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Open for Debate

Context Needed

26 December 2022

It may be hard for us to admit, but many of us are two-faced. That is to say, we act differently depending on who we’re with. We might be polite and affectionate with parents, playful with friends, and calm and composed with colleagues. And that’s no bad thing; adjusting how we behave and present ourselves helps us develop a variety of important social relationships.

Social media, however, throws a spanner in the works. It undermines our ability to vary our self-presentation in different contexts by bringing our different social worlds together; on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, we find ourselves communicating with our parents, friends, and colleagues, all at once. Internet theorist danah boyd calls this phenomenon ‘context collapse’. Context collapse, she thinks, forces us ‘to grapple simultaneously with otherwise unrelated social contexts that are rooted in different norms and seemingly demand different social responses’.[i]

Context collapse poses challenges for our relationships and our identities; it forces us to wrestle with conflicting social norms, which can make us appear chaotic and insincere. And it has serious consequences for communication, too. It often involves the collapsing of not only audiences, but also conversations, creating a communicative chaos that is ripe for misunderstanding and manipulation.

David Lewis suggests that each conversation is like a sports game; it has a set of players, a set of rules (specifying appropriate and inappropriate moves, and the general goal of the conversation), and an evolving scoreboard, which keeps track of the moves made by each speaker.[ii] To understand a conversation, we must get a grip on who the players are, what the rules are, and what the score is so far.

This is a good way of thinking about offline conversations, but we must tweak the model to accommodate conversations on social media. Due to context collapse, online conversations are less like a single sports game, and more like a chaotic melee of overlapping, intersecting sports games – like baseball, rounders, and softball happening all at once, with an evolving set of players, some of whom might attempt to play more than one game simultaneously. For both players and onlookers, this can be incredibly confusing.

Due to context collapse online, you might find yourself held to conversational rules you didn’t realise you were subject to, just as a player in our sports game melee might be scolded for breaking the rules of baseball when she thought she was playing softball. An in-joke that you thought you were making among friends in a light-hearted exchange of banter might be interpreted by others as a serious, offensive contribution to political debate, for example, and you might be heavily blamed, even shamed, for it.

Context collapse also creates ample opportunities for de-railing and manipulation. Users can infiltrate other people’s conversations with the purpose of disrupting them, as racists sometimes do by entering conversations about the Black Lives Matter movement and commenting ‘All Lives Matter’, thereby misrepresenting the nature of anti-racist discourse and forcing activists to waste time explaining themselves.

In addition, context collapse offers bad-faith, prejudiced speakers some plausible deniability – if called out for their bigoted messages, they can claim that they were participating in a satirical conversation or joking with friends. In fact, context collapse seems to incentivise the use of a particularly sneaky, hard to pin-down kind of oppressive speech – dog-whistles. A dog-whistle is a coded word or phrase that has different meanings for different audiences, in the same way the high-pitched noise of a dog-whistle is audible only to dogs and not humans. For example, antisemites sometimes use ‘international bankers’ to signal hostility towards Jewish people, as the phrase signals familiarity with the antisemitic text The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. As contexts proliferate online, prejudiced speakers have incentives to get more creative in their use of dog-whistles. They need their messages to appear benign in a variety of different contexts, but nonetheless convey the right information to the right people. One new dog-whistle that does this well is the seemingly innocuous ‘okay sign’ emoji, which surreptitiously signals allegiance to the white power movement.

Even speakers who have no intention of spreading malicious ideas may find themselves changing what they say and do online in light of context collapse. When a speaker knows that what she says may be taken as a contribution to multiple conversations and be interpreted by many different hearers, she may choose to share content which will be appropriate for every possible audience member – internet theorist Bernie Hogan calls this this ‘lowest common denominator’ approach.[iii] In practice, this can motivate speakers to share inane or superficial content. Other internet users, however, choose to capitalise on context collapse by posting content which is as attention-grabbing as possible, in an attempt to maximise the number of people who engage with it (either positively or negatively). Neither form of engagement seems particularly likely to facilitate authentic and interesting conversation.

Context collapse is inherent to most popular social media platforms, so a nuclear solution to these problems would be to abandon social media altogether. Yet this is quite a sacrifice, and, moreover, context collapse is not always a bad thing. The interactions it facilitates can lead to knowledge exchange and fruitful collaboration. It can help political activists engage new audiences, for example, and enables people to co-ordinate relief action during national disasters, conflicts, and pandemics.

Our best recourse for now, then, is to use social media platforms strategically, sharing only content we would be happy circulating beyond our immediate circle of friends and followers. There is room for hope, however – new social media platforms are in development, and the decentralised, ‘federated’ nature of Mastodon, the platform recently touted as a possible alternative to Twitter, may already partially mitigate some kinds of context collapse. If social media dominance can be wrestled away from Meta and Musk, we might be able to enjoy the many benefits of participating in a global conversation, while leaving precious context intact.

Photo by Hugh Han on Unsplash

[i] danah boyd (2014), It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens, New Haven: Yale University Press.

[ii] David Lewis (1979), ‘Scorekeeping in a Language Game’, Journal of Philosophical Logic 8 (3): 339–59.

[iii] Bernie Hogan (2010), ‘The Presentation of Self in the Age of Social Media: Distinguishing Performances and Exhibitions Online’, Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society 30(6): 377–86.