Spoiler alert: tattle-tale etiquette in the internet age

The buzz is loud from conversations about the latest Star Wars movie. But what about keeping secrets from people who haven't seen it? An etiquette about spoiler alerts is growing organically in the internet age, says a Waterloo media analyst.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens has broken ticket sale records (CBC)

Plot twists have always been an enticing storytelling device. But movies with twisty endings like The Usual Suspects and The Sixth Sense were released long before the internet came into being. Their dramatic turns were easier to keep secret back then.

With social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, is it reasonable to assume spoiler alerts are just a part of modern reality?

Spoiler rules of etiquette

Aimee Morrison is an assistant professor at the University of Waterloo English department. She told CBC Kitchener-Waterloo's The Morning Edition's Craig Norris there are dos and don'ts of spoiler alerts, which have firmed up over time. 

Morrison says fans were concerned about spoilers involving the new Star Wars because its fan base is super detail-oriented. "So they want every single detail about every single thing, and you know when this becomes available digitally they're going to be watching it frame by frame, writing down all their observances," she said.

Meantime, with the globalisation of media and the development of properties like Breaking Bad or Downton Abbey, which may air internationally at different times, journalists have to be delicate. In the Guardian for example they will review a show that's coming out in the U.S. but not in  the U.K. and they will also review a show like Mad Men and preface it with a spoiler alert.

Spoiler culture maturing

Morrison says at one time if she were to see a movie and talk about it on Facebook with friends, it wouldn't have occurred to her she was ruining the movie for others. "Then we developed a culture that said – 'No, spoiling is not cool'," she said.

But what's the difference between social media and reading a review before going to a movie? "I think we've already hashed out a social compromise ... if you want to fund out stuff before, usually you can. But if you don't, there are enough warnings, " Morrison said.

Journalists have developed a few rules, she added: "For instance: don't put the spoiler in the headline or picture, because if someone is showing the post on Facebook, it will show up."

Deliberate spoilers

Morrison says there's actually a whole sub-industry around reality TV shows, involved in deliberately producing spoilers. For example, there are actually a couple of people whose job it is to spoil 'The Bachelor'.

"It's a big thing where they spoil on purpose. It's part of their enjoyment of the show," she said. "But for first-release movies that have a twist ending/surprise, we as a culture have kind of agreed to protect that  information a bit more," she added.

Spoiler rules for various media

According to there's an in-house rule of thumb regarding spoiler alerts. For movies, it's two weeks, plenty of time to get to the theatre.

For television, spoilers are fair game the next morning because TV is a more communal, shared experience, says Morrison. And there's a real-time element of the program that loses its vitality after a day or so anyway. 

But the rule for books is–never! It's hard enough to get anyone to read anything these days and if it's really good, it will probably get made into a TV show or movie anyway, she said.