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MASTODON - Why you shouldn't be afraid of Content Warnings

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I find the debate about the use of Content Warnings (CWs) interesting. But, what I do notice is that some people feel as if CW's are some sort of censorship or repression, and in my experience it's those that describe themselves as feisty, opinionated or strong-minded that seem to feel that way. I would also understand right-leaning libertarians balking at CW's, but I remain unpleasantly surprised that some left-leaning people seem utterly blind to their purpose. I wouldn't have thought that the people purportedly supportive of minority groups, such as the neurodivergent, would seem so against CW's. 

In fact, they tend to quote interpretations of @Eugen's quote on the subject, or the quote itself, while broadly missing the point. CW's are not censorship; the opposite is true; they are an enablement to a greater reach. They allow your toot's to be read by a wider and more engaged audience. They are actually very good for you. Let me explain.

This is Eugen's toot:

"Having been here since 2016, I can tell you there is definitely no such thing as a consensus on usage of content warnings on the fediverse. It's a decentralized network that doesn't belong to any one party, so by definition there is no single culture on it. Different corners have different expectations and customs."

In this paragraph, he is simply stating there's no consensus on their use as the Fediverse consists of many instances with many cultures and requirements. So you won't find a Mastodon wide rule that says you need to use a CW for politics as an example, although rules for using CW's for NSFW content are fairly widespread.

This is fairly self-explanatory as NSFW is fairly easy to define, but it gets more complicated with a subject like politics, as everything is political!

The problem is that this is being interpreted by some as, "there's no rule, so they don't need to be used". That's an incorrect interpretation as some cultures on Mastodon clearly wish for and really appreciate the use of CW's. 

He goes on to say:

"For my part, I've always seen them as something at the discretion of the author. As the reader, you have a plethora of tools to disengage from unwanted content on Mastodon - with even better filters coming in 4.0 - and harassment is not one of them. People who are arriving now have as much right to be here and bring their own culture as the ones who came before them."

Let me discuss these points. Firstly, he is stating the obvious about the creator being the one that decides if they use a CW or not. They're the only ones who can, after all! A CW cannot be applied retrospectively by a reader or someone who may like to boost your toot. 

What he's also driving at is that the CW police shouldn't wade into threads demanding someone envelopes their toot with a CW. He's calling that harassment and I think that's a fair comment to make as it detracts from the author's original post, spoils the intended discussion and leaves the author feeling bad. I also think that openly CW policing drives people toward stubbornness and can make the situation worse. 

Instead, the author needs to consider if their toot is something that could potentially disturb a sensitive person? Is it adding to negativity? Is it a subject that causes or can cause angst in any way? Or is this something that is pretty mainstream and innocuous? You also need to ask yourself if you want your toot boosted by others. I'll get on to that in a moment.

Once you post a toot, it's out there. It's on the local timeline, and it's federated, it's available under the hashtags you chose, and now anyone can see your toot in full either intentionally or accidentally

When I was on Twitter, I tweeted and RT'd all day about things that outraged me. The Conservatives, the slide into fascism, racism, bigotry, culture wars, the cost of living, Brexit! That I felt outraged enough to tweet and retweet without considering others is something I deeply regret now. My experience of using Mastodon and interacting with the people here has educated me in ways I didn't even think i needed any education in. Most of my tweets and even my podcast is about something that can cause angst, so my lesson has been learned, and I'm applying that to my Mastodon use.

Twitter is well known for doomscrolling, it's full of outraged people and angry tweets, and by contrast Mastodon is generally a nice place without that doomscrolling being forced on you. Merriam-Webster says: "Doomscrolling or doomsurfing is the act of spending an excessive amount of screen time devoted to the absorption of negative news. Increased consumption of predominantly negative news may result in harmful psychophysiological responses in some cases."

Many have commented after moving from The Other Place to This Place that it feels so much better. The natural use of CW to help avoid doomscrolling is part of the reason and I hope that many who have moved from The Other Place think about the content they promote.

In the state of permacrisis we seem to be in, surrounded by incessant bad news, many people who would otherwise be mentally strong enough to cope are having their defences tested to the limit, never mind those who are already sensitive or neurodivergent. We all like the freedom to be whoever we are on the Internet and Mastodon is a genuinely lovely corner of it. Doesn't it make sense to add your culture to it in a way that doesn't harm the existing culture?

Eugen is correct that readers have a plethora of tools. They can apply filters, they can unfollow, mute or block people. Yet, most of those tools are used after the fact and are, to put it mildly, a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

The ability to mute and block people and hashtags is a very blunt instrument. Not everyone single-mindedly pursues one subject that can be neatly filtered. Every personality is a diamond with lots of glittering facets and I think it's a shame that there's an expectation to block entire people or hashtags just in case there's a need to protect oneself, rather than an author using a CW when there's a need. In fact, blocking hashtags and people is a much more severe form of censorship, which is the very thing some of those arguing against CW's seem to fear.

A compassionate and considerate behaviour would be to address this in a way that prevents the accidental doomscrolling happening in the first place, and that is what a CW is for. So when you are tooting something that has perhaps outraged you, maybe you could appreciate how that might affect someone else if the CW wasn't used? Maybe you could take a moment to decide if it needs a CW or not? And when it comes to boosting, is that appropriate to boost without a CW?

Another point to consider is that the only way to increase the reach of your toot is:

  • Gain followers who see it.
  • Use hashtags 
  • Have people boost it.
  • Likes/favourites do nothing at all.

So ideally, you would like your toot to be boosted because gets your message across to a wider audience, it gives a greater opportunity to connect to people and for you to gain more followers.

Without a CW, boosting will be problematic for some if they have any consideration for their followers. That's all. They're still reading your toot. You are not being silenced. But with a CW it could be boosted and reach that wider audience!

Is anyone saying all toots need a CW? No. No one is saying that, it would be ridiculous. But some consideration on some toots would go a long way toward keeping the timelines healthy rather than a point-blank refusal to take any responsibility for the consideration of others.


Without a CW: You are posting your toot. It's on the local and federated timeline, and it's available in hashtag searches like any other toot. Your toot is still very visible, you are not censored or repressed, and your toot is less likely to be boosted.

With a CW: You are still posting your toot. It's on the local and federated timeline, and it's available in hashtag searches like any other toot. Your toot is still very visible, you are not censored or repressed, and your opinions and presence on Mastodon are still being very much welcomed, and are much more likely to be boosted, guilt-free.

That's my take on the Content Warning discussion. Thank you for reading.

p.s. CW's are also useful for long posts so they don't take up a huge amount of someone's timeline. 

p.p.s. People can opt-in to automatically expand toots with CW's in the web application settings and have a CW free experience.

This topic was modified 5 months ago by John Richardson

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