A Proposed Guide To Spoiler Ethics

"It SINKS??? You spoiled the ending!!!"

“It SINKS??? You spoiled the ending!!!”

I was just admonished on Facebook by a friend (a real friend, not just the Facebook variety), for referencing the end of the last episode of Season One of “Orange is the New Black.”  He hadn’t finished viewing the season yet, and this was a breach of spoiler ethics. Or was it?

Ever since I encountered for real someone who was angry with me for “spoiling” the end of “Thirteen Days,” ( “Yes, World War III started and everybody died”), I have been dubious about spoiler etiquette. The advent of DVDs and Netflix has made this all the more annoying. If I’m in a group of five, and one individual hasn’t kept up with “House of Cards,” are the rest of us obligated to censor our discussion? As a devotee and fanatic devourer of popular culture, I admit that my first instinct is to say, “Keep up, get literate, or pay the price.” If I actually live by that rule, however, I will be a walking, talking, writing, spoiler machine.

Chuck Klosterman, “The Ethicist” in the world of the New York Times, recently pronounced himself an anti-spoiler absolutist:

“I’m an anti-spoiler fascist. I don’t believe that any conversation, review or sardonic tweet about a given TV show is more valuable than protecting an individual’s opportunity to experience the episode itself (and to watch it within the context for which it was designed). I’ve never heard a pro-spoiler argument that wasn’t fundamentally absurd.”

Even Klosterman, however, excepted sporting events (the question posed involved mentioning World Cup scores to a friend who was annoyed that the game had been “spoiled” for him) from his fascism, writing, reasonably:

“I must concede that live, unrehearsed events are not subject to “spoiler” embargoes A live event is a form of breaking news. It’s not just entertainment; it’s the first imprint of living history. …Because this guy is your buddy, you might want to avoid discussing the games’ outcomes out of common courtesy — but not out of any moral obligation. It’s his own responsibility to keep himself in the dark about current events.”

For once I agree with Chuck. But what are reasonable ethics rules for dealing with the other kind of spoiler, involving literature and entertainment?

Luckily, this is not new territory, though it is evolving territory. The underlying ethical principles include fairness, trust, consideration, compassion, and empathy, which means that the Golden Rule is also involved.

Back in 2010, an erudite blogger calling himself The Reading Ape proposed a draft “Guide to Responsible Spoiling.” That blog is defunct; the promised successor is not around, and so far, I haven’t been able to discover who the Ape is. Whoever he is (Oh Aaaaape! Come back, Ape!) , he did a very good job, though some tweeks might  improve his work, especially in light of the emergence of Netflix.  (I have edited it slightly, not substantively…I hope he doesn’t mind, or if he does, that he’s not a big ape.) His approach is to frame the problem as an ethical conflict, in which two competing ethics principles must be balanced. I think that’s right.

Here is his “draft”—what do you think?

“A Brief Guide to Responsible Spoiling”

by The Reading Ape (2010)

The objective is to balance two ethical principles:

I. The Right to Surprise: The inherent right of any viewer or reader to experience the pleasure of not knowing what’s
going to happen next.

II. The Right to Debate: The inherent right of any viewer or reader to engage in public discourse about the content of
a given work of narrative art.

Part 1: When Spoiling is Fair Game

In the following circumstances, one can discuss crucial plot details and reveal endings with a clear conscience.

Group A: Canonical Works

These are works that have, to borrow from Jonathan Lethem on intellectual property, “infiltrated the common mind to the extent of Gone with the Wind or Lolita or Ulysses.” These are part and parcel of our cultural knowledge and to pre-empt a reference, discussion, or squabble because someone hasn’t yet read/seen/heard a given work hamstrings public discussion of narrative art.

Group B: Network Television more than a week old

If I want to discuss last week’s episode of Forensic Scientists and the Cops Who Love Them, then I need to be able to do that before too much more of the television river has flowed on. And yet, we must give folks some leeway to DVR. Given the short shelf-life of television programming and the readily available means of storing and accessing programs, a week’s moratorium on spoilers for television shows gives interested parties more than enough time to catch-up.

Group C: Movies that have been on DVD for more than 1 year

If you really cared that much about what happens, you would have seen it by now. [ JAM Comment: This would apply to the Netflix matter that sparked this post, I think. Presumably the “Spoiler Nazi” would still object.]

