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Secret communication systems in Facebook

Giustina Trevisi, Digital Anthropology MSc, UCL

Tell the truth. Uncover a few secrets

This investigation was a study of emerging Colombian communication systems, specifically Facebook. I employed a variety of online and offline ethnographic methods followed by the analysis of mediated content/output. It was discovered that youths in Columbia are implementing quite elaborate secret communication systems in Facebook. Through this research I have exposed three types of strategically crafted secret messaging systems. The first type of secret communication is Fake relationship status or untrue information regarding their relationship status that has a particular meaning to their social group. The second, secret codes or "Encrypted" communications are public posts that have a secret meaning that deliver a precise message that leads to a particular action and can only be deciphered by a particular person, and third, Indirect messaging system, or public posts understood by most of their Facebook Friends but have a special meaning to the targeted receiver/receivers. 

These elaborate practices regarding secrecy have an impact on how youths relate to their social groups, how they manifest intimacy, strengthen their friendships and manage their romantic sphere. For example, in Fake relationship status girls are falsely "married" to other girls in Facebook. Thought this they are communicating to their social group that the relationship is very close and the indexed meaning is that they are best friends. But people outside their circle could misinterpret relationship updated as real a same sex marriage because they are unfamiliar with young people's idioms of practice (Gershon, 2010).   These practices in Facebook are ways in which young use secrecy as a strategy of inclusion and exclusion. Young people code messages and attribute secret significances to their Facebook posts or status updates as a way to communicate with a small group of people or a particular person (Simmel, 1950) they are narrowcasting or diffusing information to exclusive audiences (Walher et al, 2010). 

On the other hand, Secret codes or "encrypted" communications in forbidden relationships help couples acquire a sense of "bond" or "we" through the sharing secrets or codes and simultaneously achieve a greater scene of privacy. For example, a couple that is involved in a forbidden unofficial parallel relationship has developed a secret messaging system around the Facebook profile pictures. Whenever the young man changes his Facebook profile picture, in which he appears with his official girlfriend, to a picture where is alone this means that he is available. The concrete message is that they will arrange a date with his unofficial girlfriend; it is a cue for her to prepare herself for the date. Youths have developed encoded communication to deliver specific information to others and so strengthening their relationships. In this case, changing a profile picture is public to everyone in the network, but the significance is closed and exclusive. Through being private in a very public media they have found a method to regain their privacy and control precisely that which many people regard as lost when they commit to social communication through Facebook. 

It is important to take note that these strategic encrypted communications in Facebook are about one fourth of all the information collected during the fieldwork. However, this research focused on this particular aspect of the data because this particular genre of usage has not been previous acknowledged in anthropological and other academic studies of SNS. These secret or encrypted communications in Facebook have dual significance in that they are differentially understood by a specifics person or group of people. Therefore, these communications question the extent of transparency and truthfulness that is usually associated to Facebook (Miller, 2011). It has also been evident that young people in Colombia are developing different idioms of practice and media ideologies regarding Facebook, which are challenging Mark Zuckerberg's perception of this network as a intrinsically a truthful extension of identity. This study shows a new facet of how people are producing content and re-appropriating idioms of practice within secrecy. 

Gershon, I. (2010). The Breakup 2.0. Cornell University Press. 

Miller, D. (2011).  Tales from Facebook. London: Polity.

Simmel, G. ( 1950.) The Sociology of George Simmel. NewYork : Free Press.307-376.

Wegner, D & Lane, D. (1995). The cognitive consequences of secrecy. Journal of 

Personality and Social Psychology, 69, pp. 237-25