"Oh my God! I can't believe Vader is Luke's DAD!!!1!"
Back in 1980 we didn't have the internet or social networking, so the closest we had to unsolicited spoilers of that magnitude - and despite the fading of time and over-familiarity, that one's a frickin' doozy - was an overzealous mate. If someone had told you the final plot twist as you were queuing for The Empire Strikes Back you'd have been pissed, and rightly so. Generally, however, this sort of thing was a rare occurrence, allowing us to enjoy our entertainment in peace, and in our own time.
These days, however, we live online and immerse ourselves in discussion boards, forums, newsgroups (actually, does anybody still use those?) and social networking sites. These tools and pastimes, usually a great way of keeping in touch with friends, family and like-minded individuals, become a minefield of potential misery each and every time popular entertainment produces an interesting plot twist, finale or competition result. These days, despite living in a world of video-on-demand and PVR devices, we actually have less choice of when and how we watch our entertainment. Our choice is harsh and distinctly unfair: watch our shows and movies, read our books and comics and play our video games immediately on release, or risk some hapless idiot ruining the surprise.
I'm not in a happy frame of mind right now. Last night, a friend spoiled the result of the Masterchef final for me by posting the result in their Facebook status, barely an hour after it had aired. I hadn't been able to watch it as broadcast because I was recording a podcast with the fair Gillian Coyle (who, incidentally, completely agreed with my resulting rantage). Now, I understand that there has to be a statute of limitations on these things, but ONE HOUR? It's the sort of situation that the term "apoplectic" was invented for*. Now, I know what some of you are thinking. Why don't I just unplug from the net (or simply avoid social networking sites) until I've caught up on these things? My friend's partner said as much to me when I complained. My retort is simple: I shouldn't have to.
The infamous Web 2.0 isn't exactly in its infancy any more. We should be used to this level of public interaction. Newsgroups are older than Methos**. Forums and posting boards have been around for almost two decades. Social networking too, if you count applications like ICQ and Windows Live Messenger. Facebook just celebrated its seventh birthday, and Twitter is almost two and a half. We've had plenty of time to get used to the glare of this shiny new method of connecting with our peers - more than enough for us to get used to the fact that these days, when we shout people hear. Our thoughts and innermost feelings, casually typed into that inviting little box in our web browser or client app, are instantly transmitted without filter to everybody we know - which means that when you carelessly reveal just how amazed you are at how the Doctor got out of last week's cliffhanger, you potentially become Homer Simpson, walking out of Empire and ruining the experience for everyone queuing. You, frankly, are a prick.
Point one: why should I have to unplug myself from the net because you can't control yourself? The internet is now so ingrained as a part of our lives that cutting yourself off really is a wrench, and if, for the purposes of this argument, we're really sticking the responsibility of staying spoiler-free with the spoiled rather than the spoil-monger, there really are too many ways in which the Internet can ruin your day: email, Skype status messages, RSS feeds, home pages, news sites, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, web-comics, bylines... each one is a potential minefield of unwanted and unsolicited information. Frankly, it's an impractical suggestion, not to mention glib and near-sighted.
Point two: why should I be forced to consume my media to your timescale rather than mine? To avoid unnecessary irritation? A proposition that's as unfair as it is ridiculous. It's like renting a DVD only to find yourself followed home by an overenthusiastic Blockbuster employee who stands in your living room muttering "Have you watched it yet? Have you watched it yet?" over and over. Again, we live in a world of iPlayer, and of scheduled digital recording devices like TiVo, Sky+ and PlayTV. People use these devices to plan their television viewing around their lives, not the other way around - and more people make use of them than don't.
Point three: why should the first order of business upon joining a digital community be to throw social convention and etiquette out of the window? Consider this analogy: if Facebook is your workplace, then a direct message (DM) is a confidential conversation held in an empty office, posting directly on somebody else's wall is a conversation with a colleague conducted in a public area, and posting a status update is talking loudly over open-plan cubicles. Option one is imparting information directly and privately, option two is doing so directly but where people might overhear and option three is ensuring that as many people as possible hear what you have to say. With this in mind, how would you react to someone who walked in and very deliberately bellowed the ending to a movie you were looking forward to, or the final score in the football match you were hoping to catch on replay after work?
Online communication and social network are now fairly well integrated into our culture. It's time that we started employing the same checks and balances on our behaviour online as we do in person. Forget netiquette - install etiquette! Perhaps if we all did that the Internet would become a far less frustrating place all round.
*Yes, pedants, I was so angry that I almost had a stroke. Seriously, ask Gillian.
**Who could take two of everything Methuselah could and go for a jog afterwards.