The rise of vagueness as a service
- 10 May, 2014 21:10
An unexpected new trend is emerging in technology. Information presented to the user is growing vague.
In each new product where vagueness is introduced, exact information is available to the companies providing that information. But increasingly, they're providing the service of converting precise information into vague information.
I'm going tell you why they're doing this. But first, let me give you a few examples.
Over the past 15 years, the technology that tracks the whereabouts of mobile phones -- and their owners -- has improved significantly and now delivers extremely precise results. By combining GPS, cell-tower triangulation and Wi-Fi hotspot location data, location services can often pinpoint not only the building you're in, but also the specific room or office.
Beacon technology, including Apple's iBeacon product, takes location even further, narrowing down where you are to within a few feet. These systems can determine not only that you're at a restaurant, and not only that you're in the front dining room, but also that you're sitting at Table 7.
That's too specific -- way too specific. So now both Foursquare and Facebook are offering location vagueness as a user benefit.
The tech jargon for this feature is "ambient proximity."
The idea is to broadcast not location, but relative distance. My friend Steve doesn't know I'm at Table 7, in the front dining room or even in the restaurant. He knows only that I'm about a half mile from where he is.
Foursquare's "ambient proximity" feature is the main benefit of a new app called Swarm, which the company announced May 1.
Swarm creates a feed of your family and friends based on groups. For example, it can tell you that Steve and Janet are about 500 feet away, and that John, Mary and Jerome are about a mile away.
Swarm is similar to Facebook's Nearby Friends, which also launched recently.
Fudging the numbers
Since the beginning, Twitter displayed the number of Tweets you've sent, the number of people you're following, the number of people who are following you and other information.
Recently, however, it has started rounding these numbers down. For example, Twitter shows me that I've sent 23.8K tweets and have a very similar number -- 23.4K -- of followers.
Even more vague: Twitter now shows tweets in larger type if they've gotten more engagement. It grades on a curve, so "more engagement" means more than your other tweets, not more engagement than other users' tweets.
How much more engagement? And how is engagement defined? Don't worry your pretty little head about it. It's deliberately vague information.
Another trend is hiding the exact URL of the page you're looking at in your browser.
I noticed some time ago that Apple's Safari for iOS browser replaces the actual URL in the address box with just the name of the website. When I'm looking at one of my columns on the Computerworld website using any desktop browser, for example, the URLs I see displayed by the browser are pretty long and tend to contain information like the headline and the page number in the URL itself. Pretty standard.
But using Safari for iOS on my iPad, the address box shows me not the URL, but simply (and vaguely) computerworld.com.
Why vagueness is a user benefit
In every case -- Foursquare, Facebook, Twitter, Safari for iOS and Google Chrome "Canary" -- the companies have access to perfectly specific data and could easily show it to you. But as a service to you, as a user benefit, they're presenting you with vague information in place of specific information.
Why is vagueness a user benefit? Simple: Vagueness is humanizing.
I'll give you an example. People in real life don't say: "Wow! I just spent one-hundred and ninety-seven dollars and forty-two cents at Costco."
They say: "Wow! I just spent a couple hundred bucks at Costco."
People round numbers, guestimate how long things will take and speak in generalities. And they do it on purpose. Vague information is easier to receive and comprehend.
As technology grows more central to our lives, the specificity of information provided by the machines we use becomes a source of nagging stress. Companies are finding small and subtle ways to humanize technology by making the information presented to us vague, rather than specific.
In the cases of Foursquare and Facebook, the idea of broadcasting your exact location feels de-humanizing. But revealing your approximate location feels nice. I'm giving information in a human way: couched in generality, as well as personal relevance.
In the case of Twitter, rounding numbers and separating high-engagement tweets from lower-engagement tweets with size subtly reduces the information overload of the wall of information on a Twitter profile.
The trend toward showing only the basic name of a website, rather than the complete URL, as in Safari for iOS or Google Chrome "Canary," has a security dimension to it. If the address box shows you the whole URL, your eyes are more likely to glaze over and your attention won't focus on it. A URL is a de-humanizing package of information. However, a simple domain can show you at a glance whether you're at a real site or a spoofed or fake one. ("Wait a minute -- this isn't PayPal.com!") Humanizing your Web location through vagueness allows your mind to engage with, and thereby benefit from, the location information presented.
I'm convinced that these examples are only the beginning. I think we'll see a growing and broad effort by technology companies of all kinds to introduce vagueness everywhere they can.
When will vagueness become mainstream? And how far will companies take the trend, exactly? The answers are: Pretty soon and pretty far. If that's too vague for you, you're welcome!
Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. You can contact Mike and learn more about him at http://Google.me/+MikeElgan. You can also see more articles by Mike Elgan on Computerworld.com.
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