Social Steganography

Steganography is the process of hiding a message within another message. The difference between steganography and encryption is that encryption seems to make a message indistinguishable from noise. Encryption will turn “my cat is black” into “df cok eropz” while steganography could involve you sending a picture of a car and the receiver would run that image through some software to get the message “my cat is black”. Why use steganography over encryption? Because it’s less interesting to those who want to know what you’re saying. Imagine we’re in the world of Game of Thrones during Seaons 2 of the HBO show and Rob Stark needs to send a message about troop movements. He has to assume that the man carrying his message might be captured or bribed to give up the messages. If it looks encrypted, then King Joffrey will put his best minds on trying to figure out the encryption. If the message looks like a condolences to a lord for his son’s death, then they might let the message pass.

I came across a pretty interesting article in May that said teens were using a lot of steganography on social media websites:

… 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.

In other words, they want to makes sure that the authority figures in their lives don’t know what they’re talking about. So if their parents require them to be Facebook friends, something I hear many parents do, they can still talk about whatever they want to talk about with their friends by establishing the code ahead of time. The excerpt used in the article makes it seem as though the researchers are considering this to be a consequence of everything being public in social media. To me it appears to just be an extension of slang. What other purpose does slang have? Why have cool, stupid, dope, and phat all mean the same thing over different time periods? In order to obscure the message from adults and also to reinforce the tribe identity of the young. We have this language and proper use of it shows that you are part of the tribe. Strategically, it allows the tribe to operate right under noses of the previous generation’s tribe. Rappers wanted to get stuff past the radar so “head” (as in oral sex) became “dome” and it was allowed on the radio until people figured out what it was. “Skeet” as a weird onomatopoeia for male climax was allowed on the radio for the same idea. Chris Rock joked that white people would freak out when they found out what it meant.

And so, while it had a different context, I think you have to consider Sigmund Freud and when you see that photo on your kid’s Facebook page you have to ask yourself: Is that cigar just a cigar?

Author: Eric Mesa

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