Should profiles have "content warnings" or "trigger warnings?" [closed]

+16 votes

Previously, the Black Sheep Project created a "content warning" sticker to be used on profiles that had information in the biography that might cause distress to the readers.  The sticker has been used sparingly and only about 50 profiles carry it.

With increasing frequency this year, "content warnings" have appeared on profiles:


and on the profile of an enslaved person:

Content warning: isolation

No slaves from neighboring farms were allowed on the Ramblet farm, they would get whipped off as Mr. Ramblet didn't want anyone to put ideas in his slave's heads.[1]

Content warning: physical hardship, neglect

The women had to split rails all day long, just like the men. Once she got so cold, her feet seemed to be frozen; when they warmed a little, they had swollen so, she could not wear her shoes. She had to wrap her feet in burlap, so she would be able to go into the field the next day.[1]

"Content warnings" have been discussed this week inside the US Black Heritage Project Google Group and in the Leaders Google Group.  I'd like to open this G2G thread for the community to discuss the subject of content warnings.

Is there a need for a content warning sticker?  If there is, should there be any criteria for its use?  If not, why not?

Should "content warnings" (text, not the use of the sticker) be allowed?  Encouraged?  Avoided?  Disallowed?

And thanks for your participation in this discussion.

Edit to add:

Please upvote the answer(s) below that you argee with.  They are in order:

Yes: I agree with having a content warning sticker
No: I don't think we should have a content warning sticker
With conditions: I think the content warning sticker is OK but should only be used with certain criteria
Yes: I think that members can add text content warnings (aside from the use of the sticker)
No: I don't think that text content warnings should be used

closed with the note: Question answered: most don't think content warnings are needed or wanted.
in Policy and Style by SJ Baty G2G Astronaut (1.1m points)
closed by SJ Baty
pick one answer below to upvote, and please comment with your thoughts/ideas.
Thank you, SJ. Note that there may be some question about whether a Profile Sticker is appropriate. We might need to expand the purpose of Profile Stickers to use one in this way.
So would a Research Note Box be better to use then?
Hi Natalie. I don't think it exactly fits the agreed-upon purpose of RNBs either.

Note that the Black Sheep Project is being dissolved and is being moved, in parts, under the Notables project. I'm not sure the BSP created this warning ... if it did, there is no guidance for the sticker's use on any of the project pages. 

If the sticker never went through the G2G vetting process then it should probably be discontinued until it has gone through the approprite procedures and to possibly include rewriting of the help page if necessary.
edited to remove comment from now

6 Answers

+63 votes
No, I do not find the warning sticker to be necessary.

Explain in comments.
by Natalie Trott G2G6 Pilot (967k points)
I agree with Cindy, this is an exceptionally slippery slope. Who would make such decisions on what was upsetting?

There are incidents that should be upsetting, if no one ever learns about them, how will society ever try to make sure they don't happen again.

I could tell a story about a young girl who lived with 3 brothers, a sister, her parents and a grandmother. One day some bullies made her family leave town, they took a train ride, when they arrived at their destination, the girl and one of her brothers were sent to work in a factory.

The rest of the family must have needed a shower, so they went to the shower room  and the girl and her brother never saw those family members again.

Is this what should be on the girl's profile? Or should it say Auschwitz survivor? It is upsetting and it should be.

In its many variations we all know the saying "Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it"
The Atlantic article misrepresents and misunderstands "trigger warnings." They aren't for snowflakes who can't handle "the truth." They're meant to inform the Irag war vet that the hell he went through will be graphically described, so he should prepare himself to avoid his PTSD putting him back there, in his head. To inform the rape survivor to prepare herself for the graphic description ahead, so she doesn't get blindsided by it and start reliving her rape while sitting in the classroom.

As to the holocaust survivor example ... the plain statement that someone survived the Holocaust, or even that they survived while members of their family were killed in the gas chambers and their bodies burned in the ovens at Dachau, is not the sort of thing people are interested in advisories for. It's a straw man argument.

