Whenever I check Twitter on a Sunday night, I see the same barrage of complaints: People are unhappy at seeing spoilers, in the form of dialogue, plot points, and detailed reactions, to TV episodes they haven’t had the opportunity to watch yet. Maybe it’s because they’re a time zone or two behind their friends, or because they’re watching certain series time-shifted an hour or more with their DVR. Maybe they’re weeks behind and trying to catch up to new episodes. Whatever the case, they’re unhappy about being hit with the fire hose of information about something they want to see but haven’t yet. They’re made to feel left out, and they’re told about things they’d rather learn on their own. This happens every week, without fail.
I understand the impulse to live-tweet your favorite show, which is to say, I acknowledge that such impulses exist and are acted upon. But I think manning Twitter while a TV episode airs and blasting out quotes, instant reactions, and plot points is an awful thing to do, as is rushing to gush about story details the instant the end credits roll. It has the potential to ruin some nice surprises for others, but far more importantly, it negatively affects the way you experience the story.
First the former: Talking about the plot twists of TV series as they air is bound to spoil a show’s natural surprises for people who haven’t had the opportunity to watch the episode yet. As HitFix’s Drew McWeeny pointed out Sunday night in a spirited rant on the subject, film critics could in theory spend every Friday talking about the major moments or shocking reveals of films in general release. We could devote opening days to talking about just what’s happening in that cabin in the woods, or who dies in the Hunger Games, or if there are any 1980s callbacks to the original “21 Jump Street.” The public has just as much access to those movies as they do the TV series that set Twitter abuzz, and they pay just as much for premium cable packages (maybe more) as they would for a trip to the theater. But we don’t do those things, because to do so would be arbitrary and immature, and it would betray a marked lack of immaturity. We’ll praise or pan, and we’ll talk plot outlines and analysis, but we won’t get into those story moments best left to blossom on their own because it would just be mean.
Reactions are fine, and they’re normal. But tying those reactions to specific discussions of key plot points that might not be widely known means possibly ruining the show for a number of people. Live-tweeting a show, or offering instant plot feedback as if everyone in the world watched with you, is representative of the “First!” culture that’s sprung up online in the past decade-plus, and it’s pointless. If you really want to talk spoilers online, get a blog and direct people there via Twitter.
Yes, there are filters available for Twitter. (I use Slipstream for Chrome; Firefox users are invited to try out Tweetfilter.) They can weed out tweets by hashtags and keywords, and they come in handy for those of us who don’t like having cards tipped over before we get to play. The tools are great for non-TV tweets, too, and they do a great job at reducing the noise and letting you still enjoy following people without hearing about things you’d rather ignore. Beyond that, yes, Twitter is also a voluntary service, and anyone jumping into the echo chamber has to know they’re going to get hit with a flow of information that, for all their efforts, might still include some unpleasant or spoiler-filled bits from a TV show they’d prefer to see unspoiled. Even with the dozens of filters I’ve got running (#MadMen, “Mad Men,” “Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce,” “Game of Thrones,” #GameofThrones, #GoT, etc.), I usually avoid Twitter on nights when my favorite shows air. I know I’m talking about a problem I’ve already figured out how to mostly avoid. To prevent information overload, abstinence really is the best policy.
Yet it’s that viewer responsibility that really gets to the heart of the issue and highlights the real problem with live-tweeting TV series. Here’s a good example: I don’t check Twitter during “Breaking Bad,” and not because I don’t want to be spoiled. It’s because I’m watching the show. For those 60 minutes, I want to see what happens to Walter White. I don’t want to pause the action to repeat a canny one-liner, and I sure don’t want to miss a moment of emotional scene-setting because I was fixing a typo in my #BetterCallSaul hashtag. I don’t want to tweet during the show because I don’t want to distract myself from watching it, and I don’t want to tweet details when it’s done because I’d hate to even accidentally ruin the experience for someone else.
I love the way social media can generate conversations, and how people can come together on Twitter or Facebook to banter about whatever makes them happy or sad. (I’ve moderated equally passionate threads about the politicization of religion and what quote from “The Simpsons” gets the most daily use.) But using the platforms to instantly communicate detailed plot/dialogue and reactions to TV series — especially those popular ones like “Game of Thrones,” “Mad Men,” “Breaking Bad,” and so on — means missing the point of those shows entirely. The creative teams behind your favorite shows do not intend for them to be half-watched through an ironic lens that’s constantly searching for a pun or .gif fodder. To hover over your computer’s keyboard or phone’s glossy screen is to miss out on the moment of connection and possibility that makes art worth experiencing. Next time your favorite show is on, try just sitting and watching it. The act of watching requires a kind of patience and focus that are key to the whole thing. And if you find yourself moved to say something when it’s finished, that’s great, really. Just keep the spoilers to yourself.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.