A guide to using trigger warnings in your online community

by Venessa Paech January 11, 2020

Trigger warnings are a heads up that certain content may negatively affect some people. They range in style from a disclaimer style inclusion at the beginning of a book, movie or TV show, to a deeper conversation about why the content may induce concern or distress.

While the term ‘trigger warning’ was only popularised in the 2010s, the idea of giving people forewarning about risky or possibly problematic content isn’t new.

Well implemented, a trigger warning can offer people an opportunity to opt-out of content, conversation or activities that may create unnecessary malaise while preserving the integrity of the content for those who want to consume it.

Clumsily executed, it may worsen the distress it’s meant to alleviate and spur conflict within a group.

Does your community need trigger warnings?

Like most things community, trigger warnings are all about context. You need to consider the topics discussed frequently in your community, and the likelihood that your users may react adversely to content that may be distressing or confronting.

The nature of the community will play a role. A professional community of practice will likely warrant a measured, professional warning around content that may disturb (e.g. offensive language) but for some reason needs to be posted. An informal fan community of graphic TV show won’t need those same warnings. A community for those living with mental health issues may require warnings around specific types of content (e.g. suicide).

If your community is well established, with strong cultural norms, user responses to types of content will guide you to whether trigger warnings are needed or not. If the community is new and you are actively involved in shaping those norms, you’ll need to test and learn, then take your cues from the results.

If there are leaders or influencers within the community who you feel understand its sentiment well, consider consulting with them about whether a warning is needed for certain types of content.

Succession planning for your community

Do they work – and are they worth it?

There is fair criticism surrounding trigger warnings in offline environments (such as classrooms on university campuses) with research suggesting that at best, they may have no effect, and at worst, they may risk compounding trauma or distress.

Others have argued that insulating people from ideas or experiences that may be confronting could make us less capable of managing life when things don’t go as planned, or when we encounter diverse opinions and personalities.

These critiques should be weighed carefully if you are considering adding warnings to certain content within your community. If you deem them necessary, we suggest sparing usage, so as not to undermine their effectiveness or gravity.

The risk of solo community management

Keep the dialogue going

Listen to feedback from members about any trigger warnings used. If people seem generally ok with the way they are used, when used, and there are no residual issues, proceed with a watchful eye.

Ensure the regular social mechanics of your community are not disrupted by occasional warnings (they may even be an opportunity to deepen a sense of community if thoughtfully managed).

If you’d like to chat about community strategy and governance, contact the team at Quiip.