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The rise of vagueness as a service

Mike Elgan | May 12, 2014
An unexpected trend is emerging in technology. Information presented to the user is growing vague. Columnist Mike Elgan explains why.

How much more engagement? And how is engagement defined? Don't worry your pretty little head about it. It's deliberately vague information.

Hiding details

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.

The beta version of the Google Chrome (code-named "Canary") browser is reportedly working on a similar feature for the desktop version of Chrome.

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.

 

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