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Beware: A ruined experience could be only one fateful mouse click away.

In the hands of Internet trolls and kill-joys, the "spoiler" is the hated Achilles heel of Internet culture, creating the ever-present risk of wrecking everything we hold dear.

Is that a bit dramatic? Well, that’s how we treat them.

Steven Weintraub, editor of the movie review website Collider, tweeted his ire upon encountering an unnamed site revealing a “Man of Steel” spoiler in a headline. One follower asked for the site’s name because “spoilers deserve shaming.”

However, for a society that shames spoilers, it sometimes feels like we have little left to spoil. “Man of Steel” is yet another comic book adaptation and the supposed spoiler itself is unsurprising, as it merely references classic Superman mythology.

References are our pop culture bread-and-butter and the fine line between “clever allusion” and “surprise-ruiner” is one we’re constantly negotiating. Our memes, viral videos and inside jokes create a vernacular through which we talk about one thing by talking about something else.

Critic Harold Bloom discussed it in the 1970s with the “anxiety of influence,” the feeling that new works can never compare to previous artists’ achievements. David Bordwell’s concept of “belatedness” echoes the same anxiety in filmmakers. We inevitably use existing material when we create, whether by allusion, remake or re-imagining.

As a result, we’re left with headlines like “Undeniable Proof that ‘The Walking Dead’ and ‘Toy Story’ Have the Exact Same Plot.”

Plot points for films and games start to blur together, with the recent trailer for “The Wolverine” join recent and upcoming releases such as “Iron Man 3,” “Skyfall,” “The Dark Knight Rises” and the reboot of “Tomb Raider” in demythologizing the hero, brutally beating up the protagonist to humanize him or her. And there’s the old favorite of villains who get themselves caught by the heroes or their allies on purpose, from the Joker to Loki to Silva.

Our referential, trope-laden vocabulary is colliding with our desire to still be surprised and spoilers are the fall-out. It's hard to avoid them, even when we try.

The deliberate spoiler is the offspring of the meme generation, yet another way of gaining the upper hand in a conversation. The more virulent brother of the obscure pop culture reference, the spoiler not only shows off someone’s knowledge, but also attempts to ruin for the other person any organic encounter with that knowledge.

It’s an aggressive grab for control in the pettiest of situations.

Spoilers and obscure mentions are intended to isolate small details and belittle “outsiders,” focusing on single moments rather than larger contexts. By contrast, real allusions, when used only to enlighten, add meaning by making connections with a bigger picture.

So how do we preserve the few surprises we have left?

Be less snarky and more sincere. Have straight, earnest conversations with others, and make allusions only when they will add complexity and depth to a conversation. Talk about surprises and repetitions, because both have something to say.

Most importantly, don’t shame the person who, intentionally or not, spills the beans. The spoiler gives you the information, but you let it ruin your experience.

For even when we can’t control what someone says, we can always control our response.


Reach the columnist at or follow her at @EMDrown

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