Thursday, 17 April 2014


Fun fact: someone somewhere will STILL say that this gives too much away
Everyone's talking about spoilers this week, mainly because everyone's talking about a spoiler this week, shown above with the offending aspects digitally removed at great expense.  I've been meaning to write about spoilers for ages now, because it's such an oddly fascinating subject, and this seems like the perfect time.

So, in no particularly rational order, here are some thoughts.

1. Can't We All Just Get Along?

Christopher Bird has a post up at his place (which is based around the Game of Thrones spoiler that has so many people pissed off this week, so view with caution) which is hilariously wrongheaded in several places, but he does have at least one solid point, which is that it should be perfectly possible to both take someone to task over being spoiled and to respond to same without being a total dickcobbler. As MGK points out, the vast majority of spoiling incidents occur because someone is enthused about something they have experienced, and want to share it. That's a perfectly natural desire.  Moreover, it is a useful desire in many ways, because you can hook other people in with it.  The current degree of spoilerphobia exhibited across the geek spectrum has the unfortunate side-effect of making it harder to coherently recommend shows to others, which - in a roundabout and admittedly often deeply suboptimal way - is often part of what is intended.

2. The Spoiler Scale

Related to the first point, it cannot be stressed enough that everyone has their own line in the sand.  Some people couldn't give a toss about spoilers, especially when their interest in a given piece of art is aesthetic or structural rather than immersive. For example, I can't imagine anyone could actually have spoiled Gravity for me in any meaningful sense, because the actual plot was entirely incidental.  It would be like trying to spoil a Van Gogh.

At the other end of the scale, I know a guy who is so hyperbolic in his spoilerphobia that he actually insisted a Doctor Who forum not label upcoming episode discussions with the episode's titles because they gave too much away.  I mention all this by way of saying that the definition of a dick is not someone who happens to have their personal line a couple of inches to either side of yours.  Spoiler hypocrisy is common and deserves to be pilloried, but a coherent position that differs from yours isn't some great crime against the natural order.  Moreover, the fact that such extreme spoilerphobia exists is proof that expecting everyone to be as careful with this stuff as you personally would like them to be is - depending on your position on the spoiler scale - transparently unworkable and liable to lead to blood pressure issues.

3. Muddy Windows

The previous point isn't remotely original, of course; I think it's pretty clear to just about everyone that some kind of compromise is necessary.  One suggested approach to this is the "spoiler window", whereby it's understood that there should be some kind of moratorium on spoilers until a decent amount of time has passed for everyone else to catch up.  In the previously linked piece, MGK has a go at crafting some of these, but he runs up against huge problems.  The most obvious of these is just how short those windows actually are (one day for a TV show? Seriously?), but there are deeper issues here as well.

The fundamental problem with spoiler discussions is the same as the fundamental problem with all internet discussions, which is that they are predominantly driven by comparatively affluent and able-bodied people. Giving people a day, or even a week or a month, to absorb a given episode of a show from a subscription channel is not just telling people they should have the same viewing priorities as you, but they should be willing and able to spend the necessary money to deal with those priorities.  My family has never been poor, but for a while in my early teens our household was certainly sufficiently strapped for cash that the idea of a Sky subscription was laughable.  If Twitter had been around in the early '90s there would have been any number of shows that I would have loved to be able to watch but physically incapable of doing (legally, at least, since in this hypothetical I guess illegal downloads would be a possibility as well).  These days we're doing much better, thanks for asking, and I've got a Sky subscription (my parents have switched to Virgin, for reasons I don't understand, especially since it means I have to keep lending my Thrones DVDs to my dad). Bully for me; not everyone is so lucky. Watching Game of Thrones as its broadcast in the UK will set you back more than £70. Yes, you'll get other shows along with that, but if you a) are very short on cash and b) have very few shows you're willing to shell out for, it makes far more sense to wait until the DVDs come out for £30 or so. And quite frankly fuck anyone who tells you you've lost your right to watch that show unspoiled because of this.

In other words, anything other than the most generous of spoiler windows (as I've mentioned before, TV shows and films get a five year spoiler window on this blog) include an element of economic privilege.  Moreover, because there's an obvious link between problems with income and various forms of disability - and to my eternal shame, someone had to point out to me on Tuesday that even the act of physically just watching a show can require more time for some than others - it's an ableist position as well.

(And in addition to all that, of course, it fails to take into account that not everyone in every country gets things at the same time. Twitter is delightfully multinational; TV schedules are not.  A one-day moratorium on spoilers is basically saying "Fuck you" to anyone not from a select group of countries.)

