The locals had a little fun last year, ’cause Boston drivers often don’t.

Turn Signals, Brake Lights

Alex Feinman


Let me ask:

Do you use your turn signals?

(BMW drivers, that wasn’t a trick question. I see you complaining about the ever-escalating price of Munich-approved blinker fluid.)

If I’m confusing you right now, wikiHow has a helpful explanation.

Most people often use their turn signals, or blinkers, or indicators, whatever you call them.

We use ’em to indicate that they’re changing lanes, or making a turn, or in Ireland to indicate that you’re not really going into oncoming traffic, you’re just going around the slow person.

Turn signals are a little annoying to communicate with — it’s hard to distinguish “I’m turning right at the corner” from “I’m going to back into this parking spot, so please leave room behind me.” But they’re useful enough. Push the lever, the signal tells stuff to drivers around you.

Do you use your brake lights?

Of course you do. You can’t not use them. They come on every time you press on the brake pedal[1].

This doesn’t reduce their utility; in fact, it’s part of it. Brake lights are so incredibly useful they’re required by law, and when truckers couldn’t see them, a third brake light was added just for tall vehicles. They’re a reliable signal of deceleration, making up for a weakness in the human vision system to gauge the sudden change in velocity of an oncoming object.

They save lives, and they do it because they come on every time you brake.

Brake Lights For the Information Age

We think of most of our online interactions as turn-signal interactions.

Thumbs U this. Plus 1 that. Clap At the other thing. Click the Like button. Grumpy-Cat-Face all the things!

The refrain of every YouTube video! Sing it with me!

Subscribe if you love me. Dear God, please subscribe! And comment! And Like!

But as

pointed out that, well, a real problem with social media is that you can’t see people listening.

This is a turn signal problem. Today’s social media is centered around actions which signal things to other people. Some of these signals are ones you choose to emit — turn signals. Others are signals you emit as a result of taking action — brake lights.

Did you Heart the tweet? The author and the general public can see the aggregation of that, and your friends can (sometimes) see that you liked it too.

Retweet it? Same visibility, and now you’re taking an action that used to mean “I want my followers to see this”, but now means something undefinable[2].

These are both turn signals. You take an action expecting to communicate with people around you. What you communicate has gotten a bit vague, but you intended to communicate, and you took action to do so.

Now — did you follow the link in that tweet? Did you expand on the picture? Twitter knows, as does the tweet author if they check the statistics page. But no one else does. Importantly, you can’t follow the link without Twitter knowing — in fact, Twitter goes to great lengths to avoid ‘losing’ this data, obfuscating links in the body of a tweet and sending all links through to capture the outbound traffic[3].

Those are brake light interactions.

Designing For Brake Lights

Brake-light style interactions are already being captured; that’s not the tricky part. The tricky part is using them in a way that works, well, like brake lights. Brake lights are visible to the people who need to see them: the people behind you. The aggregation of brake lights can also be useful to watch from far away, but in general, they’re of the most use to the driver right behind you, and of secondary use to the drivers behind and beside them.

We generally don’t have mechanisms like that online, and when we do, we hide them. Twitter knows damn well what you looked at, but it doesn’t tell everyone.

Me too, puppy, me too. (Imgur)

But let’s think about places where we could use ‘visible listening’ to add that feel of audience.

Imgur, for example, shows a ‘views’ count in a number of places — the picture shows one of them, but it’s also right below the more wide-spread “voting” buttons that are used to rank images.

This is a brake-light interaction: you can’t avoid incrementing the view count and still see the images. But it’s done tastefully, in aggregate, and mostly for informational purposes.

There are also some frustrating brake-light interactions; for example, you might mark an Imgur image as favorite (by “heart”ing it), thinking this is a good way to save it for later. And it is. But it also shows up in your personal gallery, which the whole world can see. This makes a person’s Gallery Favorites a semi-intentional view into some portion of their psyche. Importantly, you can’t ‘privately favorite’ an image; you have to resort to browser bookmarking or some other technique[4] if you want to do that.

Avoiding The Creepy

And this is the general problem: telling everyone about your brake-light interactions is inherently creepy.

See, we have an unwritten rule in our society which goes like this:

Looking Is Free

We don’t expect looking at a thing to change it. This isn’t Schrodinger’s Cat time. You can window-shop all you want[5], looking at every thing in the store, and walk out without a hit to your wallet. You can visually savor the entire delicious menu at Le Château Graisse without gaining a pound of weight. [NB: 6]

We expect things to work this way because it’s how our world has historically worked.

