Warning: Spoilers, Tags, and Triggers in Fandom

So, Wanderers, you might have noticed that since our series slot is currently covered by the GUST section of our beloved ‘zine, we’ve taken to doing some random wildcard editorials. All well and good, but not so brilliant when the Editor simply fixes her beady eyes upon you from behind her computer screen, smiles sweetly and asks you to write something. Anything.

As you may imagine, we’ve had more specific briefs in the past… so here I am to write about anything I jolly well like. And, as I mentioned in my other article this issue (if you’ll excuse the shameless plug), having too much choice can be a bad thing. I wasn’t making a lot of progress, but then while I was totally researching a potential article and not at all messing about on the internet, I spoiled the ending of Fight Club for myself. Yes, I know, by now I should have seen Fight Club a million times, but I hadn’t, and now I know how it ends. And that got me thinking about tags and warnings in internet fandom (and, to some extent, offline fandom).

See, I’m not complaining that I now know how Fight Club ends. It’s been out for long enough that if I really cared about being spoilered for it I should have just watched it. If I give you a spoiler warning before I talk about Romeo & Juliet the chances are good that I’m just teasing you. But sometimes, it’s considerate to warn people before you talk about something they may not yet have seen. In the non-virtual world, this is often accomplished by a simple test – ‘Have you seen the Arsenal game yet?’ or ‘Did you see Doctor Who?’ – which allows the people around you to either screech and clamp their hands over their ears or nod eagerly. There’s a third camp of people who respond ‘No, but tell me anyway’, but they are brave and valiant souls and I applaud their courageous choice.

Online, it’s not always so simple. It’s easy to log onto Tumblr, for example, after the latest episode of a show, and reblog three hundred gifs of it without thinking beyond ‘how do people make gifs this fast?’ but this can have the consequence of ruining major scenes and plot points for people who haven’t been lucky enough to watch. Similarly, getting on Twitter or any kind of blog and giving away all the best lines is a bit frustrating for the people waiting for the on-demand service to do as they demand. It is therefore considered polite to tag or otherwise label your spoilers; if you can make text spoilers only show up when highlighted, that’s a good way to go, but at a push a big, bold disclaimer:
WARNING: Contains spoilers for 2×02, 2×03
will usually do the job nicely. You’ll also see this system in use on most fanfiction archives; if major plot points of a recent episode are revealed by the fanwork you’ll usually be advised of it so that you can go and watch the actual show first.

Spoilers are irritating – I heard of friendships irrevocably broken when, in the days after the publication of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, someone changed their instant messaging screen name to a list of every character that died – but the worst you’re going to do by omitting to help people avoid them is generally annoying someone or ruining a punchline. It’s irritating, and you may well get yelled at, but it’s usually not the end of the world if you forget to tag the odd screencap. There are other kinds of warnings and tags, however, that serve a much more important purpose.

I’m talking, now, about trigger warnings. Whether it’s putting a tw: epilepsy on a particularly obnoxious flashing gif, or warning for mentions of abuse, violence or assault, the potential for bad things coming out of a failure to tag is much higher here. It’s possible that if the right trigger warnings aren’t involved, someone reading through a fanfiction or scrolling down their timeline might be caused actual harm with no chance to prepare or protect themselves from it.

The results of a missed trigger warning can range from a mild queasiness – ‘I didn’t realise there would be such a graphic description of injuries’ to full-on panic attacks, flashbacks or seizures. I’m not suggesting for a moment that every trigger can be caught and warned for, given that the human mind is a complex thing, but some of the more common ones can be anticipated and it’s really a good idea to try to warn for them. Believe me, Wanderers, the people who are triggered by certain things do appreciate being given the chance to avoid those things. It’s not always possible to avoid them outside in the real world, and for many people fandom is their safe space.

For that reason, it’s also kind to be as specific as you can in your warnings without completely defeating the object of them. For example, if your warning for the example above – graphic description of injuries – actually graphically describes the injuries, there’s no point in that whatsoever. However, a warning like the words in italics is usually sufficient to warn those who’d rather not see such things to move along quickly. The other extreme, of course, is to simply warn for possible triggers, and I’ve seen the topic hotly debated around the internet. Particularly with regards to fanfiction, there is a general concern that warning specifically for, for example, shooting, might ruin the surprises the author has in store for their audience – bringing us right back around to spoilers.

Personally, I try to err on the side of the spoilers. Potential triggers warnings leave the reader thinking ‘well, it’s probably not one of the ones that triggers me‘… but then suddenly in the middle of a chapter there they are in the middle of a nightmare. Of course, that’s my own personal approach – but I think sparing one person a hideous churning feeling in their stomach and the loss of their own feeling of security outweighs the inconvenient spoiling of any number of people, at least when it comes to my own work. Your mileage, as ever, may vary.

So, there you have it – warnings can be very important, and an integral part of looking out for your fellow fans. They also, of course, allow you to actually post spoilers or potential triggers without being afraid that you’ll ruin someone’s day – so they’re good for everyone in the long run! Give it some thought the next time you post something, Wanderers, and I’ll see you on the internet.

Eleanor Musgrove (reserves the right to breeze right on by your warnings but also promises not to complain if she does)

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