Reveals, Cliffhangers, Endings and Spoilers In Participatory Media

Authors and media companies often try to build buzz or create an event around their work by holding back some information about it. The ending of the final Harry Potter book is a good example of this, as is what happens at the end of a series of Doctor Who. It’s not just that the book or programme isn’t released until its launch date, its that an often legally enforced code of conduct creates an active conspiracy of silence around what the denoument of the story will be.

It need not be the final events of a series. Episodes of a television series (or individual books or films in a series) can end in cliffhangers. Within an episode, developments in characters or plots can reveal new information that fundamentally affects the story or the setting. Mysteries or puzzles can be solved with the right information.

Many fans do want to experience cliffhangers and reveals without any prior knowledge. The unfolding of the story has a structure that they do not want ruined. For them, any information about what actually happens is a “spoiler”.

Even tightly controlled media corporations can leak spoilers. For a participatroy project this isn’t a danger, it is a certainty. All the information about the plot is available on a Wiki or in a mailing list. Spoiler-sensitive fans may not look in such places but search-engines, bloggers, and other fans may.

Locking this information away both breaks the participatory model and makes finding and promoting spoilers more appealing for internet trolls. Other strategies are needed in order to fit the square peg of reveals into the round hole of participatory story creation.

1. Inner Circle.

A small group of trusted individuals develop the reveal and keep it secret until it is needed to be produced. This can only work if the group have a trusted leadership position.

2. Just In Time.

To avoid anyone knowing what happens with a cliffhanger, don’t write the resolution until after the episode featuring the cliffhanger is released. For spoilers or endings, create the details as late as possible before the release deadline.

To ensure that this does not make the plot incoherent, do set plot points and objectives ahead of time (“Book Seven features a final battle and resolution”) but don’t detail their outcome (“somebody dies but we don’t know who”).

3. Secret Vote.

Produce a number of possible outcomes and vote in secret on which will actually be used. This is different from a straight vote-driven plot in that the ending is stil created by part of the community. This will take some good community management but could be a good way of managing at least minor reveals.

4. Private Ideas.

People keep ideas for reveals secret but recorded until they are needed, at which point the best can be chosen.

Reveals and participation are difficult to bring together, but answering how they can be brought together will be important for when people start asking how they can worry about who dies at the end of the story in participatory culture.

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Posted in Free Culture