The rise of vagueness as a service

Some unspecified number of somewhat new services are offering non-specificity as a user benefit. Or whatever.

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.

Approximating location

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

Twitter recently rolled out a series of design changes for the Twitter.com website. Two of these changes involve the benefit of approximate numbers in place of specific ones.

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.

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.

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