Decoding Cryptic Status Updates With Social Steganography

Living publicly in the social sphere often requires knowing how to say one thing, but mean another.

Sharing at least a fraction of our personal and professional lives in networked society is something that will likely continue to pervade culture, as indicated most recently by Pew Research Center’s American Life Project. This research broadly concluded that Millennials are likely to continue to develop a lifelong habit of sharing online, and redefining what is ‘public’ or ‘private’. Bearing that in mind, a recent post at DMLcentral by Danah Boyd struck us with some interesting observations on Social Steganography, and how applying this – even if unknowingly – allows many to express what they may be feeling online via certain innocuous cues, while only tipping off those close to them as to what they may be feeling, and why.

According to Wikipedia, steganography is

The art and science of writing hidden messages in such a way that no one, apart from the sender and intended recipient, suspects the existence of the message, a form of security through obscurity.

In the realm of social media this may often translate into song lyrics, or quotes, for instance. It may not be wise for you to write ‘my boss/client just made a terrible decision’ on Twitter or Facebook, but you may be able to cite Talking Heads lyrics (i.e., ‘Warning sign, warning sign, I see it but I pay it no mind. Hear my voice, hear by voice, it’s saying something and I hope you’re concentrating…’). The broader audience that follows you may see this is cryptic, or as a vague music reference – but the colleague you just vented to may read it and know exactly what you’re referring to.

While the post cites teens as a prime example of who is using steganography to speak to a varied audience (i.e., choose your words carefully – but still getting a message across – when your Mom and best friends are both on Facebook), we’ve also noticed professionals employing this tactic so as to not alienate any particular members of their potential audience – but still express their thoughts and feelings to those closer to them, whom are more informed as to the context that led to that reaction.

It may not be intentional, but the digital and social media space – which increasingly require striking a calculated balance between what is ‘private’ and what is appropriate for ‘public’ consumption – have intuitively made steganography a useful strategy for communicating with a broader audience of varying degrees of familiarity and intimacy. We are essentially (albeit perhaps unknowingly) utilizing a decades-old technique to speak to these varied audiences ‘in layers’. As we continue to absorb the realities and implications of what and how to live publicly and openly while still maintaining a sense of privacy – techniques like steganography provide an intuitive, creative solution. It may also lead you to reconsider what your friend or co-worker meant when he quoted Steve Miller with ‘go on, take the money and run’.

DMLcentral: “Social Steganography: Learning to Hide in Plain Sight”

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