Spoilers and manufacturing shared experience

I'm fond of mentioning the study that showed that in many forms of fiction, having it spoiled ahead of time makes the experience better, not worse. Still, though, I avoid spoiling things, and I don't spoil things for people. It still feels like the wrong thing to do -- not just because I'd be violating their consent, though that's definitely a reason to not spoil, but, even though I know spoiling a story will make them like it more, I feel like I'd be screwing up their experience. I've spent a lot of time thinking about what that feeling is, and I've been kicking around this thought for a while:

Part of the function of fiction is the manufacture of uniform shared experiences between massive numbers of people.

I don't know if there's already a literary theory about this. Certainly, the ideas of cultural canons, that popular stories contribute to the collective consciousness, etc., address similar ideas.

But, like, take the thing that happened in the second-to-last episode of season 1 of Game of Thrones. Let's say you haven't been watching it. You missed it when it came out. You didn't pirate it or follow up with HBO Go. You totally missed that moment, in its place in the strict chronology of media events.

But you haven't been spoiled. You've managed to avoid all the commentary and discussion and reference that would have told you what happened. You could, if you wanted, go watch GoT season 1 all the way through, tonight, and you would get to experience (pretty much) the same moment of surprise that GoT fans everywhere (who hadn't read the books) experienced.

On the other hand -- if you were just one season behind, you decided to jump on the bandwagon right before s2 started, and you marathoned it then, but you read an article on Wired about the implications of that moment for TV as a medium or something -- then your experience of that moment isn't going to be surprise. It's going to be the culmination of a different experience -- the feeling of having seen, understood, and appreciated a whole network of worldbuilding, character development and theme.

That might be a much deeper aesthetic experience to have in your first pass through Game of Thrones. You might have enjoyed that a lot more than the hypothetical person from two paragraphs ago.

But you aren't part of that shared world that moment created for the GoT fans who went in un-spoiled.

So if you were watching the show because you're interested in groundbreaking television media, that's great. But if you started watching because your friends all watch it, and you wanted to join in the conversation at work, I suspect there's a good chance you'd have preferred that maybe-shallower experience that you get to share with your friends.


So that's why I think people instinctively recoil from spoilers, even those of us who 'know better.' That's what some folks are trying to protect when they absolutely refuse to even be in the room when people talk about stuff they might, someday, maybe want to see. You know, the folks who don't even want to hear that there's a twist. They don't even want you to tell them if you thought the movie was good. Because it's spoiling that ideal experience that maximizes their presence in the moment the media is creating.

A lot of people defend that by saying it's closest to what the artists intended. I think that's just a rationalization -- I think they just can't put their finger on 'It's the closest I can get to sharing this with my friends who've already had this moment.'


Interestingly (I assume you find this interesting if you've gotten this far) this argument can be used to defend spoilers, in certain cases. Spoilers follow for Harry Potter: The Half-Blood Prince. If being spoiled to a piece of media is so common that you can reasonably expect that was all your friends' experience of it, then you'd be missing out by going into it blind.

When Harry Potter: The Half-Blood Prince came out, a copy leaked in advance, and some horrible people on the internet organized a campaign to ruin it for everyone. They picked a key spoiler, late in the book with a lot of significance: Snape kills Dumbledore. And they spammed it. They made graphics, posters, there were people driving up and down the lines outside strip malls shouting it with megaphones. News stations actually reported on the fact that people were spoiling it.

But the thing is, that became the most common experience of the book. Everybody at the very least knew the big ominous thing was coming. Almost everybody knew what it was. The shared experience of the book became wondering if it was true, imagining how it could come to be, appreciating the complexity of the event and its place in the narrative, slowly forgetting just because of the size of the book, and being hit that much harder by it when it came.

The more complex, holistic enjoyment of the spoiled ending became the community-building shared experience of the pure text within the Harry Potter fandom. That moment in time and space both became a unifying event outside the text, and made the experience of HP fans within the text richer and deeper. So, basically, that trolling campaign backfired in the most profound and complete way possible.


I'm not saying that we should start spoiling everything for everyone. For one thing, that study only said spoilers improve a lot of fiction -- not all. Mysteries and stories with big twists still seem to be better if you go in blind.

Plus, spoilers on that scale would be hard to replicate by any means other than tricking malicious internet groups into thinking they were causing damage, and that seems unhealthy. And -- again -- not spoiling stuff for people who don't want it spoiled is an issue of consent, too, and for reasons I hope are glaringly obvious it's a bad idea to advocate a cultural attitude that says 'I can violate your consent if in my opinion you'd enjoy the outcome.'


Mainly I just wanted to try and unpick the thinking behind my not wanting to be spoiled on media even when I know spoilers should theoretically improve my experience of that media -- and, possibly, reassure other folks who've also had that worry.

I'd love to get comments on this one -- what do you think? Do you avoid spoilers because you want to be made to feel the same way your friends felt when they first experienced a text? Do you think that sufficiently widespread spoilers can change what state constitutes the normal experience of a text?