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How teenagers communicate with publicly private messages

By Juliano Andrade Spyer, on 30 November 2013

2013-11-01 12.57.36

Teens may use different characters to add layers of information to a name. (Photo by Juliano Spyer)

Through the process of “gutting” profiles I had the opportunity to pay attention to a kind of posting I see often but did not recognize as a type of coded communication. Many of the female young adults and teenagers I friended publish regularly moralizing content that they themselves write. At first sight they are rather uninteresting, looking like an amateurish exercise on writing self-help prose, but a trusted local showed me that there was more to it than I had grasped at first. Lange’s (2007) notions of privately public and publicly private have been helpful to study this phenomenon.

First, let me show you what it is that I am talking about. Here are examples of the content these informants may share at any time and any day:

“When all seems lost, give glory to God”.

“The pain will pass just like the smile will arrive”.

“Today’s tip: ignore offensive words because poison only does you harm if you swallow it”.

“The size of my deception is the size of the trust I gave. There are people that don’t think of others, they only see their own bellybutton.”

“Sometimes change must come from within”.

“To be happy is not to have a perfect life. But to use your tears to irrigate tolerance. Use the losses to refine patience. Use the mistakes to carve serenity. Use pain to lapidate the pleasure. Use the obstacles to cultivate intelligence”.

I arrived at this topic–codes teenagers and young adults use to speak privately in public areas such as Facebook–as my research assistant told me about a recent experience she had related to the use of social media. The story involves her close friend who is 16 years old, that for the purpose of anonymity I will call G16. G16 liked a boy that had a reputation of being a lady-killer. The information reached G16’s mother, who is overly-concerned that her daughter will not sacrifice her future because of an unplanned pregnancy. As G16 refused to friend her mom on Facebook, the mother decided she had the obligation to spy on her daughter. She did so by convincing my assistant’s mother to request that my assistant show them the content G16 posts on Facebook.

This story will make better sense if you have an idea of what Baldoíno, our Brazilian field site, is like. This used to be a fishing village about half century ago. It has steadily grown and has became a sort of working class neighborhood for the manual labor hired by the touristic industry nearby. Students in general are not very interested in studying, but are under the spell of digital communication devices and services. This passion started with Orkut and Messenger, and has now materialized in Facebook. Of course, as Professor Daniel Miller recently pointed out in his blog post, Facebook  is becoming less cool for younger generations.  In Baldoíno, young people are  quickly migrating to the new cool thing: WhatsApp. And my hypothesis is that the absolute fascination with these products is partially about looking cool, but mainly about having the possibility of communicating among themselves and, as much as possible, away from adults like teachers and parents. This sort of privately-public communication is possible partly because older people here are not well trained in reading, writing, using keyboard and mouse, and navigating through computer screens. That is the case of the mothers of G16’s and my assistant. It takes a long time for them to read and even longer to type.

As the mothers pressed my assistant to expose her friend and to break the confidence they have on each other, my assistant decided to cooperate but not to volunteer information either about G16’s life or about how to use Facebook and the local codes of usage. And as expected, the mothers did not spend much time looking at the girl’s timeline as it was much too crowded with written stuff. Instead, they asked to look at G16’s photos. The logic of the request was that, if G16 was dating this guy, they should have photos of each other as a couple. But, as my assistant explained, G16 knew that a picture of that kind would find a way of reaching her mom the same way the gossip about her secret affair did, so she would never expose herself like that.

The attempted spying failed and G16’s mother was then convinced that it was a better strategy to have an honest conversation with her daughter.But the story would have been somehow different if my assistant had been as helpful to the mothers as she was to me. You first need to know that the extensive amount of generic moralizing content was disguised communication. Secondly, you would need to be part of G16’s group of trusted companions to know through face to face communication what was going on in her life. Under such circumstances I could see that there was a lot G16 was saying about her romance on recent postings.

Here are examples of her coded messages (which have been re-written for anonymizing purposes):

“Don’t ever ignore someone that loves, worries about you and misses you. Because maybe one day you may wake up and find out you have missed the moon while counting the stars”.

“I matured a lot recently and learned to acknowledged myself. As new people came to my life, I also decided to let go others that did not add to my well-being. – feeling bothered”

According to my interpreter, the first message was a warning to the boyfriend. She was telling him and others that know him that she was not happy with the little attention he is offering her and telling him she would not tolerate that much longer. The following message suggests that she had decided to let go of him even if his actions do not please her. My assistant speculated that G16′s conversation with her mom had a positive outcome. So writing is a way of hiding things from the older generations here. Together with writing one hides hints of what is going on under the look of a prosaic or philosophic reflection that makes no reference to specific people, places or events. Had it not been for the help and trust of my assistant, I would have never guessed the true meaning.

Reference

Lange, P. G. (2007), Publicly Private and Privately Public: Social Networking on YouTube. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13: 361–380. doi: 10.1111/j.1083-6101.2007.00400.x