Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Spoiler etiquette on Twitter?

(Quick note: I'm actually pretty indifferent to spoilers, on Twitter or otherwise. If a story is worth following, a spoiler won't ruin it. In fact, it might make me even more interested. I remember having no interest in seeing The Usual Suspects until after I learned that  - spoiler alert! - Kevin Spacey was Keyser Soze. So, the interest is almost purely academic. But I digress...)

(Quick note, the second: I say "almost purely" because I live with someone who despises spoilers. She doesn't appreciate the way I sometimes spoil things; she doesn't even like it when I vaguely hint that something noteworthy is going to happen. Thus, where spoilers are concerned, I am also interested in self-preservation.)

Two days ago, a Twitter exchange sent me wandering the internets for some sort of standard for spoiler warnings on Twitter. Since my sense of intarweb etiquette is grounded in those halcyon days* of the mid-to-late 90s - wherein every discussion forum and chat room had, at a minimum, a Gentleman's Code to handle spoilers, and more often a numbered list of spoiler rules - I often find myself frightened and confused by the behavior of people on the Facebook and Twitter machine.

(*No, these were not actually halcyon days. Actually, it was kind of like reddit, but if reddit was everywhere. Which is probably the opposite. People sure knew their spoiler rules, though. And the responsibility to avoid spoilage was placed wholly on the person doing the spoiling. That doesn't seem to be the case so much, anymore.)

In this decade, though, there is no standard for what constitutes a spoiler, which means that when the term is used, you can't assume that it means what you think it means. (Unless, of course, you ignore the warning and spoil yourself.) But just as often, spoilers aren't marked with any warning. To add to the confusion, sometimes people will announce that plot details from Season One of The Wire constitute spoilers.

On the other hand, people will decide that the spoiler tag doesn't count after a largely arbitrary x number of days have passed. Also, there are live-tweets** that effectively spoil something as it happens for everyone who isn't following it as it happens. And then, there are people who are offended by the spoiler warning and/or discussions themselves, for fear, I guess, that they're incapable of exercising self-control and will be powerless to look away. Anyway...

(**Fun fact: In France, it's illegal to display Twitter or Facebook names or hashtags in a TV broadcast. Live-tweeting is permitted, but effectively discouraged and considered a form of unregulated advertising. Which it is, really.)

When I went looking for discussion of spoiler etiquette in the age of Twitter, what I found basically amounted to this:
  1. Spoilers are totally unavoidable, thus
  2. Unfollow the person who is providing spoilers,
  3. Stop checking your account for the several hours that the TV show is being broadcast across the continent (assuming it's a TV show - otherwise, all hope is lost), or
  4. Just stop using Twitter.

Wow. That's... terrible. Just a terrible set of options. I realize that Twitter has this simplicity ethos - in contrast to Facebook's uber-surveillance, app-saturation, and hilariously confusing security settings, I guess? - whereby it's effectively impossible to discuss something with a particular group unless you're also being heard by everyone who follows you, but that's still an awful choice. Remove the perceived offender, remove yourself, or put-up-and-shut-up. Yikes.

I'm struggling to find an appropriate analogy to capture the problem, but it seems like they're all really weak. Twitter is a bit like a party where there's a loud talker and you can't not hear them. Actually, this is the very first example that sprang to mind:

Except that, on Twitter, everyone is Homer Simpson - you and me included. And it's actually worse than that. If it were a party, you could at least cover your ears - once the offending comment has been made, it's gone. (You could also leave the party - that strategy is similar to the one above. But it's a strategy-of-last-resort, and I'm more interested in first-resort. If that's something.)  You also wouldn't be significantly put-out by having to cover your ears, since it lasts a few seconds at most; skipping the entire broadcast (and alternate time-zone broadcasts, possibly) of a show, on the other hand, necessitates that you also miss everything else that's happening at the same time. See? Terrible analogy. But anyway...

On Twitter, you can never escape Homer Simpson. The words endure, as tangible now as when they were first spoken. For someone like me - I follow about 125 people, half of whom are on Twitter mostly to follow others - who can review about the past 12 hours worth of tweets in about 5 minutes, that could present a problem. Since my daily Twitter feed is only a few hundred tweets, 75% of which is about baseball or local politics, this isn't particularly difficult. I also happen to want to read it all, a task that would be made considerably more difficult if I had to start avoiding particular people or times of the day.

