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Facebook: The Secret Messages Inside Status Updates

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Once you’ve decoded “tl; dr” and “420” and friended everyone you’ve ever brushed up against in passing, the Internet transforms into a vast savanna for your cognitive grazing, all secrets exposed, all knowledge known. Right?

Uh, no. Gatherers likely found a way to cross sticks that said “dinner is served” to the tribe, but “he’ll be away tonight” to one special hunter. As long as humans congregate, they’re going to find ways to hide messages in plain sight.

Spies do it. Teens do it. Even educated fellows do it. Wired’s Clive Thompson follows Microsoft social media researcher and Harvard fellow Danah Boyd unquestioningly down a path of her own coinage, “social steganography” -- hiding one message inside another, but on a social networking site.

Boyd uses the example of a teen who posts a line from a "Life of Brian" song to tell her friends, but not her mother, she’s down over a breakup -- posting lyrics being the most common, adult-unfriendly way of steganographing. Never mind that it was the parents of today’s teens who made “Life of Brian” the pop culture touchstone it is.

Thompson draws an analogy with “dog whistle politics” and concludes that posting steganographs is evidence of teens’ “rhetorical sophistication” and ability to “hack language.”

Rhetorically, messages to be understood only by the people they’re addressed to is just as “sophisticated” as any slave spiritual, nursery rhyme, socialist poem or invisible ink message -- one message for “you,” one for “us.”

What’s really interesting about this practice -- hardly limited to teens, hello -- is that it might suggest the open-book generation is discovering the value of privacy. Some teens even deactivate their FB accounts when they go offline, Boyd notes.

“Social steganography also illustrates that people still aren’t happy with their tools. We need better options, more experiments, greater innovation,” Thompson says. Maybe. Or maybe the only real message here is the medium.

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