Hypothesis: In an attention economy, spoilers may actually be theft or vandalism.
Corollary: The “spoiler warning” is an evolving social cue, and an important social cue for avoiding harm.
We live in an attention economy. They used to say knowledge is power, but now there’s Google — information is everywhere, and cheap. What matters is getting people to actually listen. That’s what companies will kill for right now; your attention, even if it’s just for a fraction of a moment.
As such, our attention is our most valuable resource. The moment when we choose what to watch, browse, or read, or listen to is what keeps businesspeople up at night. With on-demand viewing and home entertainment systems that rival theaters, there is actually too much good entertainment … far more than we consume on any reasonable media diet. So we talk about giving up shows to make room for new ones, having a long list of shows we’re going to get around to as soon as we finish binge-watching the show we’re watching now, marathon-viewing of Oscar-winners, and so on.
What we consume isn’t just enjoyment — it’s an investment. Our attention is precious, and we know that. Every minute we spend watching Breaking Bad is a minute we’re not spending watching Orange Is The New Black, and the storytellers and executives behind each show are frantic to keep our attention. (Because of words like Metrics and Uniques and Conversions, which scare most normal people to death.)
So attention is important, and what you watch is an investment. But what are you investing in?
Are you engaging with a story to find out what happens next? Not really. That used to be the model, in the age of the old TV serials. But now, you’re binge-watching Mad Men from season 1. If you want to know what happens to the characters, you can just read a synopsis, or jump forward to the latest episode. The information is at hand already. So you’re watching for something else. What?
The experience. You’re investing your attention in entertainment for an experience.
It’s not about who lives or dies on Game of Thrones. It’s about experiencing the entertainment as it was constructed. Sure, you know that the gag about the show is that everyone dies. But HOW they die matters, and, even more than that, how YOU FEEL when they die. That’s what’s really crucial. That’s what you’re there for.
(Are you still reading this? Jeez, thanks for the investment of attention. I’m almost done, I promise.)
Spoilers, therefore, are a serious matter. We all like to laugh at people who freak out about spoilers, but think about it this way: spoilers are experience-destroyers. If we are investing our most precious resource (attention) to gain something (an experience), and then that’s destroyed by something else (spoilers), how is that not a serious social problem?
Let’s to a little substitutionary thinking. Labor used to be our most precious resource, by which we gained property, which could be destroyed by theft or vandalism, or sometimes just simple carelessness — all of which was punishable by law.
I’m not trying to say that a spoiler is as life-destroying as a bank-robbery. I’m not crazy. But I am saying that what we care about, as a society, is shifting, and the emotional reaction of someone who’s had an experience spoiled for them — anger, resentment, shock — is not unlike that of someone who’s had hard-earned property destroyed through an act of malice.
All of which is to say, when someone says, “Spoiler warning” before talking about a finale or yells “SPOILER ALERT!” after someone else has failed to do so, maybe they’re being a little less geeky than we might think. Maybe there’s a new social contract arising, in which “Spoiler warning,” has the same ring as, “Watch out, danger,” and “SPOILER ALERT!” sounds a lot like “STOP, THIEF!”
Stray iterations of the idea:
- Malicious spoilers are probably theft, since you’re robbing the other person of their experience, so that you can have the experience of witnessing their dismay.
- Accidental spoilers are probably more like negligence or reckless driving, in that you’re not benefiting from the offense, but you’re still being destructive.
- Sharing spoilers without warning in written form is like vandalism, because it is malicious, but you’re not experiencing the dismay firsthand — you’re merely enjoying the feeling of power that comes from transgressing.