Contemplation: Spoiler Alerts, Wikipedia, and the Risk of Knowledge
There is an article in The New York Times from a few days back that discusses an issue between Wikipedia and performances of Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap” (note I am linking to the Wikipedia entry right here, so depending on your opinion of the matter you may want to avoid clicking on it. The article, titled “Spoiler Alert: Whodunit? Wikipedia Will Tell You,” addresses debate about the responsibility of the user-created encyclopedia in regards to spoiling the twist ending of the Christie play. Further, by implication, it questions whether or not Wikipedia should practice including spoiler alerts to prevent people from stumbling upon information which they do not want to be made aware of. I find this an interesting matter for discussion, because it can raise a number of additional question. However, I side firmly with Wikipedia, in believing that it is not the responsibility of the encyclopedia to make sure that audiences do not stumble upon information that reveals plot twists and mysteries of plays, movies, novels, etc.
Here is a simple, and generally, pretty sure way to make sure that plays or books or movies are not spoiled for you. Simply avoid reading any material that is obviously about that single play, book, movie, or what have you. This most definitely includes Wikipedia entries, as well as any other encyclopedic entries on the material. If you avoid things written about material then you are not nearly as apt to learn revealing matters about plots (sure, you might accidentally catch somebody talking about something on a bus or in a waiting line, but this can hardly be prevented or avoided). For those of us who don’t care about having a plot revealed or pre-knowledge of a twist ending, then it is more than easy to find out the information. Truth be told, for one who wish to be privy to the knowledge, they need only go to a library or book store, check out a copy of the item and flip to the last pages. Books don’t ever have a “Warning: Spoilers Ahead” insert, because the assumption is that people are going to read them all the way through. However, that assumption doesn’t stop somebody from jumping ahead to find what they will. Furthermore, any academic discourse on material like plays, novels, movies, etc. are apt to contain revealing matters about the materials plot, as it is more than necessary to formulate a good piece of academic contemplation.
Spoiler alerts, wherever they happen to be included, are a kindness but not a responsibility. The responsibility of not learning plot natures of material lie upon the audience to avoid over inquisition. Certainly individuals may want to read a review or information about a book they are about to read or a play they are about to go see, but this individual must assume a degree of risk, in that pursuing writings about a play, movie, or book, they may learn plot details. If the individual does not want to learn anything preemptively, then he or she should simply avoid any writings (or audio/video discussions) ont he specific material. However, if they do seek it out, that is their own prerogative, and the risk lies entirely upon them.
And does it actually ruin it, knowing, say, who the killer in “The Mousetrap” is ahead of time? I think not. Perhaps there is not as much of a surprise to the ending, but it would be quite unfortunate, if really all we could give “The Mousetrap” credit for was its surprise ending. I certainly think that seems to under appreciate the play as a whole, and Agatha Christie as an author/playwriter. Foreknowledge of a plot does not necessarily devalue an item, in fact in some ways it can provide an individual an opportunity to focus more on other details than be consumed by the suspense and curiosity of what happens. Sure there is a thrill to suspense, but it alone should not be deemed the entirety of a piece of work as such a work would likely be quite insignificant beyond a single viewing.
Here is a reality, we assume a certain “risk of knowledge” every time that we choose to read, watch, or listen to anything. Whenever we interact with a new text, whether it be written, verbal, or visual, we are bound to learn new things. There is always that assumed risk that we may encounter something that we are not happy about, whether it is a revelation of a plot, aq piece of knowledge we wish we didn’t have to know, or just an opinion or idea we disagree with. This risk is inherent in texts, and it should not be the responsibility of a texts creator to provide us with ample warning about what we are going to encounter. What is in the text is purposeful to the creator and intended, and if it offends, reveals, or the like, then that is simple what occurs. In the day and age of the Internet, we are more likely than ever to be made aware of knowledge that we may not have sought on our own accord, but we risk that every time we open a browser or choose to check our email.
In regards to the assumed risk of knowledge, I think that Philip Pullman makes a great point in this response to a question about his book “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.”
“It was a shocking thing to say and I knew it was a shocking thing to say. But no one has the right to live without being shocked. No one has the right to spend their life without being offended. Nobody has to read this book. Nobody has to pick it up. Nobody has to open it. And if you open it and read it, you don’t have to like it. And if you read it and you dislike it, you don’t have to remain silent about it. You can write to me, you can complain about it, you can write to the publisher, you can write to the papers, you can write your own book. You can do all those things, but there your rights stop. No one has the right to stop me writing this book. No one has the right to stop it being published, or bought, or sold or read. That’s all I have to say on that subject.”
Mr. Pullman is specifically addressing a matter of censorship in regards to perceived offensive material, but I think that the point, of assumed “risk of knowledge” is the same. We live in a textual world, and everyday we are guaranteed to learn new things (albeit most will be mundane and hardly noticeable, but they will be new) and it is bound to happen that some of what we learn will not please us. We can neither prevent nor avoid this, nor do we, as Mr. Pullman point out, have to right to not be occasionally shocked or displeased. We don’t have to like it, but it will occur. Our freedom is in regards to our choices. We neither have to read Mr. Pullman’s “The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ” or the Wikipedia entry on “The Mousetrap,” however, if we do choose to, we have assumed our own risk, that we may learn something that we did not want to know. The responsibility is ours and nobody elses. We can be upset, we can complain, but what we cannot do is change the knowledge that is provided to us, regardless of its nature.