In the previous century, when everyone watched TV shows at the exact same time, we didn't have to worry about ruining suspenseful plots. You either saw it or didn't. But thanks to technology, we live in a dangerous time. Equally devoted fans of a show might be live-watchers—always up to the latest episode—or they might be time-shifters, perpetually a few days behind the broadcasts.
Does anyone have any right to just say "spoiler alert," and then blithely spill the beans?
According to Neilsen numbers, Americans spend 5 hours watching TV shows on the Internet alone, with smartphone, tablet, and DVR use up across the board. One major cable provider I spoke to expects 25 billion on demand views this year, up five billion from last year. That's a lot of people who are choosing to watch things whenever they want, instead of when networks dictate. And this is old news. Time-shifters have gone mainstream, and the convenience is good for all of us.
Unfortunately, we're still living with last century's spoiler etiquette. Those of us using Apple TV or a cable box to catch up on a Breaking Bad episode that aired last week—or last month—are at the mercy of those who watched it the night it aired. People who watch ASAP want to discuss ASAP, spoilers be damned. Deaths? Sex? Betrayals? Our friends will chatter about these things, online and off, without any regard for the time-shifters. Time-shifters are treated as a second class, just because they've used a modern convenience, like good modern humans.
The live-watchers don't care about spoiling your show—you chose to watch it later! But the live-watchers have to learn to live in peace with the time-shifters. The groups needs to reconcile. We just need to find some common ground. Here is my proposal:
You get one week.
Here's the deal for anyone lagging behind the live schedule: You get one week. If you're watching a show via DVR, the internet, the cloud, the valley, whatever—anything that's not live—you have a Seven Day Grace Period of protection. That's the statute of limitations.
Catch up in peace. Your friends can't fault you. You can't get any crap for it. And you certainly can't be told what happened. People have to respect the fact that you're going to watch on your own schedule—but that schedule expires in seven days. After that, it's open season: Anyone who's seen the show can talk about it as much as they want. This is the best compromise we're all going to get.
Twitter is off limits.
Twitter is a wide open broadcast. You're talking to everyone and no one at once, and even if you're @-ing someone, it's all too possible for someone to stumble upon your spoilers. And besides—Twitter is great for a lot of things, but long plot discussions are not one of those things. Particularly with multiple people, Twitter is an awful place to have a long, earnest talk.
Feel free to vaguely allude to things—"Wow, crazy ending on Walking Dead tonight! I almost threw up!" is okay. But "WALTER WHITE JUST DIED ON BREAKING BAD" is not okay.
Hey Twitter dipshits — I'm cool with you disagreeing with my gushing opinion of END OF WATCH, but could you do it sans spoilers?— Patton Oswalt (@pattonoswalt) September 28, 2012
If it's off the air, no mercy.
Any show that's no longer being broadcast live, ever, has no protection. There are no spoiler alerts for The Wire, just like there are no spoiler alerts for King Lear.
Yes, do say "spoiler alert."
Even if you don't say spoiler alert verbatim—and you probably shouldn't IRL, or you'll sound like a mammoth nerd—use courtesy in mixed company and preface conversation about recent episodes. It'll give anyone who hasn't caught up, even outside the Seven Day Grace Period, to put on headphones or take a bathroom break.
User Manual is Gizmodo's guide to etiquette. It appears as if by magic every Friday.