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Content Warning

On some Fediverse platforms you can use a subject line as a kind of “content warning” so people can optionally open the posts, sort of like a subject line in an email. I sometimes do that, although I’ve gotten a li’l more cautious against overusing them because they can sometimes be counterproductive to their main aim of being considerate to readers.

Why CW

I found myself using them for three reasons, or four since the third, main reason has two sub-reasons.


Just like any subject line or file name sometimes a context can make a post much easier to understand. If I’m gonna post something that’s only built for Emacs Lisp hackers, that’s gonna be better for everyone if the subject says “Emacs” so people don’t go trying to pop the hood of their Selectric looking for an Edwardian Manifestation of All Colonial Sins.

I still do this all the time.


It was also subconciously a way for me to show that I’m surely above the bad thing I’m talking about. If I write “mh-“ or “ableism” or “racism” or what it might be, I show how aware and illuminated I surely am about the bad thing. A pretty selfish reason and I don’t do this so much (except sometimes a li’l self-deprecatingly) anymore.

I’m not saying other people do that, it was just something I found myself doing.

Now on to the big reason, which is respect for readers when the topics are sensitive.

This main reason comes in two parts, a lesser (compliance) & a greater (actually warning for the content).

The benefits of compliance

I understand how a lack of CWs can in-and-of-itself bring a sense of loss-of-control that’s frustrating to trauma survivors; that the CW itself isn’t the consolation. The consolation is the compliance with the “please CW your post” request. This sounds shallow or dumb but I honestly do think it’s an OK argument for using CWs.

I switched out my link-posting app so that I could more easily put CWs and some of the CWs I use are primarily for this reason. That was a few days worth of hacking. Worth it to help you folks who need this.

But I only wanna do put CWs when it doesn’t interfere with the main reason for content warnings, which is:

Actual psychology

Content warnings and it’s predecessor, trigger warnings, often get flak from annoying people who are opposed to caring. They have the mistaken impression that we wanna shield our li’l snowflake selves entirely from the thing even though the reason for a CW or TW can sometimes just be the textual equivalent of “OK, sit down, and take a deep breath before I tell you what happened”, giving people chance to steel themselves and collect themselves and choose a time and space before they open the post, or (rarely, but sometimes) whether they even open the post at all.

This is the most considerate and best reason but what I noticed was that it often had the opposite effect. Especially for text.

It’s one thing to put a scary video or image in a virtual “envelope” and not immediately blasting it, but the problem with using a text header as protection against a text post is that the header is itself also text. Logging into Fedi and seeing page after page of disturbing headlines taken out of context is pretty rough.

I’m gonna use a metaphor of the post being like a room, and the header being a sign on the door.

If we start with the premise that text really can hurt, and I think we all know that it can, no matter how much our right-wing foes believe it can’t, so let’s say that the headline in-and-of itself feels like a stab (metaphorically speaking). A stab that is lessened by the warm feeling of “oh, someone cares about me, is polite and respectful and want the best for me” but a stab none-the-less. To see headline after headline of “racism”, “sexual violence” and so on pretty quickly becomes a heart-burdening mess.

Going back to the metaphor: walking down a corridor and getting stabbed by door after door does not feel good.

When the stabbing doors are there to protect us from getting completly mauled by dangerous tigers, then it’s worth it. Readers who truly can’t handle the tiger inside can see the door, get stabbed by the door, refrain from opening, and try to patch themselves up to the best of their ability, and walk on by. If that’s what happens I think the content warning was worth it.

But if what’s behind the door is a lesser scratch, the stab from the door is not worth it. Not even if what’s behind the door is a deep cut it’s worth it because then you’ll get stabbed twice; one from the post itself, (the text post itself has the additional advantage of being able to use nuance and build things up in a context; the opposite of a “jump scare”, instead of the unexpected door-stab it’s an understandable, reality-based, and validated pain), in addition to the stab from the headline itself, in all its rawness and suddenness.

I don’t wanna completely give up these kinds of headlines. As I said, if it’s the worst clawtiger in the world behind the door, of course a warning makes sense. (Another idea might be to not even make the post, if it’s truly that brutal.) But what I’m thinking is that it takes a lot for the headline to be worth it.

Otherwise it’s as if every room has a clawtiger and we’re building up a fear and a worldview that’s even more gruesome than the world actually is, which is plenty gruesome already, thanks.

