In her recent post for UC Irvine’s Digital Media and Learning Research Hub, Danah Boyd discusses how teenagers communicate multiple messages through social media. Steganography is an ancient technique where individuals communicate hidden messages in “plain sight.” Tattoos, invisible ink are two examples of methods used to communicate those messages. The idea is that an individual crafts a message that is intended to be read differently by different audiences without changing the content of the message.
Boyd uses the example of a teenage girl who is Facebook friends with her mother. When the girl, Carmen, breaks up with her boyfriend, she creates ambiguous status updates that communicate to her mother that she is happy while communicating a different message to her friends:
When Carmen broke up with her boyfriend, she “wasn’t in the happiest state.” The breakup happened while she was on a school trip and her mother was already nervous. Initially, Carmen was going to mark the breakup with lyrics from a song that she had been listening to, but then she realized that the lyrics were quite depressing and worried that if her mom read them, she’d “have a heart attack and think that something is wrong.” She decided not to post the lyrics. Instead, she posted lyrics from Monty Python’s “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life.” This strategy was effective. Her mother wrote her a note saying that she seemed happy which made her laugh. But her closest friends knew that this song appears in the movie when the characters are about to be killed. They reached out to her immediately to see how she was really feeling.
Boyd’s argument is that through the use of social steganography, Carmen -or anyone else for that matter-is communicating her real (hidden) message in “plain sight” and in effect employing an old communication tactic for a new digital age:
Social steganography is one privacy tactic teens take when engaging in semi-public forums like Facebook. While adults have worked diligently to exclude people through privacy settings, many teenagers have been unable to exclude certain classes of adults - namely their parents - for quite some time. For this reason, they’ve had to develop new techniques to speak to their friends fully aware that their parents are overhearing. Social steganography is one of the most common techniques that teens employ. They do this because they care about privacy, they care about misinterpretation, they care about segmented communications strategies.
Although I agree with Boyd’s analysis that some form of social steganography is happening, I’d like to raise another point that steganography may not always be about communicating multiple messages as much as it is a response to power. In other words, in one instance someone may be actively communicating a message because they choose to and in another instance someone may be using steganography because they have to. I admit the distinction between the two may be a subtle one.
In Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Michel Foucault argues that discipline is necessary to cultivate docility, the quality needed in a population in order to be controlled. In order to create this kind of docility, individuals need to be observed and it’s the act of observation that acts as a form of control. Foucault uses Jeremy Bentham’s paradigm of the Panopticon, an institutional model for punishment that was never actually built. The Panopticon:
allowed for constant observation characterized by an “unequal gaze”; the constant possibility of observation. Perhaps the most important feature of the panopticon was that it was specifically designed so that the prisoner could never be sure whether s/he was being observed. The unequal gaze caused the internalization of disciplinary individuality, and the docile body required of its inmates. This means one is less likely to break rules or laws if they believe they are being watched, even if they are not.
The processes of governing one’s self under the gaze of control constitutes Foucault’s notions of Governmentality. How an individual acts while being observed is a question at the heart of Governmentality. This is a simplified take on Foucault, but it’s this question that I would like to apply to Boyd’s comments about social steganography.
My argument is that there is a sort “unequal gaze” between online users and various political, social and economic institutions. Despite the discourse of transparency between users and various corporate and political institutions, users know they’re being watched-tracked-and are governing themselves accordingly. Social Steganograpy is just one way individuals govern their behavior online. But what if that self-control extends beyond status updates or Tweets?
What if every aspect of a person’s digital self is so regulated (e.g., profiles, photos, names, posts, etc) that nothing of their digital persona reflects their offline lives because of the Web’s “unequal gaze”? Are we going to get to a place where the Web’s publicness starts to destroy anything authentic about our digital selves? Will we end up regulating our behavior to such an extent that everything about our digital lives is all performance?
It’s a little too easy to venture down the Orwellian view of social media, so I won’t. And frankly, I’m a hopeful that some kind of middle ground can be found, something between self-awareness and authenticity. But I do think it’s important to be mindful of how one’s individual online and offline actions interact with larger systems of political and cultural power.