Trigger Warnings, Big Data, and Building a Better Search Engine

There’s a lot of discussion these days about trigger warnings and how they should be handled. I don’t have any triggers, but I know some wonderful people who do. (Just like racism and homophobia, being a jerk can be cured by getting to know people.)

I have a thought. A theory. A proposal, if you will. It’s about using technology to make the world a better place. If you like anything you seen herein, say so. I’ll consult on any project to make this happen.

Because there is a need, and people are in pain.

Let’s go.

What are trigger warnings?

A trigger warning is a label on a piece of media that says ‘Here there be dragons’ only the dragons take the form of assault, abuse, death, racism, and other gory stuff. Stuff that even an untraumatized person might feel squicky around.

They are not what conservatives and the callous often make them out to be: for weak-willed individuals who are easily offended. We’re not talking about being offended. We’re talking about being triggered, which means:

A trigger is something that sets off a memory tape or flashback transporting the person back to the event of her/his original trauma.
trauma in the form of flashbacks or overwhelming feelings of sadness, anxiety, or panic. The brain forms a connection between a trigger and the feelings with which it is associated, and some triggers are quite innocuous. For example, a person who smelled incense while being raped might have a panic attack when he or she smells incense in a store. Triggers are very personal, and generally people with severe PTSD or/and anxiety can be triggered by everyday things.

Thank you, Urban Dictionary.

You can find a list of example trigger warnings at the Privilege 101 Tumblr. (And yes, not having any triggers is a privilege.)

Who needs them?

Trigger warnings are for people who feel emotionally ‘triggered’ when they run into certain content. This usually stems from some trauma in their past. A victim of sexual assault may not want to read about a character being assaulted. Someone who has lost a child may feel blindsided when a child is killed in fiction.

The important part of this is ‘blindsided.’ Because, in the right frame of mind, the assault victim may feel able to read a scene with coercive sex. She may even find it therapeutic. But she needs to know what she’s getting into before she gets there. Then she can make an informed choice about what media she consumes and when.

What can we do about it?

Well, we can make big, splashy labels that we slap on media that scream “OMFG SHIT GOES DOWN HERE”, which will drive away a lot of people. People who feel like the work has been spoiled for them (just give away the most shocking part, why don’t you?), people who think the warning means things must be absolutely horrific to warrant such a label, people who are put off by being ‘told what to do’, and even people who just think that sticker is ugly.

Hint: That’s not the way to help anyone.

Here’s how we do it.

We include trigger warnings in meta data.

What’s meta data? It’s the information associated with a file that you, the average user, don’t see or don’t pay much attention to. For instance, a book’s meta data might include:

  • Author
  • Date published
  • Publisher
  • Cover Artist
  • Genre(s)/Marketing Categories
  • Subject Matter (locations, people, time, etc.)

When you look for books about WWI, you can find accurate results because someone tagged those books appropriately. This isn’t new to the digital era, it’s how card catalogs have been working for centuries.

Yes, I’m old enough to have used an actual card catalog (in elementary school). Bite me.

How would it work?

From a technological stand-point, it’s not hard to create another meta data option. We’ll call this one “Triggers”. The GUI consists of a bunch of checkboxes for various broad categories of triggers (ie., not necessarily as specific as the example list above).

When a new book is entered into the system the appropriate boxes get checked, alongside all that other information that goes in. Voila! You have data.

On the public side of things, a user decides they just can’t handle a battle scene today, so they find the related checkbox for violence/war, and their results exclude any books that are labeled with that trigger.

When assessing an individual book, Trigger data can be listed prominently or not, depending on the database and its users. A site dedicated to providing services for triggered individuals may make all trigger warnings big and bold. A mass market like Amazon may include it at the bottom among the other meta data like publishing info.

What would it take to make this happen?

  1. A commitment from publishers to start labeling the new works and back catalogs with these warnings.
  2. Additions to book search engines to include this data.
  3. A universally agreed upon description of what constitutes a trigger, what the labels will be, and how the data will get from publishers to markets. (I’d like to see the medical profession weigh-in a bit here.)

That’s a pretty hefty list of requirements. But it can be done.

It should be done.

It HAS been done.

Examples in the wild

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) rating system for movies. Shown consistently to be helpful and informative for parents in guiding what their kids watch.

The TV Parental Guidelines rating system for television shows. By the way, dozens of countries do this.

The Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) rating system for video games.

Grocery store websites where I used to turn on the option to have gluten, egg, and other allergens highlighted for me to avoid.

Real live grocery stores that highlight things like Kosher! and Organic! and Sugar Free! on their shelves.

We have the ability to store, and then cut and slice data any way we want to. All the above examples have made it possible to filter and make informed decisions without losing their souls. You can still have an extremely violent video game, but now you have to warn people that that’s what they’re getting. Artsy movies are still made, and it’s money, not their ratings, that hold them back.

What are the benefits?

Well, I don’t know about you, but I think ‘fewer traumatized people’ is a good start. I think it’s a good end, too.

Some of you need more convincing. So hit me up in the comments. Tell me your concerns so I can try to refine this mad scheme of mine.

And share this post. Widely. Change happens when people take notice.


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.