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Spoilers Can Be A Moral Good, Actually

A spoiler celebration incoming!

By Alex Mell-TaylorPublished about a year ago 8 min read
Photo by janilson furtado on Unsplash

I have always been skeptical of spoiler warnings because it seems to be more about preserving an individual's "social capital" (i.e., securing benefits from social relationships and networks) than about art. The fact that many people don't care about spoiling old media or non-plot-related parts like its score or special effects makes this whole concept suspicious. If going into a piece of media "raw" is the best way to view it, why should its age matter? Why even have trailers or promotional material?

You can see how this concept can be debunked rather quickly. While there are probably some edge cases, like spoiling the punchline to a joke before it's completed or revealing the culprit to a whodunnit someone is reading or watching, in most cases, spoiler alerts seem more about popularity. At best, they are about allowing people to be part of an in-group, and, at worst, they protect companies from criticism. As I write in Spoiler Alerts Need To Die:

“When companies use spoiler paranoia to avoid meaningful criticism, it ultimately ends up hurting everyone. The audience member is hurt because they become a passive consumer unable to engage with a work critically, and are forced to consume a lot of terrible ideas for the sake of “fairness.” Content creators are hurt because they fail to learn why audience members don’t like their media.”

While I don't disagree with many of that piece's points, over the years, I have developed a more nuanced take on this issue. Spoiler alerts aren't just bad for the sake of "art," but actually obscure, actively predatory behavior.

Conversely, spoiling things can be good for our mental health.

The Case Against Spoilers

I am not going to rehash the origins of spoiler warnings because I did that pretty extensively in my previous essay (read it here), but I want to stress that spoiler alerts are relatively new. Humans have not always demanded that we refuse to discuss plot elements for media. You can point to a review of the first Star Wars movie where the reviewer "spoils" the entire ending, and no one at the time cared. We have had a societal shift in the past six decades over how we review media, and it's worth criticizing if that new norm is even good.

Again, I want to clarify that there are some cases where you should respect people's media-viewing habits. If someone is in the middle of consuming media — literally mid-consuming it — and you decide to interject yourself into that activity to reveal the ending, you are being intrusive, and I am not interested in defending that behavior.

However, I am worried about what we do outside those moments. Word of mouth is still and will probably always be one of the most effective ways a piece of media gets promoted. You tell your friends — either in person or online — that you love some new show, and then they tell their friends, and pretty soon, it can be a hit.

Yet if we can't talk about plot elements and how they resonate with specific themes, then that opinion becomes flattened to a simplistic input: a piece of media is good, bad, or okay. We can't tell a person we like a movie because of, for example, its anti-capitalist ending or dislike it because it centers the male gaze on acts of rape. Those conversations get gatekept out of the conversation so that the only people that can have nuanced opinions about contemporary media are consumers.

From the perspective of viewing media as art, you can see how spoiler alerts might be stifling to a critic like myself, but it's worse than that. Spoiler alerts trap us into unhealthy forms of behavior.

It's a cliche at this point to talk about how things like our phones have become psychologically addicting, often being compared to the "new cigarettes." Americans consume more media than they did several decades ago (13 hours and 11 minutes a day on average), and it's not the best for us. There is ample evidence that excessive smartphone usage negatively impacts our mental health.

Yet just focusing on media addiction through an individualist lens ignore the fact that this pattern of behavior was a concerted design choice by most modern tech companies. I often reference Nir Eyal's Hooked when talking about this concept. This is considered the "bible" on how applications can take advantage of human psychology to develop internal triggers (i.e., ingrained patterns of behavior) that propel us to use a particular product or feature. As he writes in Hooked:

“Once we’re hooked, using these products does not always require an explicit call to action. Instead, they rely upon our automatic responses to feelings that precipitate the desired behavior. Products that attach to these internal triggers provide users with quick relief.”

Nir Eyal was an alumnus of B.J. Fogg’s Persuasive Technology Lab based out of Stanford. It was not uncommon for Fogg’s students (such as Kevin Systrom — co-founder of Instagram) to use these findings in their emergent Internet ventures, many of which have become the foundation of web 2.0. These companies aimed to create Pavlovian triggers among their users, all with the aim to gobble up our attention.

Netflix drew upon this philosophy of digital design to make sure that its site creates these internal triggers. Its website is organized so that you are constantly looking for new media. You log in, and content almost starts playing immediately, all to the point where hours can pass before you notice anything.

This applies to the content it's airing too. The shows that Netflix makes are often structured to take advantage of this understanding of psychology. Hooks are established at the end of an episode, not to advance the narrative or to serve the plot but to get you to keep watching. As Dominic Vaiana writes in Better Marketing:

“Netflix has turned the art of cliffhangers into a science. The entertainment powerhouse has amassed a global audience of religious-like loyalty — and made a good chunk of change in the process — largely in part because it keeps loose ends untied and resolutions withheld. It takes every ounce of viewers’ willpower to press stop after each episode — and that is exactly how the folks at Netflix want it.”

Most modern content streamers have adopted the Netflix model for their viewers to "binge" content, and it's unhealthy. One reason we watch so much television now is that, because of these triggers, our brains often desire to know what happens next. We become hooked, even if, retrospectively, we come to not like the show very much.

This is why in recent years, one of the most significant ways to stop yourself from being hooked on a show that you consider mediocre is to either pause midway through (something that requires willpower in limited supply) or to spoil it for yourself. Many people will look at the synopsis of a product on Wikipedia to learn the ending, to stop the show from hijacking the part of our brain that craves completion. Some will even actively seek out spoilers to see if they want to watch a show in the first place.

This trend is why I don't have much respect for "spoiler warnings." It's not just about "the sanctity of art" but the much larger issue of deciding to insulate a predatory model from criticism.


Again, I am not telling you to interject yourself into someones viewing experience. You don't need to parachute into someone's home and tell them that what they are watching is terrible — media consumption is and will always be subjective — but when we refuse to talk about media at all, we risk people falling headfirst into this predatory system.

Sites like Netflix, Disney+, and more are designed to keep you hooked. They have departments devoted to bypassing your willpower and hijacking your psychology. These companies make content that saps away your time and attention at the expense of your mental health, and the only natural antidote to it is spoilers. We often have to spoil something in order to get the willpower to stop watching or reading it, and I believe that says something alarming about the state of content.

When, through the course of normal conversation, we reveal to a person who hasn't watched something that a show doesn't end satisfactorily or that it's half-baked for reason X or Y — that it was designed to have as little substance as possible while keeping them constantly engaged— we effectively are giving them back their time. What would have taken them hours to realize was a waste of effort becomes a choice. They are given the knowledge to see if they still want to make that decision.

Now, if you still want to avoid consuming any critical analysis of a piece of content before watching or reading it, that is your right, and I will respect it. I have no desire to dictate what you should or should not consume. Like what you want to like.

However, question why this habit of watching media "raw" developed for you and what people and entities it benefits.

pop culturetvsocial mediaentertainment

About the Creator

Alex Mell-Taylor

I write long-form pieces on timely themes inside entertainment, pop culture, video games, gender, sexuality, race and politics. My writing currently reaches a growing audience of over 10,000 people every month across various publications.

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