Adding “unlisted” and “burner” to the modern lexicon
Words enter our lexicon subtly — so much so that we often don’t even recognize the moment when the axis of comprehension shifts. This phenomenon seems to be accelerating in the mobile era, where widespread adoption of new technologies force people to describe new concepts previously unknown to them.
The rift between digital natives and everyone else has resulted in a kind of technology-induced pidgin language — where technologists and designers draw (often imperfect) analogies to encourage the acceptance of, or desire for, the new thing. This may not necessarily be a bad thing, but what’s lost in translation or oversimplification can also have lasting consequences. Consider this from Scott Hanselman:
For this reason, it’s important to pay attention to the language and metaphors we use when designing paradigm-breaking products.
Additionally, the careful observer may be able to recognize an intentional cultural shift that some new labels imply. As I see it, the rise of “unlisted” publishing and “burner” identities both encourage and symbolize the growing acceptance of non-broadcast (but not private) sharing and the demand for more flexible digital identity options that both warrant deeper consideration.
Clear interface labels vs branded lingo
As a designer, it’s often challenging to choose the right one or two words to describe a complex or new concept.
Sometimes using an existing analogue only confuses things, and a new term is required.
A “tweet” isn’t really just a shorter blog post. A “vine” isn’t just a six second video. A “pin” isn’t just a visual bookmark. And a “snap” isn’t just a disappearing photo message. Mastering each of these formats requires understanding the concept of the medium, the audience and their shared context, and the behavioral norms and expectations of the platform. In these cases, new terminology forces us to examine the subtle variations more closely. That they demand their own names sets them apart from their forebears. In turn, these labels give us canvases on which to paint more colorful and accurate depictions.
But inventing new terms — to be innovative or to “own” a behavior — can backfire, especially when the new term is merely gratuitous.
My favorite examples come from Google+ (go figure). In one case, Google argued that Google+ Circles brought “nuance” to social networking, even though Facebook already offered friend lists. This branded language confused new users —and made it harder for Google+ evangelists to familiarize users coming from Facebook with the network:
In addition, Google+ introduced the +1 button, its native Like button. Non-technical users couldn’t intuit what the button was for, and from an interface perspective, coming up with clear labels for the resting and clicked states proved challenging— how do you write “+1” in the past tense? Worse, how do you translate it into other 48 other languages??
The impulse to brand verbs and object types can make sense, especially when there’s something inherently different about your approach. Being overly gratuitous or clever, however, harms your product and confuses users. Good user interface design clarifies and simplifies — and serves the user, not the marketing department. Therefore, the words we choose are important — and may determine whether a concept lands or falls flat.
On closer inspection, the terms we choose also reveal our intentions, as their existing connotations help align the user’s reaction with our goals. It’s not exactly mind control, but it’s not far off either.
The rise of “unlisted” content
My first personal experience with “unlisted” content online was likely on YouTube. Making a video unlisted means that only people who have the link to the video can view it. It also means that the content won’t be broadcast to followers, or appear on the creator’s public profile. This is known as security through obscurity since the video isn’t secret, it’s just hard to find. An unlisted video can be viewed without requiring authentication.
Services seem to offer “unlisted” publishing to simplify sharing while providing more flexibility. It’s a pragmatic solution to address the challenge that what people think they want (i.e. 100% secrecy and control) isn’t in practice what they’re willing to put up with. It comes down to behavioral economics: if the value of keeping something secret is less than the frustration caused by maintaining its secrecy, people will route around the system designed to keep the thing secret.
Flickr offers Guest Passes. Dropbox allows you to share files and folder with non-Dropbox users, as does Google Drive. Vimeo allows paying users to “hide [a] video from Vimeo.com” (while still publishing the video to the web). And so on.
Medium is the latest service to offer unlisted publishing:
Unlisted stories won’t be on your Medium profile page, appear in the notifications, emails, or on the homepage of your followers, or be discoverable in search.
These examples point to increased demand for unlisted publishing, even though the concept isn’t new. In fact, unlisted phone numbers were offered in the whitepages years ago, and is still a feature phone companies offer. Of course, now the motivation is to make it easier for individuals to share content without broadcasting it, whereas the previous intention was to restrict ready access to public information.
The rise of “burner” digital identities
My friend Greg Cohn recently reached out to me to ask if I’d post Burner 3.0 to Product Hunt. I’d only used the app once before to talk to someone I met on Secret (before Secret v11 launched with in-app chat), so it hadn’t really stayed top of mind, even with the rise of anonymous and anonymish chat apps. Furthermore, like most people, “burner” connoted cheap, prepaid, disposable phones used by drug dealers to evade surveillance to me. Of course, I blame The Wire for this:
But this is a facile read of what a “burner” actually is (and I’m not talking about those of us who go to TTITD).
It’s not the phone that the drug dealers care about — it’s the repudiability. A burner essentially makes fungible the association between an attribute (like a phone number) and an individual. This is important. Whereas a social security number is used as a lifelong attribute (and is therefore not fungible), a phone number is useful as an identifier only as long as the owner chooses to keep it. Once the number has served its owner’s purpose, it can be recycled back into the pool of available numbers without being traceable to the former owner.
As it turns out, this kind of flexible, mobile-centric, disposable identity is incredibly useful, and not just for drug dealers. As Ben Popper of The Verge writes:
The inspiration behind Burner was to make identity on your phone as flexible as it is on the web. “With the internet, people have become accustomed to having multiple names, pseudonymous characters, and multiple points of contact they can distribute and eliminate as needed,” says Cohn. “But with phones most people are still stuck with this monolithic number they need to use for work, family, and recreation. It doesn’t make any sense.”
So what we take for granted on the web is changing our expectations of mobile identity (even as TouchID directly contradicts this trend). And yet, on the flipside, I recently noticed that Kinja has adopted the “burner” nomenclature for anonymous commenting on its site— the first example I’ve seen of this language being used on the web:
Although I’ve not seen widespread of this language on other authentication screens, the proliferation of mobile usage suggests that it could replace a term like “anonymous” which is increasingly associated with the notorious hacker group. Now a site can offer “burner accounts” to support anonymous participation alongside more strongly authenticated users. And, to increase trust, the burden of account maintenance is shifted to the user:
…if you lose the burner key initially issued we will not be able to retrieve this information for you or reset the account. Save your key! Everything about a burner account is yours to control — which means no old-fashioned passwords stored on-site.
This is a major shift away from the conventional model where sites store passwords (and many users rely on the “Forgot password” flow to access their account). In the case of a burner account, there is no recovery mechanism, and so even if the host site is hacked, there’s no way to trace a burner account back to its owner. For some, this may result in significant inconvenience, but for others, the peace of mind will be welcome.
Why these terms are important
What difference does it make if unlisted and burner are added to the modern lexicon?
I believe they’re important because of their relationship to user conceptions of privacy and digital identity. Both suggest that users are developing more sophisticated habits in sharing content via the web (rather than emailing attachments or sending via SMS) and in managing their identity footprint(s) through disposable or temporary identifiers. People are looking for easier and more flexible ways to share information and to connect, and are either removing boundaries to the intended audience(s), or adding new barriers against being associated with personal identifiers.
As these new terms subconsciously take root in people’s minds, product designers can deploy more appropriate solutions without being held back by confusing technical jargon. Instead, they can increasingly rely on phrases like “unlisted video” or “burner account” as replaces for once complex descriptions. And in the hands of talented designers, the benefits of these features can be brought to a broader range of people.