OMG!!! The end of online stupidity?

Finally, software developers are building a filter that blocks unintelligible comments, writes Fortune's Josh Quittner.

By Josh Quittner, Fortune executive editor

(Fortune Magazine) -- Internet veterans have long complained about the steady erosion of civility -- and worse, intelligence -- in online discourse. Initially the phenomenon seemed to be a seasonal disorder. It occurred every September when freshmen showed up for college and went online. Tasting for the first time the freedom and power of the Internet, the newbies would behave like a bunch of drunken fraternity pledges, filling electronic bulletin boards with puerile remarks until the upperclassmen could whip them into shape.

Things took a dramatic turn for the worse in 1993, when AOL (Charts, Fortune 500) loosed its tens of thousands -- and then millions -- of users onto the Net. The event came to be known as the Endless September, and true to its name, it continues to this day.

Irony and its sneering cousin, sarcasm, can fool the best filter.
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It's a serious problem. Fools and bandwidth hogs have a way of driving traffic away from the most successful online destinations, a phenomenon that could ruin the emerging social networks and user-generated aggregators like Digg.

But there's still hope for intelligent life on the Internet. A team of software developers is hard at work on a "stupid filter" that promises to do to idiotic online comments what a spam filter does to junk and unwanted e-mail: put it in a place where it can't hurt anyone anymore.

That's the mission, anyway, of the cadre of techies toiling under the leadership of Gabriel Ortiz, a 27-year-old systems administrator in Albuquerque. Ortiz's team is readying a free, open-source version they hope to release by year's end and make available as a standard plug-in on the popular Firefox browser by early next year.

How does it work? Say a user wants to post a really, really dumb comment on, for example,, where some of you might be reading this now.

If cnnmoney had the filter installed on its servers, it would intercept the comment just before it was published and flash a little alert at the author that reads: "This comment is more or less unintelligible. Please try to restate it."

The writer would get another crack at it, and another, until at last he was able to muster a few words of intelligence, or in frustration wandered off to inflict those LOL!!!!!s and OMG!!!!s on some more tolerant site.

From a programming standpoint, not to mention a social one, building a piece of software that can separate intellectual wheat from chaff is tricky; it's far more difficult than building a spam filter, says Ortiz. That's because spam filters tend to do relatively simple pattern matching, searching e-mail for words that pop up frequently in junk mail.

Your spam filter sees V*I*A*G*R*A and without rolling its eyes flicks the offending missive into the junk folder, where it can be deleted along with the rest of its filthy brethren.

But thanks in part to irony and its sneering cousin, sarcasm, stupidity is tougher to spot. "Smart people are often ironic," says Ortiz, noting that irony, to a computer anyway, can sound stupid. Writers who are otherwise intelligent will intentionally misspell words or break the ironclad rules of grammar to make a point.

The stupid-filter team is trying to accommodate this behavior with a variety of rules of thumb. For instance, Ortiz, who studied linguistics as an undergrad, recently noticed a pattern in the way some writers use letter repetition. The clueless tend to repeat consonants: "This video is amazinggggg!!!" By comparison, says Ortiz, "when you repeat a vowel, you're being sarcastic -- 'Yeaaaaaah.' We'll be using several different methods to try to mediate this."

The first line of defense is context -- using well-established markers of standard English to judge a piece of writing. For instance, if the rest of the sentences in a comment are grammatical, and difficult words are spelled properly -- Ortiz mentioned "zucchini," which I had to look up -- the message ought to get by the filter. If the rest of the comment is unintelligible, it will be screened.

Perhaps the most interesting -- and ironic -- aspect of the project is the way Ortiz's team is tapping into the wisdom of crowds to debug its filter. They are encouraging readers to visit their site,, where you can help them rate on a scale of one to five a selection of potentially dumb posts culled from -- where else? -- YouTube.

Ortiz has clearly hit a nerve. Offers of help have been rolling in from all over the world ever since the project was unveiled. He thinks there might even be a business in it, since staying current with pop culture and maintaining the corpus of stupidity is more or less a full-time job. To which I'd add, Yeaaaaaah. Top of page