I actually upvoted one of the other options (the sticker is overkill, but if a PM sees the need for an advisory ... well, they are the PM!). I just wanted to address what I felt was a misrepresentation of what an advisory is and why people would use them.
That's a very interesting article about the American college students. I do think society has added to problems by sanitising history and anything that we find too conflicting or challenging is brushed under the mat. As a politically active person I find it very frustrating that the mistakes of the past are repeated because people choose to ignore history. There are some unpleasant truths in my family history that some people would rather never see the light of day. I would prefer that we learn from them and prevent recurrence in future generations. That to me is one of the best ways we can honour our ancestors. If we don't attempt that then our ancestors lived in vain.
Different things upset different people. But if you know content is liable to distress some people, why is it in the profile? Is the problem not the vulnerable reader but the insensitive editor?
" Different things upset different people". We cannot predict which topics or statements may upset someone. It depends totally on who the reader is.

My following comment is not meant to diminish people's feelings. My teenage granddaughter has to leave the room if the characters in a movie have a disagreement, she finds it distressing. Quite why this happens I don't know.

If factual information is presented on a profile, is accurate and correct, I see no reason for it to be excluded or warned about.

There are significant numbers of historical characters who were horrible, nasty etc any number of words could describe their behaviours.

Do we omit the historical records for Ivan the Terrible or Nicolae Ceausescu or Pol Pot because somebody doesn't want to know that they lived and actually did the things that are recorded history.

If any historical person, famous or not did something that is recorded, I don't see how that can be omitted or white washed.

We are all both genealogists and family historians.

There is however a big difference between saying John Doe was convicted of ...., and describing in minute detail exactly what he did step by step, to who etc etc. A description of that sort is inappropriate and should not be part of a profile.

But, M, Ivan the Terrible or Nicolae Ceausescu or Pol Pot’s crimes are cover in rather startling detail on other sites. Why replicate that here?

Pip, nowhere in Ms Ross' post does she state that she is in favour of covering Ivan the Terrible's crimes in startling detail. What she is saying is that we should be honest about saying a person was a murderer, or ordered torture, but not go into all the gory details about everything they did.
I agree absolutely! But what I see for some profiles is a push to make (particularly) notables as bad as they can be. And, as genealogy site, what we should be focusing on is family. So, when I see a profile with egregious sins given in detail, and little family connections included, it makes for an unbalance.
Leandra and Pip,

You're both right, I was trying to think of historical persons whose actions are well known, rather than describing a made up profile, and after about 8 hours working in the sun yesterday..........

We don't need to duplicate information that is covered more than adequately on other sites.

My own very personal opinion is that some of the over the top descriptions of notables or other less or not publicly known 'nasties' are inspired by websites that ask their members to like posts and the more outrageous the posts the more likes they get.

 After almost a year on WikiTree I think we are quite different.

Now going to work in the sun again.
Pip, Those types of profiles do indeed seem very out of place and to be trying for sensationalism. As others have said, you can always explain that someone was a very bad person without describing the gory details. Those are better left to Wikipedia and various history sites.
+1 vote
Yes, I think this is a good idea.

Explain in comments.
by Natalie Trott G2G6 Pilot (967k points)
Would the sticker/template be customizable to allow for saying stuff like "graphic depictions of violence" or "rape" or etc? I would really want that -- as someone who is Very Online, content warnings have been a part of my daily life and culture since I was a kid. I even use them on my tweets, as do most people my age.

I feel like not having a sticker/template and not allowing text content warnings would be kind of terrible as well as possibly upsetting to some people (including myself!!!). However, I also can agree that the giant WARNING! WARNING! text content warning is a bit much. Really, in the case of these narratives for enslaved peoples profiles (I am part of the Black Heritage project and have been watching them transcribe the narratives for a while), I believe that there should be one content warning at the beginning of the narrative section so as to not disrupt the flow of everything - something easily placed between bio and transcription would work well.

