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Why Do People Hate Spoiler Warnings So Much?

March 18, 2011 at 8:27 pm

[Hello there.  If you're stopping by to read my infamous blog post regarding the bizarro publishing history of my trilogy, it's here.]

This question isn't prompted by a recent experience or anything that has happened to me.  (Honest.)  But I'm genuinely curious about something: why do some people tend to heap so much scorn on the simple practice of posting spoiler warnings in online fora?

Not everybody does this, of course.  And I'm sure there are plenty of folks to whom the notion of spoiler warnings wouldn't even merit a cocked eyebrow.  But enough people seem so dead-set against the idea that... well, it baffles me.

Here's the comment thread over at io9 that got me thinking about this.

I swear, in some of the rantiest cases, people squawk as though spoiler warnings might triple their property taxes.  This kind of overreaction to a simple suggestion reminds me very much of the way a small fraction of motorists feel compelled to make law-abiding cyclists the target of irrational rage.   A strange and possibly inappropriate comparison, but that's how it seems to me.  Apparently the suggestion that one should deviate the tiniest bit out of one's way to accommodate other human beings for mutual benefit is enough to drive certain folks nonlinear.

I wholeheartedly agree that certain discussion topics are bound to be spoilery by nature.  If you're reading a discussion or essay about how the film adaptation of Watchmen diverges from the original graphic novel, then yeah, you should pretty much expect spoilers.  And I think that folks (like me) who want to avoid spoilers don't have any grounds for complaint when a movie or book review spoils the plot.  That's just a common feature of reviews.  In order to be thorough, a critique or analysis of a piece often needs to talk about the plot.  That's just the way it is.

But one year for a statute of limitations on movie spoilers?  Really?  That's just plain laziness. 

I have a full-time job.  I don't get to see all the movies I'd like to see just as soon as they come out.  Hell, I'm planning to watch Chinatown tonight.  I've had the disk sitting next to my TV for two months.  And it takes a loooong time for something to percolate up through my Netflix queue.   I'm sure it's nice when life enables you to enjoy unfettered instant gratification with everything you desire, but that ain't my life.  

Thanks to that brand of short-sighted laziness we get online conversations that, with a bit of exaggeration, go like this:

Commenter 1: I was planning to see that film, but now it's spoiled for me.

Commenter 2: I saw it before you did, therefore you deserve NO CONSIDERATION.

Commenter 1:  But I was really looking forward to reading it.  It's embarrassing, I know it's been out a really long time.  But I work three jobs and have a huge backlog on my Netflix queue--


Commenter 1:  All I'm asking--

Commenter 3:  If you didn't see it the week it came out, you're not serious about wanting to see it.  Get lost, loser.

When I was in college, I had a friend who had never seen the original Star Wars trilogy.  Not only had she not seen it, but she had been completely insulated from the entire cultural phenomenon.  (This was long before Lucas released the second trilogy.)   So we showed her Star Wars.  And then we showed her The Empire Strikes Back... And she was deeply distressed by the Big Revelation at the end of that movie.  (You remember.  The piece of information that gets revealed while Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader are having their famous duel in the cloud city?  Yeah.  That one.)  She had a genuine emotional reaction to the story.  She connected with it.

What a shame it would have been if she'd had that moment ruined for her.  So what if most of us were much, much younger when we first heard this earth-shattering revelation?  How does that confer a cultural superiority upon us? 

Look.  Out in the world, right now, some geeky 7 year old kid has just discovered a treasure trove of Heinlein juveniles in her elementary school library.  Are we entitled to ruin each and every one of those books for her simply because we got there first?  Red Planet came out decades before I was born.  Does that mean I wasn't entitled to experience the sheer pleasure of spending all afternoon with my face in that book when I was 7?  Because that's one of my fondest memories of reading as a child, and my life would be poorer if some jackass had come along and blamed me for not already knowing the ending.

Even I would agree that there's a point where issuing warnings seems silly.  Shakespeare plays, for example, don't fall within my own personal spoiler-courtesy window.  Maybe that's the crux of it.  We all have different takes on what constitutes the expiration date on spoilers.  For some folks, that window is very narrow.  For others, it's quite wide.  Which leads to misunderstandings.

But I still think there's an element of basic courtesy.

The way I see it, posting a spoiler warning is a bit like walking through a busy doorway.  There might be somebody just a few steps behind me, heading in the same direction.  It takes just a few extra seconds out of my day to pause and hold the door so that it doesn't slam in the next person's face.  I've done something considerate for somebody else, their day didn't get ruined by a broken nose, and I get to go home feeling like a halfway decent human being.  That is basic courtesy.  Or, I could let the door slam in some stranger's face, and then, while they're bleeding on the ground, I could absolve myself of all guilt by saying, "This door has been here a long time.  You should have been here sooner."

[Reminder:  I've posted two free stories on the words page.  Details here.]


