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The Joys Of Spoiling

<em>Game of Thrones:</em> spoiler magnet.
Courtesy of HBO
Game of Thrones: spoiler magnet.

In the age of the Internet, the act of spoiling is easier than ever before. Through live-tweeting and message boards and comments sections, the information is out there and spreads quickly.

But why do some people enjoy revealing certain information about stories — surprises and finales and more — before others have had the opportunity to experience it?

We could tell you what we think now. But that would spoil the rest of this story.

Spoliation Nation

There are various ways to avoid spoilers online — like don't go online — and some people go to great lengths to do so. And there are many ways to signal that a secret is about to be revealed — through Spoiler Alerts, for example.

But there are also countless opportunities for people who like to spoil things to pretty much ruin everything for everybody.

Television critic and reviewer Alan Sepinwall of HitFix constantly runs into readers who spill the plot twists of popular shows prematurely. Game of Thrones, for instance.

People blurt out surprises. They give away secrets. The truly devious create Twitter accounts with spoilers in the names of the accounts. When a death happened in a recent episode, for instance, at least a half-dozen different accounts appeared with some variation of @CharacterDiesInThisCircumstance as the name.

To spoil plot points, Alan says, people would use the accounts to send him seemingly innocuous messages like What's up?

Is Spoiling Always A Bad Thing?

Nicholas Christenfeld, a psychology professor at the University of California, San Diego, says that the consequences of spoiling may not all be negative.

His 2011 study at UCSD — with co-author Jonathan Leavitt — used short fiction to look at the effects of spoilers. Their experiments involved participants reading stories that were either as-is, with a spoiler paragraph in the beginning or with the spoiler included in the story.

The findings suggest that plot is overrated, NPR reported. The experiment found that knowing the end — ahead of time — actually enhanced overall enjoyment. The researchers did not predict the finding, but Nicholas says that in retrospect, the answer seems obvious.

He points to Shakespeare's plays, which are sorted by their endings, as examples of how knowing the plot in advance does not diminish the experience. The same goes for operas, too, where the audience is wise to familiarize themselves with the story before the show.

Director Kevin Smith has even reveled in revealing movie tidbits on his Hulu original series, Spoilers.

The Reasons For Spoiling

Alan Sepinwall still has a hard time understanding the psychology of spoilsports. "Surprise isn't the single most important part of a story," he says. "I liked this week's Game of Thrones even though a bunch of jerks had spoiled it for me in advance — but it's also not something that should be discarded if the storyteller intended for things to be surprising."

So what does drive the spoilsport? We have a few notions:

  • Showing off. Some spoilers simply enjoy being know-it-alls. The UCSD study, according to Nicholas Christenfeld, suggests that people who know the way a story turns or ends enjoy an insider status, in the same way that gossip and telling people secrets might be exclusive. "You know something that makes you special," Nicholas explains, "and the only way you can demonstrate that you know it is to tell it to people, regardless of the effect it has on them."
  • Intimidation. Writing on the Gaia message board, a user called Legend of the Moon says: "I enjoy spoiling the ending for people. And scaring away noob fans. These things bring me joy." In this case, spoiling — and frightening neophytes — is like a mild form of online bullying.
  • Respect for the storyteller or the genre.At the start of the new season, Alan Sepinwall had a tough time dealing with the two camps of Game of Thrones fans — the readers of the books and the watchers of the TV series. "It got so ugly that I turned off comments on all reviews," Alan says, "and set up separate message boards — for the readers and the non-readers." That experiment lasted about a half-hour into this new season, he says, before a book reader went in and posted spoilers on everymajor upcoming plot development. Alan says that some people who have read the books feel that those who have not are somehow unworthy and deserve to be punished by having things spoiled for them constantly.
  • Bottom Lines

    Though Alan has had a fairly strict anti-spoiler policy throughout his blogging years, he says it's not always possible, or practical, to avoid spoilers. And there are differences of opinion about what exactly is or isn't a spoiler. For instance, Alan doesn't consider casting news to be a spoiler because it's information that is available to everyone.

    He adds: "I do what I can to avoid active spoilers — like tweets or article headlines — but at a certain point you have to live in the world."

    Lauren Katz is a social media intern at NPR. You can follow her @Laur_Katz.

    The Protojournalist:Experimental storytelling for the LURVers – Listeners, Users, Readers, Viewers – of NPR.@NPRtpj

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    Lauren Katz
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