Game Of Thrones, spoilers, and good manners

This week, a major plot twist happened in the Game Of Thrones TV show. It was a moment spoiled for many in advance. But why?

This article contains no spoilers, but does hint at major plot points in Game Of Thrones season 3.There is also a spoiler for Doctor Who: The Night Of The Doctor.

We may as well start with those words just up there. See how clear that bit in bold at the top is? Those two lines took me a few seconds to type out, and it gives you a clear indication of whether what I’m going to talk about will spoil something for you or not. Note that the headline doesn’t include spoilers, either.

It’s simple. It does the job. It’s a system used around the planet by many far better websites than this one.

Unfortunately, it’s not a system used by all.

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For earlier this week, a major development took place in Game Of Thrones season three, that many of us – me included – first found out about on Twitter, or via headlines on websites that were willing to sacrifice keeping readers spoiler-free in exchange for cheap hits.

I know, I know: it all sounds a bit holier than thou so far, and that’s not the intention. But I do think that it’s worth chatting about some of the justifications people have come up with this week for spoiling a TV show for others, to see if they hold water. Advance spoiler: I can’t think of one that legitimately does, that excuses deliberately ruining something for someone else. But at the very least, it’s worth examining the key questions in a bit more detail.

Let’s start with one of the most frustrating…

The show has been transmitted! Surely that means it’s fair game?

No it’s not. It’s not fair game at all.

Firstly, on a point of order, the episode of Game Of Thrones in question had only screened in the US. Thus, the only way those of us outside the US could have seen it by the time the spoilers came flying online was via illegal means. Sky Atlantic, which screens Game Of Thrones in the UK, broadcast the episode nearly a day later.

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In spite of reports of the episode being heavily pirated, not everyone wants to watch a TV show the illicit way. Such a consideration was lacking when spoilers started being liberally posted online, pretty much immediately. And woe betide anyone who recorded the show to watch later. That is not an excuse the spoiler machine will tolerate. If you don’t watch a TV show at the point it’s first broadcast – wherever that is in the world – then you’re on your own.

Also: who made the rule that the statute of limitations on spoilers for a TV show was up the second the credits rolled? Even if the show had been broadcast simultaneously around the world, does that suddenly mean it’s okay to have spoilers out in plain sight, without warning?

It’s the latter two words that are critical here. Part of the fun in shows such as Game Of Thrones is digesting it and discussing it online. I wouldn’t for a second suggest not doing that. But I would suggest that simple spoiler warnings, or spoiler tags, are a courtesy. They’re just manners. At least give people a chance to swerve a spoiler.

If a film comes out, and people post the ending without spoiler warnings even months after, such an action rightly gets criticised. Why shouldn’t the same apply with a TV show?

In short: the argument about the show being transmitted so it’s fair game is based on an inherent and false assumption that everybody watched it as it screened. And that, as statistics continually show, is something that decreasingly happens.

But it’s Game Of Thrones! Everything’s in the books anyway! These spoilers have been around for years!

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One of the people who attracted criticism for tweeting a spoiler about Game Of Thrones was author Stephen King. King, though, defended his position in a subsequent Tweet. Here’s what he wrote…

— Stephen King (@StephenKing) April 14, 2014

And this is a fair point. After all, what happened on HBO at the start of the week was a plot point known to those who have long since devoured and enjoyed George R R Martin’s books over the years. Furthermore, pretty much every spoiler for the next few seasons of Game Of Thrones already exists in print. Doesn’t that mean that the spoilers are suddenly fair game, goes the argument?

No. No it doesn’t. As much as it’s something that you can get sneered at for admitting, not all of us have read the books, or got that far in them. This should not be a crime punishable by having things ruined for you.

Dare I suggest, then, that there’s an innate snobbery at work here? That there’s a subtle implication, not necessarily coming from King but certainly in some of the subsequent debate, that if you don’t read the books, it’s your own fault, and you’ve brought this on yourself? That you almost deserve to have it spoiled?

That last sentence may be going a little far, granted, but I must have missed the memo where it become compulsory to read the source material for films and TV shows before watching them, else the spoilers become fair game. In my case, I get through dozens of books a year, but my bookshelves are creaking under the weight of around 60 or 70 I’ve not got round to reading yet. By not reading the Game Of Thrones books that are on there too, it doesn’t mean that I can’t read. It just means I’ve chosen to read other books first.

Does that make me a bad person? Does that mean I’ve lost my rights to watch the TV show spoiler-free? I’m not sure it does, but fully appreciate not everyone shares my point of view here.

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But people won’t click on the article if we don’t put what the surprise is in the title. What are we supposed to do?

Easy: not put the surprise in the title.

