16 August 2009

Welcome to sCUNThorpe.

Scunthorpe dwellers have a hard time saying where they live in some places on the internet, automated anti-swearbots are constantly scouring the webtubes looking for textual sexual naughties, and the name "Scunthorpe" contains the naughtiest of naughties.

Automated censorship is becoming an increasing problem, as evidenced by this iTunes listing Peter Serafinowicz posted on Twitpic this morning, for the nursery rhyme "Cock a Doodle Doo". Or, as infants are all familiar with obscene genital slang and must be protected from the correct name for a male chicken "C**k a Doodle Doo". (I note they don't mind the "Dick" in Hickory Dickory Dock)

It's kind of funny, but also not remotely funny. Censorship needs measured judgement and oversight. Automating it, and letting it loose on the world at large with a quite obvious lack of "common" sense in the equation really just winds up pissing on a lot of people's strawberries for no good reason. It's not just words with 2 meanings either; I've encountered forums and games where you can't type the word "happened", because it contains the letter sequence "pene", which is spanish for penis.

If this isn't stupid enough, the profane and bigoted filth-bucket arena where teens give vent to their ugliest instincts, XBox Live, has given rise to a "much too late to the party" effort on the part of Microsoft to police the in-game-chat of their system. Their response to the abuse has been directly proportional to the rank horrors of adolescent bile, which means it's been equally ridiculous.

Last month they proudly spoke of their hard-working censorship team. Desperate to be seen to doing something after years of neglect, which have led to a Lord of the Flies style ecosystem. They not only censor actual swear words, racial and religious epithets, references to sexual activity and gender orientation (somewhat famously blocking the account of my old alt.digitiser pal Richard "Gay"wood purely because of his name), these days they actually ban phrases which contain no swear words, but have been co-opted as surrogate sex-talk. They even ban made up words used to substitute for swear words, like BSG's fuck-tastic "Frak!" (presumably the game called "Frak" won't ever be appearing on XBLA either)

If it was just things like "blowjob", a portmanteau word made from two non-obscene words, you could understand, but just how many people do they think know what a "Cleveland Steamer" is? Anyone who knows would probably be too busy laughing to care, and those who don't would be none the wiser. They are actually proud that they trawl the internet all day looking for phrases which "could" have a sexual meaning. Proud of their dictionary of thousands of things that people aren't allowed to say.

I've been on the internet for over a decade, and right back at the very start I discovered that there was next to nothing you could type into a search engine without getting a porno result for it. When my lawnmower broke down and I was looking for a new one, a prodigious number of the results presented to me were for photos and websites dedicated to women attending to their pubic coiffure. This was just the tip of the iceberg.(Fnarr!)

At an estimate I would measure the language offers a lexicon where anything up to 85% of the words could be used in a smutty double entendre (made up statistic). Anything shaft like can be used in a penile metaphor; anything featuring a cavity or slot can be a vaginal counterpart; anything hairy, fuzzy, downy, grassy, thatched, wiry or curly can be a surrogate for pubic hair; and anything involving a liquid can double for semen, ideally alliteratively, "man milk", "baby batter" "Lady lube" etc.

Essentially, this Dictionary of the Forbidden goes for anything that could have a sexual second meaning will probably soon preclude any communication whatsoever, except platonic comments about amorphous objects with no long protrusions or cavities. I believe this is actually all policed manually, for now, but it still a fucking stupid policy. Policing the spawning of new double entendres is as useful an activity as trying to strike matches on mashed potato.

With so much of the internet now being social media, user generated rather than delivered by accountable content providers, policing the vast amounts of amateur sourced material driving the web economy will be impossible to achieve manually, so automated censorship is bound to grow and grow. Maybe it will work and clean up some potty mouths, or maybe it'll just make people more creative? People are very, very creative.

As it stands, Facebook and Twitter, don't censor updates. People with friends ranging from 13 (like they can enforce that age-limit) to geriatrics, all have equal access to any filth you feel like updating with via their FB newsfeed Equally you can say pretty much anything you like in tweets. That's now.

Twitter recently decided to prevent the #quantickstesticles hashtag from trending, presumably because it featured the word "testicles" which is a non-profane anatomical word. This was probably manually censored, not automatically, as it had been trending strongly for a while before it, and the tweets using it vanished from the search string. Whether Twitter did this at someone's request, or whether they did it pre-emptively was never explained.

On Facebook I've seen elderly relatives complaining about friends swearing on their young relatives walls, internet worlds and real worlds are colliding. The pressure to censor at source is likely to grow as networks spread across generational divides.

Maybe the internet was unfettered for too long? There's no real way to say how old someone is online, so protecting young ears and eyes from the foul language it's been awash with for so long seems like good idea on the surface of things. Fact is though, I knew more swear words, sexual euphamisms and lewd innuendos than my parents did by the time I was 8 years old. Kids swear, and they like it. They are voracious for things their parents wouldn't approve of and don't understand, and they have so much energy and imagination that censorship will never keep up, let alone outrun them.