We live in a world where we no longer consume our media as much as we interact with it. Watching a show is treated as a communal experience, where as soon as an episode airs, everyone takes to the internet to let the world know our opinions. Blogs, podcasts, Twitter, Tumblr, message boards…everyone flocks to these to share their thoughts. It’s an exciting experience that allows us to consume media in a way we never thought we could before. I’ll often watch anime with one eye on Twitter, where I’m following plenty of smart people from whom I’ll often learn something new about Japanese culture, history, language, or the creators behind a work. There can be an immense amount of value to this type of communal watching, where everyone is constantly enriching everyone else’s viewing experience.
Unfortunately, I think something is also often lost in the process.
There was a time after I began actively seeking out anime but before I began watching it seasonally where I went into most series completely blind. I would just choose a random show on Hulu based on nothing but the title and thumbnail. I would begin the series knowing nothing about it, not even a synopsis, which would often produce some surprising results. One show I discovered this way was Akikan, where the sheer stupidity of the premise caught me so off guard that I couldn’t help but enjoy myself. Another was Mysterious Girlfriend X. I went in knowing that there was a girlfriend, there was something mysterious about her, and that for some reason there was an X (I was hoping the X meant there would be boobs). I don’t think anything has surprised me as much as a boy randomly sticking his finger in a puddle of drool left on a girl’s desk, tasting it, coming down with a fever, and then discovering that his illness is not, as one would expect, the result of picking up some virus. No, it turned out he was in love and going into withdrawal because he’s become addicted to her drool. Reading the synopsis almost certainly would have prepared me for this, and the shock of the moment was what ended up urging me to continue watching the show, which I went on to quite enjoy. Had I known about it beforehand, I may not have given it a chance.
These are fairly silly examples, though, where a bit of ignorance resulted in a brief payoff. Sometimes, watching something blind instead resulted in me falling instantly in love with a new show, most memorably with Puella Magi Madoka Magica. I’d gotten a few recommendations from a friend but no details on them beyond the titles, so when I took a chance on Madoka, I knew absolutely nothing about it. Not the misleading promotional material, not screenwriter Gen “The Urobutcher” Urobuchi’s reputation, and not even why people were drawn to the series. The outside world had no influence on my experience with Madoka. It was just me and the show.
I was drawn in instantly. I watched the first two episodes and spent the entirety of the next day thinking about it. What would Madoka and Sayaka wish for? What would I wish for, were I in that situation? What was up with Homura? And even then, I’m pretty sure I had the feeling of the other shoe dropping, due to the tone of the series. After that, every episode just drew me in further. I had finished the series within a week, and it had instantly become one of my all-time favorite things.
It wasn’t until after I had finished watching that I had learned just how insanely popular it was. I had watched it a few years after it had aired, and since my fandom at the time was very casual, I landed in a sort of sweet spot where it was old enough that the hype had died down, but new enough that its status hadn’t managed to fully permeate Western fandom. As a result, I managed to remain completely unspoiled the whole way through, an experience I’ve rarely been able to have.
Had I been spoiled on Madoka before watching it, I think I still would have enjoyed it. There’s an argument to be made for spoilers actually increasing a viewer’s enjoyment, because they can catch foreshadowing and dramatic irony more easily. Madoka is so densely packed with revelations that knowing one or two still leaves plenty to discover for yourself, and more are foreshadowed well enough that upon the reveal, they’re not all that surprising (what a shocking twist that their soul gems ended up being literal gems that contained their literal souls!). I ended up spoiling myself for much of Death Note, another twist-heavy series, and I was still able to eagerly anticipate events I had read about to see how they play out and properly contextualize them. So I don’t think that I would have disliked Madoka had I been spoiled. However, had I watched it as it aired in the same way I watch airing anime now, I think it would have left a much weaker impression on me.
The problem with communal watching is that its biggest strength—interactivity—is in direct conflict with the ability to form your own unbiased opinions. Try as we might, we can’t filter others’ opinions out, so they end up affecting our enjoyment on a subconscious level. I know that I’ve had my enjoyment of anime ruined by seeing how other people respond to them. Sometimes a few disparaging comments will stick in my head and make me reconsider my stance on a series. Sometimes, however, even positive discussion will make me dislike a show more. One example that comes to mind is the recent Yuri on Ice. I thought the show itself was fine and was interested in the multiple nuances of Victor and Yuri’s relationship. Victor was Yuri’s idol, who he found unattainable. Yuri was the first person Victor coached, so he was forced to learn about new aspects of himself through the new experiences that relationship brought. However, so much of the community discussion was focused on the romantic aspects of the relationship, which I was less interested in. It caused me to begin writing the show’s success off as an example of people mistaking that the inclusion of a gay relationship was directly related to the show’s quality. It was preventing me from consuming the show in the way I wanted to consume it, and my resentment towards the fandom ended up being pushed onto the show itself to an extent.
A lot is, has been, and will continue to be said about Madoka. When people talk about Madoka in the presence of those who haven’t seen it, it feels like the great effort not to spoil anything becomes an implied wink and a nod. “Ohhhh, Madoka. How much do you know about it?” Or “I think you’d like Madoka, but be sure to just trust me and watch to episode 3!” It always has to be contextualized, but in a way that automatically makes people suspicious. Personally, I’m grateful I was able to experience the series for myself and develop my own opinions before any sort of discourse could taint them. I was hooked after two episodes and was surprised to learn that “you have to give it three episodes!” was the prevailing mantra. I was and still am of the opinion that even though the third episode contains Madoka’s most iconic moment, the atmosphere and ideas established in the prior episodes isn’t in any way misleading and the show is recognizable as good right from the start. While others bang the “dark and edgy” gong, I was more impressed by the way hope and love ultimately conquered despair. And while many people praise the series for “deconstructing magical girls,” I was always more impressed with the story’s tight pacing, where not a moment feels wasted. This is not to say I haven’t appreciated the discussions I’ve since had about Madoka. In particular, I’ve gained new appreciation for Sayaka’s character arc and have come to recognize the parallels to the legend of Faust. But I didn’t need to be actively thinking about any of it to enjoy the series my first time through.
Sometimes, communal watching can make for a better experience. Re:Zero was a show that prompted so many different avenues of discussion with every new episode. Kemono Friends never would have taken off were it not for social media. And Mayoiga’s entire appeal was debating whether or not it was supposed to be taken seriously or was all just one big postmodern masterpiece. From what I’ve heard, even Madoka itself was a show that had the community watching it buzzing, and no one who watches the show now will ever be able to experience again. But in some cases, a show benefits more from you approaching it as a blank slate, ready to meet it on its own terms. After all, one of the purposes of art is to hold up a mirror with which we can examine ourselves and society. Sometimes it’s better to let a mirror do what a mirror is designed to do: to let us reflect.
 Author’s note: In the not-so-distant past, Hulu actually had a sizable catalogue of anime and was one of the better places to discover it.