Going on the Internet without having watched the latest plot twist unfold onscreen is like taking a stroll beneath a tree filled with a thousand pigeons. You might be OK. You might not. On the Internet, the pigeons are fans of your show or film franchise poised to drop knowledge that you’d rather stay far away from.
You might be OK. You might not.
Why haven’t we figured this out? The age of cord-cutting promised us a marathon -- the freedom to watch our shows and movies at exactly our own pace -- but instead, consuming pop culture has become a sprint. Keep up, or else! Someone could ruin it! For you! Forever!
One string of comments on Reddit warned against a long list of Internet activities that might reveal spoilers, including: Googling the name of a show or movie (the site is prone to auto-filling its search bar with spoilers), following pop culture podcasts on Facebook (they might post careless status updates) and tweeting about a show or movie to your own followers (some black-hearted stranger could respond with spoilers). Some Chrome extensions might help you, but the lesson appears to be: Don’t go online.
Yet it’s tempting to imagine a happy middle ground when the Internet is so essential to our daily responsibilities. It’s certainly possible. On Reddit, commenters can use Markdown code to black out parts of sentences containing spoilers; the words reveal themselves only when a reader hovers over them. The community also flags posts with spoiler tags for unassuming visitors to the page -- in many areas of the site, proper use of these tags is strictly enforced.
Someday, Facebook or Twitter might make similar resources available. But tools like that are not likely to subdue every single person in your feed. Individual jerks have always existed. They will always exist. And sometimes people just make mistakes.
Publications, however, are rightfully held to a higher standard. Should our readers really be punished for something so simple and necessary as seeing what’s going on in the world with the crushing knowledge that a favorite character died on "The Walking Dead"? All because they had to work late and their train was delayed and they couldn’t chill out and watch TV with everybody else last night? Should they be punished because they had actual obligations preventing them from binge-watching the new season of "House of Cards" all weekend?
A Universal Spoiler Code of Conduct remains to be written. Vulture published its own guide in 2008 -- a long, long time ago in entertainment -- and is working to update it. Other entertainment news sites ("Game Of Thrones" spoiler in the link) are not so thoughtful. For publications, the questions are sticky: How to draw in readers who have seen the show already while minding those who haven’t? When does the statute of limitations on spoilers run out? How much of the onus is actually on us to shield fans from spoilers?
Nowhere does this debate come to life so much as in HuffPost Entertainment’s corrections inbox after an episode of “Game of Thrones.” One reader wrote to complain about the basic function of a headline, objecting generally to those that “point in a direction that leads a fan to plot-related assumptions.” A pair of similar complaints arrived after a post referenced a major “Game of Thrones” plot twist -- aired nine months previously -- in its headline. Still another shared an all-caps request that a plot point, which was revealed on the HBO series in 2013, be shielded by a large spoiler warning when it was referenced in an April 2016 story.
It’s tempting to argue that true fans will either watch on time or catch up quickly, so publications can assume that readers have seen everything or don’t care that much. There are certainly some plot twists that are nearly impossible to keep under wraps -- even non-“Thrones” fans know what happened to Jon Snow. But when can a spoiler appear in a headline? Within an article, at what point can we talk about key plot lines about TV and movies without a large SPOILERS AHEAD?
Movies are easiest. Because they play out in theaters over a number of weeks -- and they’re damn expensive -- movies deserve the longest grace period before we can start openly discussing their plot lines in headlines or otherwise. How long? How’s two weeks? One month?
TV, however, moves at a much faster pace. Reality shows like "The Bachelor" are still treated like community events, a practice that Twitter has only encouraged, and so -- like sports games -- spoiler warnings are not very practical. It's done; the score is final. Viewers are drawn to these shows for the thrill of watching in real time, and if spoilers are out there (ahem, Reality Steve) it would only be cruel to post them before the final episode.
Scheduled, narrative TV shows like "The Walking Dead" and "Game Of Thrones" are far more controversial. It seems reasonable to assume that devotees will catch up before the next episode airs. But perhaps it is kinder to keep current-season plot details out of headlines for a couple weeks, and tag spoilers from the show’s current season at the top of articles. Other narrative shows whose new seasons are dumped online all at once seem to deserve a wider spoiler-free berth -- somewhere between scheduled TV and movies -- since few allow themselves to binge a whole season of “Orange Is the New Black” in one sitting. How’s two weeks? One month?
It’s unlikely everyone will ever agree on a universal set of rules for posting spoilers. Even on Reddit -- perhaps the most hyper-organized space for fan- boys and girls -- arguments flare up over information dissemination. Meanwhile, writers are torn between not wanting to ruin a show for anyone (we aren’t monsters) and needing to drive traffic to stories (we still need paychecks). A spoiler-bulletproof headline -- “What Happened Last Night On ‘Game Of Thrones’” -- would not draw many readers.
The Huffington Post has some strategies for shielding unwitting fans from headline spoilers. While the site has no official spoiler policy, editors are able to give each story two headlines: one that appears in the preview when readers share the link on social media, and one that appears on the article page. Social media headlines are typically more vague, to prevent readers innocently scrolling through their Facebook feed from stumbling into a key plot point. Editors also lean away from including photos that reveal plot twists as main images -- that is, the ones shown in social media previews.
Publications walk a fine line between appealing to readers who are up-to-date and those who aren't, striving to make both sides happy. But even firm editorial policies can't extend to rogue commenters, absentminded Facebook friends, and everyone else on message boards and social feeds.
Instead of worrying about spoilers, it may be worth asking how much the prior knowledge of a surprise twist actually ruins the experience of watching. "Star Wars" fans still watch again and again despite the fact that nearly everyone knows who Luke's father is. Audiences will likely turn out in droves to see a live-action "Beauty and the Beast" even when they know how it ends. The things that draw viewers in -- the character dynamics, the look and tone -- aren't less enjoyable by a slightly fuller knowledge of how the story goes.
But this is the Internet, where no one agrees on anything. For fans who absolutely, positively must be left unspoiled, know that the online world is dark and full of spoilers -- you might be OK, or you might not. Enter at your own risk.
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Follow Sara Boboltz on Twitter: @sara_bee