NewGuyDave March 19, 2011 at 1:45 pm
Like with most things, I think balance is the key. I got into it with somebody on OWW yahoo group about spoiler warnings. They wanted an all caps warning then a page of blank lines before the spoiler. On the OWW forum that makes emails a gazillion miles long (only a mild exaggeration if people don't snip off all the yahoo junk). I told said person that a (spoiler warning) was likely all they'd get and only on recent books and movies. I mean, OWW is a discussion forum about writing and people make references to books and movies all the time to emphasize a point. I would give proper notice so that people can stop reading, but a page of blank lines on a two-year old movie? *shrugs* There needs to be a time when people need to understand that if they haven't seen it, hearing about it isn't the end of the world. Nice post, btw. -Dave
Scott Denning March 19, 2011 at 2:31 pm
There's an old vaudeville routine:: Man: "Would you have sex with me for a million dollars" Woman: "Wow! A million dollars! OK." Man: "Would you have sex with me for five dollars?" Woman: "Five Dollars! What kind of girl do you think I am?" Man: "We've established that -- now we're just negotiating the price." In your post I noticed two words, "irrational" and "courtesy". You mention "irrational rage" and "basic courtesy", two concepts typically in polar opposition. And your post shows gentle dismay that people should exercise one and not the other. I am less gentle. And there are two more words I would insert here: "power" and "hipness." As in "petty power" and "insufferable hipness." I used to work at a bookstore with a woman who was one of the frontlist buyers. In that position, she read or at least perused most of the new books coming out, with her major focus being mysteries. It was her habit to turn immediately to the last pages of the mystery, to see how it came out. (There are actually quite a few people who do this.) When someone else would read a book, she would "just happen to let slip" the ending of the book. She also made a point of seeing the opening nights of movies and loudly providing spoilers at work the next day. (This continued until I threatened her with great harm if she did not desist, in terms tone and stance sufficient to convince her that I was Not Joking.) And each time she uttered a spoiler whether about book or film, each time she "let slip" a crucial bit of info, her eyes gleamed and she licked her lips and I swear her nipples got hard. The spoilers had given her Power, and she relished it. Nothing else in her life seemed to give her such a thrill as flaunting advance knowledge. Give this effect to Internet Hipsters and you have a out-of-control feedback loop of discourteous spoilerism. You know the Hipster, he/she has always been around -- you mention that you have not seen the latest film or read the latest book or heard the latest music or eaten at the trendy restaurant and they say "Oh -- *you* haven't done *that"... With the heavy freight of implication that you are a hopeless social 'tard and why should they even bother talking to you. The Internet Hipster is a magnified version, exacerbated by their Armor of Anonymity and facilitated by Google -- even if they hadn't heard of something being discussed, 20 seconds of Googling makes them instantly glib on the subject and they can pretend they were a First Adopter. In asking people to withhold information that might diminish a First Experience for someone, it is not really just about courtesy. It is challenging their Power and their Hipness. An since, for many people, their petty power and their (self-perceived) hipness are all they have to make them feel special, asking them to be courteous undermines their very foundations. You ask reasonable and gently-phrased questions about this issue because you are basically [aside from some of your interests ;) ] a rational and courteous fellow. As I mentioned I am less gentle. I used the word "insufferable" above, in connection with the Hipsters. And insufferable they are, and I have stopped cutting them *any* slack. Their world-weary "seen that first" pose got old a long time ago, and I no longer suffer them. Most of the time, it is all I can do not to burst out laughing when they adopt The Pose. (OK -- I let myself give in to the laughter quite a bit.) The Insufferable Wielders of Petty Power Hipsters, how do we avoid them? Good question -- they are very adept at throwing advance info into the mix from a blindside. But how do we *counter* them? When calling them on their gauche behavior only makes them feel more powerful? The only sure way I have found is to myself act in opposition. When I mention a favorite film and someone admits they have not seen it, I say, "Oh, cool! How lucky you are to get to experience it for the first time! Would you like to borrow it? - then we can talk about it once you've seen it." And when I haven't seen/read/done something I openly and honestly admit it, and say, "But now that you have recommended it, I will move it up my list." And I say daily and to anyone who will listen: "Isn't it wonderful that we have a world where there is no end to the things we can experience for the first time."
Tengland March 19, 2011 at 3:05 pm
As a former book & film reviewer, I must (gently) disabuse you of the notion that spoiling the story is necessary. Good reviewers can discuss the important points and give his/her honest opinion, and yet NOT reveal the twist or the ending. In fact, it is bad form to do so if you are a serious art critic. Such people are an endangered species these days, but the good ones are worth finding (Roger Ebert as an example, but there are many others). As for Shakespeare, you don't really expect to be taken by surprise in a plot twist. He's not writing potboilers. In the tragedies, the protagonist dying (along with several other people) is pretty much a given; in the histories, everyone already knows how it turns out along already. And with his works are so well known, it's pretty hard to keep anything secret anyway. In scholarly discussions, giving away the ending is, as you say, often necessary. But anyone participating in those should be prepared for that. And they should be prepared by having read the material in the first place if they don't want to come off as ignorant. The difference is the audience: In discussions, you're examining the production as a whole; in reviews, you're trying to help people decide whether they want to see/read/hear the production. And, yes, as a courtesy, you save the surprises for them. To do otherwise is just showing off.
