Spoiler alert: Why do people hate spoilers?

spoiler, spoilers

Way back in 2014, The Walking Dead‘s social media team inadvertently created a mini-apocalypse of their own.

Shortly after Season 5’s mid-season finale finished broadcasting on the West Coast, the show’s official Facebook page posted an image in memory of the character who died in that episode. Unfortunately, the rest of the world was still hours away from seeing it, which meant that anyone who was unlucky enough to be online at that moment already knew the identity of the episode’s tragic casualty. Like a horde of zombies, livid fans flooded the page, armed with rants, threats, and Internet tears.

The team quickly took down the spoilery image and posted an apology; however, the damage had already been done. As more geek news sites ran articles on AMC’s social media faux pas, the problem snowballed. Fans who didn’t see the image but found out about it via the aforementioned articles and their own Facebook friends’ frustrated posts ended up getting spoiled themselves. It was pretty much a social media zombie plague — and all you had to do to get infected was to stop playing Candy Crush for two seconds and make the oh-so-terrible mistake of checking your News Feed.

Spoiler: There are better ways to spend your time than playing freaking Candy Crush.

A cursory glance at the comments on the apology post in question reveals multiple perspectives on the issue. Some fans chastised the social media team for the spoilery scheduling slip-up; others put the blame squarely on their fellow viewers, saying that they should have been smart enough to stay off Facebook to completely avoid spoilers. Still, others reveled in the chaos, posting context-laden memes and jokes without disclosing how they truly felt about what just transpired.

The infinite war on spoilers

To this day, the topic of spoilers remains a hotly debated subject. A recent example: For a brief period of time leading up to the release of the highly anticipated Avengers: Infinity War, the quickest way to online infamy was to post even the vaguest of hints about the most minute details of the film, whether real or completely fictitious. The mere suggestion that you’re seconds away from revealing who dies in the film would lead to about a thousand digital pitchforks and curses upon your bloodline getting hurled your way.

(Interestingly, right after the film debuted, some of the loudest anti-spoiler advocates on my feed quickly changed sides, appearing to be rather eager to publicly discuss the film’s plot points, drop loaded hints, and even share spoilery images and punchlines, despite the possibility that their own social media contacts hadn’t seen the film yet.)

I swear, there was more than enough of this cutesy, wink-wink crap on my news feed to use as substitute sand for Boracay.

Given how violently the vocal segment of the Internet seems to react to the subject of spoilers in general, this raises a few questions.

Why do so many of us seem to hate spoilers this much? Conversely, why do others take joy in seeing and even spreading them? Do spoilers truly have a significant effect on the way people consume and enjoy mass media products? When is it okay to talk about potential spoilers in public? And does the burden of spoiler prevention rest upon the shoulders of the people who disseminate them or the people who could easily avoid them?

Spoiling the origin of the spoiler

Some believe that spoilers ruin the integrity of the overall experience, as they “steal” the audience’s opportunity to see, hear, or figure out plot points for themselves. From an etymological perspective, this isn’t entirely surprising: The word “spoiler” came from “spoil,” which in turn traces its roots to the Old French word espoillier (“to pillage”).

As numerous online resources would tell you, the first recorded use of the word “spoiler” in this context was in the April 1971 issue of The National Lampoon, in a feature by editor and co-founder Doug Kenney titled, appropriately enough, “Spoilers.” As he proceeded to reveal the endings of such classics as Citizen Kane and Psycho, Kenney gleefully wrote:

“Spoilers! What are they? Simply the trick ending to every mystery novel and movie you’re ever liable to see. Saves time and money!”

It was an entirely new level of artistic irreverence and pop culture savagery that, up until that point, had yet to be seen in print.

As far as online communication goes, however, perhaps the earliest recorded instances of the word “spoiler” used in this manner can be found on messages in Usenet archives from 1981. The first recorded instance of the phrase “Spoiler Alert” used in online communication appears to be in a message sent on June 8, 1982 to the “SF-Lovers” mailing list hosted by the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), pertaining to events in the film Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.

As Ben Zimmer points out in his article on Visual Thesaurus, it’s also interesting to note how the meaning of the word “spoil” evolved as well. Prior to the rise and widespread use of the term “spoiler,” only aspects of the story (e.g. surprise twists, endings, etc.) could get “spoiled.” Now, when people receive information about a film, book, or sports event that they have yet to see for themselves, they say that they “got spoiled.”

The brave and the bold, the smart and the… spoiled?!