I still wanna use them! But I’m cutting down on some of the most “gratuitious” ones. Studies are coming in now saying they generally seem to do more harm than good, create anxiety rather than console it, worsen rather than improve. I think what’s going wrong in some of those studies are when people are “overusing” CWs, I think there is a lagom amount that hits the sweet spot. (As I tried to explain with my text here about “stabs” vs “clawtigers” but maybe I’m just making things even more confused.)

All that is also why I do favor CWs with cryptic abbreviations or that are otherwise on the euphemistic treadmill. They don’t have the benefit of context so how can the “stab” otherwise be “lessened”?

There’s another counter argument to CWs also but it’s an argument that I feel is a li’l bit weaker and not as well-meaning, it’s when you wanna write someothing political, like “Now it’s time to vote against fossil fuels” or similar. Then it’s pretty bad if people are missing that message because of a CW. This argument isn’t the strongest beacuse on Fedi, non-CW’d things don’t get boosted as much.

There’s also small affordances and annoyances here and there like clicking to open and such but that’s just peanuts compared to the importance of people’s well-being.

Now, what’s not good is some of the examples of knee-jerk pro-CW gatekeeping I’ve seen where people have been posting about their own personal political struggles and political work and gotten scolded & shushed because they didn’t put a “uspol CW”.

All of this is much less important now with current versions of Mastodon and Akkoma where people can “auto-CW” other people’s posts based on text in the entry. Like how I have “Advent of Code” filtered out, and posts autohidden, whether or not the post actually has a CW.

I know some people block me for thinking like this. (And of course people can block whomever they want; I block 40000 men and women every day.) Some even wanna defederate my entire instance.

But don’t worry. I’m not gonna revel in anti-CW:ing. I’m not gonna post a bunch of un-CW’d shock and gore just to be annoying. I’ll still use CW, but more sparingly is the idea.

For example, let’s say I mention a cat in a post. I’m not gonna then also put warning warning cat cat on top of that. That’s just adding injury to injury and more harm than good even for catphobic peeps. But if there’s a lot of cat in the post, or an unusually scary or detailed cat description, that’s when a CW might be warranted. That CW is gonna be harmful to all catphobes that log in and get subjected to it, but it’s protecting them from something even worse, the post itself. (And another option is, of course, to not even make the post. That’s always an option to consider when thinking about what CW to use.)

A specific example

Warning: This example gets real. I stuck to “catphobia”, a pretty unusual phobia, in my examples above, in order to cause harm to the least amount of people, but here we’re about to talk about something real and dark that’s upsetting to me and to most other people.

I’ve been reading Jewish Currents for the past few years. Apparently half the staff quit after Oct 7, or I misunderstood their editorial where they implied that. I can understand why. That’s a hard thing to grapple with.

I’ve been posting a lot of their articles on Fedi, and I linked to this comic.

I didn’t use a CW, and the text of my post was:

This situation is so messed up. More than most people have the capability to psychologically handle without making it worse. Great comic:

Followed by the URL.

I can understand why people wouldn’t wanna boost it in if if their followers have a lot of people who have a very pro-CW culture. That’s understandable.

If the text of my post itself would’ve had sensitive stuff I would’ve put a CW (at least “ispol”) but I reasoned that the loaded topic was on the other side of the link, and I tried to give people some content-specific awareness, such as how messed up the situation was and that it was difficult to handle.

Someone kind suggested this as a CW for my post:

CW: compassionate analysis of Israel-Palestine-genocide-related confrontations in NYC

Wow, that’s half a dozen things that are in and of itself triggering. That CW would’ve needed its own couple of CWs. CWs are also text.

What that CW elides is also an issue:

I did think the comic was good and nuanced. I dunno. I’ve never been to NYC. I didn’t wanna put too much of my own takes on this. A lot of peeps give me flak online for being so confident and arrogant but I’m sometimes more scared of being slagged as a fence-sitter or a both-sides-do-it–er. Truth is, I come across as confident because I like writing in teach-and-learn mode. I write about stuff I think I’ve figured out or that I’ve been taught, sometimes hard-earnedly. And when I don’t have any more insight or info about a conflict that’s been well-reported on, I can’t do much more than pass links. I wanna write about the one-state solution another time, that’s a whole bag of bags, but that’s political philosophy, which is my jam, not reporting, which I don’t know how to properly do.

When I don’t have additional info or insight on a situation, I don’t wanna just make things up, that’d devalue all the things I do have something to add.