That being said, as long as the sticker or template can be customized to say the content warning involved, I would vote for this one above multiple text content warnings as I find it more organized and eye catching.
+1 what Liz is saying
+5 votes

I believe that the sticker is a good idea but should only be used in certain circumstances.  

Please add any ideas for guidelines for profiles which would carry the sticker.

by SJ Baty G2G Astronaut (1.1m points)

I think if guidelines are set and are specific, the sticker will not need to be used by most people on a daily basis, but it will be useful in certain situations if violence is portrayed in the biography.

A suggestion I have is to use the sticker in cases of:
murders, rapes, torture, etc.

Black Sheep project is "leaving the building," so the sticker could be repurposed for wide use.

There would need to be guidelines and perhaps some type of review. What one person thinks needs a warning may not be thought of the same way by others. Nat's list would be a good starting place. I also think authors should take care to avoid sensationalizing.
To add to Doug's comment - I like the idea of a review, and I think if we do have a review, it really does need to be done by people who heed content warnings and not by people who ignore and remove them. Ya?
Honestly, if I heed content warnings, I'm not going to volunteer to review what is under content warnings to check that the warning is warranted. I'd just steer clear.
'Black Sheep, is not a good description for people who are criminal.  It in my opinion often used for people who do not necessarily fit in with common wishes or expectations of the time or of their family.

I have personal knowledge of a family where several siblings were quite angry and upset, that one sibling decided to emigrate with his large family, because there was not enough work or income in their home country.

For many years this person was ostracised by the siblings, their concern was that the emigrant had escaped the duties of caring for their elderly parents. He was considered the Black Sheep of the family.
+9 votes
Yes, members should be allowed to add (text) content warnings to profiles.

Explain in comments.
by SJ Baty G2G Astronaut (1.1m points)
Removing my comment.
Absolutely, yes.

I personally don't think there's anything about information in a profile that is so universally abhorrent that the entire thing needs a warning sticker. I'm open to being wrong if anyone wants to share a profile they think qualifies. I'd probably be open to a profile-wide warning if extremely violent images were associated with the profile?

I also firmly believe a small content warning for descriptions of violence, torture, cruel and unusual punishments does no harm. If you're about to quote something that could be upsetting to a descendant, give them the opportunity to come back when they're ready to find out what their great-grandfather had to endure.

I believe text content warnings should be specific, i.e. don't just say "content warning," say "content warning: rape" or "content warning: murder" or "content warning: forced isolation." Folks who don't need those warnings can move right along and keep reading. Folks who do need those warnings have the opportunity to take care of themselves.

For me, content warnings are about recognizing other people may be more sensitive than you are about certain content. People who provide content warnings aren't good or bad, we're just trying to think about how other people might react to certain content.

It's Ok if you're not sensitive to content. Read on!

It's Ok if you don't know when others will be sensitive to content; readers over time will let you know if they'd wished you'd included a content warning for something and you can proceed from there.

I agree with what Traci said above "As WikiTree is a genealogy site, I think "gory details" that might offend or "trigger" some people should not be included in a WikiTree biography. It's more appropriate to add links to the sources that detail that info. If someone commited (or was the vicitim of) violent acts, those acts should be noted, but summarized."

On one profile for a murderer, it stated exactly how he killed a child in gory detail. I don't think this kind of thing should be on WikiTree. However, there is text that is what I call hard truth, such as in the cases of slavery. it needs to be told and there's no way to summarize in some cases. I think this should be at the bottom of the profile with a one sentence general text warning right above it.

If biographies really do contain gruesome descriptions and if a simple warning text is sufficient to alert readers, then we should approve such a warning.

But, we should also in our biographies avoid graphic detail, gruesome descriptions, revolting language and the like. Putting upsetting content in a link, using sober language in the biography, should be encouraged.

