The Null Device

Social steganography

danah boyd has a new blog post on social steganography, or ways of encoding double meanings in messages one knows will be overheard.
Social steganography is one privacy tactic teens take when engaging in semi-public forums like Facebook. While adults have worked diligently to exclude people through privacy settings, many teenagers have been unable to exclude certain classes of adults – namely their parents – for quite some time. For this reason, they’ve had to develop new techniques to speak to their friends fully aware that their parents are overhearing. Social steganography is one of the most common techniques that teens employ. They do this because they care about privacy, they care about misinterpretation, they care about segmented communications strategies. And they know that technical tools for restricting access don’t trump parental demands to gain access. So they find new ways of getting around limitations. And, in doing so, reconstruct age-old practices.
Often these techniques depend on shared cultural references; the fact that one's peers (typically within one's generation) have a shared vocabulary of song/movie/videogame/TV/&c. references has the convenient side-effect of providing a cryptolect that is all but parent-proof. (Which is why teens, i.e. those living in the totalitarian surveillance state of being a minor, are into ostensibly lame stuff like Justin Bieber and Fall Out Boy; few 'rents, even (or especially) those hip enough to know all about Joy Division and the Velvet Underground and krautrock and britpop and whatever, are going to study up on the latest godawful racket the kids these days are listening to just to be able to decode chatter most of which is going to be fairly inconsequential social administrivia. From which it might follow to say that when nostalgic adults listen to music from their adolescence, they are, knowingly or otherwise, revisiting the paraphernalia of strategies for mitigating a lack of freedom.) Anyway, boyd cites an example:
When Carmen broke up with her boyfriend, she “wasn’t in the happiest state.” The breakup happened while she was on a school trip and her mother was already nervous. Initially, Carmen was going to mark the breakup with lyrics from a song that she had been listening to, but then she realized that the lyrics were quite depressing and worried that if her mom read them, she’d “have a heart attack and think that something is wrong.” She decided not to post the lyrics. Instead, she posted lyrics from Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” This strategy was effective. Her mother wrote her a note saying that she seemed happy which made her laugh. But her closest friends knew that this song appears in the movie when the characters are about to be killed. They reached out to her immediately to see how she was really feeling.
It's debatable whether Monty Python counts as a parent-proof youth-culture reference. I'm guessing that the example story happened somewhere in the US, where Monty Python still has an aura of counterculture about it, and is likely to not be picked up by one's straight-laced 'rents. (Perhaps it happened in a devoutly Christian community, where The Life Of Brian would be virtually punk rock?)

Of course, nowadays Carmen could just have posted the update to Facebook under a filter, excluding her mother from seeing it, and her mother would have been none the wiser. (Unless Facebook has mechanisms preventing minors from hiding content from their parents, which I hadn't heard of.)

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