Achieving Privacy in Public

Teenagers and social steganography.


danah boyd, an anthropologist of sorts, highlights something interesting in Pew's new report on teens and social media:

Big Mama is watching you.

Pew's report shows an increase in teens' willingness to share all sorts of demographic, contact, and location data. This is precisely the data that makes privacy advocates anxious. At the same time, their data show that teens are well-aware of privacy settings and have changed the defaults even if they don't choose to manage the accessibility of each content piece they share. They're also deleting friends (74%), deleting previous posts (59%), blocking people (58%), deleting comments (53%), detagging themselves (45%), and providing fake info (26%).

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….Most teens aren't worried about strangers; they're worried about getting in trouble.

Ceci n'est pas une donut.

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.

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  1. I noticed this trend too, but I worry about it because of the way it erodes public discourse. One of the worst things in the world is trying to engage somebody over what you thought were common operating terms only to find out they've been masturbating over their own jokes and content without informing you that you were speaking two different languages.

    1. So, you just started reading Hit and Run?

      1. Is that what you kids are calling it these days?

        1. They can keep their "hits" (a bong reference, probably) and their "runs" (not even ATTEMPTING to decipher that one). I'll stick to some good ol'fashioned HyR, thank you very much. Kids these days.

          1. The language was so much clearer when Virginia Postrel was running things...

            1. DRINK!!!

              whew been a while...and I just finished carbinating my latest batch of H3O

              1. You homebrew hydronium?

  2. Come you nigh, Kay shuns.

    1. Watt ewe died their eye sew id.

  3. Sometimes a donut is just a donut.

  4. I've read quite a bit of dana boyd's stuff, and she's really pretty good. She's got some papers on our reactions to internet bullying being similar to the over-reaction to Satanic cults in the 70s, and I'm always impressed by folks who are skeptical about the Panic of the week.
    FWIW, despite her use of 'Theory' jargon, she works for Microsoft.

    Here's just a pair of samples:

    1. FWIW, despite her use of 'Theory' jargon, she works for Microsoft.

      I would fully expect someone who throws out a lot of 'Theory' jargon to work for a place like Microsoft.

      That's how you get Windows 8, or Vista... or Microsoft Bob.

      And while it may sound like snark, I'm being deadly serious.

      1. That's how you get Windows 8, or Vista... or Microsoft Bob

        Don't forget Comic Sans. It was apparently CREATED for Bob.

  5. For our "community outreach" program at work, I give lectures to high school seniors (usually the accounting/finance classes) about credit, Identity theft and web security.

    Kids these days don't give a FUCK about internet security. We do our best to plead with them not to put stuff online they wouldn't want their parents to see, but it pretty much gets ignored.

    I cannot imagine going through High School with Facebook. I don't WANT to imagine it.

    1. Kids these days

      Yeah, that's about what I got out of the article.

      Kids use slang and inside references to communicate in ways adults and outsiders don't understand? Gnarly, dude!

  6. What does a picture of a teen girl showing her boobs mean?

    1. I think it means they're traitors. Because terrorists like boobs and showing them boobs=aid and comfort. Q.E.D.

  7. My friend was having breakfast with his wife last weekend and told her "you stupid cunt; you ruined my life", but the real message was "would you hand me the sports section.

    1. And when she threw her orange juice into his face, what did that mean?

  8. So a friend of mine in western Canada posted a pic of herself and...I think it was her to a carnival ride. The "Tea Cup" ride, specifically.

    I had to exercise GREAT restraint not to type: "Two Girls - One Cup"

    What that has to do with this, I don't know, but that was some epic restraint on my part, and I'm puttin' it out there.

    1. You certainly deserve a hand job. And by hand job I mean applause.

      1. No he doesn't. He deserves to be smacked for not having done it.

        1. Not everyone is a petty tyrant like you, Nikki...

  9. Name: Hugh Jass
    Sex: Yes please
    Race: I'm too tired to run
    Age: I like em young
    Status: I'm kind of a big deal

  10. So, the new kids have invented slang and obscure cultural references as metaphors.. Got it!

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