Do you want to know a secret? Social steganography

Paul Raven @ 09-02-2011

Blah blah blah, the intertubes are eroding literacy, kids these days have poor communication skills, blah. Well, if we keep measuring those skills using old metrics, it’s bound to look that way… but kids (a definition that in this instance I’d consider expanding to “web natives”, a demographic that can extend into the younger end of Gen-X, if not further) are actually very sophisticated communicators, primarily because they’re adapting fast to the fact that a lot of their personal communication occurs in publicly-accessible spaces like Facebook. When your mum (or your boss) can be keeping an eye on your wall (or your Twitter stream), you sometimes have to code your updates so that they’re only comprehensible to their intended recipients. And what better an encryption key than your shared cultural references?

Posting lyrics to communicate your mood is one of the most common social steganographic tricks, because teens are fluent in pop culture in a way their parents aren’t. What teenagers are doing reminds me of Washington’s “dog whistle” politics, in which politicians deliver speeches that sound bland but are laden with meaning aimed at their base. For instance, Republican kingmaker Lee Atwater used to advise candidates to use phrases like “states’ rights” and “forced busing” to incite racial fears among white voters without actually using offensive language.

Obviously, one could regard the emergence of youth steganography as yet more depressing evidence of how dangerously overcomplex the web has made teens’ lives. But frankly, I’m kind of awed by the rhetorical sophistication of today’s teens. They are basically required to live in public (you try maintaining friendships without an online presence), but they crave some privacy, too. So they’ve taught themselves to hack language. They hack systems, as well: [Danah] Boyd has also found teenagers who “deactivate” their Facebook account when they log off so nobody can see their stuff or post comments. Then they “reactivate” it when they want to go back online and interact with friends. Presto: They create a virtual club where they control the operating hours. Color me impressed.

I’m tempted to see this as a reappropriation of a (virtual) social space by a generation that increasingly has little access to (physical) social space, though that’s doubtless either an oversimplification of the case or a fractional component of what’s actually happening.

But I think the important thing here is that young people will always find a way to do what young people have always done: distance themselves from the adult-mediated social sphere that they feel oppresses them (c’mon, every kid feels that way, even if it isn’t necessarily true), and create a new space to populate with their own argot, their own ideas and values. Of course, if you’ve always felt intimidated by kids and their weird ways, that’ll be cold comfort… but to me it’s a clear sign that we’re not losing anything essential about our human-ness to the web, we’re just finding new ways to enact it.


Destroying the chrysalis of your online childhood

Paul Raven @ 19-08-2010

Google CEO Eric Schmidt has suggested that in the near future every person might be entitled to change their name on reaching adulthood, in order that they can live unhindered by the online record of their youthful indiscretions. Now, Eric Schmidt is almost certainly a much smarter man than I am… but that idea is clearly batshit nuts, especially coming from a Google bigwig.

I mean, think about it – most people use pseudonyms and handles online as it is. How many names and identities will you be allowed to abandon? One? Some? All? And as the vigilante efforts of Anonymous prove time and time again, even folk making a big effort to conceal their identity can have it exposed against their will. If Schmidt is implying (as he seems to be – it’s hard to tell from such a throwaway comment, to be fair) that the digital record would remain after this identity disconnection, how exactly would you prevent people from doing a combination of internet sleuthing and good old-fashioned meatspace gumshoe work in order to connect xCrazyLarry1989x to Lawrence Michaels, aspiring tort lawyer and gubernatorial candidate for his local Chamber of Commerce?

Given the way web technology keeps advancing, it may not even be much of an effort. Hell, Google itself offers a neat little app called Goggles that can identify famous faces and objects by comparing them to archived images on the web (as for values of ‘famous’, John Scalzi is apparently famous enough for this to work); given the sheer number of photos on the Facebook profiles of most young people, how are you going to prevent someone using this sort of image search and linking your newly-renamed Adult Person to the child they were?

Simple answer: you’re not. If what Schmidt actually means is that there’ll be some sort of legally-enshrined disconnect between an adult and their behaviour before adulthood, then maybe it’s not quite such a crazy suggestion… but it’s still pretty crazy. Personally, I tend to agree with Stowe Boyd and others: I think we underestimate the common sense kids apply to social media based on the high-profile idiocy of a tiny minority, and I think we overestimate the impact that youthful (or even not so youthful) indiscretions in the digital fossil record will have on how the people who left them behind will be viewed. As a crude numbers-from-the-air example: if one in five kids is pictured somewhere on the web taking a hit from a bong, is society more likely to (a) refuse to employ 1/5 of the population, or (b) figure that kids smoking weed really isn’t such a big deal?

