad as you are essentially altering the person’s viewing experience without their consent - even if it could be argued that spoilers don’t change the person’s enjoyment of said film. Now that we understand the problem with spoilers, let’s get to the crux of the matter, it was simple when all you had to do was keep quiet but… what do we do now with the Internet?

The Internet’s amazing growth rapidly affected every industry in the world and people have slowly adapted to the huge changes it brought (see the dot-com bubble for reference of how people just didn’t get how the Internet works). One of these changes, and probably the most significant, was global, free and instantaneous communication. Suddenly forums exploded, IRC chats appeared discussing every topic imaginable and everyone started sharing their opinions on social media.

With all this traffic and words being shared between users, it was just a matter of time before people realised how this power could be used for evil. People would visit fan sites for things like Harry Potter and spam messages detailing who died in the new book for example. This prompted most forums to add rules asking of its users to either refrain from using spoilers or add “spoiler warnings” to their posts in order to alert any reader of the dangers ahead. Twitter and Facebook however don't have moderators in the same way and traversing the murky rivers of social media just after a film is released is akin to jumping into crocodile infested waters with a raw chicken sweater on. It’s got to the point where even googling a film to see if it’s out yet may result in being blasted with spoilers.


The question I ask is: should we just stop trying? The speed at which information moves and the number of places in which it can be found has resulted in a situation in which, in order to avoid spoilers, you pretty much need to become a hermit and remove yourself from the Internet all together. This, for most of us, be it for work or social reasons, could prove to be impossible. So, are spoilers just a part of our everyday lives now? Is there no way of avoiding them? Some companies have tried to protect viewers from spoilers by using cunning, and sometimes not so cunning strategies. Terminator Salvation attacked this problem by launching a full blown “disinformation campaign” through which they spammed faked spoilers everywhere in the hopes of drowning and discrediting any genuine plot details leaked online. Avengers: Endgame (2019) somehow managed to get the Internet to show its nice side and through just the goodwill of the people had a pretty successful anti-spoiler campaign. Other people, like J.J. Abrams, aren’t as creative, with him just straight up saying that Khan wasn’t in his film despite the fact that several leaks confirmed the fact that Khan was indeed in the film. This just shows that companies have realised how hard the battle against spoilers has become.


I guess we could say that we can no longer expect not to be spoiled and just try our best to shield ourselves when there is a genuine worry that it could happen. Apps exist that try to block references to particular subjects but, it is a losing battle. If someone wants to spoil something they’ll do so anywhere; I mean I just spoiled The Sixth Sense and suggested the make-up of soylent green might be suspicious, so I guess I’m part of the problem.

A different issue that has appeared due to the Internet is speculation and more specifically fan theories. One could say these become a sort of ‘retroactive spoiler’ as people are potentially spoiling the film, but they won’t know until after the fact. Most filmmakers and producers would be thrilled to know that hordes of fans are so entranced by their work that they spend worryingly long periods of time sat at their desk discussing the possible futures of a show or series of films. There are some that don't share this sentiment and consider someone that guesses the way the plot will progress a heretic, blasphemer and just not a cool dude. They believe that, if one person isn’t surprised by the plot twist that was properly foreshadowed many episodes prior, no one will vote for them in the Emmy’s.


For many reasons this is a mentality that can only end in disaster. Firstly, there are 4.3 billion Internet users in the world right now - someone will, almost inevitably, guess the way the plot will progress. Secondly, foreshadowing makes plot points fit better in the story and shows the viewers how long this specific thing had been in the works for. And thirdly, if you disregard a plot point due to reddit finding you out, you are throwing out all the groundwork you laid and all the hours of brainstorming and writing that, hopefully, went into making that previous choice. This is not only a bizarre approach but an unsustainable one.

A perfect example of a show that chose to follow this insane mantra was Westworld. The first season of Westworld finished with a bang and fans needed more. The show was littered with small clues and lore relating to the world of Westworld and details that foreshadowed how the plot would progress. Fans happily began to try and piece these clues together and come up with theories. These heretics broke the HBO commandments and doomed us all to a confusing and disjointed second season that lost all the gravitas and mystery of the first. Jonathan Nolan famously said: “The Westworld inquisition dug through reddit post after reddit post in pursuit of any amount of possible plot points and they decided to film whatever was left after the purge.” Of course, the Internet is not stupid and the expected plot for season 2 was in there somewhere so the script had to be rewritten as reddit had opened the forbidden tome and forced the show-runners’ hand. Alright, before HBO sues for defamation, that last quote was fake, but he was quoted as saying: “Reddit has already figured out the third episode twist. So, we’re changing that right now.” Which just doesn’t sound as fun.


In conclusion, the Internet has changed a lot of how we do things and some of those things we still haven’t internalised. We need to realise that the freedom the Internet gives may come with caveats and, even if we lose the ability to experience a film completely free of prior knowledge, I would argue it’s an overall positive change.

Oh, and I haven’t even mentioned trailers —

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