“First” or “Spoiler”? Conflicting media expectations vie for Olympic gold

The “spoiler” claim has emerged in recent years as a curious symptom of modern-day media ubiquity. We want our iPhones, our digital clouds, and our on-demand instant access to everything. We want to be “first!” (a phrase some web-site readers go so far as to vapidly append to stories and blog posts). Except, of course, when we don’t.

The Olympics flap over NBC’s premature promo-ing (and the ensuing network apology) underscores the tension between two cultural expectations media must satisfy: the fastness of information reporting (media as ends), the slowness of mediated experience (media as means). Which is why NBC affiliates are trying to split the difference, encouraging people to watch their televisions as if they were radios: Just look away while the latest results about Michael Phelps display onscreen. One wonders how many people actually follow through on the medium’s startlingly bizarre (and metaphorically suicidal) directive to “stop looking at me.”

Historically, the presence of fewer media, combined with the televisual tyranny of broadcast scheduling, forged a social contract that eased the tension between immediacy and mediation: immediacy would wait (let’s say about a day) for mediated events to unfold. Industrial oligopoly and cultural desire had successfully conquered the circumference of the Earth and corralled U.S. viewers into prime time.

But now the contract has been shredded. The web waits for no one—including other media—delivering immediacy and mediation without attempting to schedule time (or shift it). In a sense, television slowed us down; it organized the physical world toward anticipated “destinations” that TV Guide dutifully mapped. Under pressure from the web, television must now on occasion—especially around event-based broadcasting, such as the ratings bonanza of the Olympics—revisit old battle scars over what to share, and when.

If this is an episodic struggle in television programming, it’s daily warfare in the web trenches. I can’t recall in recent memory an online film review that isn’t either peppered with “spoiler alert!” headlines or besieged with posts decrying the presence of spoilers. Pity the poor art and media critics working in the digital age, who must risk reader wrath as they sort out, by dint of practice, what really constitutes a spoiler. Perhaps Google Chrome itself should come with a digital sticker declaring, “Warning: The Internet Reveals!”

Less facetiously, I’ve stumbled on my own share of Olympics spoilers in the past week, such as when Facebook friends post their congratulations before events have even been broadcasted. It’s okay, friends! But the ferocity of many spoiler claimants suggests a larger grief with the incursion of ubiquitous, unruly media. This is not just about one sporting event or film review, but rather a profound cultural problem with the speed and fluidity of digital information. Information now resists easy compartmentalization, isolation, and avoidance; in the web, almost anything can constitute the front page—an RSS feed, a link, an email, a phone’s power-up screen. Life today is akin to perpetually walking around with the day’s newspaper under your arm, a new edition materializing there every second. Calling out “spoiler!” becomes the user’s only act of resistance, a way to police information (its content and its flow) within the media space. The only other option, it seems, is nuclear: hitting the “off” button and living like a survivalist, cut off from the modern world. (One technological “solution” to what is really a social/contextual issue about technology’s use is a proposal to employ the ROT13 cipher and copy/paste translators for sensitive information.)

When television tells its audience to stop watching the screen, we’ve arrived at a place where media production and reception have lost the balance between the values of information firstness and un-spoiled, mediated experiences in stories, games, competitions, and other forms. How various media attempt to sort it out will keep media scholars transfixed (and, hopefully, employed). I, for one, can’t look away.

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