Postcard from Scunthorpe

Many, many years ago in the UK, AOL was king. The acronym stood for "America On-Line", and it was a very popular way of accessing discussion forums, bulletin boards and other content, a lot of which was hosted overseas. You had to dial up of course - yes, it was that long ago!

Like most similar systems, it didn't take long for them to realise that profanity was creeping into online conversations. As a lot of the participants were quite young, parents and other adults started to have problems with the language being used. So, the concept of a profanity filter was born.

Not that this was a new idea, one of the computer sites that I worked at before this had it's own built-in filter that served a similar purpose, and was applied to passwords! That one had a "stop list" which was carefully hidden away from prying eyes, but it included a lot of different names for God - the system admin being very religious.

From what I recall, the AOL filter didn't concentrate on God, it was more prosaic. The usual four or more letter words weren't going to be permitted in disucssion forums, and it seemed to work fairly well. Only fairly well, it didn't take long for creative solutions to appear - innocuous words used in a specific context where an alternate meaning was clear. But it did a pretty good job of keeping the peace.

Except for the inhabitants of one northern UK town. One day the filter was applied more broadly, and they found that they couldn't login, or create new accounts because of their home address.

Where was this pornographic town? Scunthorpe.

The filter did get fixed, but in the UK AOL was a laughing stock for a while.


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