By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 16, 2008
The truth is out there.
Anyone with a computer and an obsession believes this is true.
The truth of "Lost," that metaphysical beacon of our times, seems tantalizingly within reach on spoiler Web sites such as TheTailSection, DarkUFO and DocArzt. There are message forums for discussing rumors, mysteries and symbolism. There are unsatisfying sections in which fellow devotees have posted "Answers," which answer nothing but questions you'd never realized were questions to begin with.
What did Naomi mean when she said, "Tell my sister I love her"?
Entire communities are built around such mysteries -- virtual water cooler klatches descended from those lunch bunches that once discussed "Twin Peaks" or "The X Files" -- all united by a pursuit of one goal: B e the first to figure out what happens next.
But get too caught up in the quest, and you discover its downside: If you take a shortcut to the answer, you could end up hanging out there for a while, all alone, until everyone else shows up.
(One-sentence indoctrination for non-Losties: Plane crash survivors with shady pasts are stranded on creepy island.)
The search for the truth is as meta as any inscrutable TV show, because it's not really about what you will find but about why you feel the need to find it -- and what it will feel like to actually succeed.
Of course, you never worry about that while you are on the hunt.
Over on the message board section of "Lost" site DarkUFO, a bunch of Losties are analyzing a close-up of a book -- a blown-up screen grab from a recent episode. It might be just a book, but it might be an "Easter egg," a clue implanted by "Lost" writers to reward sharp viewers.
"It looks to be 'Second Degree White Belt Sudoko,' " writes a user who goes by the handle Epontius. Epontius has searched Barnes & Noble's Web site to verify this.
This is just one puzzle from one episode. The bigger questions -- seriously, what is the island's deal ?-- have been debated for months, even years.
Dissertations nurtured for seasons spontaneously unravel in single moments: "We spent a long time on the theory that there was no plane crash, that everyone had been knocked unconscious, flown to the island and arranged on the beach," says Jay Glatfelter, a spoiler site regular and college student who created "The Lost Podcast" with his father, Jack. A later episode showed the crash from an outsider's perspective; the Glatfelters realized they were wrong.
There is a lot of being wrong in the guessing business. Most of the regulars visiting these sites are average viewers; they have no insider knowledge of the show's master plan. They analyze bits of dialogue but cannot verify their predictions. When real spoiler info does appear on the sites, filtered down from people who know people, or lifted from "Lost" cast member interviews, such morsels often have nothing to do with the show's mysteries: Someone is going to kiss someone else this episode!
No, we want more than that. We want answers, not breadcrumbs.
After all, the mysteries people "solve" have never really been mysteries but rather things that the writers intended to reveal all along. And now that producers have announced that the series will end in two short years, why can't we just let ourselves sit back and be entertained?
The answer to that lies, partly, in the phenomenon that psychologists and behavioral economists call "dynamic inconsistency" -- our brain's inability to reconcile what we want now with what we will want later.
"Right now, you feel this overwhelming desire to know the outcome of something," says Jonathan Cohen, who researches dynamic inconsistency at Princeton. "In the future, when you're actually reading the last chapter you wonder why you couldn't wait."
This field of study is still new, but Cohen's team postulates that the drive for immediate gratification is located in our "lizard brains" -- the instinctual part that believes our needs must be met now. The uniquely human part of our brains, the patient part that can recognize the value of waiting and savoring and saving, often loses out to the reptile, even now, even after all this evolution.
Blame the desire to read the last page first on your caveman ancestors.
Or, blame it on the Internet.
"This is really about unfolding narratives and our decreasing ability to live in the unknown," says M.J. Ryan, author of "The Power of Patience."
While humans may have always wanted to know what happens next (See: rabid readers of Charles Dickens's "The Old Curiosity Shop," released in installments in 1840), Ryan says the Internet has transformed that feeling from a desire to an entitlement.
Traditional narrative was about a linear beginning, middle and end, says Ryan. "But the narrative of the Internet is associative and non-linear." Instead of watching a complicated story unfold, users can hop around seeking specific puzzle pieces. "It encourages the bottom line. It's about who wins, who loses, and what's on the island."
What worries Ryan are the implications of that bottom line: "If we can't even wait to see what happens next week on a show, what does it say about our abilities to live our lives in the not knowing? Because for that, we don't really have an option."
"It does say something about human nature and instant gratification," concedes Jon Lachonis, who created the popular Web site TheTailSection.com. But, he argues, his interest in "Lost" is more social. "Whatever the mystery du jour is, there's a real communal approach to talking about them."
Ben Sledge, a graphic designer who runs Lost.cubit.net, views sites like his as part of a massive scavenger hunt, with participants trading tips and whispers even as they jostle for position as top "Lost" banana.
Sledge estimates that he spends 15-20 hours a week tracking "Lost" theories, which puts him (and the similarly dedicated Lachonis) on a different playing field from the average Lostie.
Fans of this caliber do not just predict. Fans of this caliber know. They have cultivated contacts in the business -- production assistants or the like who slip them four, five episodes in advance. They have managed to bypass the communal predictions and just find out what happens.
Now there's an elegant answer to the agony of the search: Stop it. Stop the searching. Stop, and know, and move on.
After months of wasting all of your free time obsessively trading predictions with friends, and visiting spoiler sites to read other people's grasping theories, you decide that you want to know. You contact the founder of a major Web site and make this pledge: You don't need to tell anyone what you know. You don't need to reveal who told you what you know. You just want to know.
You're not even worried, despite dynamic inconsistency, about ruining future episodes for yourself: For guidance, you've contacted a Carnegie Mellon professor who studies TV viewing experiences. Joachim Vosgerau's experiments have shown that "spoiled" viewers can actually enjoy broadcasts as much as unspoiled ones -- they just focus more on the journey than on the outcome.
Still, the "Lost" guru hesitates to reveal any information. He is afraid of compromising his contacts, but he also knows the irrevocability of the decision.
"Are you sure?" he asks.
You can't un-know what happens.
* * *
It is lonely at the top.
That's what you learn after finding out what happens next (several episodes' worth) on "Lost."
In some ways, Vosgerau was right -- the act of watching the show is as intriguing as ever, plotwise and character-development-wise.
But what's no longer there is the community, the shared quest and the competitive scavenger hunt. Listening to others put forth theories -- theories you now know are bunk -- has the uncomfortable feeling of the dinner where you're planning on breaking up with your boyfriend, but he doesn't know it yet.
And rather than having the admiration of fellow "Lost"-obsessed friends, it seems you have become a pariah: I am currently in possession of "Lost" spoilers, you write in an e-mail to friends, expecting flattery and bribes in return. Instead, one immediately responds, "AAAAAH. BACK AWAY."
It turns out that figuring out what happens next is not nearly as important as figuring it out with everyone else.
The truth is out there, but it comes at a price.
Recently, Lachonis, the TailSection founder, had the opportunity to watch an episode with new eyes. Normally he keeps himself well-spoiled, but this particular advance copy came completely out of the blue; he had no time to prepare. "It was a fantastic experience, watching something with no knowledge," he says in wonder. "It was like it was the way it was intended to be enjoyed."