Words: Paul Dean
This last month, I’ve become scared of using the internet. Free speech and freedom of expression have been terrifying me. I’ve had to avoid the news sites I use, as well as Facebook, Twitter and even Wikipedia. Chat programs, also, were too risky a prospect. I have the persistent fear that free speech will allow anyone, anywhere, as soon as they open their (internet) mouth, to vomit forth a gush of information about 'Doctor Who'. Vomit it all over me.
I didn’t watch the first 'Doctor Who' at the very instant it was broadcast and this proved to be a bad idea. Being the unsuspecting little puffin I am, I went online that day and, within seconds, was bombarded with information about the new episode. Twitter was bloody full of stuff, while many Tweeters also duplicate their Tweets to Facebook, adding to the massive amount of updates already on there. It took about two seconds for me to accidentally catch lines quoted from the show and see whole scenes concisely summarised before I tore my eyes from the screen and closed down everything I could.
I'm sure you're all aware that what is seen cannot be unseen, and the mind is no box or room that can be cleaned or emptied however and whenever one sees fit. I wasn't making the slightest attempt to find out anything at all about 'Doctor Who' but it didn't matter because the internet was convulsing one constant collective, unrestrained and untempered 'Doctor Who'-flavoured burp, which you could smell all the way from Hammersmith. Great.
This reflects a broader issue which we've increasingly felt the impact of over the last few years, whether deliberately or accidentally. Some of you may remember the release of 'Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince', which became the fastest-selling book up until that point. Bets were made on how the book’s conclusion and there was a concerted effort to simply keep its climax secret. Despite leaked copies, publisher gossip and suspected insider betting, 'Half-Blood Prince' managed to keep its secrets until after its release. Right after that, however, the internet happened.
Those who used the internet at the time may well have remembered how quickly and easily one key spoiler circulated, even so far as to become a meme, because it could be boiled down to phrases of just two or three words. These were copied, echoed and pasted all over the internet, all around the world, either maliciously, excitedly, or simply because people thought it was funny. Completely by accident, I bumped into the spoiler when visiting a popular website, when it was posted up by another visitor within hours of the 'Half-Blood Prince' going on sale in bookshops. It joined a host of increasingly famous spoilers that circulate the internet roughly in proportion to their brevity and their significance, including ones about 'Final Fantasy 7', 'The Sixth Sense', 'The Planet of the Apes' or 'Citizen Kane'. I even accidentally found one about 'The Great Gatsby'.
Being someone who adores narrative, I put a good story up among the very best experiences that human life can possibly offer (alongside tea, dogs, girls who swordfight and anything featuring William Shatner). I can't abide spoilers. They are cruel, petty, snide and simple things that destroy fun and that bring no goodness into the world. They so frequently seem to come from people who cannot create and so instead seem to gain pleasure by taking away.
Spoiler damage is irreversible and just because you can speak freely, it doesn't mean you should. It has, in fact, never meant that you should and, while speech should not be constricted by censorship, it should be tempered by restraint and consideration (and, as an aside, I think free speech is absolutely useless without responsible speech anyway, otherwise it becomes valueless. Speech doesn't have impact when it's free, it has impact because it's considered). The nature of the internet, and the interfaces we have built into it, means that the stuff you say may not just go a long way, but also often tends to stick around. People could come across either now or later, whether they mean to or not.
Basically, I want you all to SHUT UP and I want you to do it now.