Purposeful Obscuring of Information

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.

Questions/comments/concerns?

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3 Comments on “Purposeful Obscuring of Information”

  1. taniagamage says:

    I really enjoyed reading this reflection, thank-you for sharing this insight with other iSchool’ers!
    I agree that many people go out of their way to obscure information, and you cited the example of your own methodology behind you computer filing system. From my own relationships with people whom I consider to be fairly information literate, there is a huge concern and awareness of maintaining personal privacy in terms of information they choose to share on the web, especially through social networking. I was thinking the other day how funny it is that we as MI students are interested in studying information, but refuse to actively provide our own data despite the benefits to our own profession!
    Recently, I was a participant in a research study on Facebook’s “like” button, where the interviewer asked me questions about my attitudes to information sharing in general. I candidly admitted that I have purposely changed my location setting on Google to Red Deer, Alberta (!) because I feel uncomfortable disclosing my area of residency due to the information collecting and aggregating this would result in, even though the purpose of disclosing my location would only benefit my ease of use with Google.
    And then I wonder why the ads and information presented to me through media are often a far stretch from who I am and what interests me! Does that mean that we ourselves are perpetuating a false sense of our world?

    • olauren says:

      Thanks for your comment! Everything you bring up is really relevant. I too use various aliases and apps to prevent companies such as Google from accessing too much of my information, but have never before thought about it in relation to my own goals as an MI student. I’m not sure if I would consider it perpetrating a false sense of the world – to me it seems a lot like protecting privacy. Although I’m sure some companies feel that information is crucial to their marketing, I still feel that people have the right to protect their personal information and not have it harvested unless they agree to that. Just today in Keren Dali’s Intro to Reference class we are discussing ethics and information, and some of our readings included the ethics of librarianship with regards to teaching the public how to protect themselves and their information.

      I also have started thinking about how we have many different ways of obscuring our information. Sometimes we don’t provide, sometimes we provide false information. I have also observed people on some websites provide an overload of unnecessary information to make it more difficult to find that which is important or would identify them. For instance, I have seen some people sometimes mention personal or identifying information on microblogging platforms, but overall their blogs are filled with thousands of small posts about random things. As a human being, I find this overload of information equally as difficult to sift through. Though I’m sure for a computer, that might not be a challenge.

      Lots to think about!

  2. […] olauren. (2013, October 29).  Purposeful obscuring of information. [Weblog post]. Sumus Miri.  Retrieved from https://sumusmiri.wordpress.com/2013/10/29/purposeful-obscuring-of-information/ […]


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