When things aren’t “free to look at”, we rebel. Steal cable from our neighbors. Watch sporting events outside TV stores or local bars. If we’re window-shopping and a store clerk invites us to try on the garment, we’re likely to reflexively parry with “Sorry, just looking.”

But this is absolutely not true online.

Just glance at a pair of shoes in the past decade and they followed you around the web for a week. Clicked through to see what that Twitter image was? Expect to see a LOT of that account’s tweets in the future. In the online world, these are brake-light actions, and they signal.

The problem is who they signal. Because of the unbalanced way the web works, they signal the server you’re connected to[7]. And that’s where we first started to see this used. As soon as web logs became a thing, sites would redesign their layout based on page traffic.

Creepiness factor, plotted against how much data is being used. Okay, it’s just a random graph. I could put anything here.

Then we got finer grained logging and intra-site tracking, which enabled useful things like chained navigation (Amazon’s “customers who viewed this also viewed…”). These were sometimes useful, and moderately creepy.

Then we got cross-site scripted ads, and those were (and are) f’in creepy. Super creep stuff. Those damn shoes following you wherever you go[8].

This month’s creepy was brought to you by Yammer, which my workplace has signed on for. Yammer is basically Newsgroups For the Twenty-First century. It works okay, but…it tells you brake-light stuff.

  • “Joe uploaded shitOnMyTennisShoes.jpg.”
  • “Mary joined the group Fox Fanciers (Reform).”
  • “Barbra edited MyResumeGodINeedANewJob.docx 12 minutes ago.”

Stuff you really didn’t need to know, and really didn’t realize you were broadcasting. Sure, you “should know”, you’re doing it on work computers, IT already knew this stuff, and yet…it feels transgressive, and it kinda is.

The fuuuuutuuuuure

But this is the future: everything is observed, everything is open to aggregation and processing, and software is too often designed by people with a poorly-developed sense of boundaries.

Microsoft has already demonstrated a system to watch workers in real-time, recognize them and what they are doing, and warn or prevent those actions by rule. The video is at once terrifying and heartening, if it were going to be applied to the sort of dangerous, routinized actions shown in the video. But you know that’s not where it’ll go.

Your actions on Facebook and other social media have already binned you into an advertising pigeonhole; they are also helping to delaminate society (intentionally or not), creating self-reinforcing memetic pockets and strengthening bubbles. Credit scores based on who you’re friends with. Elections swayed by inadvertently created run-away positive feedback loops.

We’ve invited this into our homes. Nest built a thermostat that watches your actions and adjustes the temperature accordingly, but there’s nothing[9] to stop them from using this same presence data for other purposes. Echo listens to you ask for lights on, lights off, and whatever else.

And where we’re at is nothing compared to where we’re at, and where we’re going if we don’t turn this hand-basket around. For good or ill, the more of your actions that get observed, the more this is going to happen.

So let’s start thinking about it more. As designers, it’s our job to represent the user: let’s represent them and say, hey. Don’t be creepy. Be useful without it.


[1] Or, if you’ve got a BMW i3, even when you don’t — thanks to the aggressive regenerative braking when you come off the gas pedal, the i3 lights up the brake lights based on the deceleration, rather than brake pedal position.

[2] Something like “I feel that this link is worthy for my followers to see, but don’t just show it to them, that’d be too easy, and also, I mean it in a different way than clicking Heart, which might also mean they see it if some of their other friends also Heart it.”

[3] I detest and all the other ridiculousnesses used to wall-in the various information gardens (alter my clipboard, will you?). Both from an invasiveness perspective, but also as a matter of elegance: if you have a decent JavaScript programmer, you know I clicked on the web element, so why mangle the link too?

[4] Write down the URLs on a piece of paper and stick it to your monitor! Totes makes sense!

[5] A friend reminds me to add: if you’re white. Ouch.

[6] There’s a creepy version of this: “I should be able to look at women all I want to! They shouldn’t mind!” Turns out leering is not the same as looking, and also, this rule is modified when looking at a person. Because people are not things.

[7] And your web browser, but you’ll have to wait for a later article about that.

[8] Or so I’ve been told. My ad blocking suite has kept that stuff out of my sight for more than a decade.

[9] Nothing, other than a privacy policy I’m pretty sure most folks haven’t read.



Alex Feinman

Obligate infovore. All posts made with 100% recycled electrons, sustainably crafted by artisanal artisans. He/him/his.