The basics part 1 – Filters

July 3, 2010

So yesterday I was visiting with long lost friends at a frequent watering hole. And the topic of online safety came up yet again. This particular friend was keenly interested in what goes on behind the scenes of an online community. I began to tell her a bit about my favorite topic – kids’ online safety. So much is printed on the subject and yet I still rarely see any information that can help parents understand just what goes on behind the scenes.

Lots of sites and lots of blogs talk about what parents should talk about with their kids. And don’t get me wrong! That is a very important part of ensuring we all help create responsible “netizens” (citizens of the internet) But I rarely see anybody talking about what goes in to making an online community as safe as possible.

So, this article, and for most of the articles in the future, I will focus on different methods, techniques, and policies your online community is doing for you.

So as not to overload you at first, I will focus on the biggies. The below techniques are the most popular methods used to protect community members:

  • Filtering systems and specialized chat functions
  • Live moderation staff
  • Support tools (technology)

First up, filters. There are different types of filters but basically, a filter system’s job is to block certain words or phrases from being sent across a chat room.  The most obvious filter is a basic dirty word filter. The person types a word, hits enter, but a mechanism (called a filter) blocks that word from being seen on the screen. Some filters block the words by showing different characters than the letters, for example, rather than seeing said four-letter word, you might see *****  displayed across your chat screen. Other filters show the word to the sender but it blocks the word from being seen by anybody else in the chatroom.

There are other types of things that a web site might want to block; bad phrases, for example. Or, in the case of children’s games, phone numbers or email addresses may be blocked from view. These filters essentially appear the same to the chatter, however they may require more tech work behind the scenes. Bad phrases may be made up of seeminly innocuous words–the most obvious example is “up yours”.  A community should still be able to say words such as “up” and “yours”, but not strung together. Phone numbers may be blocked by either eliminating the ability to type numbers at all, or only allow a few numbers per line of text. Example: I could type “800” in a line, but would not be able to type 800 555 1212.

Still more filtering may be done. Because clever miscreants may just really really REEEEELY want to use that four letter word, they will try putting spaces or characters between the language. Because, let’s face it, nothing can replace the exhilaration of placing a few choice filthy words when speaking to an invisible audience 😉

Example (*CAUTION! Bad words coming up!), say you’re a nasty mouth and you want to say “fuck” but there is a filter that blocks the word from being said. But you REALLY LOVE that word! I mean, no other word will do. So instead you type:  f.u.c.k. or f*u*c*k  or f    u    c   k. And voila’, you can sleep better knowing that dozens of strangers know about your potty mouth.

In other words, more advanced filtering will need to block out not just letters but spaces between those letters or characters that fall between those letters.

Phew! Exhausting, yes. I know.  And the smarter people get about getting around a filter the smarter technology needs to be to get ahead of the game.

But that’s about all I have for this edition. There are actually other advanced filters being developed, and I will go in to that more next time.

Thanks all, have a great weekend, and let me know if you have questions!

Question-have you ever encountered a frustrating filter?

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