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A Warning From Content

You can join me in camp confusion or post using or not using CWs with a certainty that would make a prophet blush.

‘I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn’t know.’

Mark Twain

Content warnings (CW for short) on the Fediverse are — confusing. There really is no other word for it. I have been thinking on this for some time now, more so since the recent surge in Fediverse accounts as people despair at the rampant Musk and look in droves for Twitter alternatives.

If you are not already on the Fediverse, then I encourage you to go to Join Mastodon, pick a server, create an account, and then come back here. Fear not, I’ll be waiting.

Hesitant because you do not know anyone there? Then feel free to follow me on @robert@social.winter.ink.

All done now? Right, let’s continue then.

One feature that Mastodon provides that you may not have seen on other social networks is the option to attach a content warning to your posts. When a content warning is included, the status content will be collapsed by default, and only the CW will be shown, similarly to an email subject line or a “read more” break. This can be used to add a summary or subject for your post, to collapse long posts, or to otherwise provide context or setup for the body of the post.

When media is attached, a checkbox appears to allow you to “mark media as sensitive”. This hides the full media behind a blurred thumbnail by default. Adding a CW to a post automatically marks the media as sensitive as well.

Content warnings look something like this:

A status with a CW that is marked as sensitive content.

From what I can tell, most of the confusion is an inevitable result of decentralisation. No, this is by no means a criticism — I for one adore having A Mastodon To Call My Own. It is wonderful to be lord of all I survey at social.winter.ink. Rather, it is an observation of social dynamics.

For those unfamiliar with the Fediverse and who did not click through to the Wikipedia link at the top of the page, social media solutions like Mastodon differ from Twitter in that they are decentralised. That is, instead of a single company managing the solution and setting the terms of use, there are thousands of individuals and groups who run their own ‘instances’. All of these connect to create the Fediverse, and all these individual instances have their own set of rules for how to behave.

At the instance level, the answer of whether to CW or not to CW is easy. The administrator(s) sets the rules, and you follow them or leave. So far so clear, or draconian, as we will come to later. But once we depart the localtime line and start to graze on the posts from other instances, things begin to get a bit murky.

On the face of it, it should be very easy to know when something should have a sensitive content warning. You have likely encountered this on newsstands where a selection of magazines come in a wrapper which hides the content. But whether a publication should come in a wrapper is very much a moral, or social construct. Thus, in the society in which you live, there are accepted norms regarding speech and, like them or not, it is relatively well known where the boundaries are.

The Fediverse is very much the same. On an instance of likeminded people, you will have a pretty good idea of what is likely to cause offence. And just like in the myriad societies that make up our world, each with their own moral norms, the myriad instances that make up the Fediverse all have their own moral norms. It is what attracts so many people to the Fediverse, they can create their preferences, and enforce them.

Clashes online, like in the physical world, occur when different and divergent communities interact. Diversity is a wonderful thing, but it inevitably leads to differences of opinion regarding what is acceptable and what should be circumscribed. As has been noted before, one person’s casual observation is another person’s hate speech. As a result, what we post can sometimes cause people to feel considerable hurt.

This much has been expressed by people who I follow, respect, and admire in the Fediverse. They have posted their own guides for what you should hide behind a CW. The list usually includes topics like:

  • Eye contact
  • Food — I particularly support this one
  • Politics

A nice short list, should be easy to accommodate if you are an accommodating sort of person. Then the rabbit hole opens.

I learn that ‘the CW norm does feel like cop shit’. Which carries with it implicit tones of authoritarianism, colonialism, white male dominance, and imperialism. I thought perhaps I was reading too much into this but then found post after post which took the general line that the people who are most vocal about content warnings are generally white people, which for some feels like a red flag. While for others, having to apply a CW to their experience only propagates colonial stereotypes and that people should sit with the discomfort felt rather than having it hidden behind a CW.

Now it seems that NOT using a CW is hurtful, but also that using CWs, more specifically trying to get other people to use CWs, is oppressive, even racist.

But this brings us full circle. Regardless of your race, colour, or creed, CWs seem to come down to whether you think a content warning is a respectful way to avoid hurting others or whether you think they represent the yoke of oppression, a curtailment of freedom, and that people should sit with the discomfort.

To some extent, the latter argument is the line taken by ‘Just Stop Oil’ protestors. As Bob Geldof observed:

The climate activists are 1,000 per cent right. And 1,000 per cent I support them. It’s offensive to destroy Van Gogh’s genius. That achieves nothing. But it was clever to throw it [red paint] on the glass knowing it wouldn’t be destroyed. That’s just annoying. And annoying is quite good.

One of the joys of the Fediverse, if people want something behind a CW, they can have it. The latest version of Mastodon allows people to add content warnings to what is posted even if the author does not apply a CW. Of course, arguably a better solution is to just not follow or block the account entirely. That way a person never needs be burdened by — well, whatever it is they think is so offensive.

The Fediverse also means whatever your belief, you can find your own corner, settle down and enjoy meaningful conversations with like minds — with or without CWs — because as you will have gathered by now, the consensus is not as consensual as it seems.

This is important to remember next time someone tries to tone police you with the sentiment ‘that is not how we do things on the Fediverse’. Because all they can really mean is that is not how they do things on the instance they chose. At a stretch, that is not how they do things on the instances with whom they choose to federate. One of the realities of the Fediverse is that many who love the freedom running their own instance brings, only love it so far as people go along with their rules. Instances who do not fall into line are often blocked. Naturally, people are free to do this, it is one of the true strengths of the Fediverse. But it also means people cannot truly speak about Fediverse norms as though there is genuine consensus, much less that their views represent a Platonic universal ethic. To do this is no better than when people use the moronic phrase ‘we are on the right side of history’.

This of course all remains firmly within the realm of philosophical speculation. But as has already happened with Fosstodon who were contacted by Microsoft lawyers to remove an account, the legal aspect of content is yet to fully hit much of the Fediverse. Because regardless of a particular instance’s moral norms, acts such as Australia’s Online Safety Act, and similar legislation in the United States and the United Kingdom, requires social networks to find and filter content that is ‘very high in impact that falls outside the generally accepted community standards.’ In which context, even if there was a Fediverse standard, it will be affected by wider community standards and the government legislation under which individual instances operate.

I may be as confused now as I was when I first started thinking about content warnings, but the joy for me is you get to choose the right answer. You can join me in camp confusion and adopt a posture of curious interest, or post using or not using CWs with a certainty that would make a prophet blush. You can join a large instance and follow their moral norms or create your own instance and set your own rules. Because no central authority controls your space or sets the moral norms for you. Though as already noted, this moral norm does not absolve individuals or instances from broader societal and legal responsibilities.

Good night and good luck.


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