Scott Wahle describes the "secret" language known as L33t5p34k, and gets it all wrong. Is it just shoddy reporting or a case of technical incompetence?...

April 14, 2006

4 Min Read
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Scott Wahle describes the "secret" language known as L33t5p34k, and gets it all wrong.Is it just shoddy reporting or a case of technical incompetence? I'm going to say both.

Mainstream news media outlets are balancing precariously between the need to report on technology whilst maintaining traditional requirements for its profession. Scott Wahle's report on "leetspeak" is a beautiful example of how these needs clash, usually to the detriment of the truth. Scott writes in his article that Leetspeak, the secret code of numbers and letters, is changing and Internet safety experts want to warn parents about it.

Scott! Wake up! First of all, it's 1337, not leet, which is a shortened form of "elite", taken from the hacker jargon of the 80's and 90's and which means exactly what it implies: eliteness, greatness, the highest of all ranks.

Second of all, 1337 is a cipher. In fact, it's one of the simplest, and yet difficult, ciphers in existence. 1337 is essentially a replacement cipher, exchanging numbers and symbols for traditional alphabetic characters. That's fairly simple to understand. The problem is that there are multiple variations on that theme, and given the nearly anarchic nature of hackers in the first place, it's not always a given that two 1337 h4x0rs will use exactly the same replacement cipher.

Scott implies that TLAs and common abbreviations, i.e. BRB, TTYL, L8R, AFK, etc... are 1337. Nothing could be further from the truth. They are what they are - abbreviations and acronyms used since the early days of BBS' that found their way into more common usage during the early reign of Compuserve and AOL. A language all its own that has come into favor with youth today, most likely because it's easier to type "ROTFL" as a text message on a cellular phone than it is "Rolling on the floor laughing." And in some cases, less expensive, as well. 1337 is more likely to found on #hack than it is on an AOL chat or IM session. And if you don't know where to find #hack, Scott, you really need to stop reporting on tech issues.Scott's article is nothing more than technical drivel. It's blatantly incorrect and violates the very tenets of journalism, primary amongst which should be to report the truth. But mainstream news media requires that those who would report the news be first and foremost journalists. Whether they are technically competent or not is obviously irrelevant. I can only imagine what might happen if you sent Scott Wahle an e-mail in ROT13. He'd probably report it as the discovery of a brand new language.

Mainstream news outlets need to make more of an effort to insure that those who report on technology issues are competent not only in those areas traditionally required, but technically as well. Or at least have someone who isn't 404 to give content the thumbs up - or down - before it's loosed on the unsuspecting world.

If anything, this just vindicates the Network Computing philosophy of employing honest-to-goodness IT folks and a bevy of traditional editors to make certain you can read what we write. Sure, our copy may not start out sounding so great, but it's a sure bet that it's technically sound. And even knowing that, we still require a technical peer review before we'll let you see the end result. That is something that the mainstream news media hasn't figured out would be a benefit to their editorial process and might insure that they don't become the laughingstock of the Internet by publishing erroneous, ill-researched articles on technical matters like Scott's.

This issue certainly isn't earthshaking, but it's indicative of the growing lack of credibility re: technical matters in the mainstream media. This particular report is likely the primary source for thousands of parents who are even now nervously trying to learn this mysterious "leetspeak" that Wahle references. And though the article raised awareness of the seedy underside of teenage electronic communication, it did so at the expense of truth and accuracy. That's just not acceptable and should be treated with as much respect as reports of aliens dining at the White House in a grocery store tabloid. As technology becomes more pervasive, reporters like Scott Wahle have an obligation to inform and educate the public - accurately.

Would it have been so difficult to Google 1337 and get its history right? Would it have been so difficult to reference accurately the TLA-based language of today's youth? Crikey, all you had to do was hit the Wikipedia entry.Scott, you've been p0wned.

Lemme know if you figure out what that means. But don't worry, I won't hold my breath.

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