Twitter Is No Place for Trigger Warnings

What Women Really Think
May 7 2014 3:45 PM

Twitter Is No Place for Trigger Warnings

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Twitter is not a safe place.

Photo by Bethany Clarke/Getty Images

We've talked about trigger warnings on college syllabi and trigger warnings on feminist websites and trigger warnings on TV. But now, a new chapter in the story of trigger warnings, the one in which the trigger warning jumps to Twitter. My colleague noticed it Tuesday morning, when journalist Jessica W. Luther posted this tweet:

Luther followed up with a string of comments prefaced TW, in which she fleshed out a theory about a possible communal aspect to sexual assault. A Twitter search reveals that others use “trigger warning” or “TW” in a similar way, not to caution readers about content they’re linking to but to qualify the tweets themselves. Often, the accounts belong to teens writing about cutting or eating disorders. Sometimes, they are concerned citizens documenting stomach-turning episodes of police violence.

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I don’t want to wade too far into the trigger warning trenches, but for a comprehensive history, read Alison Vingiano's recent piece in BuzzFeed. She unravels the big practical issue with the red flags—that triggers, or “sensory inputs that somehow resemble the original trauma,” are irrational, idiosyncratic, and hard to predict. They range from the scent of cologne to the light in trees. No protective force field can repel all of them, but the attempt to do so has a chilling effect on speech. Vingiano includes two slippery-slope moments in her piece: When an editor, at the request of an animal-shy reader, affixes a TW to a photo of aggressive dogs, and when the same editor worries that the phrase “trigger warning” will traumatize victims of gun violence. It just seems better for sites to strive for reasonably descriptive headlines and to generally honor the Law of Choire Sicha at the Awl: “Don’t be an asshole!”  

Yet as Jill Filipovic* counters in the Guardian, some triggers do surface again and again in certain populations (provoking more than discomfort—triggers can dredge up paralyzing memories and activate dangerous behavior). “It seems reasonable enough for explicitly feminist spaces to include trigger warnings for things like assault and eating disorders,” Filipovic says. Many people who run forums, comment threads, and message boards for predominantly female readers agree. According to Bitch magazine’s Andi Zeisler, quoted in BuzzFeed, “Online spaces are often more curated for an imagined specific group of people. They’re a little more narrowly focused, and there is a sense that they are cultivating a community. People who read and comment have a stake in the life of that online community, so it makes sense to respect what they want and think about the reading experience other people will have.”

Yes. One can imagine themed spaces in which some topics are handled with special care. I wish the warnings didn’t have such strong ties to feminism—as Filipovic points out, assuming that women’s traumas are especially harrowing both “others” us and positions us as fragile blossoms—but that’s OK. There’s room for the judicious use of TW on sites that endorse it, like xoJane and Feministing.

But Twitter? If a Tumblr for sexual assault survivors is a china shop, Twitter’s a jostling, riotous, at times surpassingly offensive chorus line of weirdos. I tweeted at Luther (of course) to ask why she included a trigger warning, and she replied that she chose the TW because “I know survivors are reading my tweets.” That’s a fair point—if you are an established feminist writer, maybe you can assume that a meaningful fraction of your followers have heightened sensitivity to issues like assault. But you can also assume that most people on Twitter understand what Twitter is: a place too porous, too public, to serve as a personal sanctuary. No matter how carefully you curate your feed, you can’t prevent the people you follow from RTing the people they follow. Plus, the platform’s lightning pace means that by the time you’ve read the theoretical advisory, you’ve probably already read the tweet. I digested Luther’s tweet—TW and “explicit” message—in a single glance. For what it’s worth, the question seemed no more or less distressing than its preface: One announced that what followed would concern rape, and the other asked readers if they knew any experts who studied rape.

*Correction, May 7, 2014: This post originally misattributed an article in the Guardian written by Jill Filipovic to Jessica Valenti.

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

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