Monday, May 28, 2012

What is a spoiler?

As I write, the internet is rolling on the floor wetting its collective pants about the Avengers movie. Sadly, nobody's playing Patrick MacNee's role, since it's not that Avengers; it's one of those things the American comics industry loves to do when sales get flat, which is to suddenly decide that in order to follow the story of the one character you care about, you must now buy six times as many comics, and heaven help you if you haven't been buying all of them all along. I'm not kidding; this thing is a direct sequel to at least half a dozen other movies, none of which I've seen. It's divided my Twitter timeline into four parts: complaints about Amendment 1 in North Carolina, which I wrote about last week; cryptic utterances about shawarma, which I gather is a foodstuff which plays a role in this movie; pleas for people to not spoil it; and everything else.

So now I'm going to witter on about spoilers. By the nature of the discussion, below the fold will be unmarked spoilers roaming free, for things including but not limited to: Lord of the Rings; Star Wars, The Sixth Sense, A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones

You have been warned.

So what is a spoiler? Spoilers occur when a story takes an unexpected turn. A good example of a spoiler which is unlikely to provoke ire among geeks is revealing that Frodo, at the climax of Lord of the Rings, claims the ring as his own instead of destroying it. A somewhat more controversial example is the revelation that Darth Vader is the father of Luke Skywalker. Some people don't mind revelations like this; other feel that they spoil their enjoyment of the story, hence the term "spoilers". My own opinion varies, but I can't really be sure until I've actually seen the movie, read the book, or what-have-you.

Typically, it's considered polite to wait a reasonable time before openly discussing potentially spoiling material. Of course, opinions differ on what's reasonable. I generally measure it in months, while for others it's hours. The nature of the spoiler matters in this as well. Some spoilers are large (Bruce Willis's character in The Sixth Sense) while some are small (for instance, revealing who gets viewpoint chapters in later instalments of A Song of Ice and Fire can constitute a spoiler, given the series' impressive body count of major, well-developed characters) and large spoilers should remain forbidden longer than small ones.

It's also considered polite to warn of spoilers, and to require that they take positive action to view. Warnings are often missed, though, and concealment is not 100% reliable, since it usually relies on CSS tricks to detect certain HTML markup, insert a custom style in which the text and background are both the same colour, and rely on users highlighting the text to read spoilers. This naturally breaks when a user is forcing certain styles, as is not uncommon among those suffering from colourblindness. I'm actually somewhat unusual in not doing that, despite having on occasion submitted complaints regarding accessibility to site owners.

But is an oblique reference to a single incident a spoiler? It depends. In some cases, it might be; mentioning "the Red Wedding" around geeks will generally result in a debate on spoilers, a discussion which will stray rapidly into spoiler-heavy territory, and a comparison of reactions, which will generally range from "I sped up to find out what the repercussions were" to "I threw the book across the room and haven't read a word he's written since then". That said, I don't consider the oblique references to shawarma a spoiler; they're a cunning method of generating interest in both the film and the foodstuff.

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