No Joy In Research For The Spoiler Generation

If the term “spoiler” is unfamilar to you it probably reveals your generation. Same thing with the name J. J. Abrams. Let’s start with Abrams. He’s the hot writer/producer/director of the moment with shows like Alias, Lost and Fringe, and movies like Cloverfield and the new Star Trek. He also happens to be the guest editor of Wired’s (17.05) Mystery Issue, one that immerses the reader in puzzles, riddles and articles about mysterious matters. Yeah, he has a TED talk too – about mystery.

While I was vaguely familiar with the spoiler concept I never gave it much thought. Abrams’ article “The Magic of Mystery” in the Wired issue put it into a whole new perspective for me, especially as I try to understand the current student generation and their approach to academic research. Here is how Abrams describes the spoiler, but if you need more details you can find an explanation:

The spoiler: that piece of information meant to be kept secret, like the end of a movie or TV or novel. Spoilers give fans the answers they want, the resolution they crave…I completely understand the desire to find out behind-the-scenes details in a nanosecond.

But there’s a downside to spoilers, says Abrams, as you can imagine:

But the real damage isn’t so much that the secret gets out. It’s that the experience is destroyed.

We’ve heard so much about how our students take the path of least resistance when it comes to research. It’s about getting it done as fast as possible with as little real research as necessary. By enabling the rapid delivery of full-text content from a vast mix of resources, when just all right results requires little thought, our digital library environment provides exactly what a spoiler generation student needs. Getting right to the end without going through the process – and having no experience from which to learn. Abrams describes how he once use a “cheat” to beat a video game. He later regretted it because he realized he only cheated himself out of an experience one obtains only by going through the process. He writes:

Skipping ahead lessens the experience. Diminishes the joy. Makes the accomplishment that much duller…the Age of Immediacy has a meaningful downside. The point is, we should never underestimate process. The experience of the doing really is everything.

For Abrams, it is all about the mystery. He says it “demands that you stop and consider – or at the very least, slow down and discover”. Isn’t that what library research is supposed to be about? You begin with a question to which the answer is unknown or uncertain. You don’t know how it’s going to end. Then you go through a process to collect the information needed to answer the question and resolve the mystery. Just like a good puzzle, in research you need to assemble the pieces correctly to discover the big picture. How do you communicate the natural enjoyment and challenge of the research process to a generation raised on the pursuit of spoilers and cheats? Taking the time to learn to research and then go through the discovery process, they must conclude, is for fools and suckers only.

Fortunately we still find students who resist the temptation to just get to the end without having the experience. We had our annual library research prize ceremony last week. The three student winners demonstrated the capacity for amazing research that was built on painstaking hours with primary resources. All of them shared stories that expressed their great experiences using the library – and all of them were motivated to engage in the research process by faculty who sparked within them a thirst for discovery. One of the students announced that she was starting in an LIS program right after graduation. That’s like the icing on the cake for us librarians.

How might we use an understanding of the spoiler generation to our advantage? Two thoughts come to mind. First, it suggests academic librarians need to focus their efforts on figuring out why some students, like the research prize winners, get hooked on library research and what makes them passionate about the experience of the process. If we can distill that knowledge we may discover how to engage other students in ways that encourage them to step off the path of least resistance. How do we sell the research experience so that it makes going for the spoiler seem lame by comparison? But perhaps there’s a way to leverage the coolness of the spoiler. If you are a student with a research assignment you’ve got a great spoiler – a reference librarian or subject specialist. How do we sell ourselves as the ultimate research cheat? Of course, this approach only works if it’s really a way to get the students engaged in their own deeper research once exposed to the surface level of the process.

There may be something to this whole idea of the mystery. The academic library might just be the ultimate mystery box because there are so many answers hidden within that are waiting to be revealed. But it all comes back to seeking out the joy of experiencing the process of discovery. Finding the answers that resolve the mysteries must be perceived as a personal journey to understanding. Abrams ends his article with a great thought: The ending should be the end of that experience, not the experience itself. Now there’s an idea worth internalizing in our increasingly fast-paced, get-it-over-with-as-fast-as-possible world.