Group D: Adaptations and Re-Makes

Assessing the fidelity and experimentation of remakes and adaptations is the signal pleasure of discussing them. If you didn’t care enough about the book or the 1941 version starring Mickey Rooney to make a point to see it, you’ve forfeited your right to surprise.

Group E: Novels More Than 10 Years Old

See the rationale for Group C.

Part II: Exceptions to Part I

Exception A: The Age of Consent

This exception relates to Group A,D, and E. For these categories, spoilers are only permitted if the spoilee, the party who has no experience with a given work, is over the age of 25. This exception acknowledges that a certain latitude must be given to those who haven’t had sufficient opportunity to be exposed to even canonical works. In these cases, the spoiler must ask permission before spoiling the given work. If no permission is given and the spoiler still discloses key elements of the work, then the spoilee is given license to call said party a mild expletive.

Exception B: The Sixth Sense Procedure

This exception acknowledges that certain plot elements so rely on surprise that the Right of Surprise must be maintained at all costs, even The Right of Debate. In such cases, the potential spoiler is enjoined to use veiled references to the plot element that will not reveal the nature of the plot element, but that will also be readily understood by those who have prior knowledge of said plot element. For example, if I were to discuss the final scenes of The Sixth Sense, I would refer to it as “the twist at the end of The Sixth Sense.” This is a rare exception and must only be invoked in cases where the work’s central value is contingent upon preserving the surprise, as in The Sixth Sense. Note: this exception does not apply to Group A. Also, Vader is Luke’s father.

Exception C: Pay Cable or Satellite Television

As cable and satellite shows are often not available to the general television viewer until long after their original air date, spoiling these shows is unethical until six months after the show is available on DVD .

Exception D: Sequels

Generally, sequels will appear well into the ethical spoiling window, but in cases where they are released earlier, then spoiling the original work becomes ethical on the day of the sequel’s initial release. For example, the day “The Return of the King” opened in theaters, one would have been morally sanctioned to discuss plot elements of “The Two Towers.”

8 thoughts on “A Proposed Guide To Spoiler Ethics

  1. If I want to watch a sporting event I do not want to know the score or winner beforehand. Because of this I set my clock radio to come on at a time that will avoid the sports news.
    I was watching the Soccer World Cup highlights of the first match of the third round where two matches are played at the same time. Just as the match was finishing the commentator mentioned the result of the other match without so much as an introduction to it, thus spoiling the match for me. A few seconds talking about the match first before saying who won would have giving me time to reach for the sound button on my remote. The commentator should be fired for lack of basic etiquette.
    If I am discussing sports, TV program, film etc. with anyone I don’t say what happened as the first sentence, I give enough time for the listener(s) to ask that I not say too much, and I hope my friends and acquaintances would give the same consideration to me.

  2. This seems to be way over thought.

    Just approach it as one would any mannerly conversation.

    Person A & B have both watched episode 1 of the show and are about to engage in discussion in front of Person C. Basic manners compels them to attempt to include Person C in the conversation.

    A: “Hey, B, did you see episode 1 last night?”

    B: “Yeah! Crazy huh? What’d you think, C?”

    C: “I haven’t seen it, but feel free to discuss, I don’t mind.”


    C: “Hold on, I haven’t seen it yet.”

    At which point A & B can be polite and not discuss or C can be polite and go elsewhere.

    Simple solution, applicable to all scenarios and exceptions.

    In the case of unexpected reading of a review website, in which “spoilers” are absolutely necessary for full discussions, one would reasonably expect a disclosure prior, which is the written equivalent of person A&B above saying “Hey C, this is an exclusive discussion, that is going to happen here and now, so be warned, we are going to discuss this” at which point C can make their decision to read the review or not.

    In Errol’s situation above, the reasonable thing would be for commentators to gradually introduce the next topic to allow the various “Person C’s” watching, to bail on the discussion.

    Like most things in life, increasing levels of contact gradually and proportionately is the way to go.

  3. At work, when we’re discussing “Downton Abbey”, should someone come along, we stop and tell them that we’re talking about the show and ask if they mind.

    Re: the photo. A writer I know of went to see “Titanic”, but was a little late getting there and missed the first twenty minutes. He stayed behind til the next showing and watched the first twenty minutes of it. As he got up to leave, people stared at him, presumably not understanding why someone would leave so early. He wrote that he answered their confused looks with, “The ship sinks! What else is there to know?”

