If I can tell you one thing about trying to TiVo Sunday night's Oscars, it's that being online during the ceremonies was definitely not a safe place to be.
This is the era of time-shifting, and I like to take full advantage of the fact that I can set my DVR to record something like the Oscars and then sit down later on and watch it at my leisure and yet still be surprised by what happens.
But just as the show was beginning, I switched over to TweetDeck to check something out on Twitter and was horrified by what I saw: already, there was a flood of tweets commenting on what was going on. Reflexively, I minimized the application, hoping that that would be enough to protect me.
All over the place, though, there were people sharing my dilemma. The truth is, if you're trying to stay away from news updates about live events, the Internet is a minefield of unpleasant surprises. Not long into the show, while instant messaging with an editor, he told me he had been forced to turn off the IMDB stream on his Facebook account in order not to hear what was happening over at the Kodak Theater in Hollywood.
Even going to the store was dangerous. I had to run to the store for a minute and walking out of my house, I could hear an Oscars party next door. I covered my ears. Crossing the street, I saw a large TV in someone's window tuned to the show. I covered my eyes. And I prayed when I went into the supermarket that the clerks weren't going to have a little TV playing behind the register.
But the Internet was the real scourge. Hoping to kill a little time before I watched the Oscars with my wife, I loaded up "The Breakfast Club" on Netflix streaming. That was safe enough. But halfway into the film, I wanted to know something about Judd Nelson, an actor in the 1985 John Hughes film. I figured IMDB's site would be safe--despite my editor's warning about that service's Facebook stream--but that was mislaid faith. Right there, about a quarter of the way down the page was a little black ribbon with live alerts, and despite my attempt to shield my eyes, I saw the name of the winner for best documentary. Curses!
It turns out, of course, that this is a widely shared problem. We are not alone. These are your stories.
I talked this morning with Daniel Ross, a technologist from Parker, Colo., and he and his wife, like me, had set up their TiVo to watch the Oscars, both so that they could skip the commercials and so they could re-watch the good parts.
And like me, Twitter quickly became their enemy. Oh, and Facebook too.
"Doing that [TiVoing the show], you put yourself behind," Ross said. "If you go into Twitter, it's like seeing the future. And on Facebook, if you [log in] to see if so and so got back from their trip, the next thing, you're seeing who won what award."
You'd think the solution would be simple: Just turn off your Twitter client of choice, don't go near Facebook and stay away from sites like CNN.com. But it's not even that easy. And it's certainly not just the Oscars.
Take the case of Karsten Vagner, director of communications for ZocDoc, in New York. A big Olympics fan, Vagner found himself unable to watch events live. And that meant he had to implement some truly low-tech defense mechanisms to make sure he didn't get competition results before he got to watch the events he was interested in.
"I covered my monitor with my hand when I landed on my homepage (iGoogle) to avoid reading news," Vagner told me by e-mail. "Then I just changed my homepage altogether, kept my Tweetdeck off and stayed away from Facebook. It was a real pain to actively stay out of the information stream, but it was worth it for the suspense once I had the time to watch my favorite events."
For Katie Traut, the time delays on watching the Olympics on NBC were a big problem, given that there was no shortage of live news about results. And sometimes, she didn't even have control over where the news came from.
"My boyfriend has New York Times alerts coming through [on his cell phone]," Traut, a Boston PR professional said. "And he's says 'Bode Miller won!' And I'm like, 'Wait, no! Don't tell me.'"
Traut said that being in public relations, she has a diverse collection of widgets set up on her Google News feed, and she quickly found herself having to make them all go away so that she could maintain some Olympic surprises.
But while Facebook, Google News, and individual sites like CNN.com or IMDB all present the live show time shifter with challenges, navigating Twitter definitely seems to be the gold medal event.
Take my colleague Molly Wood's rant last month about what fans of new TV shows have to contend with in the age of the @ symbol.
"I know this isn't the most important issue affecting the world right now," Wood wrote." But I can't take it anymore. It's a really good time for TV right now, and Twitter is totally ruining it. 'Lost' is back on. 'Survivor: Heroes and Villains' is one episode in, the Olympics are not even one night old as I write this. And Twitter, bless its little heart, has spoiled each and every one of them for me at some point this week.
"The straw-breaker for me," Wood continued, "came from the CNN Breaking News Twitter feed, which delivered up news of a U.S. gold medal victory Saturday night before the West Coast feed had even begun."
Don't skip the commercials
In its earliest days, TiVo's biggest selling point was that it allowed people to skip through commercials. But for Ross and the many fans of Super Bowl ads, the commercials are precisely what they want to watch. Yet Twitter even managed to mess with Ross and his wife's enjoyment of that aspect of the big game. "I don't want it ruined for me," Ross said, "with someone saying something about a commercial [which centers on] a joke, and they ruin a punch line."
Or what about when a TV show cast member uses Twitter to talk about what happens to their character? There, too, Ross and his wife blame the microblogging service for putting a blemish on their enjoyment of the Showtime serial killer show, "Dexter." He said that they follow one of that show's actor's Twitter feed and, before they were able to watch last season's finale, saw her tweet about her character's fate.
"She's gone from the show [now]," Ross said, "and now we know what happens. So Twitter can ruin some good things for you."
What to do?
To skeptics, these problems may not be all that substantial. As my colleague wrote, clearly, there are other more important issues in the world.
Still, millions of people have DVRs now--and there are probably a few out there who still use VCRs--and that means a lot of us are using these devices to time shift our viewing of live events. For us, being able to maintain surprise is a big part of the equation. Yet, many of us are also online most of the time, either for work or because it's the connective tissue of our lives. So what's to be done?
Clearly, if a live event is going on that it's important to stay in the dark about, Twitter, Facebook, and Google News are not our friends. For major events, like the Oscars, the Olympics, or the Super Bowl, big news sites are also a no-no.
But Ross points out there are still other danger zones, like push notifications on the iPhone. "That's another way we almost ruined the beginning of the Oscars," he said. "Push notifications are different than text messages. For iPhone users like myself, there are other ways information is going to get to you on your devices other than traditional methods."
Of course, for some people, the combination of the Oscars and Twitter or Facebook or any other service that blast us with the commentary of the world is an unsafe way to get the most value out of our DVRs.
For others, the combo of the Oscars and Twitter presents a different problem.
"I don't care about the Oscars at all," a Twitter user named Jeremy Dennis said, "and turned off my Twitter client last night because of the flood of Oscar tweets."