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Cath Everett

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Bebo-speak: the language your younger employees don’t want you to understand


Teenagers are using a secret language on social networking sites to prevent employers and others in authority knowing what they are up to, according to researchers.

Lisa Whittaker, a postgraduate student at the University of Stirling, who studied the behaviour of 16 to 18 year olds in Scotland who used Bebo, said that the slang had been invented to keep activities private, citing the example of one young girl who was sacked after bosses found pictures of her drinking on the web site.
She explained: “Young people often distort the languages they use by making the pages difficult for those unfamiliar with the distortions and colloquialisms. The language used on Bebo seems to go beyond abbreviations that are commonly used in text messaging such as removing all the vowels.”
As a result, such activity was likely to be about more than just poor spelling, which would suggest literacy problems, and was instead a deliberate attempt to creatively misspell words. Bebo as a social netowrk addresses a younger audience than Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter.
“The creation and use of their own social language may be a deliberate attempt to keep adults from understanding what is written on the page,” Whittaker said. “By doing this, they are able to communicate with their ‘in-group’ and conceal the content from the ‘out-group’. This further adds to their online identity.”
Encoding messages also enabled teenagers to hide activities such as drinking and smoking from those in authority, she added.
Examples of such slang included ‘steaming’ or ‘Getting MWI’ –Mad With It – for getting drunk; ‘Ownageee’ for being in a relationship; ‘Ridneck’, a corruption of ‘redneck’ for being embarrassed and ‘Legal’, which is commonly used by girls to indicate that they are above 16 and legally allowed to have sex.

Whittaker presented her research at a seminar at the Wales Institute of Social & Economic Research, Data and Methods in Cardiff this week.

Teenagers have always used slang to create a feeling of group mentality and to form social groups away from adults. The heavy adoption of text speak by the last generations of teenagers is just one example and the internet makes languages more obvious and international. Geeks in chatrooms in the early days of the internet took up ‘l33t’ or ‘1337’, a codic cipher-like language formed from letters and numbers, and this is no different except that it has been forced by an increase in freedom of communication access which younger people may have found themselves victim of such as workplace sackings or disciplinary action following photographs or comments online seen by an unintended audience. It raises the question again of online privacy and where workplaces draw the line when confronted with information from social networks they previously would not have been exposed to.


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