Spoiler Etiquette for Bloggers
Wednesday, November 11, 2009 | Author: Mad Typist

*** note: this post contains spoilers for the following works: Mad Men, Lost, Harry Potter, Star Wars

I'm a big fan of the blog Televisionary, and usually go out of my way to read it several times a day. Yesterday the blogger there, Jace, posted an interesting article about spoilers that got me thinking. He mentioned that he was irritated that a commenter had gotten upset that Jace had not properly warned about "spoilers" in one of his recent posts. Here's Jace's opinion on spoilers:
Here's where my views depart from the devout spoiler-phobe. I firmly believe that, once an episode has aired across the country, all bets are off. It's a free-for-all, as far as I am concerned. Writers, critics, bloggers, whoever, should be free to discuss the episode's intricacies and plot developments with abandon. There's no need to label a post, an interview, or anything as a "spoiler" because it's not spoiling anything.

The details about the latest episode's plots, reality series eliminations, character deaths, etc. are out there in the public consciousness. Consider them public domain, if you will. And the onus to avoid them isn't on the part of the writer but on the reader.

If by some bizarre occurrence (say, I was trapped on a Martian base being chased by a water-based homicidal creature), I was to miss an episode of Doctor Who or Lost, I would firmly expect to have plot points revealed in every single piece written about Doctor Who or Lost the following day.
Now, note that he is anti-spoiler, prior to the episode actually airing.

I'm not sure that I agree with him. I think his opinion ignores the reality of modern pop culture consumption - that more and more people use DVRs, and therefore the idea of a show being "must watch TV" is a dying concept. A large chunk of a show's audience may be time delaying their enjoyment of the show, so to suggest that they just avoid the internet at large until they can catch up seems a bit unrealistic.

Consider Thursday nights, where a hip pop culture fan must deal with the fact that the following shows all air within a 2 hour block: Grey's Anatomy, CSI (original recipe), Fringe, 30 Rock, The Office, Community, Flash Forward and Parks and Recreation. That's 6 hours of programming that interests me. Even if I watched some of them live, I'd have to stay up past midnight just to watch them all before the next day recaps/reviews start going up on the internet.

On the other hand, readers must give a little here too. The commenter who complained to Jace was a full 7 episodes behind on the show, and intentionally read an interview with the show creator. In that case, yeah... no kidding you're going to get spoiled. I also get Linda Holmes' point that knowing what constitutes as spoiler isn't so easy. She gives the following excellent example:

Suppose there is a news story proclaiming that Courteney Cox has been cast on The Office to play Pam's sister. (This is not true.) Is that a spoiler? Because I will tell you right now: some people think it is. Some people believe that is absolutely a spoiler. Some people believe that all casting news is a spoiler, and that spoilers cannot be in headlines, which means that a blog post about that would pretty much have to be titled, as near as I can tell, "Former Sitcom Star Cast In Supporting Role On Current Sitcom." And you would have no idea whether this would spoil anything you care about until you go to read the item, at which point I could tell you that it contains casting information about The Office, and then you can decide whether to read on.

And at some point, we have just entirely lost the quality of the discussion, because I am leading you through a series of security doors that 95 percent of people won't care about and will find cumbersome and frustrating, just so that you can avoid knowing that Pam has a sister who will be on an upcoming episode.

I am sympathetic to the fact that there's always going to be someone on the internet who's going to be upset about what they perceive as spoilers. You can't please everyone. On the other hand, you can follow some simple rules, both as a reader and a writer, that should satisfy 90% of the reasonable public.

Guidelines for bloggers/writers to address spoilers:

1) First and foremost - do NOT put spoilers in your headlines. That makes your blog/site a hostile place for readers to visit, because they have to worry about being spoiled just by doing you the favor of frequenting your site. The same goes for posting spoiler-y pictures on the main page. There's no reason to put up a post the day after the Mad Men finale aired in Season 2 with the headline, "Mad Men finale: Peggy tells Pete about the baby!" That just ruins a great moment for your readers who haven't yet seen the episode. If anything, that's a sure way to ensure readers AVOID your site, because they'll know you're that kind of person.

2) There's no harm in tossing a line at the top of your post saying, "This post contains spoilers for the latest episode of Show Y". Then it's fair to expect readers to proceed at their own discretion. It should be assumed that all previous episodes that aired prior to the one you're focusing on are also potentially spoiled in your post.

3) Before revealing a plot point that you know is significant to a work NOT directly related to what you're discussing as the main topic, ask yourself whether or not that spoiler is really worth tying in. This is where you have to apply what I call the "Under the Rock Rule": in other words, unless your reader has been living under a rock for the last 10 years, there's a 99% chance they should know this already. Classic example: Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father. EVERYONE knows that. You can't dance around the issue because you don't want to spoil it for that weird .0009% of the population who doesn't know about that. On the other hand, a particularly beloved work that you know many people haven't had the luxury of finding for themselves yet - maybe you want to keep that to yourself. This is more of a judgment call, but really....

4) WHEN IN DOUBT, SPOILER TAG IT. Really, it costs you nothing and maybe you'll win a reader's loyalty because they know you're being considerate of them. You can either spoiler tag at the top (like I have done for this post), and/or do an inline spoiler tag, like this: My favorite scene in *SPOILER ALERT FOR HARRY POTTER!**** Harry Potter is when Dumbledore dies **** END SPOILERS***.

Guidelines for readers to handle spoilers:
Now, it's not all on the authors out there to protect you, the reader, from spoilers. You need to apply a little common sense as well.

1) The general statue of limitations should be about a week. If you are more than a week behind on a show and you really want to avoid spoilers, the onus is on you to avoid pop culture sites on the internet where you know they talk about those things. If you are one of those people who wait to watch the season when it comes out on DVD.... you're going to have to accept that you either need to do a media blackout for yourself, or occasionally catch a spoiler reveal here and there.

2) Some sites recap episodes. Obviously, the nature of the recap means that they'll be discussing details of what happened. Don't go places like TWOP if you don't want to be spoiled (they often spoil in their headlines, which I don't appreciate, but hey... now you know). If your favorite blogger recaps, be aware of that, and be aware of whether or not they follow rule #1 above.

3) Casting news is not a spoiler almost 99% of the time. Don't give people grief about it.

4) The day after an episode airs, there's going to be a lot of content out discussing the previous night's episode. Reader beware. Again, it sucks when they can't control themselves and post headlines that reveal major plot points. But if you willingly "read below the fold" and drill into an article, you should assume you'll be spoiled on what happened.

Basically, you'll never please everyone, but I think that these rules are a good guideline overall. Remember, we blog because we WANT people to read out stuff, and by having a consistent policy regarding spoilers, we make it possible for readers to keep coming back to our sites knowing what to expect.
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