Misspelling Generator

… exploring corrective info-culture regimes and censorship circumvention …

In general, a search engine is presented as an objective tool, although it is its underlying code which defines the possible outcomes.

An integral part of a search engine is the spelling control which suggests alternative words if it suspects that you have misspelled your search terms, prompting “Did you mean:”. However, since the early days of Usenet, misspellings have been used as a way to overcome censorship. By ignoring the suggested corrections, the misspellings can be a gateway to an alternative world.

When doing a search in the Chinese version of Google on the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Linda Hilfling discovered a temporary loophole out of the Google self-censorship in China. By deliberately spelling Tiananmen incorrectly, she was taken to web-pages where other people had misspelled Tiananmen, and was thereby able to access pictures of demonstrations as well as the legendary image of the student in front of the tank through the sources of incorrect spellings. (( For an example of Google’s censorship, have a look at the now famous image from the New York Times, comparing search results for Tiananmen in Google.cn and Google.com. ))

An act of accidental activism – by writing variations like ‘tianamen’ and ‘tiananman’ the isolation politics of the Google spelling corrector was subverted and the Google’ selfcensorship circumvented.

For Impakt, based on a concept of, and together with Linda Hilfling, I made the Misspelling Generator. The Misspelling Generator is a Firefox extension which suggests misspellings for your Google queries – similar to Google’s “Did you mean:”.

Misspelling Generator 0.9 is a Firefox extension intervening within the Google search engine allowing you to search for misspelled deviations of a given search query. The Misspelling Generator is useful for creating simple cryptography, circumventing specific cases of censorship or in general as a means of accessing the ‘grey’ side of the internet, which otherwise is isolated by rigid structures of ‘corrective’ info-culture regimes of search engines like Google.

Whenever the extension is enabled, each query typed in the Google search box will generate misspellings, then queries Google for each of these misspellings, and finally ranks them by number of returns. This all happens in the background – as a user, you will not notice it. Once the extension has done all deviations of the query (typically after 1 to 4 seconds, depending on the length of the query), it will insert the misspellings above the normal Google results – similar to Google’s “Did you mean:”, but now with “Have you tried:” instead. When hovering the mouse over the links, you can see the numbers of search results for each misspelling. Clicking the link will redirect you to the Google page with the results for that specific misspelling.

Although the Misspelling Generator might not be the most effective tool to evade censorship – after all it does multiple queries for possibly sensitive keywords which might ultimately get you jailed, it is useful in spreading awareness about the subject, just as the OpenNet initiative’s comparison between google.com and google.cn.

Through the preference pane the Misspelling Generator extension allows one to define custom mappings and misspellings. Thus it can also be used for simple cryptography. Mappings can be circulated to evade keyword filtering for e.g. copyrighted content as well.

You can download the Misspelling Generator at http://www.misspelling-generator.org/.

The project has been presented and exhibited at

  • Society of the Query Conference, Amsterdam, 14 November 2009.
  • Netherlands Media Art Institute, Montevideo/Time-based Arts, Amsterdam, November 2008 – January 2009.
  • International Design Biennial, Paris, 15-30 November 2008. Winner of Young Design Award!
  • Impakt festival, Utrecht, 2008.