I read this article about ‘social steganography‘ and wanted to hash it out with one of my teens for Radical Parenting readers.
Researcher Danah Boyd has created this term to talk about when a teen posts something, such a status update that has two meanings–one for their friends (usually the real message) and one for their parents (usually something more innocuous). I call this the Facebook Double Entendre and teens–and twenty-somethings do it all the time on social networks where they are friends with bosses, parents, aunts, uncles and colleagues. Here is the example Boyd gives: “Boyd interviewed one girl who was going through a breakup while on a class trip and wanted her friends to know but not her mother (who’d “have a heart attack”). So the teenager posted the chorus of a black-humor Monty Python song sung by a group of men who’ve been crucified. (“Always look on the bright side of life / Always look on the bright side of life!”) Her close friends, being fans of the movie, understood the reference and immediately messaged her to offer support. But her mother didn’t know the film, so she thought the lyrics were genuinely cheery and posted a response saying she was glad her daughter was happy.”
Here I have posted a few questions for one of our teen writers on Facebook Double Entendres.
Vanessa: Tell us about yourself?
My name is Monica and I am a senior from the Bay Area, California. I love playing video games, reading fantasy, listening to rap, and doing pretty much anything that works together to highlight my individuality.
The idea of this social steganography does not seem to be so common, at least among my own group of 500 friends, which include family members, peers, and children even younger than myself. Maybe it’s just because the new posts that pop up in my news feed happen to be straightforward messages about daily events or likes and dislikes. There are a lot of “LMS” (like my status for ___) and “this or that” questions as well, but there are hardly ever any double entendres to worry about decoding. Still, this is an interesting concept because although I rarely observe it occurring or participate in it myself, it will be a growing method of keeping one’s true message under wraps now that younger children are hopping onto the facebook bandwagon. Parents will doubtless add their children on facebook to monitor their activities, and children will doubtless become fed up with parents’ nagging about every part of this aspect of their social lives. Children will see others using this technique, and they will soon follow suit. Even though these types of posts aren’t too common right now, they will be something to watch out for in the near future.
Vanessa: Have you ever done a “Facebook Double Entendre?”
I have had times where I employ this technique. When I do it, though, it is usually to draw attention to my posts, rather than keep people completely in the dark. The way I try to plan it out is by leaving people wanting more information about what I am talking about. Song or poem lyrics can draw people towards a status, especially if one or two people have commented on it already. Also, this way, I have not put any personal information out there. If the crowd seems apathetic to the hidden message, or if the person or group it was meant for do not respond to it, I can change the meaning of why I posted these words. It works in the way that the lyrics themselves can have a double meaning in a song or poem.
Vanessa: Do you think other teens often post something in a mild code so parents or adults do not understand?
I’m definitely confident that this is not a common issue. Even when my friends or my friends’ friends post things like inside jokes that no one is meant to understand, they are not written with a double meaning. There may be a quotation or lyrics involved, but these things are just to poke fun at and are not meant to alert a deeper, hidden meaning. If any group of people is using this technique of code, it must be the children around the ages of eleven to fifteen, not the older group of teenagers.
Most teens I know also do not have family members added on facebook, but when they use code, they also use it in a similar way to how I use it so that they can choose to whom they reveal what information. There are definitely other teens whose primary purpose for using these “double entendres” is to distract from the true meat of the post.
Vanessa: Can you give us some examples?
I learned some good news about a friend that no one else was supposed to know, but I wanted them to be curious and drawn to what I had to say. I posted the lyrics “Oh happy day,” to my status to indicate that something good had happened to me recently.
On the flip side, I have a friend who posted the lyrics to an India.Arie song, “My mama said a lady ain’t what she wears/but what she knows.” I took this for just being that she liked that verse, and when I asked her, she affirmed my hunch. A third friend’s status updates are consistently song lyrics. When I asked her if she knew about other teens using double entendres for their posts, she told me that she just enjoys listening to music that reflects her views on life, and none of the posts really have to do with a certain situation.
Vanessa: Do you think this is bad or good?
This is neither an inherently bad or inherently good thing. It allows teens to have a little bit more privacy in an age where parents are becoming (perhaps rightly) concerned about their child’s internet safety. For small matters like a breakup, parents need not be concerned. This will only become a problem when teens are hiding bigger and dangerous secrets from their parents, such as drug use.
Vanessa: If parents see something confusing on their teen’s Facebook page, what should they do?
Parents should wait until they see some comments from their teen’s friends before moving in. The thing is, parents may automatically jump to the conclusion that their teens are encoding another message into these lyrics or some obscure verses when really, any teen may have just discovered a new song that she loves and has somehow managed to memorize within the hour. The friend who I mentioned earlier had a comment from an adult on her status that said “So what are you trying to tell us?” when the status was not meant to have a deeper meaning.
Photo: Gregoire Lannoy from Flickr