Spoiler space on usenet and mailing lists

Firstly, what actually is a spoiler? It’s where a plot detail in a film, book, TV show or whatever, is revealed to people before they are able to see the film/show, read the book, etc for themselves. Sometimes a spoiler can be fairly mild, revealing nothing more than the name of a new character, but they can also be very severe, revealing a significant plot point, and spoiling the viewer’s enjoyment if they know what’s coming (hence “spoiler”).

So, then, what’s spoiler space? Well, a long standing convention on Usenet is to employ “spoiler space” when revealing plot details. This is a mutually acceptable approach between those who wish to discuss what they’ve seen (for whom such a discussion isn’t spoiling anything), and those who don’t wish to discuss what they haven’t seen (for whom such a discussion is spoiling things). Spoiler space is simply a couple of dozen blank lines inserted before any comments that include spoilers (with a note above those lines to say what film, TV show, etc is being spoiled). The idea is that people see that bit above the blank lines telling them what is potentially being spoiled below, and decide for themselves whether they want to scroll down and read/participate in that discussion. (The point of the blank lines is to force the actual spoilers down the screen, hopefully off the bottom, so that they aren’t read by accident – good peripheral vision can be a dangerous thing!)

It’s a nice, simple system which has been in use for many years – and it works very well. The only problem with it is in how it’s enforced (if at all). As a general rule of thumb, I’ve found that a Usenet group dealing with a TV show called “The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread” will have a rule which states that spoiler space should be used for any given episode up until a couple of weeks after that episode is first broadcast, and thereafter it’s fair game.

On the face of it, that sounds reasonable enough. Fans of “The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread” – which they’ll probably refer to as TBTSSB – will probably have seen it by the time those couple of weeks are past, and it’s mutual fans who will be on that group, after all. The two weeks are a generous provision for people who time-shift (record it to watch later, when they have more time).

However, what this doesn’t take into account is that fans of TBTSSB might also be fans of “Bloody Hell, This Rocks” and be happy to discuss that. Indeed, one of my long standing groups (alt.babylon5.uk – originally for discussion of the TV series Babylon 5 and its spin offs) is read and posted to by people with a common interest in science fiction in general. We are therefore quite happy to discuss the latest Doctor Who, the latest Battlestar Galactica, the latest science fiction movies, and so on.

Luckily, we are an intelligent bunch on that group, and common sense did (mostly) prevail; spoiler space has been sensibly used for “the latest” anything by most of the group’s regulars – but older, more widely known stuff was still fair game, until my thoughts on the subject – ie the rest of this post – were discussed, a good few years ago.

At that time I gave the matter a little thought. The world today, as far as TV, film, DVD, books, is vastly different to how it was when that group was formed, and even then it was already headed very rapidly in this direction. Today, no TV show, no film, no book – nothing with any fictional content – has a “sell by” date by which everyone who is likely to see it can be reasonably assumed to have done so. With the multitude of cable and satellite tv channels, many shows are repeated and can always attract new viewers. People can see the odd episode of something, and go out and buy the whole series on DVD – even if not new, they might be able to pick it up secondhand somewhere.

And with the ubiquitous nature of computers and the Internet these days, anyone who newly discovers that fifteen year old TV show can find themselves on your newsgroups or mailing lists, seeking out fellow fans to discuss things with.

Another aspect of this, as mutual fans of a particular show, another poster to the group you read might mention a book he’s read, or another show he’s seen, which you haven’t. That book, or show, might be half a century old, but it might still be one you would enjoy – but would there be any point you watching it if, as well as telling you how good it was and recommending it to you, he also told you how it ended?

For all of these reasons, and more, my habit is to try to use spoiler space whenever I discuss any fictional content at all, on any group. It doesn’t matter if it’s a film, a book, a TV show, a radio play – whatever. If I’m discussing it, a note goes at the top to state its title (and season/episode number), then the spoiler space, then the actual discussion. This is the approach I’d recommend everyone takes.

