How to Fix the Live-Tweet / Spoiler Problem

For those who want to experience a media event from a particular person's perspective, live-tweeting can be great. A fan of a TV show might enjoy reading along with the reactions of an actor from the show, a media personality they like, or even one of their friends. But unless steps are taken to manage one's message, live-tweeting can also be one of the worst violations of Wheaton's Law in social media, pissing off all of your followers who don't like spoilers. The good news is that this is a fairly easy problem to fix, simply by using a parallel feed for live-tweeting events.

Why is live-tweeting such a bad idea?

Quite simply, unless your Twitter feed is specifically set up for live-tweeting, the odds are quite high that the majority of people who follow you do not want to read your live tweets. For anyone who is interested in the event you're covering but hasn't had a chance to watch it yet (either because it hasn't aired yet in their time zone, country, or online distribution platform, or because they simply don't have the time to schedule their life around live events), your need to live-tweet contradicts their desire to experience it fresh and spoiler-free when they do watch it. And for those who aren't interested in the event at all, your live-tweets essentially hijack your followers' feeds with irrelevant noise, which again translates to a bad experience for them.

As an example, let's look at Syfy's live-tweets of Warehouse 13. As part of the marketing for the new season, Syfy had the characters from the show live-tweeting several episodes. Given that the network has dozens of shows and even more movies on their channel (and many of their followers are drawn to their Twitter feed for Craig Engler's great "how the business really works" tweets), we can safely assume that it is a relatively small subset of their total followers that are fans of any given show. Let's be generous and call it 25%.

Let's further assume that, with an international following, a relatively small percentage will have the opportunity (much less have the time) to watch the show when it airs live in the same time zone as the live-tweet. Some will watch a few hours later when it airs in their time zone, some will watch the next day when it airs online, and some will watch a week or more later when their personal schedule allows. Let's again be very generous and assume that 20% of the fans watch live. Thus, 5% of the total users would be both fans of a given show and watching it live.

That would mean that 75% of the Syfy Twitter feed's followers will be annoyed at the flood of tweets that are irrelevant to them, 20% will be seriously pissed off at having the show they love spoiled for them before they've had a chance to watch it, and only 5% will be happy to have been able to properly enjoy the live-tweet experience. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that providing a negative experience for 95% of your followers in order to provide a positive experience for only 5% is a bad move.

But what if I give advanced notice to mute/unfollow me before I start?

Typically, when the recently-spoiled masses chew out the live-tweeter for spoiling things for them, the live-tweeter's response is to point out that they did make a warning tweet before they started. Something like "we're going to be live-tweeting for the next hour, so if you don't want to be spoiled stay off Twitter or un-follow us for a while." Setting aside the inherent presumptuousness of saying, essentially "I'm going to do something I know is bad, so it's your responsibility to avoid it," this kind of warning tweet simply doesn't work.

Twitter is, after all, reverse-linear. Unless they spend the whole day constantly refreshing Twitter (yes, I know some do, but they're the minority, particularly outside desk job hours), people experience your Twitter feed in reverse order. So if you spend an hour live-tweeting a show they love, they won't see your warning tweet until after they've had to wade through an hour's worth of crap, and already had the joy sucked out of their viewing experience. And they can't simply skip your tweets, as they have to sift through them in order to see all the other tweets in their timeline that are interspersed with yours.

Live-tweeting on a non-dedicated Twitter feed is simply a bad thing to do. Please, please don't do it.

Ok, but some people LOVE live-tweeting. How do we make it work for them?

It is absolutely true that some people love live-tweeting. Some tweeters love doing it, and some followers love reading it. That's great! If everyone involved is enjoying it, more power to them. The trick is simply making your live-tweets opt-in rather than opt-out by doing them on a separate Twitter feed.

Let's return to the Syfy example. Instead of using the main @syfy feed to host live-tweet events, Syfy could create a separate @syfy_live feed. Whenever they want to host a live-tweet event, they could then use the main feed to let people know that they can follow the secondary feed to play along with the event. That way, anyone who wants to see the live-tweet content can easily follow the live feed and bask in the instant gratification, while anyone who doesn't want to be spoiled (or simply doesn't care to have their feed flooded) doesn't have to be inconvenienced.

This setup also has the benefit of allowing Syfy to better judge how many people are actively engaged with the live-tweet events, as they can watch the follower count for the live feed go up and down with each event, rather than having to guess what portion of the main feed's changes (positive or negative) are related to the live-tweeting. Using separate feeds for live events really is better for everyone involved.

Craig, on the off chance that you're reading this, please let me know when you decide to implement something like this. I love almost everything you do with the Syfy account, particularly the "how the industry works" educational tweets. I was very sad to have to unfollow to avoid the flood of spoilers, and I would really love to be able to follow again.

But can't people still be spoiled when the live-tweet feed gets re-tweeted?

Yes, of course. But if that happens, the sin that is committed is by the retweeter, not by you, and unless they retweeting you en masse, it's going to be a far, far smaller problem than live-tweeting on your main feed. We can't solve the problem universally without Twitter building filtering tools into their product (which, as an advertising company, they have little incentive to do). But we can at least minimize the problem as much as possible by putting some thought into how we use our primary Twitter feeds and when we move special content to secondary feeds.

Hmm. Wouldn't this work for other high-volume live events, too, like sporting events?