Steve Halter March 19, 2011 at 6:52 pm
That is odd that there were such strong reactions to a small suggestion of having a spoiler alert.
Ian March 19, 2011 at 10:23 pm
Dave: Completely agree. A page of whitespace strikes me as a little extreme. A (spoiler warning) should be enough to make people realize they might want to bail before their eyes encounter the rest of the text. I think the old OWW mailing list FAQ used to suggest that spoilers got whitespace above and below the spoilery information, to protect folks who read in digest mode. But I've never seen that done, I think, even once. And yeah, the emails are long enough when people don't strip out the Yahoo crap and then don't cut the message to which they're replying. Arrrggh hulk smash (a little bit). Scott: Yes, yes and yes. I think hipness is a huge part of it. I hadn't thought about it in those terms, but you make a compelling case. It's about the petty power, too. I hadn't made the connection in that direction, either, but it seems easily plausible to me-- those petty power plays manifest in so many other online venues. It's about correcting somebody else, forcing them to concede on some piece of minutia. That's the goal of so much online interaction. It's rather sad and very tiring. And now I have a Cake song going through my head. ("And how much did you pay for your rock and roll t-shirt that proves you were there, that you heard them first?") I've just never understood the spoiler impulse. Perhaps because I like to have my reading and viewing experiences unspoiled. But also, I just find it much more enjoyable to discuss something with somebody than to impart information to somebody. Terry: I must be reading the wrong critics! (Totally agreed on Roger Ebert, though. Anybody who can write a meta-review on a Garfield movie from the PoV of Garfield is My Hero.) I've started reading movie reviews after I see a movie, just to prevent spoilering. Maybe the problem is that I like to go into a movie with as little advanced information as possible. Which, I freely admit, means I see a lot of bad movies. And frankly, I think it's a shame Shakespeare didn't write potboilers. (Have you seen "Two Gentlemen of Lebowski"?) Steve: Thank you! I'm glad it's not just me who found that rather strange. The volume of those reactions were disproportional to the extent of the suggestion. Or so it seemed to me.
Scott Denning March 20, 2011 at 12:51 am
Unfortunately, (and this is in no way intended to excuse those who Spoil With Glee -- we have all now and then forgotten that the person we are speaking with has not experienced all of the same works that we have and made a forgivable slip, quite different from a stance that anyone who has not experienced all that we have is socially deficient) Unfortunately, where film is concerned our culture is afflicted with a sort of balanced spoilerism. Some reviewers manage to skirt the edge. But Hollywood itself has embraced the idea that viewers basically want to know everything about a movie before they see it. The trailers often reflect this -- I have lost track of how many trailers I have seen that, in retrospect upon seeing the film, contained major spoilers. Likewise, television commercials for movies, which are effectively mini-trailers. "Maybe the problem is that I like to go into a movie with as little advanced information as possible" you say, and it *is* a problem when avoiding that information means avoiding reviews, trailers, TV commercials, and most news sources if the movie is big enough. I too like to go to the viewing virgin, sans preconceptions -- if I had my druthers, I would not have any clues, not even genre, not even title. Like walking down a bookshelf, closing my eyes, and allowing Serendip to choose for me. As you say, you encounter dross this way. But you also have a pure encounter with Serendip, and when she smiles upon you she is a babe indeed. I suppose it is understandable that, ticket prices being what they are, most people want to have a pretty good handle on what they are going to pay to see. But how many times have we seen trailers that show *all* of the high points of a film? Then, when we see the film, we find ourselves not simply absorbing the experience but waiting for those scenes to appear... Even a cultural warning "not to reveal the twist ending" is enough to distract me during the viewing, as the very expectation of a twist makes me consciously try to sort it out. I'm put in mind of the people who lined up at midnight for release parties for the last two Harry Potter books, bought their copies, headed home to read all night -- then trumpeted key information on the internet, glorying in being "first." What is it about *first*? I have sometimes made the mistake of reading the general postings on news stories, the "feedback." And if you trace them back to the beginning, the first postings seconds after the news story was posted, it will be something like: "HAHA HA Im First YOU ASSHOLES! You all SUKK!!" (Actually, that is a direct quote.) I try to feel sorry for these people whose self-confidence is so low that they have to wait, fingers poised over the keyboard, to first graffito a fresh wall. But it is difficult. It saddens me that the wonderful experience of encountering a work for the first time has somehow been deformed into a competition. And it bewilders me; whenever I identify a pattern as competitive my next thought is, what is the prize if you win? The prize here should be people enjoying the recall and discussion of a shared media experience, gaining insight from different viewpoints as they compare and contrast their experiences. But the prize for so many seems to be some brief paltry shoring-up of their self-image.
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