As anyone who writes, tweets, or Facebooks about television knows, the words "spoiler alert!" are often imbued with anger, and a sense that a great injustice has been done.
For example, a few weeks ago I was avoiding Twitter at all costs to avoid being spoiled on "Scandal," so I retreated to a safe place on my phone -- Instagram. Or so I thought. Much to my surprise, guest actress Lena Dunham posted a spoiler-heavy photo about the episode while it was still airing on the east coast, prompting many of the aforementioned "spoiler alert!" cries to show up in the comments.
This got me both A, angry and B, thinking -- did these fans, myself included, truly have a right to be angry that Dunham had posted this photo? Or, were we just not using social media correctly? To solve this existential dilemma, I reached out to the experts: social media account managers from Marvel, ABC Family, and MTV itself to figure out once and for all when it's okay to cry "spoiler alert"... on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook:
As you may have already guessed, every social media expert we spoke to agreed on one thing -- no matter what their accounts are tweeting, when it comes to being spoiled while a show is airing, the fans hold all the power.
"Twitter is difficult, because fans will create their own hashtags and they’ll trend immediately," Kaitlyn Vella, MTV's Social Media Editor, said. "I haven’t watched ‘Pretty Little Liars’ but I know who 'A' is. You can’t avoid that sort of thing, if it’s as big as that."
ABC Family knows this -- according to their Director of Digital and Partnership Marketing Dalia Ganz, they've been live-tweeting shows since "Greek" was on the air from 2007-2011 -- so the network has decided to embrace the live tweet-friendly spoiler culture, utilizing a "war room" that features "multiple people on Twitter" posting GIFs, photos and hashtags that get shows like "Pretty Little Liars" to the top of the trends list week after week.
"We will post spoilers during episodes of 'Pretty Little Liars' on Twitter, just because the fans have taken over Twitter, and have taken over the trending topics," Ganz told MTV News over the phone. "So really, if somebody wasn't watching the episode they would be spoiled by them, just by nature of the fact that we’ve taken over Twitter during the episodes."
This live-tweeting -- which also includes talent -- has worked very well for ABC Family, as the desire to not get spoiled on Twitter creates more of an impetus for fans to watch the shows live. And if they can't, they know by now to get the hell out of Dodge.
"When fans have a commitment where they can’t watch the episode live they’ll tweet at us, telling us that they’re going to get off Twitter for a little bit and come on later," Ganz continued. "The lengths that people will go to make sure that they can watch an episode live so it’s not spoiled for them is pretty great. We’ve seen stories where someone was going into labor on the night of a 'Pretty Little Liars' episode, and they made sure that their room had 'Pretty Little Liars' in their delivery room so they wouldn’t have the episode spoiled for them."
However, fanbases that skew a bit older than "Teen Wolf" -- which, per Vella, will post major spoilers night-of on its specific show account, but not on the main MTV account -- or "Pretty Little Liars" might have a slightly safer time navigating the treacherous waters of Twitter on the night a new episode airs. Ryan Penagos, the Executive Editorial Director of Digital Media for Marvel, told MTV News that while "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." certainly embraces the live tweet, it purposefully keeps things vague for its less spoiler-happy (than "PLL," anyway) audience. For example, when a major character died during the show's midseason finale, Penagos made sure that he waited "a couple of days or weeks" before directly mentioning it on Twitter.
"Nowadays everybody has DVR, or not everybody has cable, and they’re waiting until the next morning on ABC.com, or they’re watching on iTunes," Penagos said. "As much as we can, we give them a little breathing room."
Fans of MTV, ABC Family, and Marvel shows, breathe easy -- all three of the social media experts we spoke to agreed that Facebook, at least on brand pages, should remain spoiler-free much longer than Twitter.
"[Fans] know that if they go on Twitter, 'Pretty Little Liars' fans will be dominating and things could get spoiled for them," Ganz said. "But Facebook and Instagram and Tumblr and Pintrest are fine. They’ll see content about that night’s episode, but nothing will be spoiler-y. It will be photos of our talent live-tweeting, or some graphic, but nothing that would spoil anything for them."
