The h2g2 Profanity Filter and Offensive Words

2 Conversations

22 March, 2006 saw three Announcements by the h2g2 editors: A change of the House Rules regarding the use of text speak, a new feature enabling the h2g2 editors to close threads, and the upcoming implementation of the Profanity Filter1 on h2g2. All three announcements were heatedly discussed by the h2g2 Community, but the idea of the Profanity Filter upset people most. A few welcomed it, but the majority of Researchers were against it. Many argued that this was some sort of censorship, and that the Community at large wouldn't need it anyway because of the functioning moderation system. They asked for a troll filter instead.

Then there were those who were just upset at the thought that they could no longer swear to their heart's desire2. All agreed that an automated filter could never do a certain situation justice, that there really wasn't a perceived problem with heavy usage of swear words on h2g2, and that this was a sad day for the site. Numerous examples for the stupidity of such a filter, as experienced on other websites, were given: be it a filter blocking sport-related websites consequently blocking websites about crickets (the insects), or a filter blocking people from discussing Herman Melville's book Moby Dick, so that they had to refer to 'the book with the whale'.

On 30 March, 2006, the Thread Closures feature was first introduced to the PF debate attached to the aforementioned announcement. A link was provided to the h2g2 Community Soapbox, where the debate raged on for a further six weeks before it petered out - possibly due to a lack of Italic3 presence, as was suggested.

On 3 April, 2006, the Profanity Filter was launched, with immediate effect, disregarding all the opposition. Many Researchers were sad about the fact that the community hadn't been asked for their views, and that all their reasoning after they had been informed about the upcoming filter had no effect. People were afraid that all areas of h2g2 would suffer, but especially the AWW and, consequently, the UnderGuide. However, this being 'hootoo4', one Researcher soon came up with a 'swear word lexicon idea',the 'h2g2 Profanisaurus'. Even now (January 2009), people still post suggestions to it.

The reasoning behind the Italics' insisting on implementing the filter was not unexpected: to reduce the workload for the Moderators, thus reducing the workload of the in-house-team, but their claim at the same time that all this was to protect the h2g2 community from outsiders came as a surprise:

The vast majority of swearing comes from people who are not actually integrated h2g2 members; people who come in, post a few banal comments of abuse and then leave, cackling to themselves over the disruption they've left behind them. We don't see why we should make it easy for them, and if having their post bounced back gives them time to think, then that's no bad thing; we all need a little encouragement to cool off every now and then.

- A former h2g2 Editor

What triggers it?

The announcements were very vague about this as you can see below:

[...] profanity filter' which will now automatically prevent any contribution (entries and postings) that contains an unsuitable word from being posted.

[...] We've scheduled the profanity filter to be switched on at some point on 3 April, 2006. We will make a further announcement should this plan change. More information on how the filter works will be available nearer the time.

Announcement 22 March, 2006
[...] For more information, please consult the revised House Rules and the Moderation FAQ.

- Announcement 3 April, 2006
[...] Some swearing - such as quotes from poems or plays in entries intended for the Edited Guide, for example - may be editorially acceptable, but in everyday communication it is not. Limited use of the smiley - bleep (Bleep!) smiley may be permissible, however.

- Revised House Rules, 2006

There is a short list where you can find some of the banned words, however, it is not really of much help as it doesn't include the various other words which trigger the PF. Some people immediately set out to test which words they'd get away with, others were caught without having a clue which of their words was considered to be 'profane'. Not only did the filter affect new posts and journals, it even came into effect while updating an old entry which had been perfectly fine until 3 April. It left many people stumped, but despite all pleas to have the feature highlight the offensive word or to publish a comprehensive list of words to avoid, nothing happened. This meant, and still does, that if you fall foul of the filter, you may spend a considerable amount of time hunting for a word which you had no idea was offensive. A good example is probably the word paedophile, which, until recently, brought the filter into effect. But this isn't all: there is a secondary filter for potentially offensive words. This means, that you may find a posting gone just seconds after you posted/read it. The mean thing about this secondary filter is, that it wasn't announced anywhere 5, prompting rumours about a Phantom Yikeser and upsetting people even more than the PF. Nearly three years on, and we've got used to missing announcements which quickly drop down our conversation lists because the threads are immediately closed, thus preventing them from remaining top of the list through following postings. In fact, there's hardly any announcement being debated any more nowadays, which is a loss for the community.

The War of the Words

Some Researchers had left the site in a huff, setting up blogs where they could use any swear words or racisms that crossed their mind, others left because they felt that a censored site was no longer their 'home'.
But was it really worth leaving the community? The PF itself is no longer widely discussed; as predicted by the editors, its impact goes mainly unnoticed by most of us. However, single words are still being discussed as 'offensive'. Now you could argue that words and the way they're being used is what the PF is all about, and you'd be right. Still, it is sometimes baffling which words are considered to be offensive, and why. Shortly after the Guide Entry about Atheophobia was published, there were complaints about the Entry. People objected to the way Atheophobia was used and interpreted. The complaint was then posted to Editorial Feedback, where more discussion ensued. The reasoning was that:

-phobia' is a common and valid suffix that ALWAYS means 'an irrational fear of', as in arachnophobia which is a paralysing fear of spiders, claustrophobia which is an extreme fear of closed spaces, etc. for agoraphobia, and so on.

It is a medical term for psychological conditions, but is being put forward to mean 'explicit dislike' which is both wrong and inappropriate.

- an h2g2 Researcher

Let's try to get to the roots of this by looking at a word which was thrown into the discussion for means of comparison: homophobia. People who have an agenda with regards to homosexuals6 are generally labelled as homophobes. According to the above definition, this would mean that homophobes are suffering from extreme fear of homosexuals. Unlike claustrophobes, agoraphobes or arachnophobes, homophobes are not generally prone to having panic attacks when merely looking at a picture of a gay or lesbian person. Some unspecific fear may well be the underlying reason for the strong dislike, though. Language isn't stagnant but submitted to constant change, be it in spelling, pronunciation, or meaning. For this reason, it seems somewhat OTT to discuss a neologism (a new word) claiming it 'violates etymological protocol'. New words are constantly finding their way into our everyday-language, and we should treat and accept them accordingly. However, this debate may leave you wondering whether today's atheophobia is tomorrow's filtered swear word.

1Sometimes referred to as PF in this Entry, but otherwise often referred to as 'filther'.2It's not as if this had ever been tolerated before, mind.3The official staff, so called because their user names are italicised.4A term of endearment for h2g2.5At least not to this Researcher's knowledge.6Like Pope Benedict XVI, for instance.

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