Spoiler Alert: This Is a Post About Spoiler Etiquette

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Photo: HBO

How long should you wait before spoiling? The Vulture poll on this page is designed to answer that question, and we’ll post the results Monday and draw some conclusions.

This piece, meanwhile, is a consideration of the idea of a spoiler, with a bit of backstory explaining why Vulture decided to run the poll. You can read it, or you can skip straight to the poll — I don’t care. I’m going to spoil my own piece here and tell you up top that the definition of a spoiler depends on what sort of story or information you’re talking about: a plot twist of a film or a TV show, the outcome of a sports event, whatever. It also depends on how much time has elapsed. And yet we all still feel we know a spoiler when we see it, and we are outraged when we feel that someone else has ruined our fun.

Vulture has tackled this issue before, but as the reach of social media continues to grow and the platforms mature, the reality that the audience is global and instantaneous but the entertainment is not hasn't really been dealt with. But before we go further down this road, I need to issue another spoiler alert for most of the links embedded in this piece. Don’t click them if you 1) haven’t seen the TV show or movie being discussed, and/or 2) care about knowing what happened.

All right, here goes: On Monday afternoon, I wrote a piece about a particular plot twist on Game of Thrones, a big one, and Vulture tweeted a link to the article that contained a summary of said twist, plus an image illustrating it. Although I did not phrase the tweet or choose the picture that went with it, I defended both, rather halfheartedly, when readers complained; then I had second thoughts and asked an editor to change the original wording of the tweet, and Vulture sent out another tweet but with the same picture. And there were complaints. We ended up leaving the second tweet up. Was this also an error in judgment?

Yes, probably — but the whole thing opened up a can of spoiler worms, which seems to happen at least once a week in the age of social media. Vulture’s tweet was less explicit than that of TVLine founder and editor-in-chief Michael Ausiello, who tweeted about the twist twice, soon after the episode aired, in language that left absolutely no doubt about exactly what happened. The first tweet prompted HitFix film critic Drew McWeeny to write, “Really glad this hasn't aired on the East Coast yet, Michael. It was a past-tense pleasure following you,” and sum up Ausiello’s attitude as “fuck anyone who lives on the West Coast.” Ausiello followed that tweet up with one that was even more explicit.

The consensus in Vulture’s feed, Ausiello’s, and others’ seemed to indicate that there should’ve been a longer waiting period.

But how long? The first round of complaints about that Vulture tweet came 18 hours after the episode had aired in every North American time zone. I continued to get complaints on Tuesday, a full 48 hours after it aired.

What courtesies should be extended here? In what way, exactly, are media outlets (or other viewers on social media) failing to be considerate, and to whom? The job of entertainment media, critics included, is to discuss what happened on TV shows, in films, in music in real time, when the discussion is happening.

The consensus on sports is, if you didn’t watch the game, nobody else should be expected to refrain from discussing who won or what spectacular plays happened until you’ve had a chance to go home and cue up your DVR. Why are TV shows different? We know the night and time slot when every new episode debuts. It never changes.

I understand why there should be more lag time when discussing a film. Star Wars fans did an exemplary job of protecting a particular plot twist in The Force Awakens for weeks after the film came out, but now it’s out in the open. I saw people discussing it this morning on Twitter, in fact. So does that mean six months is the acceptable waiting period? Maybe, but maybe not. A couple of years ago I had a Twitter conversation about the ending of the original The Vanishing, which came to the U.S. in 1991, and somebody chastised me with “Thanks a lot, asshole” and unfollowed me.

I’m a near-absolutist about spoilers. I almost always care more about how things happen in a story than what happens. Back in 1998, somebody told me the ending of The Sixth Sense before I had a chance to see it, and I still enjoyed the film immensely, not as a thriller with a twist ending but as a tenderhearted supernatural character portrait about a man who died and then spent the next few months denying he was dead. I realize most people don’t watch things that way, though, so I try to be sensitive to that.

(“Screw you for spoiling The Sixth Sense,” somebody writes in the comments section.)

Should viewers bear responsibility for protecting themselves against inadvertently learning what happened on a show they love but for whatever reason failed to watch the first time it aired?

Maybe. But let’s all live in reality for a second and acknowledge what Twitter is: a platform designed to react immediately to things that happened right this second. It is unnatural to expect social-media users to protect the sensibilities and preferences of strangers in all 24 time zones for a period of hours, days, or longer. I’ve always found it strange that people go on Twitter, the platform of immediate reactions, and then say, “Hey, please don’t discuss what just happened on that show until I’ve had a chance to see it.”

The “no spoilers until a show has aired on the West Coast” also bugs me. It’s profoundly United States–centric and casually entitled. It presumes that once you get beyond California, Oregon, and Washington nobody else watches television. It also assumes that people who wait to binge-watch shows later don’t count, either. Everyone seems to be practicing their own unique variety of self-centeredness: However I’ve chosen to watch TV is the normal or best way, and anyone who doesn’t respect my way is a jerk.

It’s also inconsiderate to expect users of social-media platforms on the East Coast of the United States, population 112 million, to wait to discuss what happened on Game of Thrones until people in the other U.S. time zones, or around the world, have caught up, however long that takes them (and judging from my feed, it’s taking some people three days or longer). 

Another wrinkle: Sometimes the storytellers themselves are complicit in spoilers. The Game of Thrones actor in question did an interview for a cover story in Entertainment Weekly that was tweeted immediately after the West Coast airing ended. So both Entertainment Weekly and HBO (which set up the interview and approved it) are telling fans of Game of Thrones who didn’t watch it live, “Screw you, you should’ve been there on the first night; the cat’s out of the bag now, so deal with it.”

There are many free apps and platforms that allow you to filter your Twitter feed by keywords so you don’t accidentally see something you would rather not see (you can find 20 — count 'em, 20 — ways here). But none of these systems are 100 percent reliable. There’s still a possibility that you might fail to enter certain keywords and end up having a plot twist spoiled anyway, by somebody who honestly thought they were being sensitive or clever in how they phrased a comment or question.

Some of you might reply, “Well, stay off social media for 3 hours (or 8, or 24). It won’t kill you.” I get that. I’ve said that sort of thing myself. But people do use Twitter for other things. Most feeds are what you might call mixed-use. People might be on there to discuss a political coup, a natural disaster, or layoffs at some corporation in their industry — perhaps that’s what they’re doing instead of watching Game of Thrones — and, wham, here comes somebody in their feed ruining a major plot twist on the one damned night this month when they couldn’t be in front of the television.

What’s a fan to do?

I don’t know.

Take the poll and help us try to create a consensus.