Social media is responsible for many things; taking pictures of food, Tweeting jokes only you find funny to a paltry number of "followers," digitally "checking-in" while mentally "checking out," creating an illusion of the perfect life while secretly crying yourself to sleep each night (just me?). But on top of insular indulgence, social media has helped to form online communities, in particular impassioned communities based on film and television shows that actively e-inject a healthy dose of adrenaline into the pulsing heart of fandom.
Fan theories are a creative byproduct of the rise of social media and online communities, with the interconnected nature of the world wide web allowing access to the collective mind of some of the planet's most meticulous keyboard detectives. Although a positive sign of support and engagement, there's a problem — fuelled by social media, the theories themselves are becoming so legitimate they spill over to spoiler territory, so much so that Lisa Joy, the co-creator of breakout TV series #Westworld, has suggested fans avoid Reddit.
Does this mean fan theories hinder the viewing of a television show? Is the modern quest to solve and share ruining the process of storytelling? Or is this level of engagement enhancing the sense of gratification, making viewers heavily involved, helping them to form devoted online communities? "In many ways, these fans are similar to academics," says Lynn Zubernis, a psychologist and professor at West Chester University, who identifies subsets of fans who "think deeply" about the source material without necessarily obsessing over it.
The Psychological Benefits Of Fan Theories
Zubernis, who specializes in fandom, highlights a number of psychological benefits explaining why people engage in such a way. Websites such as Reddit aren't called communities for no reason, and Zubernis sees "creating relationships and engaging in spirited discussion" with fellow fans as one of the biggest motivations. As well as being entertaining, these conversation between fans are "socially and intellectually rewarding." In many ways, online forums are an elevated, ever-accessible conversation down the pub, albeit one that never ends, includes an unlimited number of people, and has the benefit of added screenshots and video clips. There's only one drawback — no beer.
Of course, the age-old human desire to say "I told you so" after correctly predicting events is almost as much of a factor as simple escapism. Zubernis explains:
Developing personal theories is a way of taking back some of that lost control — almost a wish fulfillment, theorizing about how it would be if canon did in fact 'go their way',"
Now just entering its seventh season, #GameofThrones is a prime example of theory as wish-fulfillment, with the interesting twist of being right; after Jon Snow's murder in Season 5, many fans refused to accept he was dead. Sure enough, he was resurrected the next season, despite HBO going to great lengths to keep his fate (and his hairstyle) under wraps.
There is another basic motivation: "It's just fun for some people," Zubernis says, "When we love something, we spend a lot of time thinking about it and conjecturing about it and hypothesizing about it. It's satisfying to do this, which is a psychological reward as well." Whatever the incentive, an increase in the thoroughness of fan theories, combined with the platform of social media, is shaping television from the bottom up. In turn, this keeps producers on their toes and forces them to avoid formulaic patterns.
Internet Speculation Is Older Than You Think
Dr. Henry Jenkins, a media scholar and Provost Professor at USC, has spent over two decades analyzing the media, and is one of the leading academics on participatory culture. Although covering a broad basis, on a rudimentary level, participatory culture refers to a relationship between media publishers and their audience that goes beyond consumer culture. Instead of passively watching, audiences participate, engage, create. Although this kind of interactive fandom is nothing new, it has been revolutionized by the internet and all that comes with it.
Members of such communities feel valued. Reddit is the leading archetype of a web space that allows communities to effortlessly and organically form, where anyone can share their two cents and, if their ideas catch on, gain a tremendous amount of support. "Audience engagement is the fuel that catalyzes contemporary television," says Jenkins, "television in the age of social media is television designed to be watched closely, to be discussed with others and be the focal point of conversations." Consequently, active engagement is a necessity for modern shows — research has shown that one enthused hardcore fan can have a ripple effect that attracts 20 extra people to tune in.
Using the internet discuss fandom with a group of cyber-strangers isn't as new as you'd think. Try to trace back the rise of feverish online discussion, and most will reach back to 2004's Lost, a show that sent the fan theory into overdrive. However, Jenkins identifies Twin Peaks as one of the first television shows to inspire "massive online activity," even though it aired 14 years before, in 1990. "With Twin Peaks, for the first time I was seeing critics say that the show had become so complex that no one could follow it, and the online audience saying the show had become so simple it no longer was that compelling or interesting," says Jenkins.
