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Why spoiler warnings need to die

You probably know what spoilers are. Plots are advanced by the narrative use of plot points. Any virtual or in-person conversation that reveals a plot point too early is deemed a spoiler.

Spoilers can apply to movies, TV shows, books, video games -- pretty much any story-driven media. For simplicity's sake, I'll stick to discussing movies. Reviewers have learned to compensate for spoilers by treading very carefully around plot points. Too carefully. The care to avoid spoilers has reached levels such that it leads to overly careful wankery like this.  Or like this. Or this.  

It's all wrong. If you're still concerned about spoilers, you shouldn't be. They're bad for critics and bad for viewers, bad for analysis and bad for plot.

 

"Spoilers" almost never spoil anything

Most things labeled as spoilers don't qualify for the moniker.  Only plot points that radically change the viewer's conception of the story can be truly spoiled.  Knowing that Bruce Willis is a psychiatrist in The Sixth Sense isn't a spoiler.  Knowing that he talks to Haley Joe Osmont isn't a spoiler.  Knowing that he is actually is dead the whole movie is.

But it still doesn't matter, because...

 

People will forget spoilers by the time they encounter the original plot

Some of you are probably angry that I just ruined the ending to The Sixth Sense.  Look, it's time we had a heart to heart. If you haven't already seen that movie, you are never going to. "Planning to see it eventually" doesn't count. And if you ever do see it, even an insightful masterwork like this post will be unlikely to stick around in your memory long enough to interfere with your enjoyment.

Art that has been released recently is a bit more difficult. If you're the type of person who keeps up with TV shows, for instance, you are probably watching that show within a week of its release. Of course, then avoiding spoilers is easy -- just don't read any article that purports to be a summary within a week of its release. If you don't have the self-discipline for that, then what makes you think that a silly little spoiler warning is going to stop your craving for instant gratification?

 

There is no such thing as "unspoiled"

Unspoiled art is pure art, art untrammeled by expectations, and uninhibited by context. It's also impossible. The moment that you can conceptualize a piece of art enough that you know you want to experience it, you have already gained context, and thus lost the spoiler battle.

Art cannot be experienced without context. You put art in a white room with white walls with soft ambient lighting, or you can put it in a dark room projected on a screen from behind you, or you can listen to it using the most expensive headphones you can find, but even those approaches still don't eliminate context, they only minimize distractions. Aside from that, you as the viewer bring your own emotional baggage. Are you sleepy, content, nervous, or distracted? Are you overfull from a just-finished meal, or are you hungry? Did you have a long walk to get to the gallery, or did you saunter over to your couch and turn on the TV? These and innumerable other factors change your art experience.

A lot of smart people figured out that context matters in the 20th century, and it led to relativity in physics, the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis in linguistics, and contextualization in postmodern philosophy and art.  It's not a brand new concept, and we are doing ourselves a disservice to pretend that art is the one thing that can be experienced without context.

In fact, some of our most treasured media institutions are designed to bring context and spoilers.  Postcards, flyers, and advertisements are meant to get people to see art, but they also spoil the purity of experience.  The very purpose of movie previews is to be bombastic spoiler machines.  How are these spoilers so good if all the other spoilers are so bad?

 

Spoiler warnings are distracting and decrease signal-to-noise ratio

Up to this point, every point I've made has been about how spoiler warnings are irrelevent or ineffective. Time to shift gears and point out how they are actively bad.

Spoiler warnings are annoying, hamper usability, and generally make discussion a chore. When I see some variation on "Don't read further if you want to avoid spoilers," I am no longer thinking about the point of the piece I'm reading, but instead I'm thinking about my process of reading. This is like watching Life of Pi and having a sign flash on halfway through the first act that says "YOU ARE WATCHING A MOVIE WITH A CG TIGER." Thank you, fictional sign, but I already knew that.

 

Spoilers actually increase viewing enjoyment

It's true, you will actually like something better if you get exposed to spoilers beforehand.  Science says so.

 

Spoiler concern eliminates valid discussion

This is the Big Kahuna, the real reason I hate spoilers, and the whole reason I'm writing this blog post in the first place. Have something to say about a movie? You better make sure you get signed forms from all people in earshot waiving their rights, in perpetuity, for them to object to hearing what you want to say.

But, you know, just don't say it, right? Wrong. Completely wrong. That viewpoint is the information wants to be free argument turned on its head. Understanding is gained through analysis and discussion, and there's no surer way to quash discussion than by putting the onus on the speaker to make sure that his audience is ready to hear what she has to say.

Let's give everybody the benefit of the doubt, and say that nobody wants to be rude and ruin a plot for anybody. (For our example, it doesn't really matter, as rude people are unlikely to care about spoiler warnings anyway). For every person who has something to say on Twitter, Facebook, on a blog, or in person, if they have to check with their audience before revealing a possible spoiler, what are they likely to do? Are they likely to ask everybody if they can talk? More likely they don't say it.

But that's what the spoiler warning is for, right? It's there to give people the opportunity to share without injuring the poor precious virgin ears that are unready to hear it, right? Still wrong. Not only does it provide a frustrating hoop to jump through whenever you want to talk about art, it means that readers who would otherwise engage on a deeper level with the art instead choose not to read further, in the name of some fallacious "pure first experience" that is as impossible as Jesus riding up on a Unicorn with a briefcase full of war bonds.

 

It's time for our art discussion to give up our spoiler obsession.  Not only are they annoying non-content, they actively reduce the quality of our critique.  Join me in the rallying cry: Death to spoiler warnings and shame on those who use them!