Penagos adds that Marvel takes a similar approach, saying that Facebook is "a lot less constant" engagement-wise for their TV shows, and that fans should expect to see recap articles and photos posted "a couple of days afterwards," but never worry about being spoiled night of.
MTV has a slightly more active Facebook presence -- all of our shows have their own pages, separate from MTV's main account -- but Vella assured me that night of spoilers are off-limits.
"Usually we try not to post anything on Facebook; all of that stuff will either come the next day, or after the episode has aired," Vella said, adding that the specific show pages operate a bit differently. "The way MTV brand Facebook is is different from the show pages -- we’re aware that not everyone who likes MTV on Facebook is watching 'Catfish.' So we don’t really post those recaps the night of. I don’t think the show accounts do it either -- they wait for the next day. And a lot of times, I save the recaps for the weekend, for the brand account. Just to give people time to actually watch."
MTV, for one, uses Instagram to hype up upcoming episodes, rather than spoil the ones that already happened.
“We don’t have any show account Instagrams; ‘Teen Wolf’ doesn’t have its own Instagram, and ‘Finding Carter’ doesn’t have its own Instagram,” Vella explained. “We normally post something like an hour before [an episode] to tease that something’s happening, and it will usually be a video cut of a dramatic scene that makes you want to watch it. But we never post anything after the episode, it’s usually just the day of, and that’s usually it.”
ABC Family, of course, uses Instagram more liberally — but during the episode, they’ll largely stick to photos of their cast live-tweeting until the episode has aired on both coasts. After that, spoilers are fair game — mostly.
“We’re very cautious — we don’t want to ruin the episode for anybody who hasn’t seen it,” Ganz said. “What we’ll do is wait until after the West Coast episode airs to post major spoilers, so that we don’t ruin it for them… On Facebook and Instagram, we didn’t spoil the fact that Charles was revealed as A. Instead, what we did was post an article on Facebook that said, ‘Click to see [producer] Marlene King’s reaction from tonight’s episode.’ But we didn’t actually say what happened during the episode, because we didn’t want to spoil it for fans on Facebook, or fans on Instagram. We’re really cautious of the fact that spoilers can be pushed out on Twitter, but we don’t want to catch any fans by surprise on Facebook or Instagram.”
And for Marvel, it’s all about taking their time. "There’s no rush on getting it up on Facebook and Instagram,” Penagos said. "We don’t post as much content, because it’s just the frequency of that platform, so we spread it out. And even then, we’re not doing a ton. The 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' Instagram does more than we do on the official Marvel channel, but it’s a lot less than even Twitter.
Unfortunately -- much like Dunham with "Scandal" -- it can be pretty tough to anticipate what an actor who is not a member of the main cast might reveal about an episode, and when. However, Ganz and Penagos both assured me that Marvel and ABC Family actors have had plenty of social media training -- so when you follow them, you're just in it for the fun.
"We try to keep the cast to being very light; just engaging the fans," Penagos explained. "Clark [Gregg] just retweets the hell out of people, and posts stuff about the episode here and there, but he more latches on to what the fans talk about. It’s really helpful because it’s engaging, and in many cases -- not all -- it avoids the spoilers... There’s some fun to be had. Brett Dalton is just the king of the puns."
Ganz says ABC Family's actors are similarly well-trained to interact fans without revealing anything huge, since "the retweet is the new autograph," but if their actors spoil anything, it will be something vague -- which happened last year for "Pretty Little Liars," but with positive results.
"Ian Harding’s character got shot, and he tweeted, ‘Did I just get fired?’" Ganz explained. "That got thousands upon thousands of retweets; that was one of the most popular tweets of the night... The tidbits that our talent can get out there is invaluable to us. When our talent is doing live-tweeting, they’re answering fan questions, but they’re also commenting on the episodes. They’re providing tidbits about our series that our fans wouldn’t otherwise know -- like behind-the-scenes, filming stories and photos. Our fans love to interact with talent... They’re so grateful that we are acknowledging them and interacting with them – that makes them more willing to live tweet every week."
So there you have it, folks -- if you want to avoid spoilers, stay off Twitter, unless the prospect of live-tweeting with talent trumps your desire to not accidentally stumble upon a trending topic. Instead, save your "spoiler alert" complaints for Facebook and Instagram, where people really should know better.