How The "Trigger Warning" Took Over The Internet

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News Media Commentary
Title: How The "Trigger Warning" Took Over The Internet
Commentator: Alison Vingiano
Date(s): May 4, 2014
Venue: BuzzFeed, online
External Links: How The "Trigger Warning" Took Over The Internet - BuzzFeed News, Archived version
Click here for related articles on Fanlore.

How The "Trigger Warning" Took Over The Internet is a 2014 post by Alison Vingiano at BuzzFeed about the history of trigger warnings.

"The phrase evolved from clinical psychiatry, moved from LiveJournal fan fiction to Tumblr to mainstream media, and eventually ended up on college syllabi. Here’s the story of how it happened."

Some Topic Discussed


The excerpts below in the original posted article contain many links to other content. See the original post for much, much more.

Of course, content warnings on media existed prior to the internet: There’s the graphic-content warning before a television show or a video game, or the rating system for movies. But where did the phrase “trigger warning” come from, and how did it dominate the internet and inch into our offline lives?

Tracking down the first time the phrase “trigger warning” appeared on the internet proves nearly impossible, but it’s clear that the term did not enter the web fully formed. Before the “trigger warning” became the accepted way to brace readers for explicit content, bloggers prefaced stories with “This might be triggering,” or “This deals with some eating disorder stuff,” or “Warning: potential trigger.” Some version of the term began appearing on feminist message boards in discussions of sexual assault in the late ’90s. Andi Zeisler, the co-founder and editorial/creative director of the feminist publication Bitch magazine, said the phrase often popped up on a community forum on Ms. Magazine’s website.

“The first time I saw trigger warnings used was on Ms. Magazine’s bulletin board in the late ’90s and early ’00s,” she said. “It might have been on other feminist sites, but I only remember seeing it on Ms.”

By the early 2000s, the term had found its way to LiveJournal, where it was used on fan fiction.

Gaby Dunn, a writer and early adopter of Tumblr and LiveJournal, said when she was using LiveJournal around 2001, fan fiction communities warned one another of explicit content but seldom used the phrase that has been adopted today.

“When we’d write fan fiction on LiveJournal, we might say, ‘This includes a rape storyline,’ or something, but that phrase [‘trigger warning’] was never used,” Dunn said.
While warning for triggers became expected in these specific communities, the advent of Twitter in 2006 and Tumblr in 2007, and the growth of Facebook in 2008, mainstreamed the term in a new way.
Tumblr’s interface, in which users scroll through an endless dashboard of blogs, offers no warning — not even a headline — for potentially NSFW or triggering material. There’s no choice of whether or not to click. The content is just there, and the purveyors of its omnipresent porn GIFs and Benedict Cumberbatch fan fiction don’t care if you’re at your office. Perhaps because of this, and the fact that many LiveJournal bloggers were early Tumblr users, trigger warnings became a common courtesy when the site began in 2007.

Zeisler of Bitch, who started using trigger warnings in 2007, said she also began using the term based on commenter’s requests. The print edition of the magazine, however, has never used the expression.

“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,” said Zeisler. “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.”
Melissa McEwan, founder and writer of the popular feminist blog Shakesville, began using trigger warnings in 2009, five years after she first founded the site. She wrote about feminist subjects in the blog’s early days, but McEwan says that readers weren’t demanding trigger warnings with the same frequency. The rise of social media changed that.

The trigger warning has taken on a life of its own, flooding the feminist blogosphere and becoming an expected courtesy. “You’re sort of seen as a jerk if you’re writing in a feminist space and not using trigger warnings,” said Filipovic. “You now see them applied to racism, anything that is anti-transgender, anything that is bigoted, ablism. The word ‘crazy’ could merit a trigger warning … There’s this feeling: ‘How many problematic things can I point out about this article to show that I am a feminist, or the most able to identify all of the problematic language?’”

The term has also moved beyond the feminist community: It is still used throughout fan fiction and became the norm on the website AO3, an archive of fan literature, in 2009. A spokesperson for the site, Claudia Rebaza, said, “It’s quite possible that discussion of triggers took place in fan spaces before the terms were more widely recognized … the concern about warning for content was widespread enough among fan work creators that it was built into the AO3 posting format [in 2009].”

As the term grew increasingly ubiquitous online, it also began to acquire critics. In 2010, writer Susannah Breslin wrote that feminists applied the phrase “like a Southern cook applies Pam cooking spray to an overused nonstick frying pan” and that “the whole world is a trigger warning,” to which Feministing responded that she was a “certifiable asshole,” and Jezebel, a site that has never used trigger warnings, claimed that the debate over the term “been totally clouded by ridiculous inflammatory rhetoric.”

