A Question of Time – Part One

A couple of weeks ago I spoke at the Immersive Writing Lab. I talked about how we might apply the principles of Linked Data and the Semantic Web to drama. How we could use URLs to represent characters and plot events, and then use hyperlinks to string them together in a way that represents the story as a web. One thing that gets brought up time and again, though, when discussing stories online, is the issue of spoilers. In traditional storytelling, the author has almost complete control over the way in which the story is told. They can control what information the audience knows about various characters and events, and when certain pieces of information are revealed. Indeed, this is, in a lot of ways, part of (but by no means all) the joy of reading/watching/listening to a story. The way things are revealed, twisted and so on. I’m not going to discuss here whether spoilers are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ – personally I avoid spoilers, but even if I do see them, there’s still great fun to be had in seeing how something is told, not just what happens. So I’m not a vehement member of the anti-spoiler brigade, but I don’t actively go looking for them.

Of course, one of the main things the Web has done is to almost shatter the author’s control completely. Firstly, once a story, or part of a story, has been revealed to some people, then the very nature of the Internet means that this information will be shared. Of course, this is nothing new, people have been sharing stories forever, but the global nature of the Internet means that this information can be distributed far, far more widely and quickly than ever before. What is a blessing for news, is a nightmare for drama. Secondly, the disparity between the publication of information, and the audience’s knowledge of that information, is highlighted, and potentially widened. As Marcus Brown has pointed out, in a very effective way, this disparity is also nothing new – six people in the same carriage on a train might be reading the same book, but they can all be at different points in the story – there’s no direct link between the author releasing the information, and the consumption of that information. Whereas on TV, radio, and online, the time element is a factor. If you imagine a six part TV drama, where one audience member has been watching from the beginning, but another has started watching the first part only after the third part has been released, then the danger is plain. If the information contained within the second and third part is available (and particularly if it has affected the state of characters or events from the first part), then if you ask your browser to find ‘the current state of knowledge about X’ (which is essentially what a browser is doing when you request a web page, or find something on Wikipedia), you’ll be ‘spoiled’. Put simply, the issue is as follows – as an author, I want to publish information about my story, but I still want my audience to experience the story being told. The desire to preserve the incremental revelation of information, as it were.

But it’s not just drama where this is the case. Part of the frustration with news coverage online, as I’ve mentioned in the past, is that it’s always in the ‘now’. You can never get anything apart from the state of the world now. When it’s the backstory that will really give you context. Similarly, archivists want to preserve what the state of knowledge was about a thing at a particular moment in time. And it’s these sorts of considerations we’ll have to bear in mind if we’re really going to develop not just storyworlds online, but the ‘telling’ part too. I think we need to develop a more fine-grained approach to finding information on the Web – rather than a binary choice between not knowing anything about a thing and knowing everything (and/or only the latest version of information about a thing), I think we need to learn to ask questions, and that includes a question of time. More thoughts on how we might achieve that, soon.



  1. I often “save up” episodes of TV dramas so that I can watch them all back-to-back. This can lead to seeing the odd spoiler on twitter or facebook. But I find the greatest danger of seeing spoilers is when watching multiple shows which have crossovers. For example DW/Torchwood/SJA, Holby City/Casualty/Holby Blue or Stargate SG-1/Atlantis/Universe. If you don’t watch these shows in precisely the right order it can spoil quite a lot. I’d love to see a RDF predicate (or similar) which says that episode A spoils episode B, so that I know if I’m going to watch them both, then watch episode B first. This could then be used for dramas with crossovers, “making of” shows, review shows and comedy parodies.

    Though this does raise the question of whether knowing that something contains a spoiler could, in fact, be a spoiler in itself…


    1. Good point re: crossovers. There’s a pair of episodes of Buffy & Angel which tell similar stories from different perspectives, which always struck me as very cool, but yes, one perspective could be seen to spoil another. Ideally I guess the predicates would be at a slightly lower level than Episode A spoils Episode B – i’m thinking more like Event A in Episode B to Event C in Episode D (though perhaps they’re the same event from two different perspectives…. Whatever the case, it’s certainly a call for linked information between episodes (and indeed also including behind-the-scenes shows… Event C etc.)


  2. I agree that spoilers can happen at a lower level than episodes. But I think the event level is too low. Events occur in the fictional universe; spoilers occur in real life (in what I’d call the storytelling layer).

    But I think from a practical view, there’s no need to label things as spoilers at a lower level than the smallest segment that is available to watch on its own – be that an episode or a clip. As a viewer, I don’t really care if the end of the thing I’m watching spoils the start of it, because I don’t plan on watching it backwards.


  3. I not sure that the issue of spoilers is as problematic as you make out. Remembering my Film Studies and in particular Hollywood film noir where in many instances is wasn’t a case of “Whodunnit?” but WhyTheyDunnit?” that was the main driver of the narrative.


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