Screen shot of an article about Snow White with a content notice about torture and self mutilation.

This notice about Disney Princess origin stories alerts some people they may not like the content, while getting others interested with a morbidly intriguing teaser.

Here at Mythcreants, we’re not afraid to go to battle for something we believe in. But some things shouldn’t be a fight – there’s no real reason to fight over them. So it is with trigger warnings. In case you’ve missed all the debate, a trigger warning is some text you might see at the beginning of a piece of writing that alerts readers about dark subject matter featured in the text, for example, sexual assault.

However, I think calling them “trigger warnings” is already misleading. It reinforces a specific assumption about the people who want these warnings (they have PTSD) and a specific assumption about the effect that the content being labeled has on them (they will be triggered). These assumptions may be true, but if you’re a writer who needs to choose whether to use these notices, it doesn’t matter. Debates over the psychological effects of content are red herrings that prevent us from seeing this issue for what it is.

That’s why at Mythcreants, we call them content notices. And the first thing you need to know about content notices is that they are labels. This may sound simple or obvious, but it’s important to understand what that means.

You’re Surrounded by Content Labels

At Mythcreants, we have lots of labels.

  • Category labels appear above every article title. For instance, this articles is “Commentary.” Others might say “Wordbuilding,” “Writing,” or “Roleplaying.”
  • Below the title, there’s text stating whom the article is by and when the article was published.
  • At the bottom of most articles, we have “Read more” with a list of linked tags.
  • To separate them from articles, podcasts start their titles with a numeral, and they often have a special image we use repeatedly. 
  • On our stories, we have genre labels, mood labels, and little notes estimating how long it takes to read each story.
  • If the article is part of a series, there’s a colored box at the top alerting readers that it is and a link to the series as a whole.
  • If the article contains potential spoilers or unpleasant content that we think some people would care about, it has a notice.
  • Oh yeah, and there’s the title of the article itself, probably the most important label there is. 

All of these labels have the same purpose – to improve the visitor’s experience by helping them distinguish the content they want to read from the content they don’t want to read. Sure, some labels have other purposes too. My name at the top is also used to give me credit for my work. But if you click on it, you’ll get a list of articles by me. It’s another way to help people find the content they want.

To make content successful, you have to connect it with the people who are looking for it. When you mislead people about your content, you end up lowering the number of readers who appreciate your work and replacing them with people who feel lied to. You may get high page hits with a clever but misleading title, but if you want real fans or repeat visitors, it’s not a good move.

So it wouldn’t be good for Mythcreants if people who like to read articles stumble on a podcast page, only to be disappointed when they see an audio player. We also don’t want writers to start reading a roleplaying post and then discover it doesn’t apply to them. We don’t want people reading an article to find a spoiler that ruins their experience of a story they were looking forward to seeing, and we don’t want someone running into unpleasant content they weren’t expecting.

Of all those labels plastered everywhere on our site every day, the only one that anyone objects to are the content notices. This is especially strange because they are almost identical to spoiler notices in regards to form and function. So why do content notices piss people off when spoiler notices don’t? I’m certain it’s because almost everyone is familiar with the experience of having a story spoiled. Since they have experienced the disappointment of spoiling firsthand, they have empathy for people who don’t want to read spoilers. But many people haven’t experienced what it’s like to be negatively affected by unpleasant content, at least not to the same degree. Without that firsthand experience, there’s little empathy.

Labels Are Important When People Want Them

It’s the desire for a label that matters, not the reasons. If you open a debate over whether someone’s reasons for wanting a label are valid, you’re already engaged in discrediting and dismissing their desire. Unless you’re fascinated by psychological trivia, there’s no other reason to have that debate.

For instance, I only want to read fiction that’s fantasy, science fiction, horror, or some other form of speculative fiction. Do publishers or booksellers waste their time discussing whether such genre preferences are reasonable or valid? Of course not. What matters to them is that those preferences exist. That’s why they carefully cultivate manuscripts according to genre demand and organize books for sale by genre.

The preference for content notices may not be universal, but the people who want them really want them. Let’s say that instead of displaying category labels above blog post titles, I posted a link to another page where someone could see the category of an article. Though almost everyone benefits from category labels, very few people would visit another page to see one. But the people who want content notices? I would expect almost all of them to visit that other page. In a print novel, you could put them on a back page in tiny text and upside down. Many people will get out a magnifying glass before they will give up on the content notice. But since getting out a magnifying glass every time would be exhausting, they might also just forgo material they can’t trust to post clear notices.

With each Mythcreants story, there’s a little “View Content Notices” link at the top. It appears for every story regardless of whether there’s any content notices for that story, and you have to click it to see the notices. We do this because there are spoilers in there. I’ve posted no warning about those spoilers, but I have yet to hear a complaint about that. For the visitors who want content notices, knowing ahead whether there’s unpleasant content is more important than whether the story is spoiled. But when I messed up and didn’t include a content notice for a story that needed one, I heard about that from readers.

Along with the strength of the desire, the number of people who want a label also matters. I don’t have statistics, but I personally know many people who want content notices, and I frequently see and hear from them online. That’s enough for me.

Use Content Notices to Fill Labeling Gaps

If your book is called Wraith McBlade the Body Slicer, having a content notice about graphic violence is obviously unnecessary. Everyone can tell from your title that your work contains graphic violence. In fact, if it doesn’t have violence at all, you’ll want another label of some form to clarify that.

Content notices are needed the most when there is no other labeling or outward signs of unpleasant content. The story that I neglected to put an important notice on not only didn’t have that notice but also had the “fun” label, which is only supposed to be for stories with no content notices at all. So if your book looks like a heart-warming story with light family drama, but it contains child abuse, you definitely want a content notice on that. If nothing else, it will reduce the chance that readers will get really pissed off at that point and then leave your book a bad review.