Posts questioning the necessity of the trigger warning thereafter appeared in The Awl, The Rumpus, and other publications, many arguing the term was overused. In a 2012 Feministing post, writer Maya Dusenbery wrote that although she was using trigger warnings at Feministing, she “didn’t really believe in them.”

Comments at the Original Post

[Ivy Stark]: The problem is that people hijacked the term, and now it's used so widely and arbitrarily on tumblr that it could mean anything at all. I highly doubt, for example, that anyone is actually, legitimately triggered by a picture of a bottle of nail polish in a color called "strawberry", yet someone demanded a "food trigger warning" for it. I'm sorry but that's just stupid and it's an insult to people who have actually been through traumatic experiences. Good luck getting by in the real world if the word strawberry in teeny tiny print on a bottle of fucking nail polish is that offensive to you.
[Cara Creagor]: Trigger warnings are necessary and valid for things which might actually trigger someone to have a psychological reaction. My biggest pet peeve EVER is when people complain of being triggered when in reality, they're just offended. If that happens, I will go out of my way to offend them further... Two things tip me off: firstly, someone who spends ages and ages discussing something isn't in actually triggered by it - they wouldn't be able to discuss it. Secondly, language choice and context clues. Someone who professes to be an evangelical Christian who is "triggered" by a depiction of a loving gay relationship isn't triggered. They're just a bigoted asshole. I have all the sympathy in the world for people with actual psychological triggers; I have my own. But "triggered" has become synonymous with "offended" or "grossed out" and that's not only belittling to actual PTSD sufferers, it's just plain linguistically stupid.
[Kate Donovan]: “Another issue that’s been brought up is that the word ‘trigger’ might be triggering for people who have experienced gun violence.” Seriously???...It's getting ridiculous that a "trigger warning" message now needs to come with a trigger warning.
[Caitlin Mabon]: It is not my job as a person running a blog or writing something etc etc to protect the person reading it. If you (general 'you') don't like what I post because things that I post trigger you, wherever it is I happen to post, then don't read what I post. I may be more sensitive to the more political topics (rape, abuse, etc)... but that's going to be about my limit.
[Oulette Dee]: When did we lose our autonomy with being exposed to things that may cause us traumatic memories? When you're reading an article, you can usually tell where it's going in half a sentence's tone change and then click to a different window if it's going to give you flashback symptoms. If you're watching something and a scene bothers you so much, turn it off before it gets to the worst parts. If you know you can experience horrible symptoms from exposing yourself to it, why seek it out? On social media, I've never once seen a slit wrist picture, an emaciated anorexia picture, or a lengthy story about rape, just suddenly pop up into my face. If you have genuine PTSD and it's that easily triggered, you need to protect yourself and brace yourself. You don't need others to do it for you. That's not how you get better. Not to mention the fact that "trigger warning" now means nothing because people are using it for everything from arachnophobia to pictures of prepared meat. And yes, I've seen both of those.
[Caitlin Mabon]: While I agree that having trigger warnings on things is good in theory and practice, the downside to using them on Tumblr is that it feels like it's become taboo, because literally EVERYTHING POSTED THERE seems to need a trigger warning of some kind anymore.
[Anna Hansen Bruen]: I don't care for trigger warnings anymore because they've become overused, as the article points out. I much prefer "content notes" or more explicit warnings. I tried to watch "The Americans" and the first episode had a graphic rape scene that stuck with me for weeks. It said "viewer discretion advised," but like "trigger warning," that phrase is on almost every show after a certain time of day and it could mean almost anything. I would prefer if they said "this segment contains scenes of sexual violence" or "this segement contains scenes of drug use" etc. That would be much more useful than vague statements like "trigger warning."
[Hannah Haydock]: I'm divided here. I do believe that trigger warnings are necessary, particularly on sites like Tumblr where things pop up without headlines, however in the case of blog posts or online articles I also think that most people are able to read a headline and interpret that to understand what the content is going to be.
[Sarah Ochocki]: The problem with trigger warnings is... literally anything could trigger someone. Yet she does not require a trigger warning before "girls of a certain age" are allowed to go out in public and cross her path. Yes, we have a responsibility for each other, but you can never protect everyone from everything.
[Marta Molina Ruiz]: “People who say, ‘You’re too sensitive’ don’t actually understand what it means to be triggered, and it diminishes a survivor’s experience. The accusation of oversensitivity is such an effective silencing mechanism.” THIS!!! ... You don't choose what you are triggered by. All triggers are valid.