This post contains minor spoilers for Fez, but only if you deliberately decipher them.
Yesterday I asked this question on Twitter:
Fez hint request: Jbhyq vg or jbegu zl gvzr gb gel qrpvcurevat gur jevgvat (abg gur ahzoref) nf n fvzcyr pelcgbtenz? rot13.com
I have asked spoiler-class questions about games, films, or books in this format before, usually to little response. In retrospect, it’s clear that I assumed too much in expecting any friend or follower to see it as anything other than gobbledygook. In yesterday’s tweet, I tried an extra step with appending that URL, and to my delight received several nice replies on Twitter and Facebook — as well as a handful of retweets, which I read as compliments on my chosen encryption method.
Some of my correspondents on Twitter chose to adopt the same encoding. “Anu,” advised one reply. “Pbairefvba vf cerggl enaqbz.”
“V’z gbyq gung gur jevgvat vf n fbeg bs zrgn-chmmyr,” countered another, “fb lrf.”
As suggested by my included URL, these tweets are all encoded in rot13. This is a trivial substitution cipher where each letter in the message is replaced by the letter found 13 places later in the alphabet (cyclically, so that after Z comes A again). Because the alphabet is twice 13 in length, one follows the same steps to decrypt this text back into the clear. Thus, Hello, world! rotates into Uryyb, jbeyq!, and vice-versa.
Unlike many other sorts of encryption, rot13’s goal doesn’t involve preventing unauthorized readers from comprehending the text it affects. Rather, it requires that the reader merely perform an additional, deliberate action to read it. When properly contextualized, an implied contract exists between the ciphertext and its decoded version: the reader who deciphers this text understands its implications — in the case of my tweet, that it may spoil some aspects of the videogame Fez — and is willing to bear any risks therefore attached. In other words, readers who go through the trouble of decoding the text have only themselves to blame if the results make them sad.
The anonymous maintainers of the rot13.com website did not invent rot13; the site simply offers a simple encryption/decryption service at a pleasantly short URL. Decades ago, users of the primordial internet fora known as Usenet made frequent use of it to politely mask text that some people might not wish to read by accident, and popular news-reading software often made rot13 cycling a one-command operation. While some web-based communities, such as the excellent Making Light, continue this tradition when discussing sensitive material, for the most part it’s no longer common practice in core internet channels.
I have missed it. I love discussing games and novels and such with my friends on Twitter and other media, but I dislike how painfully general the public conversation must stay, as we all tiptoe around each others’ spoiler sensitivities even though many of us are eager to dive into details. (And let us not even mention those who can’t help themselves and blurt things out anyway. My own spoiler alarm bell lies on a hair trigger.) Rolling the archaic but by-gar functional tool of rot13 into Twitter seemed a marriage worth attempting: a tweet is only a wee bucket for text, and a rot13 message ain’t nuthin but text.
Mind you, rot13 encoding isn’t the only way to drop public text into a Caveat Lector envelope. For my Fez question, I could just as easily have slapped it into a pastebin somewhere, in which case my tweet would have looked something like this:
Fez hint request: http://pastebin.com/ZjDkn9kG
However, I see several drawbacks here. It’s not clear at a glance what clicking that URL will actually display, especially to those unfamiliar with pastebin.com. (Those who are familiar with it wouldn’t be blamed for not wishing to visit an ad-riddled webpage, while readers who don’t know me personally should probably assume it’s an enticement to crack open some odious spam or worse.) Rot13-encoded text, however, carries by nature the literal size and shape of the text it masks. The meaning of my Fez post is obscured, but its length isn’t, nor is the fact it ends in a question mark. The reader can decrypt the text in confidence that it won’t be anything other than a short question, exactly as advertised.
Furthermore, encrypted text enjoys the same level of permanence as the medium that carries it. Twitter’s public stream is variously archived by individuals and entities small and large, and statements and conversations encrypted in a two-way encoding like rot13 will continue to be readable by anyone for as long as those archives exist, with no reliance on external websites, URL shorteners, or anything of the like. While it doesn’t necessarily matter to me that future generations be able to read my random videogame help requests, I do prefer to keep my communication simple, and letting messages remain entirely self-sufficient seems always a better option to me.
Yes, we must still rely on the presence of a rot13 encode/decode tool, rot13.com or otherwise — I hardly expect Twitter followers to put their stream-scanning on hold to pick up a pencil and manually decipher my masked messages. But they used to be ubiquitous within pre-web internet browsers, and I dare to dream that one they we may see them become a common feature once again.
I would love to see a new tradition of rot13 usage taking root in online discussion media like Twitter. It’s easy to get started — just follow my lead, using a tool like rot13.com to encrypt your most spoilerific text. Open with a brief, unencrypted header in subject-line format to provide the necessary context — “Question about Inception:” or “Half-Blood Prince mini-rant: ” or what have you. Close with a link to rot13.com, just like I did in my Fez tweet, and watch how easy it can be for a good idea to spread.
Image source: CAPL.