The History and Mathematics of Codes and Code Breaking

Tag: social steganography

Communicating in Plain Sight

One passage from It’s Complicated by danah boyd that caught my attention was, “Many teens are happy to publicly perform their social dramas for their classmates and acquaintances, provided that only those in the know will actually understand what’s really going on and those who shouldn’t be involved are socially isolated from knowing what’s unfolding. These teens know that adults might be present, but they also feel that, if asked, they could create a convincing alternate interpretation of what was being discussed.”

This passage illustrates the concept of social steganography, a strategy that teens often use to privately communicate.  What I find interesting is that I have always been aware of the existence of this technique, even used it myself, but I had never realized that it was a form of steganography.  Now, it seems quite obvious.  When someone posts an “inside joke” or uses vague or special language that means something to a particular group but appears meaningless to everyone else, they are basically hiding a message in plain sight.  Anyone with access to their online profile could see what they are putting out there, but only a specific target audience would understand what they are really communicating.  Clearly, steganography has a much larger presence in everyday life than I previously thought.

As boyd explains, many adults often criticize teens for posting information publicly while also caring so much about their privacy.  They see these things as acting against each other, but what they don’t realize is that teens are very careful in deciding what they expose to the public.  By using strategies such as social steganography, it is possible to have an easily accessible online presence while simultaneously maintaining control over who you share sensitive information with.

Sharing Is Caring – Or Is it?

In It’s Complicated, author danah boyd writes “In a world in which posting updates is common, purposeful, and performative, sharing often allows teens to control a social situation more than simply opting out. It also guarantees that others can’t
define the social situation” (boyd 75). boyd points out that by sharing small snippets of one’s life, they can effectively partition off a section of their life to remain private. I never realized this as an alternative to simply opting out of social media, and this solution proves much more useful than staying off the internet.

boyd shares a situation in which a teen girl posted embarrassing photos of herself on her profile. When questioned, the girl pointed out that it was far safer that the photos be posted on her own terms. Since her friends also possessed embarrassing photos, posting them before they had a chance “undermined her friends’ ability to define the situation differently” (boyd 75). Not only could she avoid being publicly embarrassed, this gave her an extensive amount of privacy. “Her apparent exhibitionism left plenty of room for people to not focus in on the things that were deeply intimate in her life” (boyd 75).

boyd also draws a comparison to the practice of steganography. By hiding messages in plain sight through “countless linguistic and cultural tools,” (boyd 66) teens can avoid surveillance by their parents. This “social steganography” also relates to the previous situation, in regards to the girl posting her photos online. By putting them out there, she draws attention away from her actual personal life, essentially hiding it in plain sight under the veil of her photos.

Overall, boyd notes that “where people share to maintain privacy, they do because they do not want someone to have power over them” (boyd 75). By selectively choosing what to share, people can form pictures of their life that appear true, but actually only define a small portion of their life. This allows people to maintain their privacy in an ever increasingly invasive society. Although I’ve always desired privacy, I never thought of it concretely as maintaining power over myself. boyd has essentially redefined privacy in a meaningful way that truly captures its essence in today’s world.

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