Revealings errors are often most powerful when they reveal the presence of or details about a technology’s designer. One of my favorite
clbuttes classes of revealing errors are those that go one step further and reveal the values of the designers of systems. I’ve touched on these twice before in my post about T9 input systems and when I talked about profanity in wordlists.
Another wonderful example surfaced in this humorous anecdote about what was supposed to be an invisible anti-profanity system that instead filled a website with nonsensical terms like “clbuttic.”
Basically, the script in question tried to look through user input and to swap out instances of profanity with less offensive synonyms. For example, “ass” might become “butt”, “shit” might become “poop” or “feces”, and so on. To work correctly, the script should have looked for instances of profanity between word boundaries — i.e., profanity surrounded on both sides by spaces or punctuation. The script in question did not.
The result was hilarious. Not only was “ass” changed to “butt,” but any word that contained the letters “ass” were transformed as well! The word “classic” was mangled as “clbuttic.”
The mistake was an easy one to make. In fact, other programmers made the same mistake and searches for “clbuttic” turn up thousands of instances of the term on dozens of independent websites. Searching around, one can find references to a mbuttive music quiz, a mbuttive multiplayer online game, references to how the average consumer is a pbutterby, a transit pbuttenger executed by Singapore, Fermin Toro Jimenez (Ambbuttador of Venezuela), the correct way to deal with an buttailant armed with a banana, and much, much more.
You can even find a reference to how Hinckley tried to buttbuttinate Ronald Reagan!
Each error reveals the presence of an anti-profanity script; obviously, no human would accidentally misspell or mistake the words in question in any other situation! In each case, the existence of a designer and an often hidden intermediary is revealed. What’s perhaps more shocking than this error is that fact that most programmers won’t make this mistake when implementing similar systems. On thousands of websites, our posts and messages and interactions are “cleaned-up” and edited without our consent or knowledge. As a matter of routine, our words are silently and invisibly changed by these systems. Few of us, and even fewer of our readers, ever know the difference. While switching “ass” to “butt” may be harmless enough, it’s a stark reminder of the power that technology gives the designers of technical systems to force their own values on their users and to frame — and perhaps to substantively change — the messages that their technologies communicate.