A few nights ago as I was scanning through Twitter, my eyes picked up on a few keywords and settled, to my dismay, on a major spoiler for Breaking Bad.
The show had just aired in my time zone, but as a cord cutter, I’ve only seen the first four seasons on Netflix, and none of season five. Staying spoiler-free hadn’t even crossed my mind before–most people limit their Breaking Bad Twitter reactions to non-spoilery gasps and groans–but after this incident I started rethinking the way this stuff should be handled.
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I tend to have a journey-over-destination attitude about these things, but still, I was miffed. My first reaction was to gently admonish the offender, a fellow writer named Jeff Cormier. But he was unrepentant:
“There are no spoilers anymore,” he wrote, “only those who can’t effectively filter out unwanted information.”
My next reaction was to consider banishing Jeff from my feed. (How’s that for an effective filter, eh pal?) But what I really wanted to do was argue with him. The problem was, I couldn’t. His point, however blunt, was tough to refute.
We did, after all, just go through the Olympics. Twitter was a hotbed for spoilers then, and although much of the audience ire was directed at NBC for tape-delaying popular events, the fact remained: If you didn’t want to know what happened ahead of time, your best option was to tune out.
I’m not satisfied with that solution. It’s unpredictable, because you never know when a spoiler may strike. It’s also impractical, because no one wants to hide from a social network that they love using. (Jeff also suggested that I filter out certain keywords, but Twitter doesn’t offer such a feature that works on its own apps as well as all third-party clients.)
I also realize you can’t expect people to suppress their conversations, especially on a wide-open social network like Twitter. For a major event, especially something like the Olympics, spoilers are going to happen. Pleading with people to watch what they say is futile.
I can, however, plead with Twitter to do something. It’s about time we had some kind of spoiler markup, something similar to the spoiler formatting you often see in forums around the web.
As a random example, people who post in the forums of Penny Arcade can cover up text that other readers might not want to see. With one click, the full text reveals itself. Other forums render the spoiler text in the same color as the background, so it only appears when highlighted with a cursor.
Why not have something similar on Twitter? By designating text as spoiler-laden in some way–writer Ewan Spence suggested a “$” sign, keeping in the spirit of the @reply and #hashtag–Twitter could hide that text so it only shows up when users click on it. Hashtags could even appear on top of the covered text, so users at least know what the post is about.
A feature like this couldn’t come at a better time for Twitter. The company now sees itself as “the caption to other forms of content,” according to CEO Dick Costolo. That was evident in the Olympics partnership between NBC and Twitter, which in part included a news hub based on curated posts from the network.
If Twitter sees itself as a second screen for TV viewers, it needs a way to encourage conversation without spoiling the news for everyone else, especially as on-demand viewing becomes more popular. Spoiler markup would accomplish that, and it may even have a side benefit: The more spoiler-marked text people see in their feeds, the more curious those users might become.
After thinking about it more, I propose a revision to Jeff’s statement: Spoilers still exist, but only when the tools to filter them out do not. It’s time for Twitter to provide those tools.