Privacy by encoding

I was fascinated by the girl mentioned in Dana Boyd’s talk who used the song “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” as an encoded message to her friends that she was having a bad day, whereas her mom thought she must be having a great day because she didn’t understand the true nature of the song.  It was a very clever way to obfuscate the information so that it was only understood by a few select people, and it could never be used against her for something like a job interview or by a teacher because someone looking into her social media presence most likely wouldn’t understand the deeper meaning either.  So even though the girl was sharing her personal feelings in a very public forum that was accessible to all, it was only a select few who really understood the message.

This use of encoded language is nothing new.  It’s been used by generations of youth on playgrounds, in classrooms, and many other places, but with the very public nature of social media, it becomes a much more important tool for keeping things private.  With the much larger potential audience, and the permanent nature of comments made on social media, it’s much less worrying about sharing of information if there is a knowledge that parents, teachers, potential employers, and others probably won’t understand the true nature of the comments, and if they do discover the encoded language years later, it can be explained away in a variety of ways that hide the true meaning.  So for example, if someone was to say, “I’m depressed, and I’m thinking of hurting myself” on social media, this statement could potentially be used against them for the rest of their lives.  But by referencing something like the song “Happy Song” by Bring Me the Horizon which is a song about depression, it’s difficult to clearly state that what is meant by the reference, so it’s also difficult to use it against that person years later.

So the encoding becomes a privacy protection that not only protects the privacy at the time of posting, it can also protect that privacy many years later.  A very powerful tool if used wisely.

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