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Trigger Words and Censorship And Book Titles and Such

A book by any other name doesn’t necessarily smell as sweet. Or sell as well. Or sell as poorly. How much does a title matter on a blog post? On a movie? With that being so, I’m interested in the impact of the title shown here, on Bob Sutton’s extremely successful latest book. It’s an excellent book, by a well-liked and respected Stanford business school professor who’s written a number of important business books. It’s had a lot of impact too, as in buzz, reviews, commentary; and lots of published praise. It won a Quill Award for the best business book of 2007.

But the title puts me in a bind. Think about spiders, Web crawlers, quirky little programs that run around the Web scanning for words in the html code, and blacklisting sites that have those words. This is how the spam filter functions. What if you want to email a friend recommending this book. The spam filter says no.

There is no due process for Internet blacklists. Google “Internet blacklist” and you’ll find 17,600 items, most of them caught in the net and flailing desperately to get out. Get blacklisted on AOL, for example, and you’re cut off for a long time. You can’t email anybody with an AOL address. Try doing business like that. No due process means in extreme cases it’s one bad word combined with a word filter and, context be damned, you’re out in the cold.

For a moment let’s give the spam filters and Web crawlers and the like a break. Do you think they enjoy spending all day every day scanning for so-called “bad” words? Thankless job, but there is so much junk to be filtered … do we have to ask them to actually read and discriminate in context, now, so we can talk about a great book with a trigger title? We’re dealing with code here, and algorithms, and word screening. Don’t ask those program routines to evaluate context.

Earlier this evening I posted Do You Want to Fire Your Client on Up and Running. It’s about a common problem. Guy Kawasaki posted Is Your Client A Certified Orifice, which links to the Client from Hell Exam and Bob Sutton’s post on his blog about how to fire a bad client. I came up with my own story on dealing with bad clients; but that’s not the point of this post.

I wrote around that trigger word in the title. Guy called them “orifices.” As I’m doing with this post, I showed a graphic of the title, and I hope that keeps me safe.

Bob Sutton, meanwhile, has a two-part post on Huffington Post that is both hilarious and chilling. He titles it Title Tales: Weird Censorship.  And it makes me feel small for not just using the title, like the Huffington Post does, and The New Yorker, and Time magazine, and several others. He has a list of 13 responses, from “we like the book but are afraid to say anything about it” to “repeat the word over and over again because listeners would enjoy it.” Unfortunately, his list makes me fill silly for making a point of it.  His post in Huffington isn’t the only one around; he’s had several thoughtful posts on this issue, one from Publisher’s Weekly that goes into court ramifications. It’s a real issue.

It bothers me, however, to call euphemisms for specific screen words censorship. Fear of spam-filter and word screening problems is not the same as wanting to keep thoughts or ideas or information away from people. I’m not really saving you from the word a**hole by putting asterisks in, and we both know it. Spam filters have a real problem to solve, and word screening helps.

Still, this is one of my longer posts, and it’s related to that other post. So it obviously bothers me. Fear of blacklists. And I can’t help but wonder, is the attention-grabbing title good for sales? Would the book have been better off with a different title? I don’t know. I’m just asking.

Somewhere in this discussion is the question of whether or not the language is worth the drawbacks. There is no asterisk-filled public dialog or bleeped out video as profane as fourth grade boys on the school playground. So why bother? If you need authentic dialog for your screenplay, then I get it, because that’s the way some people talk. But in the printed word, and especially the filtered and word-screened words, using another word instead is not such a bad thing. I think.


  • Kelly says:

    Brilliant P.S.: TypePad's antispam filter has flagged that comment of mine as potential spam.

    And I didn't even say anything!

    : )


  • Josh Cochrane says:

    Tim, this reminds me of a related issue we ran into yesterday, less profane but no less problematic.

    Chelle recommended a new video sharing site she called "vee-mee-oh." We were in a meeting, so no spelling was involved. I entered my best guess — — into my browser and got a site promoting the "micro mini thong bikini." Add that one to Great Moments in Meeting History.

    It turns out the video site is, though it could just as easily have been VmeO or veemeeoh or half a dozen other variants.

    In the quest for company and product names that make unique keywords online, businesses are increasingly failing on the basic requirement of making their domains verbally communicable.

    In fact, misbehavior here has become almost hip, with companies embracing willful obfuscation in names like and mixxstr. (And does anyone remember, without Googling, where the dots are supposed to go in

    As a marketer, I'm certainly aware of the difficulty of finding unique space to stake out online — and of promoting a plain-English-titled product like, in our case, "Business Plan Pro" that faces a lot of keyword competition. But I don't think ambiguous nonsense words or aggressive misspellings offer a reasonable solution.

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