Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Spoiled: Will You Embrace Or Avoid Spoilers For Star Wars: Episode VII?

As the rumor mill gets cranked into over drive for the next two years leading up to the release of Star Wars: Episode VII, I felt it was a good time to address the topic of spoilers generally, and the approach that I plan on following more specifically.

There is much debate regarding spoilers, in the age of serialized television, DVR's, binge watching and near constant social media use the avoidance of spoilers has become increasingly difficult.  TV watching in particular has become a communal event on social media.  Alas not everyone is on the same schedule, the differences between time zones or just the interruptions of daily life can lead us to consume our favorite media at times other than it's initial airing or release.

There are different approaches by different writers and publication on how they cover entertainment and how they handle the issue of spoilers.  The's Dan Kois proposed the following rules for writers regarding spoilers.

Unmarked spoilers allowed in text of articleSpoilers allowed in article headlines or in non-show-specific articles
Reality-TV showsAs soon as the episode is over.As soon as the episode is over.
Narrative TV showsThe day after the show runs in its normal time slot.Three days after the show runs in its normal time slot.
MoviesThe Monday after the movie opens.One month after the movie opens.
PlaysOne month after the play opens.Three months after the play opens, or when it closes, whichever comes first.
BooksThree months after the book is published.Six months after the book is published.
Operas100 years after opera's premiere.Never.

From my perspective the very concept of journalism embraces the transitory nature of events.  News is news because there are events that occur and must be highlighted within the shadow that those events cast. There is a never ending conveyor belt of events and as such if you don't cover the event with immediacy it becomes irrelevant or of greatly diminished relevance rather quickly. 

Spoilers and Star Wars:

Given the age of the original Star Wars trilogies and it's ingraining in pop culture we all know that the spoiler of Darth Vader being Anakin Skywalker and thus Luke's father is one that is ruined for almost everyone who was born after the films release.  But there are also other significant instances of spoilers such as the soundtrack for Episode I revealing that Qui-Gon would die in the film.  More signicantly we had the novelization of the original Star Wars film coming out in December of 1976 long before the film's release on May 25, 1977.  A New Hope was also spoiled by the Marvel Comics adaptation the first issue of which hit newstands in April of 1977. Star Wars and spoilers have a long history and the hunger of the modern fan community will only lead to more spoilers as media outlets seek to use the intense interest in Episode VII to drive viewership and readership.

What will this website's policy be?

I will approach Episode VII just like I approach other story telling that I cover on this site.  This site has no official ties to Lucasfilm and as such no fiduciary duty regarding information that may be revealed either to me or to others on the internet regarding Episode VII. As such I consider just about everything regarding the film fair game.  So in the lead up to the film, information such as setting, casting, plot synopsis, etc all will be discussed as news develops.  If a major plot twist or ending is leaked before the film is released I will almost certainly not discuss that on the website, just because I feel that that is going a step to far.

In any post that does involve story spoilers the headline of the post and the body of the post will both include spoiler warnings.  I will effort to keep headlines as vague as possible to avoid unintentional spoilers but I cannot promise that this effort will be 100% effective.

Once the film is released everything is fair game and I would anticipate a post as soon as I get home from the movie, followed by subsequent more in-depth posts to follow.

Testing the effect of spoilers:

Interestingly a 2011 University of California, San Diego research study by Jonathan D. Leavitt and Nicholas J. S. Christenfeld found that at least in literature spoilers don't ruin the enjoyment of the story, in fact study participants enjoyed the stories more when they were spoiled.

The experiment involved 176 male and 643 female test subjects in which they read three different types of stories, ironic-twist stories, mysteries, and more evocative literary stories. For each story the scientists crafted an introductory paragraph that briefly discussed the story and seemed to inadvertently include a spoiler of the ending of the story.

"Each experiment included four stories selected from anthologies. Each subject read three of these stories, one spoiled (with the spoiler paragraph presented before the story), one unspoiled (with the story presented without alteration), and one in which the spoiler paragraph was incorporated as the opening paragraph."

The results of the experiment:

The study found that in the case of the ironic-twist and mystery stories the study participants "significantly preferred spoiled over un-spoiled stories."  The evocative literary stories were still preferred in the spoiled condition but to a lesser degree than the other story types.

The authors of the study assert a couple theories that may influence these findings including the concept of "perceptual fluency" as well as "schema discrepancy theory."  The reach the conclusion that "In all these
types of stories, spoilers may allow readers to organize developments, anticipate the implications of events, and resolve ambiguities that occur in the course of reading." As a result of their findings the authors suggest that we are perhaps wasting our time try to avoid spoilers.

Now this study is focused on written story telling and doesn't deal with the visual story telling of films or television. The study also used short stories exclusively in their testing.  So I have some concerns that the spoilers my be less preferable in serialized storytelling in which there is a significantly higher time and psychological investment in the character, plot and their outcomes. On the other hand a film may be more analogous to a short-story than to a TV series, so this study may have more weight when discussing films.

What do I recommend?

I am not sure if I am the norm when it comes to spoilers or not.  I am not one to turn to the end of a book and read the last page before beginning. At the same time I don't fear spoilers and for stories that I love I want as much information about them that I can get as soon as I can get it.

As an example of why I don't fear spoilers, this past year I accidentally ran across an image of Robb Stark dead on a throne with his wolf's head in place of his own and the description that he had been killed.  Now this spoiled a rather significant plot point in the Game of Thrones TV series for me, but it didn't impair my enjoyment of the series a bit.  I didn't go any further, I didn't seek out how or when Robb was killed, but as season two progressed it became pretty clear that the end was coming soon.  The Red Wedding occurred in the ninth episode of season two, "The Rains of Castamere," is a delightfully gruesome episode and the shocking effect of the deaths in that episode were still startling and emotionally stirring for me.

As in everything in life I think you need to embrace what you enjoy and what makes you happy, if you prefer to stay spoiler free then you should try to do that.  I would argue that in the information age staying spoiler free is virtually impossible and that you shouldn't expect us to hold the spoiler train for those late arriving at the platform.  The voracious Star Wars consumer that I am will not be able to resist spoilers in most cases, what will you do?

SOURCES: Vulture, UCSD, Psychological Science, NPR.

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