On the Nature of Spoilers

If you are someone who participates on the web in any way, you must be familiar with the concept of spoilers. The general idea is that learning information about a work of art prior to experiencing it for yourself will negatively affect your personal experience with that work. The question of why spoilers have become a big issue is fairly obvious. What is more interesting is what the proliferation of spoilers says about the state of contemporary popular culture.

In the olden days information traveled relatively slowly. If you wanted to learn the twist ending to some new Alfred Hitchcock movie without seeing it yourself, you would have had your work cut out for you. Nowadays, unless you are completely non-social, you will be bombarded with information. It actually requires effort to avoid learning new information. As we all know, it is extremely difficult to intentionally un-learn information. The fact that learning is easier than not learning tells me we live in a truly amazing time.

There is another factor, though, that has resulted in increased prominence of spoilers. An increasing quantity of the works created in modern artistic mediums are of a nature that is very prone to being spoiled. Serial, as opposed to episodic, television shows are perhaps more popular than ever. Literature, especially graphic literature, is also increasingly serial. Multi-volume series, such as Harry Potter, are much more prevalent than self contained novels. These popular plot structures that keep the audience constantly in suspense of what will happen next are much more easily spoiled than works in other styles.

I, like most people, am a fan of surprises. For some psychological reason, pleasant things give people more joy when they are unexpected. Thus, when you become informed about a good thing that will happen, you feel as if you have been deprived of some joy. It’s as if knowing there is a yummy batch of cookies waiting for you when you get home will diminish the flavor of the cookies. I think most people can empathize with this feeling.

On the surface, a spoiler seems to be no more than a ruined surprise. This is why they are widely despised. Though, on the fundamental level, spoilers are merely information about a work of art. If you’ve ever been to an art museum, you know they post small cards associated with every piece to provide relevant information. In many cases the information on these cards does not merely enhance enjoyment of the work, but is in fact necessary to have any amount of appreciation for it. Why is it, then, that some information about a work of art can enhance the experience, while other information can diminish it?

In my experience I have found that the truly great works of art are still great no matter how much information you know about them. For truly epic works of art, I believe that learning more information about them can only serve to enhance the experience they deliver. This line of thinking flies right in the face of common conception, but I will show you that it holds true.

Think of one of your favorite jokes or comedy routines. Since it is your favorite, you have undoubtedly seen or heard it before. You already know all the punchlines. Yet, because it is your favorite, you must still find it funny, no? In fact, it is because you find it funny every single time, despite having committed it to memory, that you hold it so dear. If the logic of spoilers holds true, no joke should ever be funny if you know the punch line. However, we see in reality that the best jokes are funny no matter how often they are repeated. It is only the sub-par jokes that lose their power after their secrets are revealed.

The greatest film of all time, Citizen Kane, is the perfect example. Long before ever seeing the film, I knew that Rosebud was the sled. This was largely thanks to Warner Brothers cartoons making jokes about it. My knowledge of the ending did have an effect on the experience I had watching it for the first time, but it did not ruin it. I actually watched the movie as part of a film class in college, and the professor taught us a great deal of information about the film. I feel very lucky to have been able to learn so much that I never would have seen watching on my own. Knowing this extra information greatly immensely increased my enjoyment of the film.

For one final example, let us look at the Mona Lisa. Most people know that the Mona Lisa is a special painting, but those who have not had an art education, like myself, are typically not aware of what makes it so special. If you knew nothing about the painting, seeing it really isn’t that exciting. It’s a relatively small painting of a smiling woman. Personally, I had no appreciation for the painting until I watched this video. After learning about exactly why the Mona Lisa is so famous, I am now find myself fascinated by it. Spoiling the Mona Lisa for myself has made it possible for me to enjoy a painting that I previously found unremarkable.

When you think about your favorite works of art, and the truly great works from history, I think you will agree that one common trait they all share is that they are immune to spoilage. They are all enjoyable multiple times over. Learning more about these works makes them taste better. For an artistic creation to be truly great, it must be evergreen.

If you agree with that, then I think you must agree with the conclusion that follows. It seems that for much of the popular art created today, the enjoyment is diminished when the works are spoiled. If enjoyment of these works increased with more information, as do the great works, then people would not be trying so hard to avoid spoilers. Therefore, I believe it is safe to say that the spoiler-prone works are not all that great. If they were truly amazing, we would be trying to learn more about them, not less.

I’m as much a fan of surprises as anyone. The element of surprise is a necessary tool in the arsenal of any creator. Having surprises ruined is indeed upsetting. I just feel that the effort required to avoid spoilers is not really worth it. Unless you decide to become a hermit, it will only become more difficult to avoid spoilers as time goes on. If a story is spoiled for me, and that ruins my ability to enjoy it, then it probably wasn’t a great story in the first place. If something is truly awesome, then all the spoilers in the universe can only make it greater.

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