Spoilers, the hedgehog's dilemma

From a cultural background, it probably unlikely that material in tv series are more 'spoilt' than large cinema releases. Hollywood-style productions exist to a large degree within the hype machine, and the way films are adminstrated to the the audience in convenient doses does not belie the audience's acceptance that the most they can ever allow a film to be 'unspoilt' is two hours. In light of the celebration of repeat-viewings, cultural reference and mockery of films a tv series should have less to fear from spoilers or fan-participation than films do since its larger amount of material suggests it may be an ocean within an ocean.

            Henry Jenkins looks at an internet discussion group during the airing of Twinpeaks in the US in his article, '"Do You enjoy Making the Rest of Us Feel Stupid?": alt.tv.twinpeaks, the Trickster Author, And Viewer Mastery'.[1] Attempting to establish the characteristics of those involved he writes, "not surprisingly, these technically-oriented viewers embrace the VCR, like the computer, as almost an extension of their own cognitive apparatus" (p56). This hybridisation of technology and viewer is a basis for a fan's melding with tv series. For too long viewers have been told that there exists a forbidden zone between them and the Creators, rather than be invited to break-down media into its constituent human-mallaeable parts (which facilitated its creation in the first place).

            It is probable that similarly tv viewing was for local groups as well, which would increase stage-predictability of cultural production. The potential for 'mass spoilers' then becomes a academic concern. One question I would pose is does it 'spoil' the text to (have the means) to dispprotionately analyse it? If so, how is one supposed to set limits to the ability of viewers to extend their 'cognition' of the film. If denial of technology failed to work will cultural connotations take over to discourage enduser posession?

            It is clear that series become a fundamental part of viewers, responding to a news article speculating on Twinpeaks one wrote: "This isn't Murder She Wrote or Nancy Drew where you get all the clues and have to piece theme together before the detective does. It's more like peeling an onion, with new and exciting possibilities etched on each succeeding layer." This is very much a protection of individual indentification with the text from assimilation into a formula. I would suggest that if it is impossible to predict the outcome of a text by its historical progression then anything that could 'spoil' the text must be new information. Alternatively, a spoiler must 'speak' to the viewer in some way if it is signalling that the viewer has failed to grasp the clues already presented in the text in a reception that will again be quite personal. Information from a series is expected to be paced in a slow dance and a spoiler is some manipulation of that form. Additionally, the process of participation manufactures more memories of the text's experience in line with the viewer's desire to integrate it into their life.

            What choices the viewer takes to communicate their ideas about the series however may be less individualistic as they are culturally driven. As Sherry Turkle notes forum behaviour is "characteristic of hacker culture" where many are "after the thrill of the triumpth", a demonstration to peers and those who are curious (quoted in Jenkins, p55). This seems to be the "I was first" culture, which on popular forums amounts to writing a post straight after a news item with the message body "first post". Additionally Jenkins comments that the Twinpeaks posts "deflect rather than explore personal questions" (p60), suggesting that there is some sort of 'vision' that is sought by the group as a whole. Any specificity of background brings viewers together as a community, and becomes the best standard of measure for competion desires, with the Twinpeaks forum filled with "did anyone else see...", "Am I the only one who thought..." lines. Whether wish-fulfillment or not they represent the opposite of spoilers, serving as a 'spoiler-warning' even. It is to respect all possibilities of fellow viewers' pace with the series while at the same time suggesting that the information is most likely universal.

            The very motivations of discussion come under focus in the forum when it is posed, "Do you enjoy making the rest of us feel stupid?" (p59) If analysis and plot theories are 'non-spoiling' and not a question of showmanship then would viewers accept the invitation to give the ideas a go while watching the series? Are they akin to spoilers only for producers who fear 'external' information should replace the product? Is the information now flowing under its own accord? The recognition of the spoiler is that information can come from the most non-suspicious places due to this ubiquitousness. Posts come stamped with "possible spoiler warning" and even "probable spoiler warning" as Jenkins comments, "granting only slightly less authority to their musings than to the actual aired material" (p59).

