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Social media literacy 101 (for adults)

“I can’t even” possibly know what I’m seeing in teens’ tweets, texts and posts. Not until I ask them. The very fact that I continued that sentence past the close quote demonstrates that. What do I mean? They hide meaning in plain site. Have you heard researcher danah boyd’s term “social steganography”? It means hiding in plain view in social media. She wrote about that way back in 2010, and it’s no less a reality here in 2015.

We adults need context. Witness the “I can’t even” phenomenon. Which, by virtue of the fact that it was covered in the New York Times this past week, probably means it’s no longer a phenomenon. “I can’t even” can be an entire comment on things – whether tunes, posts, pics, people or anything. It’s words for speechlessness – expressing yearning or some other positive high emotion or just high sarcasm. It’s definitely a “you had to be there” kind of thing.

No time for snap judgment

“Teenagers may not be able to drive or vote or stay out past curfew or use the bathroom during school hours without permission, but they can talk. Their speech is the site of rebellion, and their slang provides shelter from adult scrutiny,” Times commentator Amanda Hess writes. And they (like all of us) deserve shelter from snap judgment, right?

Hess gives other inscrutable examples that are current till maybe later this week: “the keysmash” (too excited to type, so “&^%$*@#”) and “your fave could never” (sorta “my favorite celebrity’s better than your favorite celebrity,” but how clunky is that?!).

Don’t even go there

What’s important for adults to remember is that, as Hess writes, “teenage slang curdles from ingenious to embarrassing in record time” and “‘I can’t even’ has already embarked on its promotional tour,” which means that marketers are capitalizing on it in social media, having hired recent college graduates (who will too soon be too out of context).

So there’s the bottom line, parents and educators: Get some context if you want to respond intelligently, and it’s probably best not to go there (in terms of using the terms) because, if you do, you’ll probably be too late to do so without embarrassing yourself. Which significantly reduces one’s credibility. It’s hard enough for marketers to “go there” while employing young adults. Oh, and don’t use trending hashtags if you don’t know what they mean. The other bottom line for when you want to find out what you’re seeing a teenage peer group doing in social media: use plain English (or whatever your spoken language is), kindness, genuine curiosity or interest, and respect. This is called social literacy, and it will retain its appeal way past next week.

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  1. Great post, Anne! I just gave a speech on this topic at the National Women’s Democratic Club luncheon last Thursday!

    June 14, 2015

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