If we could convince sports fans to have separate feeds for their game-day tweets, that would be utterly fantastic! Seriously, I might cry from the pure joy of it. But there the number of sports fans who annoy their followers with this undecipherable (to the rest of us) gibrish is far larger than the number of people who live-tweet TV shows and other live media events, so I figure it's best to start with an easily solvable problem, and work our way up to the more daunting problems.

Besides, when was the last time you tried to get a sports fan to listen to logic regarding how they consume their sports? Especially while they're watching the game? Up. Hill. Battle. :-)


  1. I live tweeted the Eurovision Song Contest (and before that the Olympics opening ceremony) and I made a point of warningd people who wouldn’t be interested a day and several hours in advance so they might mute the hashtag I intended to use. Being a contest with a voting component, the majority of people who would watch it would watch it live so I wasn’t worried about spoilers, just flooding my time line. That said, as a one-off event, even an annual one, I don’t think it’s worth creating a separate account for. I already have an account for (in order of creation and reverse order of use) quoting my husband, tweeting about my cats, and tweeting about my baby. Those things obviously spill over into my main feed (and get tweeted from the wrong account) but I try and keep it to a minimum.

    I don’t disagree with what you’re saying but I think changing the way other people use twitter is a hard sell. I love hashtags for their mutability and

    • Sorry, lost my place in the screen. Mobiles are hard, yo.

      Most clients let you mute, some even let you pick a span of time (mute user for a day or an hour). Of course I’m mostly thinking individual users and you appear to be talking to/about corporate accounts.

      That said, you read your twitter stream upside down? I only do that when declaring twitter bankruptcy. I hate reading things out of order :-)

      • Yes, it’s definitely a bigger problem for corporate account, but only because they are more likely to do live-tweeting events more often. For individual accounts, the argument becomes “I only piss off / annoy people occasionally, so is it really worth the effort on my part to prevent that?” Clearly, you and I have different opinions on the answer. :-)

        Regardless of frequency, though, warning messages still don’t work. On a high-volume platform like Twitter, you just can’t assume that everyone who follows you will see all of your tweets. I follow you, and I never saw any of your eurovision warning tweets. Unlike email, where messages persist until viewed and deleted, tweets are only seen if someone happens to be reading that portion of the timeline when it’s still available. Very few people see everything that goes by.

        And yes, having the ability to mute hashtags would definitely mitigate this problem quite a bit. But unless I missed a big announcement while I slept, this is something Twitter does not support. Some third-party clients might, but Twitter does not. And you can’t assume everyone is using the same specialized interface you’re using.

        And no, I read my Twitter right-side up, top to bottom, which is the only way it allows. Again, you may have a special client that does it differently for you, but that’s not the common interface.

        • Say rather that, while I try to not deliberately piss people off, no one is going to like everything I tweet and everyone is going to dislike something. Given that, I try to tweet in a way that has the highest personal satisfaction with the lowest fallout.

          I do assume that people will take responsibility and control of their own twitter experience. Things like hashtags, muting, and just staying offline for a time can help with that. Find a specialised interface that helps you use twitter the way you want to.

          • “I try to tweet in a way that has the highest personal satisfaction with the lowest fallout.”

            Spoken like a true social economist. :-)

            I think the key thing you and I disagree on is the social norms of what behavior is and is not acceptable on this kind of public forum.

            For spoilers-related tweets, I think there’s a pretty strong social norm that makes it the person’s responsibility to avoid spoiling those who don’t want to be spoiled, and to find alternate venues to discuss the spoilers with others who are already initiated. Going to a “Did you see the new movie?” thread on a Star Wars fan site to discuss the latest surprise is totally ok, while saying “Dude, I can’t believe Darth Vader is Luke’s father” while walking past the line of people about to see Empire Strikes Back for the first time makes you a giant asshole.
            [Example intentionally ourdated, to avoid any actual spoilers.]

            Similarly, on Twitter, it should be the poster’s responsibility to not drop spoilers where they are highly likely to be seen by those who don’t want to see them. I would argue that expecting your followers to avoid the internet completely or magically know to unfollow you is equivalent to expecting the people in the Empire Strikes Back line to have their fingers in their ears while they say nonsense words out loud – to temporarily mute the rest of the world, just in case.

            For non-spoiler-related content that would simply be irrelevant to the majority of one’s followers, the social norms are less clear. Is the religios nut-job on the corner being rude by preaching fire and brimstone to passer-byes? How about the guy at a party who won’t shut up about the sportsball game that he’s listening to on his radio headphones that no one else can see? Or the two techs at a party who won’t shut up about Linux distributions (or even take it to another room) when no one else cares. The social norms of whether it’s the speaker or audience who is responsible for alleviating the awkwardness of these kinds of situations is a lot less clear.

            I don’t know enough about eurovision to know if it qualifies as the former or the latter. Indeed, despite several people flooding my timeline with tweets about it, I had no idea WHAT it was until your previous tweet. I think that’s what annoys me so much about the irrelevant-type tweet floods. If I’m at a restaurant and people across the table are reacting to a sportsball game on the TV, I may not care about or have any idea of the meaning of what they’re reacting to, but at least I know WHAT they’re reacting to. On Twitter, it is instead just a lot of completely indecipherable non-sequiturs that are not only passively irrelevant but actively confusing.

            In any respect, the solution I’m suggesting here is a means to an end. It is a solution to a problem. If you (and your followers) don’t think there’s a problem, then there’s no need for a solution, and this post is irrelevant. It’s when friction arises and you’re interested in finding a solution that it becomes potentially useful.

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