Now that we’ve gotten that brief history lesson out of the way, let’s take a look at what science says about spoilers — and what our attitudes toward spoilers may actually say about ourselves.

A 2016 study examined how 368 undergraduate students felt about spoilers. First, the participants were given previews of a handful of short stories. Some previews had story details; others didn’t. Afterwards, the participants were asked to indicate whether they were more interested to read the spoiled or unspoiled stories.

The researchers, Benjamin K. Johnson and Judith E. Rosenbaum, evaluated their findings based on two factors: the participants’ need for cognition (i.e. how much they enjoy thinking and stimulating their brains) and their need for affect (i.e. how much they value and enjoy feeling things). These factors were determined by the participants’ answers to a set of questions — questions that made them identify which need they ranked higher.

The results showed that those who didn’t register a high need for stimulating their brains seemed to prefer reading stories that they were already spoiled about. For these individuals, spoilers made the stories easier to grasp when it was time to actually read them. This jives with processing fluency theory, which says that we’re partial to things we can easily absorb and understand.

As the researchers wrote:

When choosing between stories, low need for cognition individuals appear to have found spoiled stories as potentially more comprehensible and more in keeping with their preferred level of cognitive processing. However, these expected benefits of easier processing due to a spoiler did not appear to translate into greater enjoyment or transportation.

When the time came for the participants to read both the spoiled and unspoiled stories, they were asked to rate which stories they liked more. Surprisingly, the people with a higher need for cognition seemed to enjoy the stories just as much as the people who had a lower need for cognition, regardless of whether the stories were spoiled or unspoiled. However, the people who registered a higher need for affect actually liked the unspoiled stories more.

In other words, audiences who place a higher importance on feelings would rather watch the stories unfold before their eyes than know the critical details about them beforehand.

These findings support an earlier study conducted by the same researchers, albeit with a different population size and composition. Based on the results taken from 412 subjects, Johnson and Rosenbaum found that unspoiled stories were not just more suspense-filled, but also more meaningful and enjoyable overall.

Plot twist!

Interestingly, a separate 2016 study claims that the effects of spoilers on overall enjoyment may actually depend on when the spoilers are revealed. As researchers William H. Levine, Michelle Betzner and Kevin S. Autry summarized:

Finally, we examined the influence of spoilers presented mid-story, after a reader has had a chance to get invested in the story. We found that spoilers presented before a story reduced enjoyment, whereas those presented mid-story had no discernable effect.

In a nutshell, finding out how a story ends while you’re midway through it doesn’t make it less fun or interesting. It makes sense: By the time you’re already emotionally invested in the narrative and the characters, the story becomes less about the ending for you and more about seeing how the characters will get there.

Meanwhile, another pair of researchers, Jonathan D. Leavitt and Nicholas J. S. Christenfeld, suggested that contrary to conventional wisdom, spoilers actually make stories more enjoyable.

In their 2011 study, they asked 30 people to read three stories from various genres, but with a twist. Each story was presented in three different ways: as is (with no spoilers beforehand), with a spoilery introductory paragraph, and with the spoilery paragraph integrated into the text. Here, the respondents said they actually enjoyed the spoiled stories more. As Leavitt and Christenfeld explained:

Writers use their artistry to make stories interesting, to engage readers, and to surprise them, but we found that giving away these surprises makes readers like stories better. This was true whether the spoiler revealed a twist at the end (e.g., that the condemned man’s daring escape is just a fantasy as the rope snaps taut around his neck) or solved the crime (e.g., Poirot discovers that the apparent target of attempted murder was in fact the perpetrator). It was also true when the spoiler was more poetic, as when frisky adolescents watching a couple struggle with a baby are revealed to be previewing their own futures, and the couple glimpsing their own pasts. In all these types of stories, spoilers may allow readers to organize developments, anticipate the implications of events, and resolve ambiguities that occur in the course of reading.

Again, this ties back to processing fluency. It does make sense, doesn’t it? When you don’t spend too much time trying to take in all the details as soon as you perceive them, doesn’t that free you up and give you more time to process those details while they’re unfolding before your very eyes?

One can also make the argument that if all it would take to ruin a story is foreknowledge of its outcome, then perhaps there’s something fundamentally wrong with the story to begin with. Perhaps it’s a story that, when stripped of the twists, shocks, and surprises, doesn’t really have much to offer in terms of substance.

After all, as Ian Buckwalter argues in his thought piece on The Atlantic: Aren’t good films still good, even after they’ve been spoiled?

