Coded language online

By which I mean code as cipher or ‘secret’ (sort of) rather than code as in mark-up…

The UK Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre and ParentZone maintain a website for parents called that has recently published a guide to “online teen speak“, with the rationale that parents should know what their children are up to.

There are some entertaining examples and it just goes to confirm I am now ‘old’ because I simply don’t recognise some of this stuff…

Now, in a way I have some sympathy with this rationale insofar as anyone (not just people of a given age bracket) can be naive in their behaviour through mediated communications. Whereas the more established risks of rumour and defamation might feel more distant the risks of the permanence of anything one posts online and its potential to spread unimaginably quickly are much more immediate and can be forcefully, sometimes tragically, felt.

Nevertheless, depending on your political persuasion, one might feel that there ought to be some limits to the oligopticon; that perhaps we ought not to be spying on one another all the time. It is thus striking that the rationale for ‘safety’ (in this case the entirely justified concern for the safety of our children) matches very closely to the sort of libertarian ‘nothing to hide’, radical transparency ideology of both the advertising moguls/data sharks at the helm of corporations such as Facebook and the supporters of technologies such as the blockchain. It is interesting (to me anyway) that the bounds of the conversation around privacy have moved so much in only 10 years… When the Labour government talked about introducing a national ID card around 2005ish, campaigns such as No2ID garnered a lot of support based on an appeal to arguments about personal privacy that are already (perhaps) beginning to seem slightly irrelevant, if one has maintained a use of Facebook, Google, Dropbox, PayPal, loyalty cards etc.

There is, of course, a significant difference between the perceived threats to ‘privacy’ by corporations hoovering up our data and the risk to personal safety from those with malign intentions – and I certainly don’t want to overly confuse the two… but the same rationale for an national identity card – to catch those with undesirable intentions – sits behind the perceived need to surveil our children and, indeed, was the rationale for ContactPoint here in the UK. This takes some very careful and nuanced unpacking (although it has attracted press commentary, e.g.) that I don’t think I’m best-placed to do here, but I wanted to record a reflection on this anyway.

The other thing that occurred to me while reading the press coverage of the guide to ‘teen speak’ was that this really isn’t new. As was made very evident by an episode of Fry’s English Delight on BBC Radio 4 the other week – there is a very, very long history of secret languages, and these are often used by groups that feel in a minority, or are a clique… from back slang, or ‘pig latin’ to medical slang (says the person most likely to be TTFO). But the power of these dialects is that they are secret – so what will a handy guide to them being published online do… we shall see… I’ll wait to hear from friends and colleagues with children that fall within the age group…

As an aside, ParentZone are convening an interesting looking conference in October on the Digital Family… worth a look if you’re that way inclined.

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