Trouble is, we keep applying the social mores of today to the society of a decade hence. Think about how different the world felt just five years ago; attitudes change fast. By the time the internet’s knowledge of our past is sufficient to be causing problems for the majority of people, my bet is that we’ll be worrying about something else entirely. Or, to put it another way: when you have evidence that pretty much everyone has been a little bit naughty at some point in their lives, your assessment of how much naughtiness is forgivable will shift accordingly. Transgression is implicitly assessed against a baseline of ‘normality’; a searchable childhood for everyone will move that baseline. In fact, I’d even go so far as to suggest it’ll be the people with squeaky-clean pasts who end up looking the most suspicious…


Foursquare, Chatroulette and the social panopticon

Paul Raven @ 24-02-2010

I think what surprised me most about the Please Rob Me flap was how little flapping there was, and that most of what there was came from the sort of people I usually expect to see beyond the obvious tabloid angles to the truth of a technology story. Perhaps technopanics just aren’t getting the click-through they used to… or maybe everyone’s too busy covering the adventures of neoprene-clad sportsmen in cold places to care.

Stowe Boyd managed to make the point about Please Rob Me in a much more coherent and conciliatory fashion than I did:

I am suggesting that a single level of ‘friending’ is probably too general to satisfy assumed needs for safety, although there is little evidence that social tools increase the likelihood of burglaries or rape. We don’t have an epidemic of ‘social crime’ to resolve here.

The slippage of geolocational information from a closed, stable network into an open, dynamic one opens up a wider assemblage of contacts, but without the assumed friendship that comes from symmetric following. […]

So, I think the slippage of geolocational information from a closed, stable system like Foursquare into an open, dynamic system like Twitter is less problematic than generally considered. I don’t think it, per se, is scary.

While it is possible that a cadre of burglars or a sex slave ring might try to eavesdrop on our geolocational information in these services, history would suggest that our so-called friends and acquaintances are actually the source of most of these dangers.

People are scary, not social tools.

Quite – and that’s not to underemphasise the potential scariness of people, either. The perspective we need to regain here is that technologies aren’t intrinsically creepy, invasive and risky, but that some people are. If anything, gaining a true understanding of the implications of a technology is probably a better way to minimise its risks than a witch-hunt. Kids can cut themselves with sharp knives – so do we ban all knives, or do we just teach kids not to play with them?

I’m not saying that encroachment into privacy isn’t a problem – just ask the kids of Harriton High School. But we need to move away from this culture of blaming technology for the misuses it is (or could be) put to by people; it’s the same fallacy that the hair-shirt greens are so fond of, and it’s counterproductive on every level. Sure, we’re all able to watch each other more thoroughly than ever before, and yes, the social panopticon comes with similar social risks to a more monolithic (e.g. governmental) surveillance apparatus [via @AmandaChapel]- but it’s not going to go away. Wringing your hands is a waste of time; if you really want to prevent tech misuses, educate your audience instead of trying to terrify them into momentary Luddism.

Talking of technophobia, I name ChatRoulette as front-running candidate for the next tabloid technoterror. The more moderate mainstream media has a hold of the story already, painting it in very “wow, the crazy things these internet people build!” colours with some positivist highlights:

… Chatroulette is a social Web site that allows you to navigate somewhat incognito. “There’s no log in, there’s no registration, and that’s fundamentally different from Facebook and Twitter, where your real persona is tied back to you,” said Sarita Yardi, a doctoral candidate at the Georgia Institute of Technology who studies the role of technology in teenagers’ lives.

The Web has long allowed anonymous conversations among strangers. Text-based chat rooms are rife with deceit — people pretending they are someone else. Video makes this harder — even if you’re wearing a mask. Then, too, the anonymity can be fleeting. Screenshots of people using Chatroulette have popped up everywhere. Is one of them you?

In truth, ChatRoulette looks to be a pretty benign (and ultimately banal) thing – not to mention strangely reminiscent of a Jeff Noon story I vaguely remember, in which every one in the world had a mirror that showed the face of another person somewhere else in the world. The usual social media/privacy commentators are being quietly sensible, too, albeit keeping their guard up against the inevitable accusations of showing support for technodepravity:

I like the fact that there are still a small percentage of folks out there looking for some amusement because they’re bored and they want to connect with randomness, folks who recognize the joy of meeting strangers in a safer space than most physical spaces where that’s possible. I realize that this creates the potential for seeing some pretty gross and/or problematic things and I certainly don’t want to dismiss that, but I’m pretty certain that teens are responding the same way that I’m responding – by clicking Next. Is that ideal? Probably not. And I’d certainly love a filter – not just for teens but for my own eyes.

[…]

I’m not sure that immature folks of any age (or the easily grossed out) should be on this site. But I do hope that we can create a space where teens and young adults and the rest of us can actually interact with randomness again. There’s a cost to our social isolation and I fear that we’re going to be paying it for generations to come.

Indeed; the more we seek to protect ourselves and our children (especially the children, poor innocent things that they are!) from everything and anything, the less able to deal with adversity we become – and adversity is inevitable, unless you live in a box lined with cotton wool and a Faraday cage. Common sense aside, however, the potent and flammable combination of children, strangers and video pretty much ensures that ChatRoulette will be moral-panic-boogie-man of the week for the usual suspects within the next month or so… provided the fad lasts that long, of course.