Spoilers, assemble

Earlier in this article, I mentioned how there seemed to be apparent shift in attitude towards spoilers in people who had already seen Avengers: Infinity War. In preparation for this article, I did a little experiment of my own.

I created a group chat dedicated solely to discussing Avengers: Infinity War spoilers, right on opening day. I publicly announced the existence of this chat on my Facebook profile, and added 3 of my contacts who had already seen the film and were itching to discuss it. The conversation participants were free to add their own friends there; I also told them that it was meant to be a safe space for discussing spoilers without the danger of accidentally spoiling fans who hadn’t seen the film yet.

In less than 12 hours, the number of participants in that group chat swelled to almost 100 — and most of them were people I didn’t even know. I also lost count of all the people I did know personally who asked me to add them to that chat. That was more than enough confirmation for me: Indeed, a sizable number of people who had already seen the film were quite eager to talk about it.

This leads us to the next question: Why are there people who like to discuss and spread spoilers?

Actually, I can think of a few reasons, and while I don’t exactly have statistics to back me up, I think I’m not so off the mark.

  1. They genuinely believe that they’re doing the rest of the world a favor.
  2. Gatekeeping (a.k.a. “I was here first“).
  3. Ego (a.k.a. “I saw it first“).
  4. They were so blown away by what they just found out that they couldn’t resist the urge to talk about it.
  5. For shits and giggles (a.k.a. spoiler trolls).

“And here, we can observe a few specimens of the Philippine spoiler troll (Epalsis papansinensis) in their natural habitat.”

Stop! (Spoilertime!)

One last thing. Let’s try to settle this age-old question, once and for all: When is it okay to talk about spoilers? Basically, at what point do online mobs lose the right to burn your digital self to a crisp for sharing and discussing spoilers?

In a 2008 article, Vulture’s Dan Kois shared what he called The Official Vulture Statutes of Limitations on Pop-Culture Spoilers. Overall, it presents a pretty convincing argument. For the most part, I agree with his list; I felt the need to tweak a few bits, though.

Here’s my proposed Spoiler Statute of Limitations for general (public) Internet discussions. I’d also suggest prefacing everything with a [SPOILER ALERT] and enough blank lines to push the spoilers out of the user’s immediate view, but that’s just me.

  • Films: A month after the movie debuts, or a day after it ends its run (whichever happens first).
  • Television shows, except for reality TV: A week after the episode airs.
  • Reality TV shows: As soon as the episode ends. (Also, reality TV sucks.)
  • Books: Six months after the book is published.
  • Plays: The day after it ends its run.
  • Operas: 100 years after its premiere.
  • Sports games: Three days after the game.

Regardless of where you stand on the spoiler issue, I think we can all agree that every person has the right to choose whether to be spoiled or remain unspoiled before seeing a movie or reading a book. By all means, feel free to discuss spoilers on your personal social media accounts and with your friends, provided that you preface them with the appropriate warnings and take the necessary measures to avoid accidentally spoiling other people. I mean, it’s not so hard to put “SPOILER ALERT” and press the Enter key ten times before you click Post on that Facebook status you spent 5 minutes composing, right? It’s like the escalator etiquette debate all over again: If it takes minimal effort to not be an asshole, why on Earth would you still choose to be one?

While social media platforms offer each of us an equal opportunity to voice out our thoughts and opinions, they certainly do not give us the right to willfully rob other users of the option to immerse themselves in pop culture experiences with fresh, unspoiled eyes.

If you think otherwise, do you know what that makes you?

Spoiler alert: An entitled prick.


Study References:
  • Leavitt, J. D., Christenfeld, N. J. S. (2011). Story spoilers don’t spoil stories. Psychological Science, 22(9), 1152-1154. doi.org/10.1177/0956797611417007
  • Levine, W. H., Betzner, M., Autry, K. S. (2016). The effect of spoilers on the enjoyment of short stories. Discourse Processes, 53(7), 513-531. DOI: 10.1080/0163853X.2016.1141350
  • Rosenbaum, J. E., & Johnson, B. K. (2016). Who’s afraid of spoilers? Need for cognition, need for affect, and narrative selection and enjoyment. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 5(3), 273-289. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000076
  • Rosenbaum, J. E., & Johnson, B. K. (2016). Spoiler alert: Consequences of narrative spoilers for dimensions of enjoyment, appreciation, and transportation. Communication Research, 42 (8), 1068-1088.  http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000076

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