This post is part of a series of interviews highlighting leaders in the field of New Learning (what we call “NLI at Inquiry”). Recently, we interviewed danah boyd—Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research, Visiting Researcher at Harvard University’s Law School, and Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of New South Wales—on subjects including how youth develop online identities, social norms, and privacy issues. Here, in excerpts from Part II of the interview, she discusses how young people control private information in public online spaces by “hiding in plain sight.”
Would you talk a little more about the social steganography and its implications for young people’s interactions with each other?
Social steganography as a concept is really the idea of hiding in plain sight, and my favorite example around this is a young woman that I met who I call “Carmen.” Carmen is a young Latina. She basically had a bad day: she had broken up with her boyfriend and she was feeling really, really sad, and her mother was really active on her Facebook.
[Carmen] was trying to figure out how she could post something on Facebook because she wanted to let her friends know that she was sort of having a bad day, that she was feeling really sad about the whole thing; but she didn’t want her mom to think she was suicidal, and her mom had a tendency to over-react to everything. So she was originally going to put a really sappy song lyric up and she decided that this would be too costly, that she would have to do too much explaining to her mom. So instead, she decided to post the song lyrics from The Life of Brian called “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” She posted the song lyrics without any context, without any reference to the movie, and her friends, who had recently seen Life of Brian with her, completely understood this, but her mother didn’t. And so when her mother saw this and said, “Oh, it’s just words,” immediately she commented, “Oh, it looks like you’re having a great day,” because “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” is a very positive song. Her friends, on the other hand, having recently watched the movie, know that this takes place when the key character Brian is about to be executed. They immediately text her and ask how she’s doing.
So the way in which she sort of put this information out, knowing that those who were recently part of that conversation would recognize the reference, her mother would not because she knew her mother had never consumed this content, had never seen Monty Python. And it also became layered at another level, which is that all sorts of people who may have access to her profile, including her teachers, coaches, these kinds of folks, wouldn’t know what she was talking about. They may recognize Life of Brian, but they have no idea that she had just broken up with her boyfriend. There’s this way that she’s hiding this information from different audiences in different ways because you needed both of those pieces of information, the idea that she’d broken up with her boyfriend and the idea that the Monty Python movie is referring to a specific thing to really get what the context of that was.
So the key with social steganography is this idea of hiding in plain sight, and the concept of steganography is a really ancient term used to refer to the idea of wax tablets, or the idea, as horrific as it is, where people would tattoo messages on the heads of their slaves, wait until their hair grew back, and send them off; and then the person receiving them would know to shave their head to get the messages. The history of this, of course, is sordid, but it’s this idea of hiding in plain sight, that you have to know where to look. And in some ways, that’s the strongest kind of encryption you can get.
What you see is that young people are using this as a really critical strategy for putting out information where they rely on people looking at this and understanding what’s going on. And it’s really powerful to see just because it’s so much stronger of a way of encoding information than anything else. I guess I should also note that one of the things that tends to shock a lot of adults is that young people share their passwords pretty frequently. I’m waiting to get numbers on this, but we’re talking well over 50 percent have shared it with somebody, and the vast majority of [teens] have shared them with their parents who have been pretty much forceful about sharing a password. But the message that has been set forth on this is that if you trust me, you will share your password with me. Whether the trust is through coercion or not depends on the family.
What ends up happening is that teens also share their password with their friends and with their significant others. Not unlike the idea of sharing your locker combination, back when we were all in school with lockers. And so the idea is that you share as a way of signaling trust, and you also share for really functional reasons. Just like you wanted your friend to pick up your textbook at school because you were absent that day, you may want your significant other or friends to check your messages on Facebook because you can’t get access to Facebook today. So it is also really important to realize that there is a lot of information that becomes accessible functionally, so a lot more of it becomes controlling access to meaning instead of controlling the access to content.
I think that kids have been doing this for a long time. I used to be a classroom teacher and I remember my students quoting song lyrics in class, or I mean, I think to some degree, some types of slang are used this way; they know their teacher is not going to know what this word is.
There’s mistaken belief that everything involving new technology must be new. The vast majority of what I see young people do is modernize old strategies. They’re taking things that have been done for a long time and finding new, weird ways of doing it on the Internet.
To be continued...
How do online youth spaces develop social norms? How do our physical communities affect our online communities? Next time we will publish Part III of our interview with danah, focusing on the answers to these questions and how mobile devices are changing youth communication trends. Our final installment will also include an unabridged audiocast with bonus content. Stay tuned!
Additional resources on danah boyd’s work: