This is not a typical blog post. It has far too many words–many of which are jargony– no images, and formal citations where readers would expect/prefer hyperlinks. Rather, this is a literature review. A dry recapitulation of the often formulaic work of established scholars, forged by two low-on-the-totem-pole bloggers with the hope of acceptance into the scholarly realm through professionally recognized channels–in this case, the American Sociological Association annual meetings. Nathan Jurgenson (@nathanjurgenson) and I are working to further theorize context collapse. To do so, however, we need to fully understand how the concept is being and has been used. Below we offer such an account, and ask readers to point out anything we’ve missed or perhaps misrepresented. In short, we hope to share our labors, and invite readers to tell us how we can do better.
Recognizing that this is an atypically time/energy intensive blog reading experience, I offer you, the reader, a joyous and theoretically relevant moment with George Costanza before the onslaught of text:
Context Collapse: Background, Definitions, and Uses within the Literature
In beginning a discussion of context collapse, we must make two key points. First, although we focus here on context collapse, it is important to situate it within the larger scholarly image of this historical moment, and the widely cited affordances and dynamics of networked publics. Second, the affordances and dynamics of networked publics are implicitly located in juxtaposition to a more analogue era, and in particular, face-to-face interaction (although pre-digital electronics are fair game for juxtaposition as well).
The Pew Internet and American Life Project indicates that 69% of Americans utilize some form of social media with over 90% under the age of thirty having at least one social media account (brenner 2012). More concretely, Facebook, the predominant social media platform, reports a billion active users per month as of October 2012, most of which reside outside of the U.S. (Facebook.com 2012). In short, we live in a connected era, and sociality is largely affected by emerging technological platforms.
boyd (2008) refers to the new interaction structure resulting from an increasingly mediated form of sociality as “networked publics,” with the key interaction media being social network sites. Social network sites are defined as ‘‘web-based services that allow individuals to (1) construct a public or semi-public profile within a bounded system, (2) articulates a list of other users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their list of connections and those made by others within the system” (boyd and Ellison 2007). The content generated within network publics hold particular affordances and interconnected dynamics. In particular, content produced and consumed through social media and within networked publics is persistent, replicable, scalable, and searchable. With these affordances, actors within a networked public must manage invisible audiences, context collapse, and the blurring of private and public (boyd 2010).
Persistence refers to the continual availability of content beyond the temporal moment of its creation. Even when deleted, the content may have spread and may be stored and potentially altered, in a variety of physical and digital locations maintained by other users. The content is scalable in that it is often shared with a large and likely diverse audience, who can further share the content with their own networks, expanding the reach far beyond the local interaction situation. Also, the content is searchable, such that it is stored on servers and becomes re-available when it matches key terms typed in by another user. Papacharissi (2011) suggests a fifth structural affordance, pertaining to shareability, or the tendency of networked digital structures to encourage sharing over withholding information. As Stutzman (2006) has argued, this is perhaps why so many people share as much as they do on social media.
These affordances of networked publics create dynamics to be managed by networked individuals. Invisible audiences refer to the necessarily obscured nature of the viewership for one’s self-presentation and/or content creation. Although users often act as though their audiences are bounded, they are in fact, potentially limitless (Marwick and boyd 2011). Moreover, these audiences (actual and potential), by default, span multiple arenas of the actor’s social world; collapsing contexts that were previously segmented. Finally, networked publics are characterized by a blurring of private and public, such that personal life is increasingly fare for public interaction, and personal data becomes part of an aggregated database.
With this in mind, we further expound upon the literature surrounding context collapse, and its affects upon interaction and identity processes. Social actors hold many roles throughout the life course and simultaneously at any given moment within the life course. For instance, one may be a mother, sister, athlete, student, and exotic dancer. For each role, the social actor maintains particular identity meanings guiding who s/he is, and a network of others who (typically) share these expectations. Although the expectations across roles may coincide neatly, it is most often the case that each role bears slightly different meanings, and in some cases, highly contradictory ones.