I’ve actually seen this argument a few times, sometimes from quite major media outlets. That the rules of the internet are that you have to be direct in your headline, or else people will go elsewhere.

There’s truth in this, too. That by putting a major plot reveal in a headline, you’re likely to get more clicks on the article. It makes any spoiler warning moot if the reveal is in the headline of course, but what’s a website to do? People in suits demand hits, advertisers want numbers (you get bonus points for splitting a short article over more than one page) and it’s a cheap and easy way to get traffic.

It’s also, in my humble opinion, a really shitty way to treat your readers.

I’ve been reading movie websites for years, and not one has ever put the twist ending of a movie in their headline. I genuinely can’t think of a single instance. Any movie website would be vilified for revealing the ending for The Sixth Sense even now, for example, and that’s over a decade since the film came out.

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Television, though, works to different rules. I’ve seen lots of justifications for putting spoilers in the headlines of TV pieces, and I hate them all. There’s ‘if we don’t do it, someone else will’, or ‘it’s the only way to get people to click’. Two-dimensional arguments, in my view, that shift the blame onto someone else.

I believe that it’s the job of people writing such articles on websites to treat their readers with more respect. To look longer term, and be willing to sacrifice a few hits on a website in exchange for making sure your readers get to enjoy something the way it’s intended.

That doesn’t mean you can’t offer clues. It’s not a straight on/off switch here. What’s wrong with running a headline such as ‘Major spoiler! Where does Game Of Thrones go now?’ or ‘Game Of Thrones: spoiler-filled look at tonight’s huge plot twist’? They might not get quite as many clicks, but they get across the point, make it clear what you’re talking about, and crucially without ruining things for others.

Spoiling people’s right to watch a TV show without knowing plot points in advance should not, in my still humble opinion, be treated as collateral damage in the quest to get more hits to a website.

If you go on Twitter, what do you expect?

The tried and trusted argument. It’s a depressing argument too, but sadly, as idealistic as I’d like to be here, I’ve resigned myself to the fact that it’s a potent one.

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I had Game Of Thrones‘ big spoiler ruined for me by a casual tweet from Deadline. There was no warning of it, I couldn’t avoid it. It was there, it was lodged in my head, and I lost the chance to see such a major plot development in the same way that the writer of that tweet had.

Deadline was not alone, and it’d be easy to put together a hall of shame here. But that’s not the intention. The problem is that Twitter makes it tricky to spoiler-tag anything, which is why so many of us are careful with what we tweet. Over time, we work out which accounts to follow, which to block, and which are likely to show us the respect of keeping things spoiler-free. But even at our most vigilant, things slip through the gaps.

I don’t watch much in the way of reality TV, but I’ve been on Twitter when a result of a vote in such a show is announced, and media outlets clamour amongst themselves to post the result first.

So: if you leave the keys in the ignition of your car, someone will steal it. If you leave your front door open, there’s a sporting chance that someone will burgle your house. If you go on Twitter straight after a major television moment, there’s a good chance it’ll be spoiled for you. In each case, rather than the offence itself being the main cause for ire, you’re left with the ‘you brought it on yourself’ argument. Sigh.

It overlooks the fact that the problem with big surprise TV moments, of course, is you don’t necessarily know when to expect them. The surprise is often the reason for their impact.

The obvious example? The BBC, last year, ran a surprise clip reintroducing Paul McGann – temporarily – to Doctor Who. It was a wonderful few minutes for those who had no idea what to expect. Unfortunately, lots of big media outlets denied people the right to said surprise.

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My question is: why do we have to accept this? Why is it right that it’s assumed that on Twitter that it’s okay to spoil things without warning? It’s an unwinnable fight certainly – although this article at The Daily Dot has some valid suggestions  – but I find the whole ‘stay off Twitter then’ argument one of the most depressing of them all.

So where next?

I should be clear: Den Of Geek has made mistakes with regards spoilers in the past. There have been instances where, in hindsight, we’ve revealed just a little too much (and, perhaps, too little, oddly enough). Just yesterday, I had a Twitter exchange with someone over a news story I wrote, and I had to concede they had a point. I wouldn’t quite say that we feast on a diet of double standards here, but as I said at the start, holier than thou Den Of Geek isn’t.

But what I can say is that the mistakes here were honest ones, and deeply regretted too. I fully expect if we make a mistake in the future of similar ilk, the site will be held to account. That’s the way it should be as well.

My idealistic way forward would be, at the very least, for websites and those on social media to put more basic courtesies in place. To not work on the assumption that because something is ‘out there’, that everybody knows about it. And, at the very least, to write headlines to stories that don’t make the already tricky job of avoiding spoilers online utterly impossible.

Fair headlines, warnings of spoilers, and better manners: it’s not too much to ask for, is it?

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