What’s the expiry date on a spoiler?

Is it okay to live tweet the latest episode of Doctor Who? How long do you have to keep quiet about a movie's twist ending?

Following the recent kerfuffle over Game of Thrones‘ “Red Wedding” episode The Rains of Castamere, the long-standing debate over “spoilers”, and the etiquette that should be deployed when discussing major plot events, has reared its head again. In the case of Game of Thrones, tempers flared yet further when UK free paper The Metro discussed the plot in detail on its third page the day after it was broadcast on Sky Atlantic. This has again raised the burning and some would say eternal question: what constitutes a major spoiler, and for how long should we avoid discussing them?

The concept of spoilers is nothing new – witness Homer Simpson inadvertently ruining the end of The Empire Strikes Back in front of an angry queue of waiting punters – and they’ve long been a problem for online communities like forums and blogs. It’s with the rise of Twitter and Facebook, however, that they’ve become an increasingly contentious topic.

After all, if you’re on a message board or blog, you can generally rest assured that you can avoid learning plot details of something you haven’t yet seen or read by simply not venturing into threads or posts on a particular topic. But with social media, that distinction can’t be drawn – if you follow an individual, then you will likely as not encounter everything they have to say on just about any topic – and with no prior warning, if they decide to discuss a TV show that they saw last night and you haven’t yet got around to, then it’s difficult to avoid it.

It’s for this reason that many advocate an “If there’s something out there that you care about and don’t know yet, stay off the ‘net” policy. But is this fair, or even really practical? As with the wider debate, I suspect that the real answer lies in a nebulous, hard-to-pin-down spot somewhere between the two extreme schools of thought.

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After all, the biggest obstacle in trying to come up with an accepted set of guidelines for spoiler policy is that just about every individual circumstance is different. Whether or not “spoilers” are problematic for people depends on the type of media in question, the genre, the nature of the plot itself, and even the individual temperaments of the spoiler and the spoilee.

When it comes to TV shows, for example, it’s clear that different shows represent very different viewing – and discussion – experiences. Weekly “event” or “water cooler” television, for example, is difficult to hold back on discussion of – with reality shows in particular like The Apprentice and X-Factor being enhanced rather than damaged by the experience of Tweeting or liveblogging along, or discussing the outcomes immediately afterwards. A problem arises, though, when programmes that wouldn’t necessarily seem like event TV become so by sheer virtue of the number of people talking about them.

Such a thing tends to happen with Doctor Who. For many Americans, Who is a niche drama series that a fan could reasonably expect to avoid spoilers about unless they go looking for it. What many don’t tend to realise is that here in the UK, it’s big news – major developments will get reported in the press, sometimes even before they’re broadcast. And if the entire country is talking about something immediately afterwards, is it really such a crime to do so yourself on Twitter?

Despite recent shifts in viewing habits towards boxsets and streaming (which opens up an entirely fresh debate), the fact of the matter is that TV remains predominantly a scheduled, broadcast medium. The argument for those (particularly in the press) who wanted to loudly discuss Game of Thrones following its broadcast in their respective countries is that… well, that it has been broadcast. And while Game of Thrones fans who don’t (or can’t) pay for Sky Atlantic or HBO would argue that they should be allowed to wait for the DVD release, a counter-point to that is that the broadcasters are paying a premium to produce or acquire these shows, precisely to encourage said subscription (this is the same reason why HBO in particular take so long to put boxsets of certain shows out). If you’re not a paying customer, are you entitled to complain about things being spoiled while you hold out for the non-premium boxset option?

This argument holds less weight, however, when these TV shows are compared to movies. While there will always be people who want to flat out be a dick and ruin movies for people, there’s a more generally-accepted standard that while a film is still showing in cinemas, it’s gauche to discuss anything that might be considered an enjoyment-ruining twist or plot development. This practice might be complicated slightly by films having different worldwide release dates (look at how the poor Americans had to wait for Iron Man 3, or how we Brits have to wait for… pretty much everything else), but nevertheless, it’s a pretty established piece of etiquette.

Certainly, there are few who’d suggest that if you haven’t rushed to the multiplex to catch the newest film, you deserve to have it ruined before the DVD comes out – in general, we’re pretty respectful about not spoiling big movies, and ruining them deliberately tends to draw near-universal condemnation. Yet at the same time, it does seem that after a certain while, such restrictions no longer apply – many people know The Sixth Sense‘s twist, or what “Rosebud” means, or who Keyser Soze was, even without having seen the films in question. Those twists have been assimilated into the cultural landscape, just like the identity of Luke Skywalker’s father – yet this happens almost organically, rather than there being a deliberate, accepted statute of limitations on spoilers becoming public domain.

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So if we apply similar standards to TV shows (in an age where it really should be accepted that people do view these things at different times) then when is a reasonable time to talk about a particular plot development? With long-form drama series spanning multiple years, perhaps a good measure would be that with each new season, plot developments from prior years become fair game. For example, when discussing Mad Men, it’s now pretty commonplace to make reference to “SCDP” or the name “Dick Whitman”, even though these would technically be spoilers for someone starting the show from the beginning – yet major developments from the current season are much more off-limits. Similarly, a byproduct of all this discussion around Game of Thrones was that a lot more people became privy to the fate of Sean Bean’s character back in the first season, thanks to some almost offhanded mentions of it in the wider context of the show’s bloodthirst.

Really, though, for pretty much every TV show – as with any film – there will always be people who have yet to see it but might still want to. I’ve never got around to watching Twin Peaks, so I still don’t know who killed Laura Palmer – but from what I do know about the show, if I did find that out beforehand it would damage the experience of properly watching it. That’s the kind of thing that’s relatively easy to avoid (although I’m waiting for some wag in the comments to give it away, now), but there are plenty of famous plotlines that an unwitting potential viewer could have ruined for them at any given time.

Does this mean we should never discuss major twists online, just in case one of those “I was gonna watch that!” people get angry at us for doing so? That’s as unrealistic an expectation as the opposing view that everyone should just watch everything they want to the moment it’s available – and as with everything else, the real answer lies somewhere in the middle. No, it’ll never be possible to settle on an agreed-upon standard for spoiler discussion, because everybody has different boundaries – the trick is simply to acknowledge that that’s the case.

In other words, the one rule I could recommend when it comes to spoiler discussion is a straightforward one, bluntly: don’t be unfair (there’s a less polite way of us saying that, of course). If you’re an up-to-the-minute hardcore viewer, be aware of who might be reading your words, and give them an opportunity to duck out if you might be about to ruin something. And if you’re a spoilerphobe, maybe think twice before unleashing both barrels on someone who gave something away in an innocent conversation that you happened to overhear – the enjoyment of many movies and TV shows is almost as much in the discussion as in the viewing, and when that discussion is happening online, sometimes there will be spoiler collateral.

Oh, and if you’ve already read the book something was based on, then definitely keep schtum about what’s going to happen next…

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