  4. You have to be careful to avoid stumbling into a spoiler online, also.
    I guess that is why so many people use spoiler alerts.
    Two times my carefree surfing led me to discover a major plot twist
    (Sopranos : Tony kills Christopher and Boardwalk Empire: Nuckie kills Jimmy).
    The later was harder to take since he was the second best character on the show.
    It still would have been better not to know in advance.

    Use caution and eschew websites devoted to movie and TV ratings.

  5. This is an interesting subject for debate. The basic concept is obviously valid, though I would say that some of the time frames proposed seem a bit long. Here are my thoughts on each section.
    Group A: I agree with this. I see no reason to say “spoiler alert” before mentioning Romeo and Juliet commit suicide.
    Group B: A week is defiantly reasonable, as that is generally the cycle to a new episode. Sports, while not mentioned in the original post have no shelf life. It is on the one who hasn’t watched to avoid knowing if it is that important to them.
    Group C: Sorry, but once it is out of first-run theaters I think it is fair game. If you cared that much you would not be waiting for the DVD. If we are going to wait until the DVD release, than three months after that is more than enough.
    Group D: Agreed. Although if it is an adaptation of a non-bestselling book or an independent foreign film we may want to avoid thinking of it under this rule.
    Group E: Ten years is ridiculously long. Unlike movies, I can see reason to wait some time until after the paperback comes out, six months seems reasonable.
    Exception A: Twenty-five seems a bit long to be waiting. Group A should be fine after High School Graduation. Groups D and E, I am willing to say 20. If someone is really interested in a book or film they were not allowed to see while living at home they will find a way in the first couple years as an adult.
    Exception B: Agreed.
    Exception C: No need for that much time. I am a fan of Doctor Who (BBC America) and have no cable TV. I seem to be able to find a way to watch the new episodes within the first week. Stick with the Group B rule or you stifle all discussion of these shows.
    Exception D: Agreed. Though your example of the Lord of the Rings movies would already be covered in Group D as the novels were published in 1954 and 1955.

    • I’m inclined to like your version better than the original, but as I noted, I am notoriously unsympathetic to cultural illiteracy. Spoiling surprises intentionally is obviously unethical, but I believe that laggards have no one to blame but themselves if they wait six months to see “The Sixth Sense.” This disqualifies me as a proper judge, I’m afraid. The best way to avoid having a surprise spoiled is to stay current. I now know Soylent Green is people, but I never saw the movie, and never cared to. Nobody had an obligation to keep me in the dark.

      • Way too overthought.

        Person A: “What’d you think of how Planet of the Apes ended?”
        Person B: “Never saw it.”
        Person A: “Oh, you may enjoy it”


        Person A: “What’d you think of how Planet of the Apes ended?”
        Person B: “Never saw it, what happened?”
        Person A: “Total twist at the end… it was Earth!”

        Person A: “Dude can you believe the Planet of the Apes was actually Earth and is just a commentary on a society with upside down values?”
        Person B: “No… I haven’t seen it but was planning to. Thanks asshole.”
        Person A: “Oh, well you are just a cultural lug head, I can’t believe you haven’t seen it. What a loser.”
        Person B: “Go F— yourself.”
        Person A: “No, I’m a morally superior individual.”

  6. Jack,
    I’ve recently been working my way through Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” and have faced a similar problem. One of my main reasons for choosing the book, aside from the countless number of favorable recommendations, is that it’s one of the few classic epics that I know little or nothing about. Outside of the name of the titular character, I was entirely unfamiliar with almost every aspect of the plot.

    However, the edition of the book I chose to read provides a series of foot-notes in order to elucidate some of the more antiquated expressions and references that don’t make sense to modern ears. Very helpful. Yet, interspersed throughout, are other notes which were written to explicate aspects of the text such as imagery or provide interpretive analysis. These I like far less. Not only do they provide subjective opinions (and thus subtly skew the reader’s view) about a work I haven’t even finished reading, they often give away future happenings in the plot as well.

    Though I’m fully willing to admit that any outside spoilers completely fall on me for not having read the book sooner, I would think that including spoilers IN THE BOOK ITSELF, crosses the line. Given it’s place in the Literary Canon, it’s a fair guess that a good percentage of those indulging in Anna Karenina are already familiar with the work or are doing so for a second (or more) time, but the publisher should likewise expect a number of first-time readers too. After all, we consider something a “classic” not just because of its historical fame, but the fact that it continues to draw in new readers. At the very least, there should have been a “spoiler alert” somewhere, so readers had advance notice.

    Am I wrong?


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