Many others have said the same thing on this page, and I'll join them. We should allow members to use text warnings at their discretion. It sounds like this would be satisfactory for members who have always worked with warnings.
+13 votes
Text content warnings (aside from a warning sticker) should not be allowed.

Explain in comments.
by SJ Baty G2G Astronaut (1.1m points)
There is too much room for sensationalizing if this is acceptable. The big red, WARNING WARNING is one example.

Is the big red warning warning that much different from the large

now found on Trove?


I think one "WARNING!" in red would be sufficient.  The repeated word is overkill.

I completely agree with Natalie.
+6 votes
My only concern is that any decision regarding content warnings in this context doesn't impact on other content warnings, in particular, the content warning relating to Australian First Peoples. It is a well-established cultural protocol, and expression of cultural respect, that there should be a content warning to alert Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to material which might contain images and names of Indigenous people who have died. Thanks!
by Gillian Thomas G2G6 Pilot (187k points)
Which is the point I attempted to make earlier, then removed as the response to it brought in religion.

Thanks for your comment Gillian and please accept my upvote.  I was not aware of this cultural norm to place content warnings.  Looking at the page: 

Project: Indigenous Australians

I see:

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are advised that
this page may contain names and images of people who have died.

I find this notice on the sup-project page to be completely acceptable and sounds reasonable in every way.  Although I don't see how it would be possible to have such disclaimers on profiles because by the time that the viewer arrives to the profile, it is too late to unsee a profile image and the name of a deceased person.  In that regard, if it is the cultural or religious belief of a person (or group of people) to not view images or the names of deceased people, then genealogy probably isn't the best hobby for them.  But having the disclaimer for those who wander to the page, if it is against their culture to view these things then I think that this warning is reasonable.

I'm not sure that so many folks have an issue with putting some kind of warning at the top of a bio.  It is the manner in which these warnings have been "cookie cutter" cut-and-pasted in a way that feels more political than helpful.  I don't think anyone would object to an opening paragraph on a bio that read something like:

== Biography ==
John Smith was a notorious murderer who was known to have killed over two dozen people in the early 18th century.  He was born on (date) in (city) and worked as a day laborer at (place).  He was never married and had no children and died on (date) in (place).  A movie (movie name) was produced in 1998 that fictionalized his crime spree).  His crimes are detailed in his bio below.

== Early life ==
John was born...

Unfortunately, part of the drive to use cut-and-paste content warnings have been included in a wider effort by some to re-educate other Wikitree members about the finer points of racism and privilege.  As these are politically driven motives, they don't belong on Wikitree.  I am glad to see that we are keeping genealogy, and not politics, as the primary focus of our efforts.

edit: typo

Thanks SJ. I really just wanted to flag this specific issue, so that it doesn't get caught up inadvertently in any decisions related to this current discussion. This is an example of how an Indigenous Australian content warning might currently appear on a profile, although of course it can be further discussed on a separate thread if necessary:

I like the wording on this one-

Thanks for sharing Gillian.  Just from an execution standpoint, I'm at a loss as to how this example could be helpful.  The person is already on the page, can see any bio images and the name of the deceased person.  I would liken it to walking into a store, seeing row upon row of wine and whisky bottles and then finding a sign on the back wall saying, "Customers should be advised that we sell alcohol in this store."  Other than beinig on the sub-project page, I'm not sure that Wikitree can put (or should put) a warning on individual profiles before the person opens the profile page.  A genealogy site lists the names and images of deceased people.  I don't think that those who find this offensive our outside of their beliefs should visit genealogy sites.  There are some whose religious beliefs are such that they believe that it is a sin to have an image (photo, drawing, painting, or otherwise) of a person.  These folks would probably do best to stay away from Instragram.  I don't think it reasonable that the whole internet have disclaimers for them.

Thanks SJ and Melanie - really appreciate your feedback! I'm conscious that I don't want to derail the very important discussion which is the subject of your original post, SJ. It may be valuable to have a separate discussion of 'cultural content warnings' down the track, if needed.

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