Context collapse in social media

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Last Update

  • Updated.jpg 7 January 2014


See also danah boyd | Digital identity | Machinima | Second Life | Social capital | Michael Wesch

"...Social media technologies collapse multiple audiences into single contexts, making it difficult for people to use the same techniques online that they do to handle multiplicity in face-to-face conversation..." (Marwick & Boyd, 2011)
" media not only introduces new ways for us to express ourselves, but new forms of self-awareness—new ways to reflect on who we are and how we relate to others...'

Context collapse is a concept used by those academics writing about the effects of social media. It refers to the infinite audiences possible online as opposed to the limited groups a person can normally interact with in F2F circumstances. In bounded interactions, people adjust their tone and presentation to fit the social context. In a situation of context collapse, this becomes impossible. In addition, behaviours and materials intended for a limited audience can suddenly clash with parts of the wider audience they actually receive. The notion of context collapse probably goes back to Baudrillard's concept of hyper-reality and the collapse of the real and unreal; the collapse of the distinction at least of what is imaginary and what seems "real".

According to Wesch, in face-to-face communication we assess the context of our interactions in order to decide how we will act, what we will say, and how we will construct (and present) ourselves. As Goffman says, we continuously, unconsciously take note of our surroundings, those present, and the overall tone and temperature of the scene to move through it. As social beings, we have become adept at sussing out and performing micro-calculations in the micro-second gaps of conversation in order to move through those situations. When engaged in social interactions, we evaluate situations and people as well as ourselves and how we fit into them. These are necessary to engage in conversation and to be social. In Goffman's terms, we develop a “line” and present versions of ourselves. What we portray in this self-presentation (our “face”) is negotiated, a process that Goffman calls “face-work”.

In social media, face work does not have the same currency or value because we don't see the expressions of those with whom we are communicating. Further, there is context collapse, or homogenization of context, because all of the micro-calculations we used to make by evaluating a situation are gone, removed and collapsed in social media.

Origin of the term

The term was coined by cultural anthropologist Michael Wesch at Kansas State University. Wesch first used it in his talk An Anthropological Introduction to Youtube. He defined the term in more detail in a "Context Collapse" at See also: YouTube and You: Experiences of Self-awareness in the Context Collapse of the Recording.

Context collapse in medicine

According to Vitak (2012), "...A large body of research argues that self-presentation strategies vary based on audience. But what happens when the technical features of Web sites enable—or even require—users to make personal disclosures to multiple audiences at once, as is often the case on social network sites (SNSs)? Do users apply a lowest common denominator approach, only making disclosures that are appropriate for all audience members? Do they employ technological tools to disaggregate audiences? When considering the resources that can be harnessed from SNS interactions, researchers suggest users need to engage with their network in order to reap benefits. The present study presents a model including network composition, disclosures, privacy-based strategies, and social capital. Results indicate that (1) audience size and diversity impacts disclosures and use of advanced privacy settings, (2) privacy concerns and privacy settings impact disclosures in varying ways; and (3) audience and disclosure characteristics predict bridging social capital."

  • patients talk differently to their doctors than they do to their families; doctors talk differently to their colleagues than they do to their patients, and so on
  • this is called ‘self-presentation’...we navigate and manage presentation of ourselves all the time in everyday life
  • we address people in power over us from different relational positions than we do cashiers in grocery stores, even if we’re entirely respectful in both interactions; as Goffman (1959) says, we have different ‘faces’ for these different facets of our lives
  • we have lots of faces, and navigate between them all the time, what boyd and Wesch call context collapse
  • more and more, patients are navigating context collapse every day; some use privacy settings to minimize it, or keep worlds separate; others cultivate broad public selves via social media; every time a patient sits in front of a computer, he has to imagine, as Wesch puts it, the nearly infinite contexts we might be entering (Wesch, 2009).
  • we live in a networked information environment with increased horizontal access to information and the means of producing it; role blurring occurs, between students/teachers, patients/doctors, novices/experts, as information becomes impossible to contain
  • physicians are no longer the sole reservoirs of medical knowledge; health professionals no longer solely control the secrets of healing

Other quotes

  • "people strive to compensate for “context collapse” and “invisible audiences” online, which make it difficult to present a distinct and preferred me to each separate reference group"
  • "The physician normally works within an identifiable bounded context. There is a discussion of symptoms (the aches and pains patients report) and signs (what their doctors observe directly by examining) create a model of diagnostic interpretation. Symptoms reside within the patient but signs are seen (or observed) on or in the body. Typically a visit to the doctor is constructed by 1) asking patients to explain their symptoms, and 2) then (and only then) examining the body for signs as thrown into relief by the reported symptoms. This is then written as a narrative of discovery, and crucially includes the diagnostician's applied knowledge."
  • "...the high premium placed on authenticity among social media users is reflected among and internalized by them (according to Mead) its core, authenticity is a value of “being yourself,” yet in striving to do so (in social media at least) it could be said you are being everyone else..."
  • "... [context collapse] forces us to think about our own identity. The question “Who am I?” is a wonderful portal into an inner dialog about some of the deepest aspects of ourselves. What I see online participation doing is causing many people to put themselves into these context-divorced environments where they are being forced to ask this question (something they may not have otherwise asked at this point in their lives if it weren’t for the engagement in this media)..."
  • "... Social media is one big context collapse, but it’s not fun to behave as though being online is a perpetual job interview. Thus, many people lower their guards and try to signal what context they want to be in, hoping others will follow suit. When that’s not enough, they encode their messages to be only relevant to a narrower audience. This is neither good, nor bad; it’s simply how people are learning to manage their lives in a networked world where they cannot assume strict boundaries between distinct contexts. Lacking spatial separation, people construct context through language and interaction..."


  • In the digital age, relationships are mediated by social media; social media are changing the nature of these relationships
  • We negotiate our identities through our relationships with others; as social beings we maintain relationships that require multiple micro-shifts of identity
  • A change in media will alter our relationships with others and it will also affect how we create our identities
  • new media spaces are a networked information environment where information is difficult to contain - the result is context collapse as information from one context bleeds into another
  • We will need to rethink a lot of things - business, education, identity, and values (to name a few)
  • This is important because we are all navigating this new media environment; social media has a tremendous impact on mediating relationships; all health professionals need to be thoughtful about how we use media and attempt to understand these tools


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