Last Monday the genre internet—which is to say, basically, “the internet”—seemed starkly divided into two camps: Those who’d been holding their breaths for up to twelve and a half years, and those who were still recovering. I don’t like the physical act of reading high fantasy, so I haven’t read the books. I do have a habit of devouring wikis having to do with these long epics I’ll never actually read, or the rules of roleplaying games I’ll never play, and I’d been following the story for at least ten years, but that doesn’t seem like a normal behavior.
Plenty of people have, of course, read the Song Of Ice & Fire series since A Storm Of Swords was published, and we all have geek friends that love nothing better than to either coyly tease with non-spoiler spoilers, or answer direct questions: I bet most of us probably do fall somewhere between those camps in one way or another. Either way—unspoiled, by the way, herein—it was an explosion.
Which is fine. Personally I didn’t care too much about the characters involved, for various reasons. My favorite character on the show is Stannis Baratheon, joined this year by the odious Roose Bolton—again, not really normal behavior—but before that, Robb was a biggie. I do wonder what it would have been like to be there, live, at that moment, fully engrossed and losing it.
But since I won’t ever know what that’s like, having made a conscious choice back at the beginning to know certain things about certain people, I’ve contented myself with the consequences and outgrowths, the curious qualities and characteristics of this particular time we are all having together.
The most pleasing thing to me, even more than the fact that the Red Wedding managed to be such a surprise for so many people, was the outreach of the week the followed, in which the entire internet seemed to round itself up to congratulate itself on having kept the secret: Long-term book-readers who still remembered a decade later what it was like, people who caught up more recently, the fellow Spoiled, all deserved—and got—a pat on the back for keeping their traps closed for once.
I love it because I love positive reinforcement, I like the idea that when the next Red Wedding rolls around, in whatever medium or form it takes, there will be part of us, collective “us,” that remembers how nice it was to be thanked and appreciated for being cool this time—and maybe think twice about being a dick about whatever the next thing is.
I think part of it is that live TV is such a special thing these days, in our movement toward DVR and on-demand and everything-all-of-the-time. Special not just in the “we’re all in this live event together” way, although of course that’s true too, but more special in terms of the fact that we do it less and less, so that the historical moment of it is a rarer thing.
People weren’t lining up outside bookstores, easy targets for the “Snape Kills Dumbledore” trolls: They were in their houses, either alone or with book readers and fellow fans who watched, hungrily, to see their friends’ and family members’ minds slowly fall apart.
There will always be trolls, there will always be lulz, and that’s fine. Being a young person is full of experiences and opportunities to be crappy, it’s one of the certainties: You act crappier when you’re young because you’re not done yet. You’re still figuring it out.
But in this case I think there’s a larger moment at issue, that maybe we’re too embroiled to notice it, because we are moving into the future in a very complex way: Not all at once, but piece by piece. The ratings system is hopeless, just like SoundScan is hopeless, and anyway ratings don’t matter because nobody watches commercials anyway, and the whole thing is just a slow-moving dinosaur. And of course, industries react as quickly as they can, because companies exist to find revenue and squeeze it out of us, so even this is less true—has become less true as I was writing this sentence.
How can we talk about spoilers anymore? Books that get turned into TV shows that you can watch at-will, knowing that the internet is waiting to pounce, and to spoil. Knowing that merely complaining about the existence of a spoiler confirms it, making the spoiler police the spoiler-in-practice. Or even worse, the kind of already spoiled people who complain about spoilers just in case. Just to prove they are themselves in the know. All of us, calling for walls that don’t exist anymore, that barely make sense anymore.
Or think of Netflix. The new season of Arrested Development was what, the third streaming show that premiered all at once, which has the weird effect of clamping down the news cycle, the media-critic cycle, into nothing (and the effect it has on the critiques themselves, even worse). What’s a spoiler policeperson, or self-proclaimed superfan, to do? How do you prove that you know more, that you love more, that you used to love more but now you win the contest to be the first person to get bored? The entire conversation falls apart.
But again: That’s just the moment. We find ourselves at the birthplace of something new, coming out of the falling-apart bones of a thing which is itself fairly new, and so on. TV is less than a hundred years old, the broadcast system we’ve supplanted and fragmented and destroyed is itself in its infancy. We have that strange inborn, fallacious tendency to privilege our era above all others, as though cavemen were watching the Simpsons at the same time we were in junior high.
“It gets better” doesn’t really help in too many circumstances, but I think about it this way: Less about an answer to our current slippery attempts to nail down a specific spoiler policy for the entire internet, or establish an Arrested Development viewing schedule that preserves the greatest pleasure for all concerned, and more about where it is going.