4. In Which The Maths Comes Out

All of that said, of course, MGK is quite right when he points out that the nature of both Twitter and of humans is that if you want to use Twitter whilst not keeping up with major pop culture phenomena, you're going to get spoiled eventually. 

But whilst this is true, it's also exceptionally limited. To take the most obvious point first, Twitter is more valuable to some people than others.  For some people it's a bit of fun.  To others it's a vital part of their social lives.  Not vital in the "I couldn't live without the latest smartphone" sense, genuinely vital because just getting outside of the house or looking people in the eyes is a significant challenge. Telling those people they're bound to get spoiled using Twitter is like telling women their bound to encounter breathtaking misogyny if they have any kind of popular web presence.  It's clearly true, but a) they know that a hell of a lot better than you, and b) there are any number of other situations in which it would be incredibly obvious that the fact something cannot be stopped isn't a reason to not attempt to minimise it.

This seems to be a distressingly common misconception in general, actually, so let's break it down. First of all, being spoiled is not a binary condition. We are not "spoiled" or "unspoiled".  There are many levels of spoiler.  The most anodyne is what we might term "narrative conforming" spoilers.  These are at the level of saying a romcom ends with the guy getting the girl, or that a major character from book 1 also appears in book 2.  These are technically spoilers, but they are so baked into how fiction works that complaining you now know that there hasn't been a seismic shift in narrative rules for this particular work strikes me as taking things way too far.  Telling someone Adric dies is a spoiler.  Telling them Tegan makes it to the next season isn't.

(Though of course as with all comments about spoilers, this isn't an immutable rule. I can certainly see the argument that when dealing with writers like Martin or Robert Kirkman who both constantly put their characters in peril and who will kill them off with gleeful abandon, the "narrative conforming" spoiler is actually more dangerous.  I'm not sure how much I agree, and I'd note that in Martin's case at least there is a clear set of narrative principles being invoked; it's just that they're intentionally inverted from the norm.)

For any given person, then, there is a weighting system for how much each given piece of information constitutes a spoiler.  There is also a given probability of encountering the information, based on how far behind an episode's first broadcast you are, and where and for how long you hang out online or in the real world.  What we should be aiming for is reducing the probabilities of spoiling others (and getting ourselves spoiled), with particular focus on the big-ticket items.

The most obvious way to do this is to recognise the distribution of spoilers themselves. It's now been four days since "The Lion and the Rose" was broadcast in the US, and three since we caught it in the UK.  I've trawled through the last four days worth of #GoT tweets which named... well, you know, from this morning to noon on Monday (which is as far back as this laptop would go without pitching a fit) to see how many of them give the game away. The results, in tweets per eight hour period, are below: the first known instance of a genuine spoiler distribution.

As we can see, the number of spoiler tweets reduces by half between Monday afternoon and Tuesday morning, and settles down to around one tweet every ten minutes - globally, mind you - by Tuesday afternoon.

This means that rather than the MGK model of keeping quiet for a day and then jumping in, it might actually make more sense to consider the first 48 hours after a global (or, even more helpfully, national) premiere as spoiler time, and then suggest people settle down. That way the process actually works with the correlation between people who are likely to prioritise watching as early as possible and  those who want to splurge about it all over Twitter - that's a hell of a lot more sensible than trying to shut up the completely into it until they reach the time-zone of the "not necessarily all that bothered". Following the 48 - 60 hour period, spoilers should be avoided wherever possible until a bare minimum of a year has passed.  The area in-between could then be declared a safe zone for whomever wants to use it and for whatever reason.

Sure, it won't solve all our problems, but then the problem is unsolvable anyway.  It's all about the numbers.

5. You're Welcome

Of course, that's just a friendly suggestion. And again, I'm hardly being original here, though at least I went to the effort of backing it up with a ludicrously irrelevant data trawl.  I obviously don't get to tell people how they should balance all of this. And I'm fully aware of course that the best solution to all of this is just for people in the know to think a little harder before they deploy their 140 characters.

With all that said, then, I'd like to make a general request.  Can we please get over this ridiculous damn idea that constantly asking people to keep their traps shut doesn't incur some kind of cost at the other end?  I like Game of Thrones.  I like talking about Game of Thrones.  I also like Twitter.  There are people on Twitter I like talking to about Game of Thrones which I like and like talking about.  The constant suggestion that I should have to scurry off to some other, Game of Thrones-centric location to jaw about the show has the obvious problem that I'm not necessarily going to be comfortable with suggesting various Twitter peeps follow me there, or even DMing them every time I want to discuss some particularly choice scene.