Theories Make Modern Television More Complex
Due to this disparity between "casual" and "committed" fan, Jenkins identifies a new requirement for modern television to be even more complex and to add extra mystery to fuel the fire of speculation. This isn't a one-size fits all approach, either — there's a different dynamic between shows that drip-feed, week by week, and "binge-ready" shows that release all their episodes at once. If a show is too easy to work out, that level of engagement will decline. A number of the most fandom-heavy shows in recent times have been those that have inspired the most engagement by deliberately inviting theories to blossom, such as Game of Thrones, Westworld, Rick and Morty, The Walking Dead and Mr. Robot.
"Theories are ways fans demonstrate their mastery over content. Fans want to dig into the crevices, fill in the missing holes, image what is not on the screen, speculate on the motives of characters, work through clues to mysterious, all in dialogue with each other," Jenkins says. By doing so, this also increases the motivation to keep returning to the show, to see how things unfold. While Zubernis identifies the desire to be right and wish-fullfilment, Jenkins provides another explanation for fan theories — to be wrong.
As smart as the theories are, most fans want the show's producers to be even smarter. When telling stories, there's nothing better than a narrative that goes in a direction you didn't expect, regardless of whether it's a direction you want. The only trouble is — as evidenced by Westworld and Game of Thrones (with some crossover with George R.R. Martin's novel series)— the participatory culture that is sweeping the web has formed a collective mind that often happens to solve the very mystery that was fuelling the show.
Consequently, the line between fan #theory and spoiler is eroding, Reddit thread by Reddit thread. Participating, digesting, engaging, or even logging on to browse through ideas now runs the risk of working things out a long time before they are revealed — the crux of the Westworld backlash. This upward trend in the accuracy of theories is then heightened by media outlets who report on them and spread them to a wider audience (guilty as charged) who don't instinctively want to engage in that way. But does this mean that meticulously thought-out fan theories and the resulting media reports are inherently bad?
The Spoiler Paradox And The Theory Of Mind
No. At least according to a theory known as the spoiler paradox. Keen to analyze the impact that spoilers have on the enjoyment of stories, researchers Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt from the UCSD psychology department undertook a study of spoilers and their impact. To test this out, they gave subjects 12 stories of varying genres (from murder mysteries to "ironic twists"). The subjects were then split into two different groups; one group read an unspoiled story, the other had the story spoiled, as if by accident, during a brief "oops, I shouldn't have said that" introduction. It looks like spoilers don't really spoil.
In fact, the study discovered that those in the spoiler group enjoyed the story more, across all genres. Although it sounds counterintuitive, this is down to the "theory of mind," a term used by psychologists to describe the human ability to empathize and understand the thought processes, motivation and behavior of others. Stories are a platform entrenched in this theory as they require the reader (or viewer) to attempt to understand the character's psyche, and why the act like they do. By revealing details of the plot, it increases the "theory of mind," allowing the audience to gain an even deeper understanding of the character's motivation. This explains why rewatching films and shows carries so much value.
If the story is of high quality, enjoyment comes from the structure, the unfolding of events, the interactions and small moments; it doesn't hinge on whether the subject knows what's to come. Look no further than Shakespeare as an example. That being said, the aforementioned study doesn't necessarily capture the despair of unexpected spoilers, when someone logs on to Facebook or Twitter one Monday morning to find out the biggest shock reveal of the latest episode of Game of Thrones. Let's just say that feeling doesn't fall under the umbrella of "enhanced enjoyment."
Ultimately though, theories are distinct from outright spoilers. The latter serves no purpose other than to sour the taste, to take something away, to spoil. The former does the opposite — it adds another level of depth, it energises and elevates fans from the sofa, allowing them to drift into their favorite fictional world, to join in, to take ownership, to create. If sometimes they're right, this is something to be celebrated, not scorned.
Do you actively engage in creating or reading fan theories or spoilers? How does it effect the way you watch your favorite television shows?