Because I think this is about a paradigm shift in the way we view media, period. We talked about this a few weeks back, but I want to talk about it again in this context: The movement from physical objects to ones and zeroes, from discrete releases to always-on availability, has much more far-reaching consequences than simply extending “I loved it first” hipsterism into the eternal now. I think it means erasing “I loved it first” from the equation altogether.
And I think this current disruption in the way we talk about the media we’re supposedly sharing is just the first outward sign of that. We can’t talk about it not because the world is changing too fast, but because the world already changed, and this is how that becomes apparent.
Every season of Mad Men is the worst season of Mad Men, to somebody; nine times out of ten that’s because it’s the first season they’ve watched live, after finally catching up on DVD or online. The new Arrested Development was crappy for this reason or that reason, maybe legitimately or maybe because we feel stuck for something to say. Something like The Killing gets lambasted in an orgiastic Two Minutes’ Hate, because most of us were there because of the buzz and not because we actually enjoyed it: What a relief, then, to join the chorus saying the Emperor wasn’t ever really wearing anything at all.
The bigger geek buzz something has, the more quickly we turn, because of the immense pressure we feel to have an opinion, to share that opinion, and in the absence of a worthwhile or considered opinion, it’s always safer to go negative. (That’s just something we got from Gen X: Irony as a defense against ever being wrong.) There are a million ways to enjoy something—because it speaks to you, because you get to share it with other people, because you’re told eventually it gets good—but only one way to hate things: The grand “meh” that presents itself as a statement of opinion, of fact even, but really just says “it’s for somebody, but it’s not for me.”
And this too, this confusion between “I like it” and “It is good” that fuels so much useless internet banter, is something that makes less and less sense the further we go from the physical economy to the information economy. Is it really worth forming and shoring up an opinion you don’t even feel strongly about—creating proofs and logic traps to establish irrevocably that something sucks/is great, or even creating hyperbolic, hysterical performances about things you will not care about in a week—when there are so many other things imminent and ready for your attention and consumption?
I feel very queasy, watching this week’s Red Wedding response videos. Most response videos—where a person is made to consume media on camera—make me uncomfortable, because they are performative in just this way. You might be upset by the Red Wedding, but your grinning geek friend holding a camera on you, salivating for a response, is going to produce one.
An attempt to create and preserve a real connection, an authentic response, goes Heisenberg on you: Being observed, even if you’ve never heard the term “Red Wedding,” means you’re primed and ready. The opposite of the intent. It’s fun to share, the impulse makes sense and there’s nothing wrong with any of it, but the self-consciousness of it all creeps me out. (The least creepy way to do it—with a hidden camera—is of course the creepiest possible way to do anything, so that’s out.)
But I do wonder if this isn’t also another symptom: A last grasp at the Live TV Event, translating this particular moment we’re in—in which large-scale media events are something we can share, only after the fact, only after spoiler warnings are issued and shibboleths uttered—into the language of YouTube and Vine, to say We weren’t there at the same time, but really we were. I have proof.
Not too far in the future comes the time when everything, all human entertainment that exists and has been digitally preserved, to which the continuing creativity and output of a world’s worth of artists (a commonality that gets larger everyday, thanks to that technology) is added, from which nothing ever withers and nothing ever falls away. So my question is this: What place will spoiler space and reaction videos and all the hollering find in it then?
There will always be kvetching, “this over that” and all that, just like there’ll always be trolls and lulz and Snape. But really, think about this for a second, and watch so much of the stuff that consumes us slip away: When everything is available all of the time, when your experience is less about consumption and more about curation—Icona Pop and Louis Armstrong, de Kooning and Bacon and Haring, Truffaut and Banks and Austen, Rumi and Rilke and Sexton—would you still need to say you got there first? What would “first” even mean? Don’t you think it’s more likely you’d be content to say yes, to each and every part of it that provokes you, and to share it with the people you love?
“We weren’t there at the same time, but really we were. This is all the proof I need. Here, let me show you—and then you can be there too.”
Image by graphic designer and illustrator Jenny Slife.
Jacob Clifton is a freelance writer and critic based in Austin, Texas. He currently recaps The Killing, Pretty Little Liars, Mistresses, and Defiance for Television Without Pity.com, and a new short story, “This Is Why We Jump,” appeared in the June issue of Clarkesworld Magazine. Check out jacobclifton.com, Twitter and Facebook.