Spoiler alert: Do not read this if you haven't watched every television series since the 1939 New York World's Fair.
Lately, I've noticed little eddies of debate swirling in various parts of the Internet about when something is a spoiler. It's not a new question, but it's one that may have different answers from year to year. Here's mine: "When?" is not the right question. A spoiler is a spoiler when the first-watch experience is spoiled by the viewer's foreknowledge. Maybe you accidentally read the secret of The Maltese Falcon on Wikipedia. Maybe you overhear last week's Person of Interest twist in the elevator. Maybe some live-tweeter reveals the latest rape-assassination as it's happening. Doesn't matter—they're all spoilers. A spoiler spoils.
The question that people mean to ask is: Who is culpable for the spoiler? I have an answer for that, too, or at least a rule of thumb on the Internet. Once the show starts promoting the next episode publicly, using teaser clips or a trailer, the onus is on the viewer to catch up or filter it out. That said, if you're the one speaking the spoiler, it's polite to give fair warning if the series is still ongoing or is one of those Netflix series-at-once dumps that may take a few weeks to finish. I like it when bloggers tell me exactly what episodes I should have seen before scrolling down the page.
But then, I realize, I have pretty inconsistent positions on spoilers, depending on the show.
When I hate spoilers: My fiancée and I recently burned through the first season of Orphan Black just in time to start Season 2 of the sci-fi show (it's about cloning and stars an incredible multiple-role-playing actress). The episodes often end with fantastic cliffhangers, but then they roll out "next week on" previews that totally undermine the suspense. I refuse to watch them and have often incurred (probably fair) accusations of patriarchal hegemonic dickishness for unilaterally shutting down the Amazon stream as soon as the credits flash. Here's my reasoning: We're just going to click to the next episode anyway—there's no room for the buildup of anticipation that would make the slight spoil worthwhile.
When I'll read the spoilers intentionally: I love The Walking Dead, but I'm always a day behind because I tend to watch it streaming the next afternoon at the gym in the privacy of my elliptical-machine bubble. In the meantime, I find myself reading Rob Bricken's instant critiques and recaps at io9.com. Perhaps it's because the show's so scary, the emotions so intense and the plot developments so controversial that I enjoy going into the show with a guide to interpreting it. Of course, sometimes, I just read the first few lines to spoil it just enough—like a little bit of blue on a chunk of cheese—to be extra hungry for the next chapter of the zombie apocalypse.
I'll also often read through the plots of shows, with the plan that I'll watch them a few years later, certain that I'll forget most of it (right now, that's how I am with Breaking Bad and The Sopranos). Or, in the case of Lost, which I consumed only last year, knowing that the last season was its own kind of disaster helped ease the letdown.
Then there's House of Cards. I stuck with it for a few episodes, then spoiled the rest of the season for myself by reading the recaps (which seemed disturbingly disrespectful to the female characters), then hate-watched the rest of the season.
When I only read the spoilers: I don't go for Game of Thrones. I don't watch Downton Abbey (anymore). Yet, I'm pretty caught up with (and have pretty strong but mixed opinions about) the shows' controversies, as well as the plot developments of less rape-happy shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. I don't really have the time, but I still want to engage intellectually with the discussions surrounding them—so I'll just read the recaps and research the characters on Wikia. Sometimes reading about the plot is just easier on the mind than watching an emotionally draining show or one where the writing is just superhumanly awful, but I need to watch it to keep up with the other elements in the comic-book universe.
When I just shut down: There are times when I've stopped logging onto Twitter for fear of spoilers. I realize this is not smart, so I'm going to try out alternatives, such as filtering words through Twitter itself or using the Chrome extension "Silencer." Netflix also has offered "Spoiler Foilers" for shows such as Breaking Bad and House of Cards and hopefully will for others, too.
About that spoiler alert: The only thing worse than a spoiler might be a teaser that doesn't actually deliver. The Maltese Falcon was fake.