Spoiler management

greenspun.com : LUSENET : ER Discussions : One Thread

There's been some slightly acrimonious debate on the subject of how best to handle spoilers around these parts the last few days, and I figured it's finally time I put a proverbial foot down and establish some guidelines.

The problem: Usenet-style avoidance don't work, except for sticking a warning in the header. The usual practice is to put "SPOILER" somewhere in the subject line, then leave 25-30 lines of whitespace (empty lines; hit enter n times) before launching into a spoiler. This works well on Usenet because a lot of people use fixed-font newsreaders that display 24 or 25 lines at a time (the size of "old" terminals). It's a little less useful now because more people are using high resolution newsreaders with longer "page lengths," but the subject line still gives people a chance to bail out before anything bad happens. That's why you need a two-pronged approach.

It's easier to introduce spoilers into threads on Usenet because each post is a discreet article, and so you essentially start from page 0 again. But we don't have article threading here -- we use question threading -- and there's no way to tell how many lines are going to be visible at once on a user's browser (people with large, high-resolution screens are going to see more of a page than people with smaller screens running at lower resolutions), and most people don't read line by line.

There has been some interesting research done into how people read on the Web, and the upshot is basically this: People scan Web pages, meaning that they're going to fly over the page and pick out sentences and words very quickly. If folks were inclined to read line by line, they'd reach a point where they ran into "SPOILERS" and say to themselves, "Oop, I'm at a spoiler. Better hit the back button." But that's not how people read, and the horribly ugly way that spoiler "protection" is being used by people here has a tendency to attract eyes rather than avert them. (More on why it's so damn ugly in a bit.)

So essentially we need to develop a new way of dealing with spoiler protection that will leave everyone happy. I still think judicious posting is the best way to avoid getting burned -- don't post spoilers in existing threads, start and clearly title spoiler threads elsewhere, refer off-site if you have to. (IOW, this involves you exercising some judgment in posting out of consideration for other readers.) It's not that hard, and it leaves everyone happy.

One of the things that's been bounced around lately is using HTML to "hide" the spoiler text by setting its color to be the same as the background. Essentially, you encapsulate whatever it is you're trying to say with and tags. So a spoiler might look something like this when you're going to post:

Which ends up looking like this: (Why yes, I was trying to come up with the lamest possible example.

There are several problems with this idea, though. First, it doesn't work for people whose browsers don't support font colors -- older line mode browsers (including my personal favorite browser) don't understand FONT elements at all, never mind color ones. It doesn't work for people who have set their page colors to be something other than the default (I do this all the time, particularly when I'm tired), and worst of all, it doesn't work for people who get information from this system in their mailboxes. I strongly recommend that people initiating a thread keep "Notify Me of Responses" turned on so they get all the relevant information even if I come around a few hours later and delete their post, and people can get the information contained in this forum in a digested format via e-mail as well. e-mail clients may or may not properly parse HTML; good ones will not.

We could try hiding spoilers in the page source as comments so they wouldn't be seen by browsers (you encapsulate text using <--! and --> things, so you end up with <--! Cleo gets run over by a tank! --> in the text entry area, and people have to view the source to the page to find out what you really said. Try it now.

There's another problem with both of these ideas -- people forget to close their tags. With FONT and comment tags, this essentially means the remainder of the page is going to be invisible to people until someone (probably me) comes along, realizes what has happened, and inserts an appropriate closing tag. This is a particularly acute problem when using the HTML page comment trick, since leaving that tag open means you can't see anything else and can't interact with it, at all.

Spoiler "space" doesn't work out here on the Web unless you're willing to make it disgustingly long (> 50 lines at least), and willing to insert
tags where you'd just hit enter on Usenet. So that's right out. (The reason why most spoiler space looks so damn ugly out here is because HTML won't break paragraphs unless it is explicitly told to, and most people a) don't know about it and b) don't know how to get around it. This is a feature, by the way, not a bug.)

We could try "encrypting" spoilers using rot13, which is what used to be done on Usenet (and still is, in some parts of the network). rot13 is a simple encoding algorithm that rotates the letters of the alphabet by 13 -- A becomes N, B becomes O, C becomes P, and so on. Rapbqrq, grkg ybbxf ernyyl jrveq, so you know you're looking at a spoiler, but most Web browsers don't contain a rot13 function so it's not easy to decode. I can do it in my head but I'm also a very strange person, so most people would have to grab extra software to make it work well. This is probably not much of a choice.

Those are about the only options I can think of. To summarize:

What's the solution here? I don't know. I like Option 1 best myself. It is the easiest way to solve this problem and all it really takes a little cooperation from everyone. It's better than having to memorize a shifted version of the alphabet, anyway..

-- Mike Sugimoto (phloem@fumbling.com), November 18, 2000

Moderation questions? read the FAQ