CW: Mastodon

With the recent news that Twitter is being sold to Elon Musk, lots of people have been setting up or rediscovering Mastodon accounts. Much fewer than have been setting up Discords, but still… a good number.

And with this new influx, I have been seeing lots of discourse about CW warnings, their use, people complaining about people using them wrong, people complaining about people complaining about people using them wrong, etc. 1

So I thought I would use this as an opportunity to write a little about the content warning system, and how I have seen them used in practice. Not least because they are one of the things I have been thinking about while developing Downpour.

So, what is this system? It’s an optional bit of metadata you can add to a post. When activated, it gives a little textfield which is the CW, and is directly shown to a viewer. And then the viewer can click on a little SHOW MORE button to see the main part of the post.

Let’s simulate it here in this post, using the built-in <details> HTML tag2:

writing I am writing a blog post, and you are reading it.

The CW warned you that there was going to be a mention of writing, and there was! You could choose whether to view it or not. It is a consent system for posts.

So what kinds of things is this used for in practice?

Spoiler warnings

ofmd spoiler ed and stede totally kiss.

This was the use-case that convinced Gargron to add CWs to Mastodon! You can talk about a show and also people who haven’t yet seen the show can choose whether to see the spoilers or not.

Allowing you to talk about shit that feels a bit too heavy to talk about without the reader opting in

ph - with the way my fatigue currently is, I think it is a bad idea to travel internationally. and I want to so bad.

(“ph” stands for “physical health”, as distinct from “mh”. The “-“ means that it is negative)

A classic use of a content warning! And helps provide an atmosphere where it can feel a bit more accepted to post about difficult stuff you might be going through (or maybe I am just in a good community, and post private).

Allowing you to talk about shit that feels a bit too boring to talk about without the reader opting in

wordle [I don't play it, but imagine there is a Wordle results screen here. If you play Wordle and you feel like this example is some kind of burn on you... haha suck it]

This is also important! Lotta boring stuff, and yet an important part of posting is allowing you to say all of the stuff that is a little too boring for you to directly message a friend or loved one about. Because posting is for the void, and sometimes there is stuff you wanna say that only the void wants to hear.

Talking about stuff that is fine for you but might have higher than expected emotional load for other people

alc longing i have been swearing off booze because it seems like it sets off my fatigue, but it is a fine summer's day, and i would like to drink a beer in the sun.

(“alc” is short for “alcohol”)

Sometimes something is fairly casual for you to post about, but you know it could be harmful for others to read. You might hesitate to post it - is saying this casual thing worth maybe ruining someone’s day? But a CW can make that easier to post about. And it doesn’t have to be a serious thing - necessarily day-ruining, just a moment of discomfort.

This is I think the category that causes the most controversy & strife about the use of CWs. This requires you to project out to a hypothetical audience and consider how your words will be recieved there. This is kinda hard to do, because empathy is a skill, and there is a lot to learn about what maybe-innocuous things could be unpleasant or upsetting or inaccessible to view for other people.

It’s also hard because the nature of wide-broadcast social media is that a post can travel beyond the specific audience (and specific norms) that it was originally written for. This manifests on Twitter as people learning to couch their words really specifically - full of caveats and hedges because they’ve had the experience of getting negative replies for not considering a particular perspective when posting a short and context-depended tweet. And on Mastodon a post can be written for a small group, travel further - and now someone is asking someone to please add a CW for whatever specific thing. I don’t think this is specifically a problem with CWs as much as a problem of social networks which tend to take statements and recontextualise them into broader contexts and conversations that they were not originally intended to be a part of.

Topic markers

cw uses - spoiler warnings (the main reason Gargron added them, iirc)
- little jokes
- allowing you to talk about shit that feels a bit too heavy to talk about without the reader opting in
- allowing you to talk about shit that feels a bit too boring to talk about without the reader opting in
- talking about stuff that is fine for you but might have higher than expected emotional load for other people


Once you are in the habit of using CWs, then you can find yourself using them just to kind of denote what you’re gonna be talking about. It’s a little intro to the post, a title, a subject line. “here are my thoughts on blah” => “blah blah blah”

And also this is helpful if you’re not interested in the topic, it’s just boring to you. It helps here that replies by default inherit the CW of the post they’re responding to.

Little jokes

bing bong

Okay, this is the one I really wanted to talk about. I love the rhythm of the CW, the way that it builds a little arc of anticipation into the process of reading a post. It makes the reader complicit in the unveiling of the post. Whatever happens after you press that button is partly your responsibility. It was my bad post, but it was you that clicked on it and chose to view it.

lewd earworm cum on eileen

You probably clicked on that fold out bit just above automatically, didn’t you? And now you have [REDACTED TO PROTECT THE INNOCENT] in your head. And is it my fault? Yes. But is it also your fault? Kinda!

And that’s really the source of a lot of the humour that can be derived from CW-based jokes. And it’s a source of humour that feels very videogames to me. I mean, it’s a joke based on interactivity. A joke where the humour rests on the fact of interactivity, not just one that is delivered within an interactive context.

Which is why I say that CWs are an inspiration for Downpour. CWed posts are a tiny interactive experience, and derive a special type of power from that interactive nature. What if we made them… just a little bit more capable. Just a little bit more complicated. But still kept the scope nice and small. Shitpost sized. What could people make, then?

  1. This is not quite true - I don’t have a public account on there & only really follow people I am either friends with or who are on the small and close-knit server I am on. So as a result I have mainly seen a few boosts of some of the more meta commentary, from which I have deduced the presence of all the other posts. I am not about to go looking for them to confirm, because they seem annoying. 

  2. Just want to give a little shoutout here to Everest Pipkin’s work Soft Corruptor, which is built entirely out of nested <details> tags. 

  3. Fun fact! This is a post that I wrote this morning and decided to adapt into this blog post! Why does it not contain the heading that it’s an example of? That’s because I was reminded of it by a reply by Martin O’Leary. Thanks Martin! 

30 April 2022