By Emily Jackson
After surviving the long winter, fans of the HBO hit series Game of Thrones celebrated the premiere of season 6 this Sunday, April 24th. The interwebs are abuzz with theories, opinions, debates, and predictions of what to the rest of the season might have in store. Most of the debates are focused on the disputed fate of a beloved character that met the sharp end of a plot twist at the end of season 5. Fans are hopeful that a new season will bring explanations, as well as new content, new surprises, and new thrills. But countless fans unable or unwilling to watch the premiere must now prepare for a new threat: spoilers.
In our media-rich world, not only are there more and more shows, movies, and books worth spoiling, but also infinitely more ways for them to be spoiled. Everyone has their own strategies for avoiding spoilers. Some set up spoiler-blocking plugins on their social media or web browsers, or block out social media altogether. A few will seek out spoilers before they can be ambushed, beating them to the punch, while others (like me) stick to the classic technique of plugging your ears, shutting your eyes, and repeatedly yelling “NOPE” until the threat passes. Whatever method you choose, there is no denying that spoilers have become a significant factor in everyday conversation. This relatively recent development points to an interesting relationship between fans and media.
All the information about a beloved show, book, or movie is important to fans because it plays a vital part in their connections with each other. In his book Beyond Culture, anthropologist Edward T. Hall described cultures that use relational communication styles and rely heavily on insider knowledge as ‘high context,’ versus ‘low context’ cultures that use straightforward, explicit communication (Hall, 1976). As a high context community, fandoms not only talk about a show or book, they use it to shape the way they communicate. Without a thorough knowledge of a story, it is almost impossible to understand the fans. So, while fans are normally eager to learn as much about a show as they can to better connect with their fandom, the widespread fear of spoilers indicates that some information fans would rather gain through individual experience than from their fandom community. In this article, I argue that fans maintain a careful balance between individually-experienced and community-accumulated information that is important for both the fan’s independent enjoyment and their fandom membership. Spoilers disrupt this balance, and by investigating spoilers we can understand it better.
If you were to greet a stranger with “valar morghulis,” you’ll probably just confuse them, and maybe motivate them to leave your presence more quickly. But if they happen to be a Game of Thrones fan, they’re more likely to greet you with the traditional High Valyrian response, “valar dohaeris.” That’s because “valar morghulis” is not just a greeting, it is a reference that speaks volumes about your media involvement, interests, and identity as a member of the fan community.
Fandoms are relatively high context subcultures. Fans use their favorite show, movie, or book to develop a rich vocabulary of references, traditions, and social mores that is almost
incomprehensible to non-members. The more a fan watches and reads, the more they are able to discuss with others. The more they discuss with other fans, the more integrated they become in their fandom community. Therefore, fans are constantly looking for more information and ideas about their favorite media, not only for their own entertainment, but also to facilitate more community involvement and solidarity with their group.
However, spoilers present a problem with this reasoning; while fans devour new information about their favorite franchise to facilitate more involvement with the community, they just as actively avoid ‘spoiler-y’ information. The term is relatively young, having come into common use in the 1970’s as fans began utilizing email and online forums to connect with other audience members (Zimmer, 2014). The social expectations and mores surrounding spoilers are debated with nearly every popular release and season finale.
Netflix claims that spoilers have become less consequential for today’s viewers because 94% will still watch a show or movie even after the plot has been spoiled (Rawden, 2014). However, I don’t believe this is an accurate depiction of fans’ feelings about spoilers. The widespread debates about spoilers in popular media, and the prevalence of spoiler-warnings in regular conversation paints a very different picture about the significance of spoilers for viewers. Netflix also found that only 21% of those surveyed believe it’s acceptable to spoil the plot of a movie or episode immediately after the release (Rawden, 2014). Therefore, I think it’s safe to say that people still care about spoilers.
Merriam-Webster defines ‘spoiler’ as information “that can spoil a viewer’s sense of surprise or suspense,” but I believe this, too, fails to capture the social significance (Merriam-Webster, 2015). Spoilers do more than just ruin the surprise; they rob the viewer of the opportunity to experience the narrative, the suspense, and the surprise on their own, and free from preconceived opinions or expectations.
Although fandoms act as high context, collective communities, (where the content shapes the way members communicate along with a collective identity), the individual’s independent ideas and opinions about the story are just as important for their community involvement as their knowledge of story itself. Fans don’t just share information and theories, they share their feelings and their impressions, which feed into their theories, ‘headcanons’, ‘ships’, and other fan topics. Spoilers can tarnish those first impressions, potentially robbing fans of important cultural capital that could have been used in fan discussions. Spoilers disrupt a fan’s carefully negotiated equilibrium between independent and group experiences.
By investigating spoilers, we uncover a fascinating relationship between the individual fans, the content, and the fandom community. In the case of these plot twists and surprises, the blank slate experience becomes more important to the individual’s experience than the accumulation of information is for the individual’s community experience. This is because the individual’s first impressions and feelings about the content are just as important as the content itself, and play a significant part in the individual’s involvement with, and relationship to the fan community.
Spoilers are and will continue to be important because they impact not only the entertainment experience, but also the social experience of fans. By exploring the role spoilers play in the social landscape, we can better understand our relationship with media and how media shapes our relationships with other fans. Today, there is an abundance of great movies, TV shows, books and games, so all fans must fortify themselves against the constant threat of spoilers. Because in the game of spoilers, you win or you die.
Emily Jackson is a recent graduate from the University of Edinburgh, where she earned her Masters of Science in Social Anthropology. Her dissertation explores fandoms and fan groups as online communities and their growing efforts to change the world through social activism. Emily’s research interests in human interaction and the social importance of narrative have fueled her passion for the academic study of fans and geek culture. In the future, Emily hopes to continue her education and eventually become a professor of Anthropology. You can find Emily’s dissertation in its entirety at her Academia.edu profile.
Hall, Edward T. 1976. Beyond Culture. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press.
Rawden, Jessica. 2014. New Survey Finds People Aren’t All That Bothered by Spoilers Anymore. CINEMABLEND. Retrieved April 20, 2016.http://www.cinemablend.com/television/Survey-Finds-People-Aren-t-All-Bothered-By-Spoilers-Anymore-67937.html
“Spoiler”. 2015. Merriam-Webster. Retrieved April 20, 2016. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/spoiler
Zimmer, Ben. 2014. Spoiler Alert: How Spoilers Started Out. WSJ. Retrieved April 20, 2016.http://www.wsj.com/articles/spoiler-here-we-reveal-how-the-term-began-1412965772