PACS news / July 15, 2021

“I, Obscura,” a dark pattern zine launched from Stanford and UCLA

With the support of UCLA’s Center for Critical Internet Inquiry and in partnership with Stanford’s Digital Civil Society Lab, researchers from several organizations engaged students by exploring examples of dark patterns and developed a beautifully illustrated zine as an educational resource. This is one step toward a larger goal of bringing together a community of students, fellows, mentors, and faculty to expand the current definition of the most harmful deceptive patterns.

“I, Obscura“, a dark pattern zine created through collaboration between UCLA’s Center for Critical Internet Inquiry and Stanford’s Computer Science Course “Bridging Policy and Technology Through Design,” has been launched and made available to the public. 

The zine features manipulative patterns that companies use to trick unsuspecting users into doing what they want. It includes nine case studies, ranging from hidden cancellation fees and online games purchases to subtle forms of advertising creating user deception. For each case, they provided a context, defined a pattern with an illustration, and explained the direct harms to people. 

In the words of the Zine creators–Stephanie T. Nguyen, a designer and public interest technologist, and Jasmine E. McNealy, Associate professor at the Department of Telecommunication, University of Florida: “’I, Obscura’ hopes to illuminate dark design patterns by telling stories. A compilation of case studies, this zine offers readers a set of dark pattern examples, along with possible design and policy solutions. These examples assist with demystifying deceptive design of the possible harms to individuals, and to prompt policymakers to action,” they conclude. 

McNealy and Nguyen worked with the team of researchers and students from Stanford PACS’s Digital Civil Society Lab and UCLA’s Center for Critical Inquiry to collect, describe, and illustrate case studies for this zine. Stanford’s DCSL director Lucy Bernholz says that “the zine itself – and the practices that went into creating it – will be great pedagogical resources for studying dark patterns.” 

The goal is to highlight, educate, and engage practitioners and researchers on these patterns in industries ranging from financial services and smart home devices to related children’s technologies. At Stanford, they’ll also pilot an academic seminar on deceptive designs, centered around tangible technological or policy-informing outputs, where students can apply their research, technical, design, and policy skills. They intend to bring together a community of students, fellows, mentors, and faculty to compile a series of case study examples to expand the current definition of the most harmful deceptive patterns in industries beyond social media and retail companies. The syllabus from the seminar will also be shared publicly. “I, Obscura” is available for free here.

A rich text format (RTF) of the zine is available for download here. The PDF is available for download below.