After Sunday’s historic finale of Big Brother, I wrote this story, and my automated social media-posting service got links up on Twitter and Facebook very quickly. And those who had no watched—because they’re on the west coast, or just hadn’t tuned in yet—quickly let me know how upset they were.
I appreciate that, and understand! It’s frustrating when I come across a spoiler, especially for something I was looking forward to watching.
And I was even spoiled! Watching the second hour of BB24’s finale along with Twitter, I thought I was watching live, but I was actually eight minutes behind thanks to football overrun. So I saw a GIF of Taylor walking into confetti well before they even started counting votes.
Because I chose the headline, photo, and summary, and chose to publish the story immediately after the east coast broadcast, I wanted to share my thinking and thought process, both about this story and in general.
You still may not agree with my decision! But I want you to know how and why I make these decisions. What follows are the questions I ask myself. There’s no exact formula here, especially since I will sometimes weigh certain questions differently, but they’re all under consideration.
What does ‘spoiler’ even mean these days?
This is a question I keep asking myself, because the answer keeps changing: for me, for individual fandoms and online communities, and for all of pop culture.
In the early days of reality blurred, I’d painstakingly white out certain words so they weren’t even visible in the text. But those were spoilers about things that might/would happen days, weeks, or month in the future.
Today, some people label and/or yell about a “spoiler” from something that happened in pop culture months, years, or even decades ago.
Is the ending of The Sixth Sense still a spoiler? It is to someone who hasn’t seen it! What about Nope? Too soon? Or Jurassic World: Dominion? Can a movie no one cared about be spoiled?
With Netflix’s The Mole, which will release five episodes in one day, when will we be able to discuss them on social media? That day? A week later? Should headlines ever reference plot points?
And that leads me to…
When are people watching?
People also watch TV very differently than they did when I started reality blurred 22 years ago. Back then, we watched live, when a show was scheduled, because otherwise we’d miss it. Maybe we taped a show, hoping that the power wouldn’t go out and reset the VCR’s clock to flashing 12:00.
Today, of course, we all have access to so much more TV, and decide when we want to watch; we’re not on someone else’s schedule. We also all don’t have access to the same networks or streaming services.
So a lot has changed—and we’re obviously not in agreement that a spoiler is tied to a specific time.
But if I had to define it, for me, as the publisher of a site that primarily focuses on U.S. reality TV shows, a spoiler comes down to a major plot point on a TV show that has not yet aired for viewers on the east and west coasts.
Of course, with Big Brother’s finale, I ran a story after just the east coast airing. That’s because I was thinking of the answers to the questions below, too.
And I also considered that, for Big Brother on social media, basically everything is public and being discussed the second it happens. That’s thanks to the live feeds, but applies to the TV version, too. It’s a very online show!
What words and images should I use?
One challenge, to dig into the weeds of online publishing, is that the second something happens, a bunch of web sites are going to run stories, with details in the headlines.
Google—the most-used search engine, so the one publishers try to make happy—will prioritize showing web pages that are first and have key words (i.e. keywords that people search for) in the title/headline. It’s even more important to have those words first in a headline for people who are searching for those words.
The incentive, therefore, is to dump spoiler-filled keywords into the headlines.
Because everyone is doing this, especially for breaking news, and as a small, independent publication, I can’t compete with content farms or fully staffed publications, I generally avoid joining the fray.
When I do, though, I try to find an angle that’s different or unusual. Rather than “Taylor wins Big Brother,” I went with “BB24’s winner and finale made Big Brother history,” which is both specific (it summarizes the news) and vague (it doesn’t give key details).
The problem with the story on Facebook—and something I frankly forgot about—was that Facebook pulls the article’s excerpt and adds it as text above the link. And that text did identify Taylor. I immediately added: “Spoiler alert” to that text, but that clearly didn’t stop many people’s eyes from jumping to the text that mattered.
Another problem with Facebook: I basically don’t give it any time or attention, because of Facebook’s decision to essentially blackmail publishers like me. After getting us all to develop fan bases on Facebook, Facebook now generally shows a story I’ve published to five to 10 percent of people who’ve liked reality blurred on Facebook—and they demand money to show it to the rest. (Even with the Big Brother story, which was much more popular than other stories, Facebook only showed it to half of people who’ve liked reality blurred on Facebook.)
I refuse to pay that, and have also stopped trying to build an audience there, instead focusing on building spaces I control, like the comments section below and my weekly newsletter.
I also try to use a primary photo that doesn’t immediately give anything away. The initial photo I used of Taylor, for example, was from a previous episode. But of course, I also didn’t choose a photo of, say, the final three.
The reality is that generic headlines and photos would hurt reality blurred’s ability to reach people, so I have to try to find the best balance possible, and I’m not going to always get it right.
Is this news or entertainment?
When I’m reporting on something I consider newsworthy, whether that’s a change to a format for an upcoming season or something awful that’s happened, I do not hesitate to publish it.
Spoilers, for me, are about entertainment, not people’s lives, and not a network’s marketing plan.
What makes a story newsworthy? That’s a completely different set of criteria, one I’ve internalized since I first learned about it in high school journalism, and involves weighing things like timeliness, consequence, and impact.
For example, when the Deadliest Catch captain Phil Harris died, I published a story with that news in the headline. The Discovery Channel show itself didn’t include his death until four months later. Some viewers may not have heard that news and learned it from the show. But I’ll never hesitate to cover something of real-world consequence like that.
For the Big Brother story, I thought Taylor’s record win, and the other firsts, made it quite newsworthy, especially for a reality show with such a racist history.
What actions can other people take?
During a show’s east-coast airing, I sometimes tweet my reactions live. But I always include the show’s primary hashtag.
That’s because Twitter give us the ability to temporarily avoid topics: by muting a hashtag or word on Twitter.
Alas, Facebook used to have a keyword snooze feature, but removed it, because their mission is to make life as miserable as possible for all of us. (Until I went to look for that link, I didn’t realize that’d been removed.)
But even with my keywords, my assumption is that people are curating their own social media experience. That means they’re muting hashtags, or just staying off social media for the shows they’re most passionate about. On Wednesdays when I can’t watch Survivor live, Twitter stays closed!
I am very familiar, though, with the disappointment of scrolling right into a spoiler for something I’d planned to watch. Sometimes networks send press releases to journalists with spoilers right in the subject lines! It sucks, I know.
I try to avoid making that happen for you, but for the reasons I’ve laid out here, that may not always be possible—either because I screw up, or we disagree on the best approach for a particular story, or both. I’m grateful for the feedback and ongoing conversation about these things.