What’s in a White Name? MyBroadband and the Quest for an UnGoogleable South Africanism

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Two of my favourite South African websites, for vastly different reasons, are 2oceansvibe and MyBroadband.

2oceans I enjoy for its gossipy buzz and shamelessly Capetonian outlook on life, and MyBroadband for its topical, vigorously consumerist coverage and discussion of issues in the telecommunication, gaming, and general tech arenas.

Very rarely do these two online universes intersect or collide, and yesterday was just such a day.

That was when 2oceans carried a story headlined “Local Tech News Site, MyBroadband, Asks Users To “Find The White Name” When Registering”, which was all about a security verification measure that contained the following random question:

Please select the white name and surname from this list (example answer: Gerhard Jansen), and provide the answer in the space below: Buhle, Jan, Odwa, Phumza, Siphelele, Bonani, Zuma, Pule, Mandela, Vermeulen, Ncguka

Get the answer right, and you will be admitted to the MyBroadband forums, where you will be able to post and comment and argue and pontificate in the Great New South African tradition.

Can you pass the test?

I admit I stumbled a little at “Buhle”, but I didn’t get much further than that, because my overwhelming reaction to the question, and I actually said these words out loud to myself, was “What the?”

Not only because of the bizarre nature of the quiz – I thought it might even be a trick question, a litmus test of our natural inclination to leap to conclusions – but because you don’t need to have the most finely-tuned antennae to recognise the political and sociological subtext in a challenge that requires you to select a “white name” in order to get past security.

Let us apply the real-life test here. In South Africa today, would you stand at the door of a club and ask people to “select a white name” from a list in order to gain admission? Sooner or later, somebody would call you out and kick up a fuss.

So I tweeted a link to the story, adding “what the?” by way of commentary, and I more or less got back to work.

Then, a little while later, I had a call from Rudolph Muller, the founder and Editor of MyBroadband.

He wanted to give me some context to the subtext, and explain the reasoning behind the random security question, which by now was causing a bit of a hekkie – as in a small gate, or minor scandal – on Twitter.

As I listened to Rudolph, I began to regret posting that tweet, not because I regretted posting it, but because most tweets have the half-life of goldfish-RAM, and are not really meant to be fished out of the fast-moving stream and exposed to the oxygen of a real-life conversation. Still, a word I had never before heard caught my ear, and I was intrigued. “UnGoogleability”.

It turns out that MyBroadband, in common with most community-based websites, has a big problem with spam. So big, said Rudolph, that if left unchecked, more than 90 percent of registrations on the site would be from spammers, the vast majority of them from countries other than South Africa.

MyBroadband claims 1.3-million unique readers a month, so that’s a lot of spammers. To keep them at bay, the site uses a variety of “anti-spam” measures, including IP blocking and verification by e-mail.

But none have proved as effective, says Rudolph, as the posing of a “challenge question”, the answer to which requires at least some working knowledge of South African culture, current affairs, and onomatology. (The study of proper names. I Googled.)

An example of such a question:

Whose hairstyle did not change in 50 years (Just give the name and surname)? John Bishop, Dina Pule, John Smit, Riaan Cruywagen, Charlize Theron, Ruda Landman, Oscar Pistorius, Ryk Neethling

The problem with this question, however, is that the answer is easily Googleable, so it wouldn’t take a human spammer (as opposed to an autobot) too long to crack the code. Hence, MyBroadband has tried tougher questions, such as:

  • Name the blue politician (with Helen Zille as the answer)
  • Name the smallest city (with a few large SA cities and Bloemfontein as the answer)
  • Which is the yellow mobile operator (with MTN as the answer)

But even these have proved to be flimsy, like those cupboards and chairs people place against doors in zombie movies to keep the shuffling hordes out. What has worked, better than anything else, says Rudolph, has been the “Select a Name” question, and yes, they’ve tried “Select the Black Name” as well as “Select the White Name”.

Now clearly, as Rudolph learned yesterday, these are sensitive, potentially troublesome questions to ask on a public forum, and all it takes to turn a technical anti-spam measure into a national issue is one user sending a link or a screengrab to a site like 2oceansvibe, and another user or two tweeting about it.

Why not ask “Select the Afrikaans Name”, instead of “Select the White Name”, you may wonder? Surely that would be slightly less contentious. Well, yes, but the answer would also easily be Googleable, according to the exhaustive tests MyBroadband has conducted.

So this is the point where Rudolph throws up his hands, turns to the crowd, and asks, do you have any better ideas? He’s looking for the Great unGoogleable Question, the question true South Africans will be answer without too much difficulty, and spammers from overseas will not.

Go here to find out more, if you’re interested, and to take part in the quest. You’re going to have to register, of course, but don’t worry, because today’s Challenge Question is:

Unscramble the following letters to get the name of a place where you can buy chicken: adNnos

Bet you can’t Google that.

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