You’re Not Afraid of Spoilers

You’re afraid of the future.

Kit Harington as Jon Snow in Game of Thrones.

You know nothing, Jon Snow. Why are you so scared of spoilers?

Photo by Helen Sloan/courtesy of HBO

Google may have long since reneged on its promise not to be evil, but it’s still trying to do some good. In a recent patent filing, the company declared its interest in doing away with one of the most common sources of online consternation: the unwanted encounter with a spoiler. Far from making the Internet safer, however, this system merely treats one symptom of a larger sickness that the Web itself produces.

In an age of endless conversation, spoilers may be the one thing that can shut most of us up. Try to talk about Mance Rayder’s fate in the latest Game of Thrones, and you’ll be shushed by those who haven’t seen it yet. Keep talking and you’ll be shunned, guilty of committing that most modern of faux pas, the refusal to respect the sanctity of the spoiler warning.

Describing Google’s patent, the Guardian claims that spoilers have “been around ever since … the very first story was told.” But have they? To the contrary, the idea of the spoiler is surprisingly new, and in its contemporaneity it speaks to our deep anxieties about the future. In a well-researched BuzzFeed article, Ariane Lange observes that the rise of the spoiler warning coincides with the popularization of TiVo, online streaming, and other time-shifting technologies. While she’s surely right to connect the pause button to the dawn of the spoiler, our fear may have less to do with the control the button ostensibly grants us than with the devices that let us press it.

Prior to the 20th century, the word spoiler was most often used in reference to the King James Bible, where it means “destroyer.” In the Book of Jeremiah, for example, we read, “And the spoiler shall come upon every city, and no city shall escape: the valley also shall perish, and the plain shall be destroyed, as the LORD hath spoken.” Here, spoliation is damnable, but it is also divine, and because it comes from on high it is inevitable.

Though the biblical term is a prophetic one, it wouldn’t regularly refer to unwanted revelations until the rise of the Internet. Many accounts locate an early use of the term in an April 1971 issue of the National Lampoon. According to the Awl’s Nate Freeman, however, it next makes a significant appearance in 1982 during early Usenet discussions of the second Star Trek film, where a user offers an all caps “SPOILER ALERT” before revealing plot details from a film that had come out just four days before.

In the next decade and a half, the term would spread throughout various online fan communities. On his podcast about The X-Files, Kumail Nanjiani has traced spoiler’s appearance in early online discussions of the show, which premiered in 1993, just as the Internet was winning widespread recognition. “I’m seeing the Internet rules for spoilers being developed. I’m seeing it happen where they’re like, ‘Don’t put anything in the subject line. Mark it clearly,’ ” he says in reference to an early episode.

At first, Nanjiani observes, some commenters were puzzled by the term, treating it as some obscure bit of Internet jargon or maybe X-Files lingo rather than the fundamental standard of cultural decency it would soon become. One commenter from January 1995 exemplifies this tendency, asking, “What the hell is a spoiler?” On his podcast, Nanjiani cites another who remarks, “Hey, I’ve been watching the show for a while and am wondering if I missed something. What are spoilers?” As time passed and as more users crept into the forums, it would become familiar. Looking forward in the archived threads, one finds the word appearing with ever greater frequency as time passes, until it becomes essential to the basic grammar of the conversation.

It is no accident that the term spoiler becomes common in connection to science fiction stories, narratives that frequently dramatize our ambivalent relationship to the days ahead. Likewise, it unsurprisingly becomes more popular as those stories become grimmer: Where Star Trek’s 23rd century is largely utopian, the looming 21st century that Mulder and Scully face on The X-Files is much less so. (Remember that the subtitle of the franchise’s first film is Fight the Future.) We start worrying about spoilers when we start worrying about what’s coming, all the more so when what’s coming seems closer.

Sometimes, however, we debate spoilers just as vociferously when we turn to fantasies of the past. Game of Thrones presents a particularly striking example of the complicated interplay between time and spoilers. Because the television series has hewn unusually closely to the books on which it’s based (though that may be changing), those who’ve read its source material come to each episode with a great deal of knowledge about what to expect. This threatens to layer spoilers on top of spoilers in discussions of the show, as readers gleefully anticipate events that mere viewers could never predict. Before long, that situation will be reversed, as the show will surpass the plot of the novels. Because the show’s creators claim they’ll be working from George R.R. Martin’s plot outlines, this means those who prefer the books may have the subsequent volumes spoiled years before they have the opportunity to read them. Their less well-read siblings, however, will be safer than ever before, finally watching the story as it unfolds.

More importantly, though, the great Game of Thrones spoiler-shift speaks to the problems of speed that are at the heart of spoilophobia. Some elements of our culture—television production in the age of binge-watching, for example—are moving faster than ever before. Meanwhile, others—such as the laborious work of writing a mammoth novel—seem much slower by comparison. When fans worry that Martin will die before he can finish his epic, they’re really worrying that he won’t move quickly enough to thrive in an era that adores him.

At this point it should be no surprise that spoilophobia comes into its own in the Internet age. Conversation on the Internet is conversation at the speed of light. No one knew this better than the early adopters who popularized anti-spoiler culture. Where discussing science fiction with fellow admirers once meant writing into a fanzine or waiting for a regional convention, the Internet gave its users almost immediate access to one another. But technology doesn’t just move quickly, it also spreads quickly; the Internet’s first users had a perfect vantage as it did so. As things speed up, they change faster, making us all the more conscious of time passing, as in the hypnotic stutter of a hyperlapse film. Spoiler alerts are markers of that consciousness, tacit admission of the fact that some are sprinting while others merely trudge along.

The anonymous editors of Wikipedia’s “spoiler” entry matter-of-factly observe that “enjoyment of fiction depends a great deal upon the suspense of revealing plot details through standard narrative progression” (citation needed). Nevertheless, some research from 2011 referenced on that very page suggests that we may actually enjoy a story more when we know what’s coming. Maybe this is because spoilers actually allow us to brace for impact, preparing us for our collision with the brick wall called tomorrow. It’s not the content of a spoiler that worries us but the mere fact that there’s something to be spoiled.

In its modern sense the word spoiler presumably derives from the imperative “don’t spoil it for me.” To spoil is, of course, to let something go bad—to let the milk sour or the bread mold. Food spoils when time gets away from us; spoilers arise when culture already has. But in this case culture is just a sign of larger conditions, a sign, most of all, of the way technology transforms our sense of time.

Spoilophobia, then, follows from a simultaneous experience of acceleration and feeling of deceleration: Our culture seems to be moving faster than ever while we find ourselves struggling to keep up. The spoilers we dread are dispatches from a future that’s already here, a future that will be past by the time it arrives.

Read more of Slate’s Game of Thrones coverage.

This article is part of Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, New America, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.