Gretchen McCulloch runs the blog All Things Linguistic and co-hosts the Lingthusiasm podcast. She is the author of Because Internet: Understanding the New Rules of Language.
In Montreal, where I live, I’ve always wanted to create a linguistic geography of lost-cat signs. Official signage in stores or restaurants has its language choice regulated by law, and posters advertising a concert or a tutoring service might justifiably target a particular linguistic demographic. But if your cat wanders off, you simply want to maximize the odds that someone will find it and know how to bring it home. Even if you’re not bilingual yourself, you might decide it’s worth getting a friend to translate your sign for you.
Among the bilingual neighbourhoods, I wonder, which ones put French first and which English? Where might people include a third language or only bother with one? By tagging a map of the city’s telephone poles with the languages of their lost cat signs, you could arrive at a map of what languages people believe their neighbours speak: a folk linguistic cartography of the city.
With many social-media posts, the opposite is true – they’re not restricted by location, so rather than trying to cater to all the languages you think your neighbours speak, you can instead use language to exclude. Coded language such as song lyrics or references to memes are ways of inviting responses only from people who recognize the song or the in-joke.
A study of Estonian teens observed the teens doing things such as posting song lyrics, quotes or in-jokes that only made sense to their crush, in the hope that they’d see it and want to respond – which several teens said had worked. A study of queer youth on Facebook found that one way of navigating how out to be on a platform that contained both family members and potential members of a fellow queer community was to post queer pop-culture references that would be easily interpretable by peers and go over the heads of their non-intended audience.
Technologist danah boyd observed coded messages in more negative contexts, too: for example, when a teen wanted to indicate bad news of a breakup to friends without worrying her mother, she posted a quote from Always Look on the Bright Side of Life, a Monty Python song that looks happy but is deeply ironic in context, knowing that she’d recently seen the film with her friends but that her mother wasn’t familiar with it.
Lost-cat signs and social-media posts have something else in common beyond coded language: Technically, they’re both public and yet we often behave as if they’re actually semi-private. The reason we can do this is because these signs and posts are obscure.
It’s easy to advise people, “Don’t post anything on the internet that you wouldn’t want to be on the national news,” but that’s not consistent with how we consider privacy in other areas of life. I wouldn’t want my phone number on the national news either, and that doesn’t make it imprudent to post my number on a couple telephone poles in my neighbourhood so I can try to get Fluffy home. I can reasonably expect that a lost-cat sign will be seen by the people on my block, not that it will be reproduced on TV, result in me getting contacted by hundreds of trolls pretending to have found my cat, or end up in a searchable database of lost-cat signs so that decades hence I’ll still be getting served ads for multinational cat-finding services.
But technically speaking, all of these things would be possible. After all, my sign is public. What makes them unlikely isn’t privacy, it’s obscurity – of the hundred or so people who might walk by the sign, chances are no one would be bothered. A lost-cat sign is obscure in terms of access (only so many people walk down my street).
An internet post can be obscure in other ways: Is it findable in search? Is it locked behind a password? Is the poster identifiable by name? Is it understandable by people who aren’t in the know? It doesn’t matter so much if a post is technically completely public. If no one knows that it’s there, that you wrote it or what it means, it’s still effectively private through its obscurity.
The idea of obscurity explains some characteristic internet behaviours. Do you post intimate details about your thoughts and feelings to internet strangers, but you’d be mortified if your co-workers saw them? Do you post about your kid using a pseudonym or an initial, knowing that your friends and family can decode it, but outsiders won’t have a clue? In both cases, you’re relying on obscurity.
Similarly, apps such as TikTok and Snapchat are famously confusing for older people, and this is part of their appeal to younger users: They’re technically available for anyone to download, but in practice, they’re obscure to people who don’t get them.
Some forms of offline writing use obscurity of form as well – think of graffiti in public bathrooms, where profanity and philosophical musings jostle each other in safe anonymity. But for a lost-cat sign, I’d better stick with obscurity of location rather than form – my neighbours might stand a chance if I identify the cat by name, but no one has a hope of helping me if I elliptically refer to the cat as the cutest little fluffy floofball.
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