Avoiding the spoiler on social networks

Worried that you'll stumble across what happened on the last episode of "Mad Men" while going through your Facebook news feed? There may be hope.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read

Did you watch "Mad Men" on Sunday night? Wasn't it amazing when Don Draper...

When virtual world blogger and strategy consultant Wagner James Au tweeted on Sunday night "Oh I see 'Mad Men' spoilers in my Tweetstream! ," he could easily have been alluding to more than just trying to keep from finding out what the fictional character Draper had been up to. Indeed, his tweet touched on something that is growing more problematic every day: the conflict between many people's compulsive need to post to social media sites their thoughts about TV shows they're watching live and the desires of people who time-shift their TV watching to avoid spoilers.

The AMC show 'Mad Men' is one that frequently inspires fans to pepper social media sites with spoilers. For fans who time-shift their watching, that can present quite a challenge. AMC

With half a billion Facebook and 190 million Twitter accounts, it's no wonder that those who choose to TiVo or otherwise time-shift their enjoyment of "Mad Men," football games, the Oscars, or other TV content, or even those west of the Eastern time zone, face a troubling social media landscape. After all, there's nothing wrong with sharing your enthusiasm for a particular show with the world, is there? Isn't that what Twitter and Facebook are all about?

"I don't blame people for spoiling it, [and] I can't be bothered to worry about it," said Anthony De Rosa, a channel manager for Reuters Media who is known to some as being a frequent tweeter of spoilers. "How long are we supposed to wait? Is the Internet going to come up with some no-spoiler period? I don't think it's realistic. This is the age we now live in."

Yet there's no doubt that many people who are frequent users of services like Twitter and Facebook want very much to avoid finding out what happened on their favorite shows, or to their favorite teams, and for them, it is an increasing struggle to navigate the minefield that such sites can present in the hours after a show like "Mad Men" airs.

"I've learned to avoid Twitter from around the time 'Mad Men' airs on the East Coast (on Sunday nights) to the next day, after most of the 'Mad Men' tweets subside," said Au, who watches the hit AMC show by buying episodes the next day on iTunes. "Then hopefully [I can] find time to watch it on Monday night so I can join the 'Mad Men' tweet/blogosphere conversation already in progress."

But for an information professional like Au, it would seem that giving up nearly an entire workday in order to avoid "Mad Men" chatter is a big price to pay. In fact, he said that he doesn't eschew the service altogether but is much more careful about spotting any references to the show when he skims his incoming tweets on Mondays. "This is made much more challenging," he said, "because I'm following @PeggyOlson and @dondraperSCDP. 'Mad Men' characters chase me down in Twitter."

Twitter is one of the services that most challenge heavy social media users trying to avoid spoilers. Twitter

To someone like De Rosa, who is guilty party in this dynamic, there are other ways to keep from stumbling across spoilers than just trusting your eyes to turn away when you see a reference to your favorite show. In fact, De Rosa said that when he's trying to keep virgin ears, he relies on technology tools provided by some of the leading social media applications.

For example, De Rosa said, TweetDeck, a leading Twitter application, allows users to filter out certain keywords, meaning that tweets containing those phrases are excluded from an incoming stream. As well, he pointed to available scripts that can purge content containing predefined keywords from Tumblr streams. Add those two arrows to your quiver, and don't read Facebook, and you're probably in as good a shape as you can be, he said.

To some TV fans, maintaining the element of dramatic surprise is a crucial and increasingly difficult exercise, especially because the idea of watching anything on TV at its actual airing time is truly a thing of the past.

"I don't know the last time I watched a show when it actually aired live," said Engadget contributing editor Joanna Stern. "I didn't even watch the series finale of 'Lost' with the rest of the world! I was in Taiwan at the time and literally had to close Twitter for three hours to avoid hearing what was happening."

Certain Web sites offer users a way to post content that can be hidden to those who don't want to see it, and to some, that's a way to try to keep from seeing spoilers. "[CNET News sister site] Urban baby allows people to 'post inside'--post in such a way that it's not immediately visible unless you click, said Joyce Slaton, who writes for Urban Baby and also participates in its forums as a parent of a young child. "And I scream at people to post inside all the time. But it doesn't work."

Staying away from social media sites, or perhaps training your eyes to skim for certain phrases, are obvious ways to steer clear of spoilers, several people interviewed for this story said. But some take an even more proactive approach.

"I watch a lot of shows that force me to be cautious with my social networks, dramas like 'Sons of Anarchy,' 'Mad Men,' [and] 'True Blood,'" said San Francisco public relations representative Sheila Bryson. "As for my guilty pleasure, reality shows, I think that the most recent season of 'The Bachelorette'...was the most challenging for me to try to avoid spoilers, mostly because there were a lot of people buzzing about it on both Twitter and Facebook. Early in the season, I had to write a friend of mine on the East Coast not to spoil the show before it had aired on the West Coast after she had given away the results of that night's" show.

And others, too, say they've considered asking friends who live in time zones to the east to be respectful of their spoiler powers over those living to their west but often have decided not to because it's too much work.

Yet not taking those precautions can blow carefully made preparations for watching a TV show or sporting event after the fact.

"I set my DVR to watch a Giants-Dodgers game and tried to avoid Facebook and sports radio and even didn't listen to a few voicemails that [arrived] from my (San Francisco) Bay Area buddies," said James Lanctot, a Redmond, Wash., human resources manager. "However, it crossed my mind that a good friend of mine was celebrating a birthday and I thought I would add a greeting to their Wall. [But] I had forgotten that I had 'liked' a 'Buster Posey for Rookie of the Year' page and they blew it for me. Spoiled again."

Still, Lanctot is one person who has largely come to terms with the idea that it may simply be impossible in this new era of ubiquitous social media to avoid all spoilers. "I have just accepted that my TV watching has forever changed," he said, "and I will know ahead of [watching] who won 'Survivor,' that the Oakland Raiders lost again, and that the show 'Lost' was really just a bad dream that Gilligan had after being hit on the head with a coconut."

All kidding aside, though, Lanctot and others feel that the price of potentially encountering spoilers is easily offset by the social advantages of continuing to participate in services like Facebook and Twitter.

"For every TV show or sporting event that gets spoiled," Lanctot said, "I also get the buzz on cool technology products, world news, and important things happening in my friends' lives....[And] I'll take reconnecting with long-lost friends as a trade-off any day of the week."

Stern, too, is more than willing to risk running into spoilers because of the fruits of social media, particularly when it comes to indulging her taste for gossip about her favorite TV shows.

"For all that complaining [about spoilers] I've got to admit Twitter is an amazing tool for interacting with other show fans and chatting about specific characters and plot lines," Stern said. "And, well, all the spoilers in the world couldn't make me give that up."

Then again, there's another approach altogether for not having your friends or those whom you follow on Twitter blow surprises for you, one perhaps best summed up by San Francisco technologist Tom McCarty.

"Not watching TV or caring about it [is what] works for me," McCarty said, only half-joking.