A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but call it a “pussybloom” and it may have trouble setting up a Facebook page. Yes, the internet is riddled with filters designed to block any offensive or obscene words — but this technology is far from perfect. It’s apt to overcorrect without regard for context. Which is how this happened:
As if it weren’t hard enough enduring a childhood of playground mockery over a surname synonymous with “penis,” now Natalie isn’t allowed to log into this app and get updates on high school sports?! Thankfully, the folks at MaxPreps promised to resolve the issue, citing mischievous teens as the reason for the strict language controls.
Along with any dirty jokes, though, anti-profanity software is notorious for censoring lots of stuff it shouldn’t — and quite a few real names. As Natalie Weiner’s tweet took off, it became an amazing thread of Schmucks, Cummings, Dickmans and Dikshits who could commiserate with her. For them, a digital identity will almost always be hard work.
Oh, and definitely spare a thought for this chess champion, who seems perfectly nice and perhaps in need of a nickname. Kudos to Twitter for letting her be herself, I guess, but it’s no surprise on a platform more committed to nuking fake Elon Musk accounts than cracking down on white supremacists. You take the good with the bad, am I right?
Improperly zealous word filters are so common, in fact, that their mistakes — often the result of sloppy code — have a catch-all term: the Scunthorpe problem.
In 1996, residents of Scunthorpe, a town in North Lincolnshire, England, found themselves unable to register as new customers on AOL, simply because the web provider flagged the word “cunt” in their fair hamlet’s name. Almost a decade later, Google’s SafeSearch demonstrated the same exact glitch, CNET reported, “blocking local news sites like ThisIsScunthorpe.co.uk and ScunthorpeDistrictCatsProtection.co.uk, a housecat-adoption site.” Similarly, domain names including ArkansasExtermination.com and EssexCountyBeeKeepers.org were blacklisted by the service for containing the word “sex.”
As Natalie Weiner’s case proves — and as a machine learning researcher told Motherboard — the Scunthorpe problem has never been solved, largely because we haven’t created an artificial intelligence capable of making these distinctions. But that hasn’t stopped us from implementing faulty auto-replace functions that turn out some ridiculous results. Filters that rewrite any instance of “ass” or “tit” as “butt” and “breast” have given us “clbuttic” for “classic” and “consbreastution” instead of “constitution.” In 2008, the fundamentalist Christian group American Family Association memorably mangled an AP article about sprinter Tyson Gay winning a 100-meter dash, converting his name to “Tyson Homosexual.” In fairness, it made for a more exciting headline:
The list goes on and on. In May of this year, a proud mom ran afoul of the supermarket Publix’s website when ordering a graduation cake for her son, which she had wanted to read “Summa Cum Laude”: The Latin word for “with” and contemporary slang for semen was changed to three short dashes. A gamer with the first name “Jihad” was once banned from PlayStation Network. Blocked emails caused such headaches for the staff of a Winnipeg magazine called The Beaver that they were forced to rebrand as Canada’s History after 90 years of publication. And Scunthorpe is hardly the lone English municipality to suffer from filter bias — just ask the people who live in Penistone or Clitheroe. My personal favorite instance of mistaken obscenity, however, was when employees of London’s Horniman Museum realized their messages were delivered to spam folders because they looked like communications from a “Horny Man Museum.”
Given all this nonsense over a handful of naughty syllables, you might wonder if profanity filters are even worth the hassle. Some developers and programmers are certainly ambivalent on them, if not entirely defeatist. Aside from the false positives, they point out, language comes with unpredictable loopholes that can make censorship almost moot. Back in the 1990s, Disney wanted to get into the online gaming space with a social virtual world for kids — one that included a chat function. Immediately dismissing a text filter as inadequate, the designers experimented with a sentence constructor that had a limited vocabulary of G-rated words. It seemed promising until they gave it to a 14-year-old boy, who swiftly produced some of the most disturbing innuendo you’ll ever read: “I want to stick my long-necked Giraffe up your fluffy white bunny,” he wrote.
Until our tech improves, we just need to say “fuck it” — I’m sorry, I meant “forget it” — and let people have free rein when it comes to name inputs. Trying to keep Dicks and Butts off your website is a hopeless battle anyway. We’re at a stage of human history where a cartoon image of an eggplant is considered sexually suggestive, so let’s not pretend we have any decency left to salvage. The sooner we accept “inappropriate” monikers, the less their owners will have to deal with the rest of us snickering about them.
Except for this guy with the last name “Wankum.” That’s always gonna be funny.