Hooking into online communities – whether it’s Twitter, websites like IMDb or Television Without Pity, or even Facebook or MySpace – is a great way of sharing relevant, interesting information quickly with like-minded people all over the world.

On the whole, I find this incredibly liberating. If I see a good news story about, say, Arsenal, I can share it practically instantaneously with friends who might be interested in it. And conversely, they share stuff with me that I might otherwise miss. For an information junkie like me who has a wide variety of interests, my online connections make the process of filtering and assimilating relevant stories far more productive than even news aggregators such as Google Reader – it’s like having an army of human editors at your disposal.

Of course, there is the odd downside, primarily ‘spoilers’. Spoilers occur when someone who has seen a TV programme or film shares crucial information (e.g. a key plot twist, results of a public vote) with others who have not yet seen it, thereby ‘spoiling’ their enjoyment.

In the past, containing the spread of spoilers was pretty easy. Journalists would carefully withhold key plot elements from film reviews, and the media had an unwritten agreement not to spoil the revelation of, say, who shot JR (that’s JR Ewing on Dallas, for those too young to remember) for UK viewers. Then everyone would watch said event at the same time as it was broadcast, and if you hadn’t watched it – and over 27 million in the UK did watch it – then you had scant excuse when the topic was discussed at work/school the following day.

Today, of course, the media landscape is very different. When JR was shot (in 1981), VCRs were in their infancy, let alone the proliferation of technologies – PVRs, Sky+, iPlayer, delayed/repeat showings, downloads etc – which nowadays allow us to watch our favourite shows pretty much whenever and wherever we want: on TV, on a PC, or even on a laptop, portable DVD player or iPod while travelling. Just because you watched something last night doesn’t mean I’ll have seen it too; for instance, I have been up to four weeks behind on Lost this season, and I probably won’t get round to watching season 3 of Brothers & Sisters until long after it’s finished (I’ve seen the grand total of one out of 16 episodes so far).

So while Twitter et al are wonderful because they give me ready access to a wealth of information, there is always the clear and present danger of unwanted spoliers.

It has to be said, most people who are familiar with online etiquette are very good; they know not to post spoilers, or at the very least to flag them with a warning. However, it’s all too easy for one to slip through the net – and one is all it takes – particularly when, say, US viewers have seen a show several days or weeks in advance of the rest of the world.

On the whole, I don’t mind seeing spoilers, with two exceptions. One is when watching shows which rely on public votes to save/evict a contestant: part of the fun of watching American Idol or The Apprentice is trying to predict who is for the chop this week. The other is finales, where I just don’t want to know what the season-ending shock twist or cliffhanger is in advance.

Which is why I’m going to be checking my Twitter account through squinted eyes over the next few days with regards to Heroes. The season 3 finale airs in the US this evening and will not be broadcast in the UK until a week today (two weeks if you’re watching on BBC2 rather than BBC3). Which means seven full days of desperately trying to see no evil and hear no evil. For someone who is well practised at picking out key stories of interest in a sea of headlines, that’s quite an effort.

And after that, the spoiler opportunities come thick and fast as the majority of US series draw to a close for the year. Somehow I need to try to avoid finding out what happens in LostDesperate Housewives and a number of others over the next few weeks. Having already been spoiled on the ending of Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, I could really do without another.

So if you see me anywhere in the next few weeks hiding in a corner with my hands over my eyes and ears, there’s no need to call the men in white coats. Just don’t tell me anything I don’t want to hear yet.

EDIT (May 3rd): Rats. I’ve just discovered the finale isn’t on tomorrow, presumably because of the world snooker final; it’s actually being shown a week later, on Monday 11th. That’s another seven days of spolier avoidance. Fantastic(!)