Thursday, June 03, 2010

The Spoiler Social Contract

I don't think that Emily Post has addressed the problem of spoiler etiquette online, so there doesn't seem to be any rules to this sort of thing.

Here's my take on the matter.

It is my responsibility as a consumer of pop culture to generally avoid spoilers on my own. If I get something spoiled because I didn't take the due diligence to avoid it, like if I was to record an episode of a television drama for later viewing and then I went and read an article which recapped what had happened during that episode, well, then yes, that would be my fault, and as such, I have no reason to complain. Most of the time when someone encounters something that spoils a show or movie, they were not doing the simple, basic things that are common sense to the average person. Like, I wouldn't go to the TV Tropes page about something I am currently watching or reading if I am not at the same point everyone else is at. It is just obvious.

By the same token, I should have a reasonable expectation that as I explore the internet that I can avoid those spoilers by forewarning. If an episode of a television show aired last night and someone online posts something about it, and the title indicates that they are talking about that episode, well, then I can avoid it. If the title of that post is a spoiler in and of itself, then yes, I think I would be genuinely be mad about it, or if someone was writing about a completely different subject and they just happen to throw an unrelated spoiler into the mix, well, then again, I can see how people would get bent out of shape about that. (I had a revelation at the end of a game spoiled like this when I was reading a completely unrelated entry to it. I was miffed).

Time and popularity are also factors in all this. The more time that has passed between the release of a movie, book or television episode, the less people should expect in terms of spoiler protections. And if something is popular, more people are naturally going to be writing about it and have a general knowledge of the things being discussed, so your realistic window for living in blissful ignorance of a spoiler is relatively short. I think at this moment, if I haven't seen a movie that has been out on DVD for a couple of months, I shouldn't expect other people to try to shield me from spoilers as part of the social contract, and after a day or so, I have no expectation that anything said about an episode in a television series will be held back. Because frankly, in those cases, I have had a reasonable amount of time to see that thing, and I should have diminished expectations about another person keeping that kind of information secret. But if something has just aired or been released, then in my opinion, if you haven't warned others that you are specifically talking about that piece of pop culture, a spoiler alert is warranted. But that may just be me, and I am willing to admit that to me, it seems like a good practice.

Let's say blogging/twitter etc existed in 1980, and a bunch of people posted the fact that Darth Vader was Luke's father within days of The Empire Strikes Back's release, and put it in titles and in unavoidable messages on social networking sites, well, that to me would be a breach of spoiler etiquette in my opinion.

I know a few people who have gone so far as to temporily block or in extreme cases, stop following/defriend people who routinely post spoilers, especially when the aggrieved party lives on the West Coast and those that are spoiling the revelations of dramatic television live in time zones in the east.

Now, at times, I take my foreshadowing of spoilers to admittedly ridiculous levels. For instance, when I write a Remembering post, I've been known to warn people that I am going to be disclosing plot elements, so if they plan on viewing/playing what I am discussing, they know that I may wreck a few things. So I give spoiler alerts for a lot longer than I expect other people to give them, and there is one particular show (Alias) which I still won't really discuss the plot of in detail because a year or so ago, one of my readers and fellow bloggers was watching the show and I never got around to asking if they had finished the entire experience.

I certainly don't expect other people to do that.

At the moment, I am avoiding information about a particular film that is coming out soon because I plan on reading the source material first, so I am not watching the trailers or reading new stories and blog entries about it so that I go into the whole experience fresh. I respect people discussing it, but in this case it is my responsibility to avoid the spoilers.

I think the basic rule I think everyone should adhere to is just a little common courtesy. On both sides of the issue, people shouldn't be killjoys. It is a simple principle really.


John said...

The problem is trying to get an environment as nebulous and non-finite as the Internet to accept that social contract -- or any at all. With bloggers or commenters with an established presence and therefore an investment in maintaining some degree of social approval, there are real consequences to spoiling new media. With anonymous commenters, less so.

Are there particular sites that you have found to be spoiler-heavy? I'm not asking for names. I'm just curious if they've faced a decline in popularity as a result of their anti-social behavior.

Lee Sargent said...

i've unfollowed people on Twitter to avoid their continued spoilers.

I think in a public arena one can discuss a show or movie without specifically spoiling it. I don't do it and expect the same from others.

MC said...

John: Oh, I wouldn't expect everyone to comply with that, and in fact, we both know that there are individuals, both named and anonymous, who would take such an arrangement and do everything in their power to run counter to the spirit and practice of it. But to me it just seems like good policy. I have no authority to force people to comply.

But as you have said, there are clear consequences for breaking the tacitly developed social norms of this form of communication.

I've run into sites that specifically cater to spoilers, and those are very much kosher in my book because they tell you by name alone that that is what they do. But I have also run into sites which relish spoiling narrative television, film and other forms of entertainment without warning and in an inconsistent manner, so you can never be sure if what you are reading is going to be a spoiler or not. Of course, many of the people who frequent sites like those are also not seemingly huge on social contracts as well.

Lee: Seeing as you are in Australia, the East Coast vs West Coast thing has to be really amplified as well.

Megan said...

Just step away from the computer until after you've watched it.


Jeff said...

I'm on a newsgroup with people from all over the world and this issue comes up with some regularity, especially for television shows. It can be months before a show in one country airs in another country. People there generally give a week or so before they stop warning about spoilers, unless they know there is an inter-country delay, and then the warnings can go on for quite a while.

Of course there are always times when someone blurts something out without warning, but they get hammered in the group.

There are also arguments about what constitutes a spoiler. That gets to be an interesting conversation, as many people have different takes on where that line is.

John said...

This interview of Jimmy Wales expresses something similar to what you've written. One speaker even uses the term "social contract" in reference to Internet discourse.

John said...

Wait -- correction. It's not an interview, but a debate that Wales is participating in. The debate is over whether or not the Internet is a threat to democracy. I'm totally on the "hell, no" side.

MC said...

I agree, the internet is good for democracy as it provides a little bit greater transparency to some aspects of government.