Purposeful Obscuring of InformationPosted: October 29, 2013
This post isn’t inspired by one of our blog questions, but is just something I’ve been thinking about on my own. This blog seemed like the most relevant place to share it!
In our iSchool classes, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about navigating information, designing information so that it is easily found and used, and so on. But in my personal life, I’ve observed that many people also set out to purposely obscure information. I’ve definitely done this myself! The filing system on my computer isn’t very logical – I don’t want anyone else to be able to go through my things so easily. It’s comparable to being able to locate all my things in what seems to be an unorganized room, and doing so purposefully to make things harder to find.
The main example I want to talk about is tumblr, and how it has developed a culture of information obscuring, if I may call it that. Until recently, the easiest way to navigate tumblr was through its tagging system. Said tagging system involved a number of peculiarities: a post would only show up on the tag pages for the first five tags attached to it; tags which used symbols could not be searched/sorted; lengthy tags could not be searched; and some others I am probably not familiar with.
People on tumblr began using these aspects of the system to obscure their blog posts. If they wanted to have certain tags function within their blog but not the entire website, they’d be sure to use unique tags which they assume no one would search for (‘cattts’ instead of ‘cats’) or use five nonsense tags before their real tags. For some users, this granted them a false sense of privacy despite the public nature of the website (unless a blog is password locked or a blank layout created, it is entirely accessible to the public – basically, tumblr has few effective privacy features and no real filters). People who already read and know a blog see its tags and may learn to navigate them, but the whole of tumblr is unlikely to find or understand this information. Some users therefore assumed they had successfully ‘obscured’ their information or attained some degree of privacy.
Earlier this week, tumblr’s staff effectively broke these techniques by implementing a ‘search’ function which ignores the previous tagging systems rules. All tags can be picked up by searches, and searches will pick up more than exact phrases (searching for ‘cat’ will also get you ‘cattts’ as well as ‘catastrophe’ and ‘cat/’). In short, previous methods of having a personally usable tag system that is mostly hidden from the public are now ineffective because of the search system.
If you are not familiar with tumblr, you might be somewhat confused. I don’t blame you – it’s a bit of a strange situation! But as someone who has been on tumblr for over two years and seen a culture of information obscuring grow and evolve, I find it interesting! We are in a time when so much of our information is effectively public, especially online, so I think it’s only natural that people will attempt to obscure data or create systems which are purposefully obscured or difficult for those not “in the know” to use. So far reactions from tumblr communities seem mostly irritated, frustrated, or indifferent. I personally have yet to see much discuss or implementation of new systems of obscuring, but I’m sure it’s happening or will happen soon.