None of that is a major hassle, at least to me - it's possible there is some intersection between people who share my approach to Twitter and who have a far greater reliance upon it, but of course I don't get to talk for those people or use them as a foundation for my own arguments - but it does result in a certain low level frustration, particularly over adaptations like this one. As MGK notes, the event people are up in arms over having had spoiled for them has existed in print since before the turn of the millennium.  There are people getting ready for their GCSEs that weren't born when A Storm of Swords offered up its shocks. It's not that I begrudge the fact that a decade and a half of talking up the books - which essentially led to them being judged worth making into a TV show in the first case - now has to be curtailed because the very people benefiting from that early work want a pure experience.  I'd just like it recognised that we're putting effort into keeping you happy.  Especially if you're someone who uses Twitter as a way to increase one's own viewing figures, which means that limiting the pop culture references you can spin into jokes and hopefully hits can result in a quite literal price.

Now, since we all want this particular favour returned - though according to our own lights, of course, see section 2 - screwing this up means failing to hold up our side of the bargain, and I've no problem whatsoever in crtiticising people who do that (and obviously fuck those hypocritical in their approach and what my friend JJ wonderfully called the "I've seen it, who wants to touch me" Eric Cartman-type people).  I just think a wee bit less entitlement on the side of the spoilerphobic might be in order.

6. Futher Solutions

Speaking of JJ, she was kind enough to dig out some  concrete methods by which spoilers can be filtered out on Twitter, and which I plan to adopt myself as soon as my Luddite brain can wrap itself around the intricacies involved. Whilst again noting that no approach can be utterly foolproof - and again noting that that's really not the point - these look really useful.  One minimises the chances of spoilers by inverting text so it can't easily be accidentally read; the other lets you tag certain tweets so that those with specific filters won't see those tweets show up in their TL.  Of course that rather shifts the argument from "can there be a universally recognised spoiler code" to "can their be a universally recognised spoiler tag for a given show", but at least the second seems theoretically achievable.


Damn, but that was a lot of words.  Clearly this has been eating away at me for a long time.  If I might be permitted to draw this all together - don't be dicks, keep an eye on when shows you don't want to be spoiled are getting their premieres, remember both sides of this discussion have a point at least in general, and get to work figuring out

And with that done, it's time for me to get to work writing up the GoT episode that started all this.  Honestly, I'm not sure what there is to write about other than how awesome Natalie Dormer's hair was, but I'm sure something will come to me.


BigHead said...

When it comes to social media blackouts, one also has to bear in mind that there are plenty of people whose jobs involve maintaining social media presence. Those people can't just stop using twitter for a few days. It's also beginning to be true that social media is no longer just light entertainment for the average person, but actually quite necessary for day-to-day matters. If I want to find out whether the buses are running properly, twitter or facebook is the way to find out. If I want to find out where I can watch a football match, twitter or facebook is the way to find out. It's quite difficult to cut yourself off completely from this, and as time goes on this will become more and more difficult to the point where avoiding all social media will be as difficult as avoiding all internet.

There's not really much you can do about it given that people will want to talk shortly after they've seen something, and social media is by default quite open. I suppose you can do something like set up a "Game of thrones discussions" group or friends sublist in facebook and send your messages only to the people on that list, but this sort of thing is a faff and people aren't going to bother doing it.

SpaceSquid said...

Fair points, but I'm not completely convinced. It's entirely true that for some people Twitter use is part of their job, sure. Indeed, I liase with a woman who's responsible for the Twitter feed of her department. But if you look at the people she follows and who follows her, they're all also people who use Twitter professionally to discuss medical developments and promote conferences etc. There's close to zero chance that someone is going to be using one of those Twitter accounts to spill the beans on last night's telly.

It's also possible of course to use Twitter in such a way that you can send tweets and read tweets from people who are directly referencing/speaking to you without seeing the wider picture. So even when I do go dark to avoid spoilers, I can still make use of Twitter.

Really, though, if you require Twitter/Facebook for certain set tasks (like your football and bus examples), it's not even remotely difficult to set up a separate account where you only follow/friend the professional accounts you need. I'm not suggesting spoilerphobes should feel like that's a necessary thing to do, but it's certainly a possibility.