If the work is large, it may be helpful to specify notices for particular pages or chapters. You’ll lose fewer readers if anyone who doesn’t want to read unpleasant material can just skip those parts.

What type of content should you include a notice for? There’s no clear-cut answer to this. Again, it’s based on what people happen to want for whatever reason. However, people seem to care the most about the following:

  • Any type of abuse
  • Sexual Assault
  • Suicide
  • Torture
  • Eating disorders
  • PTSD flashbacks or panic attacks
  • Bigoted language
  • Major character death
  • Harm to children
  • Pregnancy loss

Any other type of gritty content that readers wouldn’t expect is something you could consider.

The more graphic description you have of the unpleasant content, the more readers will want to know about it ahead of time. In most speculative fiction, vague violence is considered standard and does not need a content notice. However, if you go into graphic detail about physical injuries, you might want readers to know.

For our stories, I try to put anything in the content notices that someone might even remotely care about. The only people who see the notices are those who deliberately click to view them, and for these people, more information is better. If the ending is sad, I’ll put something in; not everyone is in a good place to read a downer of a story. In one notice, I even mention the story has “an eerie tone.” That’s definitely not something you need to put in a content notice. I just do it because my mother, for instance, doesn’t like reading creepy stories, and so why not?

For Consumers, Labels Are About Choice

If you’re a writer or a publisher, you have a business incentive to use labels. But on the consumer end, demanding labels serves one purpose: to give yourself a choice about what you consume. This comes up with food all the time. Consumers want food items to be labeled so they can choose whether to consume high fructose corn syrup, or gluten, or allergens. Consumers want very different things from their food, and having those labels allows them to make the choice for themselves about what they want to put into their bodies. Similarly, content labels allow people to choose what they put into their minds.

How to label your own products is up to you. But if you criticize others for using labels or asking for labels, what you are opposing is someone else’s ability to choose what they consume. Viewed from this lens, arguments against content notices are at best overblown and at worst cruel.

Are Content Notices Censorship?

Some have argued that content notices are a form of censorship. Again, a content notice is a label, and a label in itself places no restriction on someone’s ability to consume content or on the producer’s ability to distribute it. However, it’s technically possible for some authority to use labels to classify content as restricted. The only labels I know that are used this way are ratings on movies and video games. But these are efforts to keep children away from content that’s considered too mature for them, and they both depend on parental discretion. They don’t restrict an adult’s freedom to consume what they want or to let their children consume what they want.

It’s incredibly unlikely that content notices will ever be used for this kind of censorship. Most children will struggle to read adult literature anyway, and publishers know better than to put torture scenes in children’s books. But let’s say novels did start having rating labels on them, and bookstores stopped selling books with a “mature” label to anyone under 18. Would that be such a big deal? No one protests movie ratings.

Oppressive governments aside, censorship is driven by wide-scale moral panics about society at large. Content notices are driven by people who just want to make informed choices for themselves.

Do Content Notices Limit Discourse?

Some will argue that if people have the option to not read about abuse or torture, etc., it will damage society by limiting conversation about those topics. But this argument could be made about every label out there. There are certainly people who feel that writers should be reading outside their genre, and I’m a flagrant violator of that rule, but no one wants to force me to read boring books about some midlife crisis. No one has discussed obscuring genres on all books so that readers can no longer choose the genre they’re reading.

And let’s say we decided to engage in this weird dystopian reverse-censorship, removing labels in an effort to force people to read stuff. What would we actually gain? As soon as someone discovers that they are reading something they don’t want to read, they’ll put it down. Forcing people to engage in discourse won’t result in meaningful discourse. If we really want to improve discourse, we should give people access to a variety of content and provide good information about that content. We shouldn’t restrict their choices and make them ignorant.

No one wants to live in a society where they have to start reading every article or book just to figure out what it is. People who object to labels will never protest the labels they personally use. Instead, they target the people who fervently search for signs that a story might ruin their day. These people are the ones who shouldn’t get labels for some reason.* This is hypocritical and mean.

Should We Trigger People Because It’s Good for Them?

This argument states that we shouldn’t use content notices because the people who want them are wrong about their own psychological health. Instead of letting them make their own choices, it’s better to force them to do what we think is best for them.

Do I really need to explain what’s wrong with this?

Okay, let’s say just for the sake of argument that there’s some mental health benefit to being exposed to unpleasant content that people might normally avoid. We also know there’s a health benefit to eating vegetables. Do we force people to eat vegetables? No. Instead, someone can discuss their health with their doctor, and their doctor might recommend they eat more vegetables. Then that person will choose whether or not to take that advice, and if they do, they choose when they will eat those vegetables and what form they will eat them in. Whether it’s food or content, everyone has a right to choose what they consume.

Does Using Content Notices Mean We’re Pandering?

Are we pandering here at Mythcreants? Well, we do offer advice free of charge. Sometimes we’ll even write blog posts on topics that people ask about. In fact, I wouldn’t have written this very article if someone hadn’t asked about it. Oh dear, we’re pandering all over the place!

Any smart business or organization panders. The first thing you learn in marketing is to know who your target audience is, and then pander pander pander. When people complain about pandering, it’s not actually pandering they have a problem with. Their problem is that the pandering is not for their own benefit. If that’s your issue, then you’re right – not everything is about you. I know, it’s terrible.

We recommend using content notices because it’s a smart business decision and a nice thing to do for people. The same goes for all the other content labels people use every day.

P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?

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