What’s ‘Context Collapse’? Understanding it Can Mean a More Fulfilling Online Life

When you bring friends from different groups together, it can get awkward. That's essentially what Facebook is.

Are you one of the millions of younger people quitting Facebook? For more than a decade, we’ve used Facebook as a way to keep up with friends.

But maybe, these days, you find yourself returning to other, more private forms of communication: a group text, or Instagram DMs. Lately, I’ve been nostalgic for the days of AOL instant messenger.

Tech researchers say this is partially the fault of a phenomenon called “context collapse,” a sociological concept that describes what happens when many social groups exist in one space.

Here’s how context collapse plays out online. When you have Facebook friends numbering in the thousands, your audience becomes a little difficult to speak to all at once.

In an article for sapiens.org, Sophia Goodman described it as “trying to comfortably chat with your mother, bar buddy, work colleague, and ex-boyfriend at the same time.”

In a place where parents, colleagues, bosses and friends all congregate, you can find it difficult to be yourself. Or, rather, to decide which self to be.

 

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Not just an online phenomenon

The term “context collapse” is attributed to Microsoft researcher Danah Boyd, who wrote about it in relationship to bygone social networking sites MySpace and Friendster as early as 2003.

Boyd went on to collaborate with Alice Marwick, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, on context collapse research.

“We need widespread recognition that context collapse is a real thing,” Marwick said to Rewire. “Rather than blaming individuals for online actions, we can think about the structures that are in place that allow it to happen.”

Context collapse is not exclusive to online life, but it is more complex in virtual spaces.

“One of my favorite examples of offline context collapse is a wedding,” said Natalie Pennington, assistant professor of communications at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. “You have your family there, and your coworkers, and your old friends, and it can be difficult to know how to behave and communicate.”

But at a wedding, the night will end and you’ll just be glad you saw everyone.

Online, detaching is not so simple. It becomes more difficult, over time, to juggle the many versions of you in one space.

[ICYMI: Spent a Decade Online? Time to Do Some Cleaning Up]

Hitting home

Earlier this year, I clicked on my friend’s boyfriend’s Instagram story and saw him down on one knee, proposing to my friend. All through the night, I caught glimpses of them on his Insta story — at a party, celebrating their engagement. Out to dinner. Smiling, flashing her new ring.

It was a little awkward when she called  me a few days later to announce her engagement. Though I didn’t let on that I already knew, this is one small example of how interpersonal relationships can be affected by context collapse.

We all have a story like this, whether we were on the viewing or sharing side of something we shouldn’t have seen or didn’t want certain people to see.

Our interpersonal relationships can be impacted by what we decide to share on social media, Pennington said.

“Be aware of who you’re talking to,” she said. “Even hitting a like button is a communicative choice.”

Beyond personal relationships, context collapse can also affect your workplace relationships, and your career. Being unaware of who is seeing what you post can be especially damaging for people in precarious financial situations, Marwick said.

“If you’re educated, and you get fired from your job, you probably have other opportunities,” she said. “But if your boss sees something on Facebook and fires you from your (part-time job), it could be very hard to get another job, and going without a paycheck in the meantime can be very difficult.”

How to handle it

“Everyone deals with context collapse” online, Marwick said. But that doesn’t mean it’s any easier to navigate the space without stepping on toes.

There are three basic strategies people have adopted to deal with the reality of posting online.

  • The “lowest common denominator” strategy, or only making posts that you’re comfortable with anybody seeing, staying away from anything controversial or overly personal.
  • “Social syphentation,” or migrating your conversation to a place where you have a smaller audience, like a group text, Instagram DMs or Snapchat, where the context and audience are clear.
  • People are also avoiding context collapse by turning to more ephemeral mediums, like Instagram stories and Snapchat. These posts don’t stick around, so you can share without as much worry about the consequences.

Paring down your network is a way to fight against context collapse and the sense of loneliness we get from being online. You’ll feel more comfortable expressing yourself if you know who your followers are.

“Research shows that a ‘like’ doesn’t actually do much for our relationships,” Pennington said. “But if I leave a comment and we engage in a dialogue, or if I send a private message, that has weight.”

And remember those privacy settings, and use them. Not everyone needs to see every post you make. And if you see something you don’t want to see, feel free to mute it.

“People aren’t always aware of privacy settings,” she said. “They passively consume social media.”

Facebook-dumped

I got Facebook in 2005, when it was really just a way to connect with other college students.

But today Facebook has billions of active users, and it continues to grow rapidly in other countries outside the U.S. It just isn’t the same space — or context — as before.

We shouldn’t feel the need to stay loyal to a particular social media platform, even if it was important to us when we were younger. But a lot of people do.

“One of the things we’re finding is that the social media you grow up on impacts what you use later in life,” Marwick said. “In the past 10 years, the people who used Twitter or Snapchat in high school tended to stay on those platforms and do most of their sharing there.”

Full disclosure: In 2006, my boyfriend Facebook-dumped me the day the Newsfeed feature went live.

It was pretty crushing to see our breakup on the top of everyone’s Facebook homepage. Maybe I should have quit the platform then and there. But I’m still on Facebook, checking up on all my old friends every couple days. And I’ve never really known why.

Understanding the sociology of social media means you can be more mindful about how you use it. Hopefully, your online life will be more fulfilling because of it. Or, maybe you’ll decide to give it up all together.

If you do stick around, don’t expect to ever find that “authentic” online version of yourself.

“There really isn’t such a thing,” Marwick said. “It’s really always a performance.”

A headshot of Jamie Lynne Burgess. PBS Rewire. Jamie Lynne Burgess

Jamie Lynne Burgess is a writer who is fascinated by how places shape culture. She also loves podcasts, personal essays and public libraries. Get in touch on Twitter @jamburgess or follow her on instagram @jamielynneburgess.