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.