The world has changed, ladies and gentlemen. We live in a society built around, obsessed with, and inundated by technology. With these technological advances come an assortment of new challenges for the countless bloggers, podcasters, writers, and critics on the web as they review and discuss the latest television and film releases. Back in the day, there was one way to consume new content: you sat down and watched it at the same time as everyone else. Sure, you could wait for a movie to arrive on VHS (ha!), or chance upon television reruns; but for the most part, you either saw the movie or show when it aired, or you missed it.
Now, our options for taking in new films and series are virtually endless. Did you miss last night’s mid-season finale? No problem! Watch it later on Hulu Plus! Did you miss that summer blockbuster while it was in theaters? No worries, it’s available for digital download on iTunes! DVR, streaming services, home releases, video on demand, and digital downloads have completely changed the way we approach new releases. Not only can we watch them any way we want, we can watch them any time we want. This, effectively, makes it impossible to discern who’s seen what, making it increasingly difficult to talk about specific plot points and “spoilery” details without offending someone or completely ruining the experience for them.
Most writers (or at the very least, the courteous ones) have become privy to this issue, posting Spoiler Warnings in bold, italic disclaimers on their reviews and articles. However, we now operate in a sort of grey area, where it isn’t really clear who’s responsible for keeping things under wraps. Unfortunately, writers and readers are between a rock and a hard place. On one hand, a reviewer may not know that the person reading their post hasn’t seen a film yet. On the other, the person reading the review doesn’t know what they’re getting into, or what details are about to be told to them.
Ten years ago, you had the assurance that if a movie was going to be spoiled for you, it was going to be by a malicious cousin or vindictive sibling, and it was going to be in person. My brother-in-law had The Usual Suspects spoiled for him by his cousin upwards of ten years ago, and he still talks about it. And I don’t blame him. The pain of having something spoiled runs deep.
Today, you have NO assurance that when you get on Facebook, what happened last night on Grey’s Anatomy isn’t going to be revealed to you. Even offhand comments can be devastating to an unbeknownst reader. That’s where the waters get muddied. What is the statute of limitations on spoilers? A month? A year? 5 years? 10? More? At what point can those writing about film and TV on the internet assume that you’ve either seen what we’re talking about, or have no real interest in seeing it?
The fact of the matter is this: there are no real answers. No guidebook on spoiler etiquette, no rules set in stone, and no possibility of there being any. There’s simply no way to regulate what people are talking about, and at some point you lose the right to be upset about spoilers. A writer gives away a plot twist in an article headline or review of a new release? Not cool. But if you neglected seeing a film for 15+ years, is it really the writer’s fault for giving away a key plot detail? No.
What we need is to reach a point of mutual understanding. Those writing about fresh content need to be aware that the cultural landscape has changed. Yes, that show’s series finale is the hot topic right now, but that doesn’t mean that everyone has seen it yet. And readers need to understand that if you want to keep from getting spoiled, you need to either actively avoid websites where you know things will get ruined, or stay caught up. When I was behind on Breaking Bad, I literally stayed off the internet entirely until I was current. I understand that at a certain point, it’s my responsibility to avoid getting things spoiled.
The reality is this: cinema and TV were meant to be enjoyed together. Cinemas were designed to be a communal experience, and TV shows were meant to be seen by all the viewers at once. Technology has fundamentally changed that, and as more people flock to Twitter or Facebook to talk about the death of a main character, or the post-credits sequence in a comic book film, the harder it gets to keep from getting those things ruined.
I’ve been victim to it countless times. I had the Game of Thrones Red Wedding ruined for me by Collegehumor on Tumblr. But, I don’t blame them, because a) I was weeks behind and b) it’s their job to talk about this stuff as it happens. So really, it was my own fault for falling behind on a show that I knew people would be actively talking about online.
On the other hand, when I go to CNN to read the news, I’m not expecting a headline about my favorite show to be on there. So, the bottom line is, no matter how hard I try, I can’t control what people are talking about and where they’re talking about it. At a certain point, you have to assume that the minute you turn on the computer there’s the potential to have things spoiled. I know it sounds unrealistic to say, “if you’re behind on your shows, stay off the internet until you’re caught up!” But really, that’s the only way to be sure your favorite show or movie won’t be ruined for you. Having things spoiled is inevitable, and the harsh reality is we just have to grit our teeth and bear it. Nobody is exempt from spoilers.
Pop culture is such a fleeting, changing thing, and what’s popular or buzz-worthy one day can be completely forgotten the next. The internet moves at a brisk, unapologetic pace. It doesn’t follow every individual’s viewing habits, and it’s easy to assign blame when you’re late to the party.
At a certain point you lose the right to be indignant. If a movie is 10+ years old, it becomes unreasonable to expect people to keep those juicy plot details a secret. Is it really a spoiler for me to say that Soylent Green is people? Or that Darth Vader is Luke’s father.
If you’re getting up in arms about those last two spoilers, stop for a second and consider how old those twists are. At this point, they’re more common knowledge than anything, and have transcended popular culture and become film history. If writers are supposed to worry about what decades-old films you have or haven’t seen, we’d have to post spoiler warnings on every article and before every plot detail, just in case one reader out there hasn’t seen Star Wars. At a certain point, that becomes an unrealistic expectation.
New technology has given us countless ways to interact and discuss the things we love, and what’s the point if we have to tip-toe around the very topics worth talking about? What we need is this: Writers, be cautious of new releases, and conscious of how technology has affected the rate at which people keep up. But viewers are not devoid of responsibility. Everybody’s walking on egg shells, and sadly you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet.
So, there we have it. My thoughts on the statute of limitations on film and TV spoilers. Feel free to yell at me or continue the discussion in the comments below, or find me on Twitter @jimlovesmovies.
This article was first posted on December 18, 2013