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2 September 2023

Algospeak is driving us mad

Young people use code words like “seggs” to evade social media’s content filters, while still being bombarded with violent and explicit imagery online.

By Marie Le Conte

There are moments when being online makes you feel insane. I had one of those recently, scrolling down my Instagram time line. There was a picture of a stripper wearing a jaunty little pink thong, vertiginous plastic heels and kneeling by a pole. That part was normal; I have a rich and varied social life. There’s often a lot of skin on my social media.

The madness-inducing cognitive dissonance came from the caption, in which it was explained that the dancer in question loved embracing her “seggsuality”. It made me want to throw my phone at the wall. Here was about 90 per cent of a woman’s arse, out for all to see, yet the account felt unable to spell out a word that describes a fundamental part of adult human life.

Strip clubs are places where you can look but you cannot touch, and the internet is fast becoming a space where you can ogle but cannot spell. If “seggs” made your teeth itch, then I can only apologise for introducing you to “corn” (porn), “le dollar bean” (lesbian), “mascara” (penis) and “unalive” (suicide).

The last word here may feel like the odd one out, but it isn’t. They’re all “algospeak”; lingo developed to evade the algorithmic content filters now used by social media platforms. We’re all products of sex and we’ll all die one day but apparently we’re not allowed to talk about either.

Well, it isn’t clear what we’re allowed to talk about. Many of those phrases originated on TikTok but TikTok says it does not ban or penalise sensitive content. Do we trust it? Apparently the teens do not. Other moderation policies are equally as opaque. It isn’t always clear what they will and will not allow, so content creators self-censor just in case, as do the ones who follow them.

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[See also: The real cause of generational warfare]

Because the internet devours all in its path, the dorky euphemisms are now being adopted by actual adults, as well as Twitter users, even though Twitter couldn’t care less what users say or how they say it. It would be an absurd state of affairs at the best of times: stopping to think about what else happens online is enough to make you want to head for the hills, never to return.

The modern internet is a place where tits and gore are unavoidable. Graphic, often brutal porn is both free and abundant. There are forums and corners of platforms where users compete over who can eat the least and die the quickest. If sex and death are what motivate you, the algorithms will make sure that they are all you see. You can peer over the rabbit hole, out of curiosity, and they will pull you straight in.

Still, what you see cannot be typed. Were you sexually assaulted because your boyfriend watches too much online porn and the ensuing trauma is making you contemplate suicide? Sure, just explain to your peers that he wrongly used his mascara because of his corn use and now you want to unalive yourself. Anything to avoid a three-day ban, right?

The words we use to describe our experiences are important because they, in turn, get to shape how we deal with those experiences. Teenagers and young adults, whose personalities are still being moulded, should be able to talk about their lives without worrying about the algorithmic panopticon.

The online world we have built for them is both incredibly coarse and deeply puritan. It is hard to think of a combination of traits that is worse. There is little doubt that having access to both violent and explicit content from childhood isn’t good for the soul, but we ought to wonder what happens when you are taught at a formative age that your words aren’t really yours.

We wonder why statistics on youth anxiety currently look like the first half of a rollercoaster, but it shouldn’t really be a surprise. If you consider the internet to be your home, yet know that you are only a misused word away from losing access to it, madness surely ensues.

That the decisions are usually taken by a mix of AI and underpaid, mistreated workers somewhere far away also feels ominous, though perhaps that is the point. If you cannot make sense of the rules, you are more likely to be especially careful, and alter your behaviour before anyone even tells you to.

Much has been made recently of threats to free speech driven by online culture, yet this aspect of it is rarely discussed. If we are to be irate at the fact that certain topics are now beyond the pale, shouldn’t we worry that even words can no longer be typed without repercussions? In short: shouldn’t we just be able to talk about sex, baby?

[See also: The age of digital outrage]

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