To The Victors Go The Spoiler Alerts

Warning: this post contains minor spoiler alerts — mainly that the penultimate episode of season 3 of Game of Thrones contains something major, worthy of a true spoiler alert. Something which you probably already know if you’ve used the internet this past week. So, if you’ve been alive.

Last week, I did something I don’t normally do — I watched the latest episode of Game of Thrones right around the time that it was actually airing on HBO. You see, I don’t have cable, so I can’t get HBO. But each week, these episodes tend to find their way to me anyway, as they spread around the internet like wildfire around Blackwater Bay. But I digress…

I managed to watch an episode of Game of Thrones in real time. And thank god I did.

With my mouth still ajar after the episode, I opened up my laptop. What I found was nearly as shocking as the ending of the “The Rains of Castamere”: every single social network had erupted with reactions to this episode in a way I had not seen before.

While this is commonplace for pretty much every television show on Twitter — yes, actual people apparently watch NCIS, not just empty rooms filled with Nielsen boxes — you rarely see this spill over to the other social networks. There will be a post here and there for big episodes of Breaking Bad or Mad Men, but it’s pretty easy to avoid friends talking about entertainment on anything other than Twitter. But again, last week was different. Not only did all the social networks feature reactions to Game of Thrones, it was pretty much all each of those networks featured.

And the result of that was amazing to behold. I saw the episode spoiled over and over and over again on each one of these networks. People couldn’t help themselves. They just had to talk about it. And they couldn’t pussyfoot around the spoiler. I repeat: thank god I had already watched the episode.

But many people had not. (Or, of course, read the books on which the show is based.)

Even the next day, when I figured anyone alive had already had the episode spoiled for them a hundred times over, I posted something spoiler-y to my blog and got a few nasty messages as a result. When I responded to one asking how on Earth they had avoided the ruination for that long, they responded that they had completely avoided all the social networks — but figured my blog was safe. Whoops.

Plenty of us know of the unspoken rule of avoiding Twitter at certain times if there’s a show or sporting event you don’t want spoiled. But again, the epidemic is now spreading far beyond Twitter. You have to basically avoid the internet entirely, lest you destroy your chances of delayed enjoyment. And your smartphone with its push notifications can turn into a not-so-silent assassin of your evening.

This reality coincides with two trends unfolding in Hollywood. On one side, content providers like Netflix are putting up whole seasons of content all at once. On the other side, networks are trying to keep alive the notion of real time, coordinated viewing.

The Netflix experiment made watching House of Cards strange. It was great being able to binge-watch. But it was weird not being able to tweet knowing that others were watching the same episode (or even the show itself) at the same time. The result was less spoilers overall, but also decidedly less of the “watercooler” effect, for a show tailor-made for such chatter. At the very least, the chatter was severely disjointed.

On the more traditional distribution side of things, networks are starting to employ smart tactics to get people watching the show when it actually airs (something they still care about greatly to ensure the commercial revenue keeps flowing in). This includes talent live-tweeting alongside episodes. And the use of hashtags to create the real time watercooler about a show is something both the networks and Twitter are undoubtedly going to dive deeper into.

But I almost wonder if the networks shouldn’t simply resort to scare tactics to get people watching shows as they air. “Watch it now, or don’t bother using the internet for the next few days.” That kind of thing.

Ultimately, I think it’s inevitable that the delayed viewing and Netflix models push the prime-time schedules towards extinction. But until that happens, those of us without cable have to be increasingly careful. Spoilers are becoming so prevalent that the old “spoiler alert” etiquette is becoming passé, almost redundant. If you happen to be on the internet tonight after 9 PM, consider your browser window (or that app you’re using) to be one giant spoiler alert for the Game of Thrones finale.

And in our Netflix future, it could actually be worse. Using the internet at any time could be navigating a minefield of spoilers, depending on when someone you follow happens to be watching a show.

TweetDeck and Tweetbot filtering capabilities are helpful, but the situation is untenable. Tumblr was almost a Red Wedding flip book last week. Same with Flipboard — complete with the flips!

I’m posting this now because I plan to stay off the internet starting at 6 PM PT (when Game of Thrones will be airing on the east coast). Lest one of my friends stabs me in the back like ******** does to ******** during the Red Wedding.

[image via Game of Thrones Tumblr]