            If the themes of a tv series then exist not solely with the producers then there is great room to rearrange the order of consumption of a text and indeed decide that presentation and order was never crucial in the first place. This would deflate the potential of the spoiler. Many will not remember exactly when they found out Luke's dad was Darth Vader. Is it possible that over time the sequences and temporarility of stories lose their surface significance? On the other hand, the complete acceptance of a text along with the memories of it at the time increases the range of methods in which their 'ideal' consumption be spoilt. Jenkins writes "many of the net contributors watched the series alone" (p57), and it is possible that spoilers are not only temporal but of the experience, implying then that the experience is non-linear and revisits itself before the cue is there to symbolise 'the end'. Is the internet then simply the temporal forwarding of archives, only incoherent because it is a complete mess unsorted? Possibly the contemporary expectation is that the individual form their own coherent experience of texts and cultural events, as the referential nature of memory makes this almost inevitable.

            Choice of spoilers then becomes the focus for textual experience. In terms of range the internet and 'information bandwidth' accessibility highlights that they are no longer limited to words. Handycam-recordings within theatres, downloads off p2p networks from countries ahead of the rest of international airings could rate as the spoiler in its pure form. Although this basis has been considered by generations of viewers years after a tv release with video library adoptions, the specific nature of this occurance prevents it from being the target of antagonism. Nonetheless, as a method of consumption with 'video on demand' the primacy of the text is definitely changed, if you assume that things like flashbacks are meant to remind us of scenes witnessed long ago, that cliffhangers rely on viewer interaction or that commercials have some subliminal interaction with the text. Generally these are choices which are also made at the time of production. Underlyingly this questions the self-will of viewers to be given a text at the hands of the producers, whether it should be considered good discipline or not to refrain from viewing something ahead of its mainstream distribution rate it rates as a participatory event. In view of intertextual readings this would seem to hold more cohesively than theories of tension as a commercial device. Rather, the collectivity in the face of new tv series tends to focus on signs of the time which viewers/posters exist in, and being the only unique reason to consume at a synchronised rate it is probably the only concession most interested viewers will make when putting themselves open to spoilers. This line between individual freedom to choose and interest in period specificity is perhaps symptomatic of a text's inclination to be interpretated across all possibilities of presentation, though this would statistically suggest that spoilers are inevitable even by 'random' encounter.

            The dilemma, clearly, is in the continuity of interpretation in a complex series like Twinpeaks, since tension plays a specific role. As fans begin to envisage this with jokes like "A robber walks into a bank and says to the teller, 'Give me all your money or I'll tell you who killed Laura Palmer" (p63), a sort of deinvestment in the proven worth of informational power is played out. "Disappointment seemed inevitable" Jenkins says, and perhaps spoiler-people simply fast-forward this to its logical extension. In a sense this leads to an awakening from fandom's blurred parallels with reality, since the fascination with netiquette in discussion groups, and the pride of individual ideals in experiencing a text along with the fear of losing it is a substitute for the social conventions 'outside' of it; in one investigation of a Star Wars convention a television presenter jibes one fan, "Do you want a spoiler? You will die alone!"

            To have 'heard' about the program is to have its experimental attitude broken already, in considering the author as omniscient narrator/feeder. It is a question of levels, and what you were spoiled with to make you want to look for something; a reason why you can't accept this spoiler being the end all in the context of the series's design. Ultimately, that the spoiler person has missed the point themself. Viewers deploy a cycle of revenge, that you are never defenceless and with your wits can never lose. "Twin peaks isn't just some bit of tv fluff where various clues can just be thrown away or ignored at the whim of the writers" (p64) one fan writes as the first level of defence: it will be impossible for you to spoil it. In many ways, the individualistic aspects of viewership become intensified by the competition of community awareness. Those who distribute spoilers are the wraiths amongst the sharks and other schools, yet staying in packs is a surefire way for viewers to survive after the end, when they spoil it for themselves.

[1] Full of Secrets: Crtical Approaches to Twin Peaks, (ed.) David Lavery, Wayne State Unit Pres, Destroit, 1995


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