And this is probably the biggest obstacle to a coherent etiquette - there's no single way that social media is used. In the Twitter exchange that started me thinking about all this, my friend Nathan wrote that that live-tweets - which often contain spoilers - are the only way of experiencing "the moment of simultaneity" that characterizes collective TV watching. This is true, and certainly a good argument in favor of using Twitter as a way of heightening your experience of some sort of perpetual-present.*** The whole Twitter dealie is, in many respects, an extension or evolution of the chat room. But many people - more people, I think, not that this should really matter - use it to follow and facilitate past and/or non-continuous communication, much like a message board. Neither is better or a more authentic use of the technology, but it seems that privileging one experience unavoidably damages the integrity of the other, to some extent.

(***Though I think it's a better argument in favor of watching sports than it is a serial. Fairly or not, there's always been an expectation that sports should be consumed in real-time, as well as an expectation that it's entirely your own responsibility to avoid spoilers. Sports are also much more about the end result than are TV shows. I've watched many a spoiled episode of something scripted, but I'm not sure that I've watched a spoiled game outside of the Olympics. I usually don't even bother watching episodes of Survivor after they've already aired.)

But they're also more than that, because that moment also registers an indelible mark. It's preserved on your page and in the feed of everyone who follows you - your words outlive your present, extend beyond your use and escape your control. And, like a sort of Failbook drama landmine, your spoiler lies in wait for someone who wasn't expecting to be spoiled - not here, not like this.

Completely appropos of nothing. It's just that I found it hilarious.

To wit, it remains there for people to discover, whether that's because they don't pay attention to broadcast times*** or because they easily scroll several hours into the past. Or simply because they're not looking for it or drop their guard. And if we all consume our entertainment media differently and we all use social media differently, comporting yourself in ways that are sure to create conflict with those different uses is probably a bad practice.

(****Lest you think this is simply irresponsible behavior, I can recall a survey of 300+ first-year University students where it was determined that only one show was watched by more than half of them - The Big Bang Theory - and that virtually none of them watched it at 8pm on Thursdays. More to the point, most of them didn't even know that new episodes aired at 8pm on Thursdays. I want to say that Bart Beaty wrote this anecdote, but I can't actually find evidence of that. Regardless, the results are more or less confirmed by conversations with my own students, many of whom say that they don't own TVs and/or don't watch anything on them. They also find some confirmation in me: I don't watch any premium cable TV shows on the TV itself. I watch Game of Thrones, but can't recall what channel it's on - HBO, maybe? - or what time. Though I'm pretty sure it airs on Sundays, if only because every one of these shows airs on a Sunday.)

Now, that's not to say that I think live-tweeting is an inherently poor idea. I live-tweet myself, the rare time that I watch something during its broadcast time. (And sometimes while watching a DVD. Because it amuses me.) Granted, these are usually hate-tweets. (See: every tweet I've made about the NBC's Revolution.) But, learned as I am in the ways of mid-to-late-90s message boards, I try to avoid ruining a potential surprise by supplying unnecessary detail. (If you're following/participating in a live-tweet, you should get the reference even if it's oblique, right?) Instead, I prefer to ruin the show for you through a performance of indirect commentary infused with disdain and mockery. That's just how I roll.

So, where did I start this, and how did I get to this point? To summarize and conclude:
  • There is no agreement about how spoilers should be handled on Twitter, except, perhaps, an agreement that the only way to avoid them is to avoid Twitter altogether. Surely, there's a compromise to be found.
  • Because, unfortunately, that privileges only one kind of person - one who experiences and uses Twitter only in the perpetual-present - and marginalizes everyone who uses it elsewise. In short, it denies the reality that we don't all use Twitter in the same way, or at least positions the perpetual-present usage as the  correct one. That isn't terribly fair.
  • For better or worse, my opinions on spoilers and spoiler etiquette are grounded in the 15 year-old conventions of message/bulletin boards, a format that placed all the responsibility for observing spoiler etiquette on the shoulders of the spoiler. The present-day expectation, though, seems to have reversed this dynamic, and the responsibility has been shifted to the spoilee to protect themselves against the possibility of exposure to spoilers. But I think it's pretty clear that the former is a lot easier to accomplish than the latter.
  • Is vagueness, as an absolute minimum requirement, a reasonable compromise? If we're watching the same thing, simultaneously, I probably don't need to supply the kind of detail that would ruin it for someone who isn't doing that, right? (Or am I committing some sort of classic fallacy, whereby I've simply arrived at the answer that I wanted to reach when I started?)
  • Of course, this opens the door to a never-ending discussion of what constitutes an appropriate level of ambiguity. But that's probably a discussion worth having.

All that said, I'm sure I missed something. What did I miss?

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