Online spoilers: A code of conduct

Nobody can agree on what the rules for spoilers should be. So here’s a starting point.

Updated and reposted 11/5/14, because there’s a lot of chatter around Eurovision results. I figure Eurovision sits in an interesting space in Australia, because it’s got the elements of a sports event (live and all that) but has a significant delay on being on free to air TV in Australia.

Big things happened in this week’s episode of Game Of Thrones, and the Internet — and social media particularly — were on fire with plenty of spoilers. Some cried fair, some cried foul, as they so often do. The problem is that there’s no generally accepted “spoiler zone” for communications that aren’t in person.
I’ve covered this topic off previously here at Fat Duck Tech, looking at whether software was really the answer, but coming to no conclusion. In the case of Game Of Thrones — and to make it clear, as I type this I haven’t watched the episode in question, but by the time I publish this I plan to have — it apparently trended rapidly on its US broadcast, and then more slowly in the Antipodes as it spread, whether via Foxtel viewing, torrents or Apple TV sales.
By now, plenty will have seen it, but many more haven’t, and all day long as I’ve worked I’ve seen complaints about spoilers, and the usual arguments fly back and forth.
It strikes me that the problem isn’t with people, because people on the whole aren’t actually horrible human beings. If you were engaging in some water-cooler talk in the office about what was on TV last night, and somebody mentioned that they hadn’t seen a particular show (but wanted to), you’d quickly and politely move on to another topic of conversation. The body language is easy to read, and most people don’t want to deliberately annoy others.
Online is different. If you type something into social media or a message board, it’s already out there and published. You have no body language to read, because it’s all a completely reactive medium, and once you’ve typed out a spoiler, you can’t retract it, or even lower your voice.
There’s also the issue that a lot of people tend to treat social media as though it were narrowcast, and therefore an acceptable zone for any kind of statement. The simple truth is, unless you’re on Google Plus, watching the tumbleweeds fly by, it’s not narrow at all. At the time of writing, my personal Twitter account has a little over 3,700 followers. Fat Duck Tech’s Twitter account is less populated at 82 followers (so feel free to go follow, and did I mention the Facebook page? Herein ends the unsubtle hint.), but either of them could be picked up and retweeted endlessly. I don’t know every one of those 3,700-odd personal followers (and I’m sure there’s a few junk accounts in there), but you’re not keeping a secret (which is what a spoiler is) if you tell 3,700 people. You’re not even keeping a secret if you tell 82 of them.
What we need, then, are commonly accepted rules, or a standard. Standards come about after a whole lot of argument and debate, but somebody’s got to get the ball rolling. I’m using as the fundamental basis for these Wheaton’s Law, which states, simply, “Don’t be a dick”. I don’t think people actively want to be dicks — but what about inadvertent spoilers?
I’m not (quite) arrogant enough to suggest that my word is law, but the conversation has to start somewhere. So here we go with…

Kidman’s Statute Of Limitations On Online Spoilers

TV Shows: 4 hours after Australian broadcast, except for live events. I’m not into sport, but I can very much see that screaming along virtually with the crowd is part of the fun, and live events lose currency much more quickly than those that are pre-recorded.
But if you’re going online after four hours from a standard Australian broadcast, I reckon that’s fair game. No, torrents do NOT count; if you went online early and threw up lots of spoilers people would bay for your blood — and rightly so.
Movies: 2 weeks after general release. This one shouldn’t be that hard to discern; going to the movies is a more costly exercise, and it’s also one that can often rest on the plot elements within. There are some obvious issues here with “film of the book” adaptations, but for movies with their own plots, I reckon two weeks is fair.
Books: A month after general publication. Again, apply Wheaton’s Law in general measure, but unlike movies or TV shows, many people will only consume books chapter by chapter, so assuming that somebody knows that, for example
[spoiler]Dumbledore dies[/spoiler]
The day after the book comes out is a tad unfair.
Adapted Works: I hit this a lot in relation to Game Of Thrones. Those who’ve read the books assume everything is up for grabs because, hey, the books have been out for quite some time.
I don’t agree, but that’s based on the fact that a film (or TV show) is not a book. Apply the standard rules to any “new” bit of content, and if you want to discuss book to film/tv changes, take it to a message board or other easily spoiler-warning-suitable place. Twitter’s only got so many characters anyway.
Once again, I’m predicating this on the ideal that nobody actively wants to spoil content for other people; if you’re actively after being a dick, then you deserve every bit of scorn you get. Still, there you have it — a basic line in the sand. What changes do you reckon are fair for an online statute of limitations on spoilers?

Author: Alex

Alex Kidman is a multi-award winning Australian technology writer, former editor at Gizmodo, CNET, GameSpot, ZDNet, PC Mag, APC, Finder and as a contributor to the ABC, SMH, AFR, Courier Mail, GadgetGuy, PC & Tech Authority, Atomic and many more. He's been writing professionally since 1998, and his passions include technology, social issues, education, retro gaming and professional wrestling.

2 thoughts on “Online spoilers: A code of conduct

  1. I think online is up for grabs. If you don’t want to see it then you shouldn’t look. However, social media has screwed up a lot of big moments straight after things have been shown in America. I watch How I Met Your Mother and basically as soon as it finished in the US, their Facebook page posted a picture of the mother, something that has been 8 seasons in the making. Someone complained and the amount of vitriol that was aimed at this person for not waiting on a torrent site to download it straight after it aired in the US was incredible. Personally, I’m a bit of a binge watcher and with GOT, I’m waiting for the end of the season to watch season 3 because I was late to the GOT bandwagon and want to watch it all in a row. For a big spoiler, I don’t want to see or hear it but at the end of the day, I don’t care much about spoilers because I like to see how the creator has gotten to that point and it rarely diminishes my viewing pleasure. My wife though is a different story and she gets really angry about spoilers. It’s just one of those things these days that comes with people consuming so much and wanting to tell everyone about it immediately. I think we just have to deal with it. Maybe people need to put SPOILERS at the beginning of a post that has plot details so you are rightly warned. Maybe it’s something for Facebook and Twitter to look into…

  2. If I don’t want to know the outcome of eurovision I do a total media blackout. No Facebook or any kind of Internet; no tv or radio. Because spoilers suck.
    So if I didn’t want to hear about the red wedding, I wouldn’t go on Facebook when I knew it had just aired. But if you’re unable to watch for a while then that could be problematic.
    But as awesome as Khalesi is I have to say- the books are better. I haven’t finished watching season 2; it’s just sitting in the dvd cabinet waiting for me.

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