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In the Twitter age, what constitutes a spoiler?

Dale Roe

How'd you find out that "Lost's" Locke was really the Smoke Monster ... and the Man in Black? Did you catch the shocking revelation on the show's sixth season premiere a couple of weeks ago? Or did a little birdie tell you a little birdie with 15 million beaks?

It's really hard to keep a secret in the age of Twitter.

Users of the social media service send out "tweets" — think of a really short blog post, limited to 140 characters — about what they're eating, where they're going, whom they're dating and, most disturbing to fans of serialized dramas that rise and fall on the strength of their questions and answers, what's happening at any given moment on their favorite television programs.

When the new, highly anticipated season of the ABC drama debuted Feb. 2, Twitter became lousy with as-it-happened "Lost"-related tweets. "The smoke monster took the form of Locke!!!!" is one of several hundred similar tweets I found by searching Twitter for the words "locke" and "smoke monster" on the night of the premiere.

"Watch your spoilers, kiddies!!!!" tweeted a scolding Damon Lindelof, one of the show's producers. Spoilers — advance information about plot twists, etc. — have been easy to find on the Internet for years, but you generally had to go looking for them. In the Twitter age, the spoilers come looking for you. And with the time-shifted viewing possibilities technology such as Hulu.com, iTunes and DVRs provide, some viewers consider real-time tweets, or Facebook postings just after a show has ended, to be spoilery.

It's a fair bet that Lindelof, having zealously avoided providing any information on the new season, didn't want fans watching the show in the country's Eastern and Central time zones ruining the element of surprise for West Coast viewers, who see the show hours later. At an Austin Film Festival panel last fall, Lindelof railed against spoilers, noting that there are so few good surprises in life. His premiere-night admonishment prompted a good surprise, though — a number of humorous tweets with the hashtag #fakelostspoilers.(hashtags are labels Twitter uses to make tweets easily searchable). Comic actor and author John Hodgman posted several, including "When the bomb went off, Juliet flashed forward to the 80s V."

Obviously that wasn't a real spoiler, but in the age of Twitter, what exactly is?

Three full days after the "Lost" premiere, I saw a tweet from a user who hadn't had a chance to watch the show's new-season kick-off. "Friday! Catching up on LOST tonight," she wrote. "No spoilers, please!"

Really? If I comment on an episode several days after it's aired, this woman considers it a spoiler? Could she seriously expect the entirety of the connected world to button their electronic lips until she sounded the all clear?

Peter Kafka, a media and technology writer who produced a Media Memo for All Things Digital (part of The Wall Street Journal Digital Network) titled "Lost, Twitter and the Tragedy of the Commons: A Semi-Modest Proposal" suggested a two-day embargo on such information.

"It'd be really great if you folks could lay off the 'Lost' tweets until a few days after each show," Kafka wrote. "Because otherwise, I — and, I suspect many other people, as well — will have to make an unpleasant choice: Stop using Twitter for several days a week or wade through lots and lots of spoilers."

Similarly, an opinion piece in the University of Hartford's "The Informer" suggested fans "wait few days before discussing it, or chat about it outside of where anyone can see your posts" (there are Web sites such as televisionwithoutpity.com where fans can gather with others who want to immediately discuss episodes of their favorite shows in a relatively private venue). The author compared post-show online chatter to walking out of a movie theater and discussing a film's plot twists in front of those waiting in line for the next show.

A few days' delay seems sort of unreasonable to me, but I watch television for a living so maybe I'm not the best barometer. I turned to my Facebook friends and Twitter followers for their thoughts on a workable time frame for episode discussion.

"One week later? That should give the DVRing crowd a chance to catch up and remain spoiler-free," a Twitter user responded.

"Got to go with 24 hour DVR rule," another replied. Hmm ... maybe there is a rulebook.

Others who replied provided a counterpoint.

"Once it has aired, it's fair game!" one Twitter friend responded.

"Only after the fact," a Facebook buddy wrote, "but that could be mere seconds ... and a 'Spoiler Alert' warning at the beginning lets time-shifters know to not look further. Anybody who wants more than that is a whining crybaby."

Ouch.

Another Facebook buddy found "after the fact" too restrictive. "I say it's fine while the event is happening," she wrote. "Spoiler alert would be nice, but if they care that much, they can just stay off of FB until they see the episode in question."

Heather Cocks, a former American-Statesman writer who now lives on the West Coast, votes for the next morning as a reasonable time frame to pass before posting. She notes that it's too easy for her to forget that friends who reside in time zones where the show runs earlier might post sensitive information before the episode even airs out west. Cocks has experience on both sides of the issue, having recapped shows for Mighty Big TV (now televisionwithoutpity.com) and worked as a story producer for reality shows including "America's Next Top Model."

Her work in reality television has given her an appreciation for those who avoid spoilers. "You pour all this time and energy into putting together an episode that had a knock-your-socks-off moment, and so you want all the viewers to experience it as it was intended and end up barefoot," she says. Still, "I think people have gotten a little nuts about 'but it's Friday and I haven't seen Tuesday's episode so STOP SPOILING ME.' There's definitely a point at which if you're not going to make time to watch a show about which you are really sensitive, then it's on you to control the information around you."

Omar L. Gallaga, the Statesman's technology culture reporter (also a former televisionwithoutpity.com recapper) agrees. "I think if it's a show with lots of frequent game-changing plot twists ('24,' 'Lost') it's on you to avoid getting spoiled," he says. "If you're on the Internet reading up on those shows right after they aired, you deserve to be spoiled."

He believes, though, that it's "poor form" to post major plot points while a show is still airing, with exceptions for live events such as awards shows or Super Bowl commercials. "I think it gets a little more complicated when the studios make an episode available online before it actually airs," he adds.

ABC did not post the first episode of the new "Lost" season online, but technology will find a way: a bootleg recording of the season's first hour from an early premiere in Waikiki wound up on the Internet, provoking a reaction that the Hollywood Reporter called "unexpected": Many fans refused to watch the leaked footage.

"We never had a show like 'Lost' before that had these kind of fans that love it so much that they don't want to know what happens before the premiere," Michael Benson, co-executive vice president of marketing at ABC, told the Reporter.

Maybe we don't want to be spoiled, after all. If that's the case, we'd be wise to follow "Lost" spoiler site www.darkufo.blogspot.com's "Guide to Avoiding Spoilers." The guide's first suggestion?

"1) Avoid the Internet and all Human Contact. This is the simplest and ONLY way to avoid spoilers. Stay indoors, shut the TV off, pull out your modem, cut your phone line, put your mobile phone in the bin and finally wrap your head in Tin Foil.... Then each week just turn on your TV just for Lost :) Rinse and Repeat for 16+ weeks and then resume normal living."