By Yas Necati
Whilst reading through our site or others, you might have come across some posts that are marked at the beginning with something called a content note. In case you’re wondering what that is and why we use it, here’s a quick guide.
What is a content note?
A content note is usually placed at the beginning of a piece. It’s
put there to inform you about topics or themes that might come up in that piece, so that you can be aware of them before you start reading. For example, if a piece is called “10 best cat videos ever” you might put a content note: “cats”.
The example above is pretty obvious, and pretty silly, but whilst I’ve used cats as an example to illustrate what a content note is in its simplest form, content notes are mostly used more seriously and shouldn’t be taken as a joke.
Content notes come about as a way of letting people know of any potentially triggering or hard to read themes that might come up in a piece. If I were to put a content note on this piece, it would read: “Content note: discussion of content notes, trigger warnings and reference to themes/topics that might be triggering or upsetting”.
To give you a bit more of an idea, here are just a few examples of things that content notes are commonly used for. Someone might put a content note if a piece discusses racism or transphobia, or if a piece references war or sexual violence. Content notes should be used if the entire piece could be upsetting or triggering, for example if it is a piece about cuts to welfare and the effects the cuts are having on marginalised communities. Additionally, content notes should also be used if something triggering or upsetting is mentioned at any point in the piece, even if the piece as a whole doesn’t focus on this topic. For example, somebody might write a piece about kickass female characters in comics. At some point in this piece there might be a few lines about the main character being catcalled on the street. A trigger warning for a mention of sexual violence/catcalling should be put at the beginning of the piece, so that a reader knows that this topic is mentioned at some point.
Content notes can be used to prefix all sorts of different media – not just writing. For example, a content note might be used before a video, podcast, poem, piece of artwork, or any other form of content. However, for the simplicity of this explanation, I will refer to written pieces as I explain further.
Why use content notes?
Content notes are commonly used so that people can know of anything that might trigger or upset them before reading a piece. This gives someone the choice to carry on reading or to choose not to read the piece. If they decide to carry on reading, they are prepared for what is ahead and they won’t be surprised or caught off guard by something that could be difficult for them to read.
To give an example, somebody who is mentally ill might be reading an article about their favourite band online. At some point in this article there might be a quote referring to the lead singer as being “mental”. This might be a really difficult word for the person who’s experiencing mental illness to read, particularly if they have experienced discrimination in the past. The media, family members and bullies might have used this word in a hurtful way towards that person, and therefore reading it could trigger memories and feelings that the person could find hard to cope with, all just by reading a piece about a band they like. If this piece had been prefixed with a content note such as “mental health slurs”, this could have been avoided.
There has been a lot of talk in the media and popular culture recently about content notes being “too politically correct”. At Powered By Girl and SPARK we choose to use content notes because we feel that it’s important to look after our readers. We want to give you the choice to opt out of reading things that might be painful if you don’t want to. We also want you to read difficult things only if you choose to do so – not by accident.
Why “content notes”, not “trigger warnings”?
At Powered By Girl and SPARK we use content notes to prefix our pieces. You might have come across something called a trigger warning which is still widely used on many sites.
A trigger warning is very similar to a content note: it is designed to prefix a piece and highlight anything in that piece that might be triggering. For example, a piece that mentions police violence might have a trigger warning: “police brutality”.
We used to use trigger warnings for our pieces, but we’ve moved to using content notes because we think the language makes more sense. “Trigger warnings” imply that anything that could be triggering is mentioned at the start, but the truth is that we don’t know what might be triggering for people, and every person has different triggers. To give an example, someone might be triggered by the song “Everywhere” by Fleetwood Mac because it’s a song that their abusive ex frequently listened to, so it reminds them of their ex and the abuse that they survived. This trigger is unique to this person, and they probably don’t share the same trigger with many other people. The point here being – as an author of an article or blog it is impossible to know what people’s triggers will be, and to put a trigger warning for everything that could trigger anyone – because that could be literally any word or phrase in the entire piece.
The reason we use content notes is because whilst they don’t solve this problem, they don’t imply that we have covered all the triggers that could come up for anyone. We try to use content notes for things that are common triggers, like discussion of violence, slurs, hatred and discrimination. This way we can warn people of general topics that might be triggering or upsetting.
The flaws of content notes
The above is obviously an example of a flaw – even with content notes we can’t prevent people from being triggered or hurt because we don’t know every individual’s triggers. By using content notes, we hope to lessen the amount that this happens. There are a few other problems with content notes.
The first is that the word used to describe the content note could be a triggering word in itself. For example, if a piece discusses rape it would be prefixed with a content note: “rape”. However, reading this word as a content note could be triggering enough – the person might not choose to continue reading the piece, but they may have already been triggered. In this example, the content note appears to be counter-productive. However, although the word rape alone might still be triggering, reading the piece could have potentially been worse for the survivor as there might be more detail than just the word itself. Either way this isn’t ideal, but at least with a content note the reader is left with a choice to not read on and be surprised by discussion of rape in more detail.
Content notes can sometimes be used in the wrong way. For example, someone might write an article full of ableist slurs – words like “stupid” and “mad” – and prefix it with a content note: “ableist slurs”. This doesn’t make it okay to use this kind of language! The only time slurs should be used is if they’re being criticised, or if they have been reclaimed: words such as “queer” and “crazy”. A content note should only ever be used to highlight that there will be discussions about something problematic or triggering. If it is used as an excuse to use slurs/hurtful language/discriminate or excuse violence, then it’s not being used right.
I hope this gives a brief overview of what content notes are and why we use them. If there are any content notes you think we should be using and aren’t already, please email me on firstname.lastname@example.org to let us know.