If nothing else, it shows consideration for future readers of the groups to which you post, and doesn’t demonstrate an attitude of “To hell with you if you didn’t watch it when I did”.

It also reduces the chances of mistakes:

  • A  common one is where a group is multi-national, and new episodes might be shown in one country, but not yet in another. Someone who has seen it in the first country happily discusses it, without space, forgetting about readers from another country – but consistent use of spoiler space means there’s no need to think about whether it’s been broadcast here, there, and everywhere else; spoiler space would be used without thinking about it (And this happening on another group only yesterday is what prompted me to write this up)
  • Another common mistake is to just forget to use spoiler space completely, even when the rules of the group state it should be used. This happens because it’s not used consistently, so it doesn’t become habitual, and you just forget to use it, or that it was needed in this case.
  • It’s also a common mistake to not use spoiler space when posting to a more general group – I’ve seen this several times on private mailing lists, and the person who posted the spoiler often uses “but this group isn’t about that show, so I didn’t think it was necessary” as their defence. Wait! What? That makes no sense – people here could still be fans of the show, and could still be intending to watch it – and you must realise that, otherwise, why post here about it in the first place? Again, a habitual, consistent use of spoiler space would have meant it was used in such cases, and there would have been no problem.

That is what it boils down to: If you get into the habit of always using spoiler space for all discussion of fictional content, then you simply don’t have to worry about such things; that space will always end up there when necessary – you’ll do it without even thinking.

And you’ll look like a better, more considerate person for doing it.

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2 Thoughts to “Spoiler space on usenet and mailing lists”

  1. Something important that I forgot to mention in any of the above is that it’s not enough to just mention the show (film, book…) title and give a spoiler warning in the subject line, and then not bother with any space, on the basis that the reader “can see what the subject says, and doesn’t have to open the post.”

    Something you must always remember when posting to usenet and mailing lists is that not everyone is using the same software as you, and they might be using the software they have in a vastly different way to how you use yours.

    Some people scan their newsgroup, opening posts they are interested in, reading them, closing those, then finding the next interesting post. These people would be “protected” from your spoiler if you put the warning in the subject line and didn’t bother with any space.

    Other people, however, just start at the top of the group – the first post in their client – open it, and read on using keyboard shortcuts. These shortcuts might enable them to skip to the next unread post, or the next thread if this one is uninteresting, or whatever. Each time they press the relevant keys, the currently displayed post is closed (or deleted) and the next one, according to the keypress used, is opened. (In one of my news clients, for example, this can even take me from one newsgroup to another if the post I’m finished with was the last in the group). This is done to read the whole group (or all the subscribed groups) as quickly as possible.

    What this means, though, is that posts with spoilers in them might be opened without the reader having noticed the spoiler warning in the subject line.

    If you included suitable spoiler space – no harm is done; the reader doesn’t see the spoiler. He sees the space, glances at the subject (or warning above the space) and moves on to the next post (or thread).

    If you thought the warning in the subject line was sufficient, and that space was therefore not needed, the reader sees your spoiler in all its glory.

    It can’t be stressed enough that spoiler space is a very simple idea, dreamed up decades ago, that works and works well. It’s a shame that although it’s a “netiquette” issue, it’s generally handled on a per newsgroup/subject basis, with each group having its own rules about when it’s needed, and about what. As I said, this inconsistent use leads to mistakes. In my extremely well considered and experienced opinion, spoiler space should be standard netiquette in the same way that interleaved posting is, rather than top-posting, or not posting binary attachments to newsgroups, and so on.

  2. I happened across this old post to alt.babylon5.uk. It includes the following quote:

    “Realistically, if you want strict control of spoilers and other nuisances, you want a moderated group, which this is not.”

    I found that ironic, given that it was posts to rec.arts.sf.tv.babylon5.MODERATED which prompted me to write the above blog entry.

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