Social steganography: how teens smuggle meaning past the authority figures in their lives

Danah boyd has a great summary of the new Pew report on Teens, Social Media, and Privacy. The whole thing is worth a read -- especially her thoughts on race and social media use -- but the most interesting stuff was about "social steganography" -- smuggling meaning past grown-ups through the clever use of in-jokes and obscure references (this is also something that Chinese net-users do to get past their national censors):

My favorite finding of Pew’s is that 58% of teens cloak their messages either through inside jokes or other obscure references, with more older teens (62%) engaging in this practice than younger teens (46%). This is the practice that I’ve seen significantly rise since I first started doing work on teens’ engagement with social media. It’s the source of what Alice Marwick and I describe as “social steganography” in our paper on teen privacy practices.

While adults are often anxious about shared data that might be used by government agencies, advertisers, or evil older men, teens are much more attentive to those who hold immediate power over them – parents, teachers, college admissions officers, army recruiters, etc. To adults, services like Facebook that may seem “private” because you can use privacy tools, but they don’t feel that way to youth who feel like their privacy is invaded on a daily basis. (This, btw, is part of why teens feel like Twitter is more intimate than Facebook. And why you see data like Pew’s that show that teens on Facebook have, on average 300 friends while, on Twitter, they have 79 friends.) Most teens aren’t worried about strangers; their worried about getting into trouble.

Over the last few years, I’ve watched as teens have given up on controlling access to content. It’s too hard, too frustrating, and technology simply can’t fix the power issues. Instead, what they’ve been doing is focusing on controlling access to meaning. A comment might look like it means one thing, when in fact it means something quite different. By cloaking their accessible content, teens reclaim power over those who they know who are surveilling them. This practice is still only really emerging en masse, so I was delighted that Pew could put numbers to it. I should note that, as Instagram grows, I’m seeing more and more of this. A picture of a donut may not be about a donut. While adults worry about how teens’ demographic data might be used, teens are becoming much more savvy at finding ways to encode their content and achieve privacy in public.

thoughts on Pew’s latest report: notable findings on race and privacy


  1. Interesting, for sure, but not really anything new.   Teens have been “controlling meaning” for years.   Everything from a vast plethora of 420-like “let’s go get stoned” code words, to codifying who is hooking up with whom, to subtly indicating that Friday is a ditch day.

    Hell, my parents — who very likely knew better — thought my girlfriend and I were absolutely obsessed with The Breakfast Club in high school because we mentioned we were watching it so often.   Alone.   In a dark room.   … yeah … good times.

    1. To me it just makes me think of the Book of Revelation; written as a fable to criticize then-current events, but over the years morphed into prophecy.  In 2000 years we’ll have people freaking out that the properties spoke, saying that someone would “set us up the bomb” unless they “haz cheeseburger,” & how that is proof that the unfavorable political party figurehead is the Troll spoken of in ancient days.

    1. In the 1990s I met some Australians and they talked just like Robert Heinlein’s Australians from the 1950s. Gday and fair dinkum. In America, slang is dated in 3-5 years, and it is the mission of every middle schooler to make the high school kids feel old.

      Why is Australia so different from USA in this regard?

      1. Isolation maybe? I am reminded of the British slang which featured in the TV show Minder, some of which originated as a speech code to confuse eavesdropping police.

        1. Or Polari in the days when it was against the law to be gay, backslang, verlan [French backslang] or earlier ‘thieves cant’ same use as Minder slang. So this is not a very original piece of insight…

      2.  Because they were having you on! G’day and fair dinkum are not current slang – except ironically.

        1.  G’day is current, fair dinkum gets some use. Broundgear’s problem is extrapolating the use of language in a country from a couple of people he met (admittedly he might also have been trolled, did they warn you about Drop Bears?). 

  2. Nothing new. When I was a teen (in the 80’s) we instinctively made code for everything. It didn’t even have to been something we would get in trouble for.  It’s just fun. I about lost it in my 20’s when I learned of Esperanto. I tried to get my first wife to learn it with me so we could speak privately at family events but she didn’t get into it. :-(

    1.  let me guess.  you use a dvorak keyboard.  it’s okay, i dabbled in both as well.  thankfully i never brought it up with my other :-)

  3. TLDR; do they have numbers on claims of  “significantly rise”?

    i call ullshitbay on the iseray.

    also misspelling of “they’re” combined with the fact the authors wanted to use such conjugation at all causes me to lose all onfidencay in the esearchray. 

    i’m 36 and still remember my iglatinpay

    1. Ubi’m fuborty-subix, uband stubill rubemubembuber muby ububbi-dububbubi.

      At least, I think I do.

      1.  I spent a month learning to say supercalifragilisticexpialdocious in ubbi-dubbi in the 4th grade.  I can still rock it out when I’m with my old schoolmates, 40 years on.  Zoom was awesome.

  4. Disappointing lack of steganographic examples.  It’s cold, TCB’ing as the ‘rents in the 21.  Hip me to the reet new deets,  daddy-o!

    1. A better read is the paper linked in the featured article, Social Privacy in Networked Publics. It’s got the examples you want, but its high point is a thoughtful section on “What is privacy?” Plus, a good source for your daily dose of Arendt, Habermas, and Reiman.

  5. Number one tell that the kids are trying to put one over on me: they keep smirking and stealing glances at me like I’m supposed to give a shit. GUESS WHAT KID

  6. This is not limited to teens. This is anyone on social media. Half my twitter is usually filled up with inside-jokes and references you’d only get if you were part of the “in-crowd”. It’s interesting to watch fully fledge adults act out teen-age psycho-dramas in public, also sometimes annoying.

  7. The public at large, including teens, quickly catch up with new advertising gimmicks and attempts at manipulation. Code is spoken mostly on the streets. Only politicians and Wall Streeters fail to understand that you never put in writing anything you wouldn’t want to see in a headline.

  8. Most teens aren’t worried about strangers; their worried about getting into trouble.

    Nice try!  I still know you mean they’re.  Better come up with a better code than that.

    1. i liked this even though i know that the pain i feel about the current “misspelling” off there/their/they’re will be short lived and futile.   i just am not sure which singlular spelling we’ll settle upon.  i’m guessing “there”.  it seems most prevalent.
      note the article had a misspelling of “they’re”

      1. I don’t see this as short-lived. It will probably be at least a few generations before it stops being perceived as incorrect. How long are you planning to live?

        1.  .. until i’m done.  :-)
          but i believe language evolution is accelerating with global communications and internet driven information society.

  9. In true internet asshole commenter style, I now obsess on the least important part of this post…

    The author of the report always spells her name in all lower case characters — “danah boyd”. It seems like correct journalistic practice to honor a person’s preference and use that spelling.

    But by convention the first word of each sentence is capitalized. Therefore this posting begins “Danah boyd has a great summary…”

    But is that correct? Does the sentence capitalization rule trump the “spell the person’s name the way they prefer” rule? Or is it the other way around?

    I have no idea. But this question will bug the hell out of me.

  10. This is a common strategy among surveilled people across all time. The Russians under the Soviets were past-masters of it. The teen-age argots of any era exist to conceal content/meaning.
    Like, cool, daddio…

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