Social psychologists argue that we come to know ourselves by seeing what we do and how others react to us, and that through interaction, actors seek to maintain the identity meanings associated with each role (Burke and Stets 2009; Cooley 1902; Mead 1934). Indeed, Mead (1934) contends that for each role the actor plays, there is a separate Generalized Other, or larger moral understanding of who the person is and how the person is expected to be in the world, and that social actors manage their roles by adhering to disparate expectations as is situationally necessary. Similarly, Goffman (1959) demonstrates the skillful ways in which social actors reveal and conceal aspects of themselves for varying audiences, maintaining separate faces within distinct social arenas, while Leary (1995) discusses playing to each audience, their values, and their perceived positive opinion of the actor.
The notion of context collapse complicates this artful dance between networks and across Generalized Others. Indeed, within the social media space, these diverse Generalized Others converge into a single mass, such that the actor must now present to her/his family, colleagues, and drinking buddies, each of whom harbor different views of who the actor is, and different interactional and presentational expectations. Concretely, this may mean that a beer-bong picture of the target actor at a fraternity party can become visible to her/his boss, and perhaps worse yet, her/his mother.
Further, unlike early forms of computer-mediated-communication that facilitate strong actor control over the presented self (Walther 1996), social network sites facilitate the relinquishing of presentational control. Indeed, social network sites are first and foremost social, and each profile is a co-construction through public wall posts and tagged status updates, pictures, and comments (Marwick and Ellison 2012; Vitak 2012). That is, profiled content is both self-generated and other generated. Through the warranting principle (Walther, Van Der Heide, Hamel, and Shulman 2009), audiences give greater credence to other-generated content (OGC), granting the tagged picture greater weight than the image posted intentionally by the actor her/himself.
This is not to say that context collapse is absent from face-to-face settings, or only emerged with Web 2.0 technologies. On the contrary, weddings, funerals, and public community gathering spaces have long been sites of merging networks and divergent actor expectations (Marwick and Ellison 2012). Rather, context collapse is exacerbated by the affordances of social media and dynamics of networked publics, such that the relative segmentation of earlier times becomes more salient, as the relative blending of networked others in the present era takes on defaults status.
Largely, context collapse is difficult to avoid due to the architecture and normative structure of social media space. In such a space users are searchable, the cost of connection is very low, and norms dictate that requests for connection (i.e. “friend requests”) be honored if the actor knows the requestor in even the most distant capacity (McLaughlin and Vitak 2012). Indeed, the ease with which networks grow within this setting has re-set the meaning of network size such that very large networks are no longer status symbols or signs of popularity, but discrediting signifiers of narcissism and/or in-authenticity (Donath and boyd 2004; Ellison, Steinfield, and Lampe 2011; Tong, Van Der Heide, Langwell, and Walther 2008).
Research shows several ways in which users manage context collapse. Hogan (2010) introduces the lowest common denominator approach, or limiting content to that which will be appropriate for every member of the network. Others skillfully navigate the architecture itself, utilizing privacy settings, deleting offending OGC, and engaging re-segmentation tools within the social media platform. For instance, one may block some members of her/his network from viewing some aspects of the profile, or from viewing the content of a particular post. Similarly, the user can designate particular recipients for each post, disaggregating the network based on particular expectations about the actor (Marwick and Ellison 2012; Stutzman, Capra, and Thompson 2011; Vitak 2012). Still others circumvent the system altogether, utilizing aliases to make themselves unsearchable, and/or creating multiple accounts for multiple audiences—both of which go against Facebook and Google+ Terms of Service (ToS) (Lim, Vadrevu, Chan, and Basnyat 2012; Raynes-Goldie 2010).
Context collapse, however, is the default state, and each technique with which to trouble this state, comes at a cost. The lowest common denominator approach limits the deeps kinds of connection made possible through social network sites, and requires a surface level presentation and interaction, despite the potential to strengthen existing ties through sharing. The skillful navigation of the site comes with a time cost, and requires a particular level of skill to exist as a viable. Finally, circumventing ToS puts the actor at risk of expulsion from participation altogether.
Moreover, efforts to limit the network, and in particular, explicit efforts to curate the profiled content, run counter to expectations of accurate representation and threaten authenticity (Davis 2012). Further, and perhaps most interestingly, each of these techniques, which work to re-segment and effectively shrink a large diverse Network into smaller homogonous networks, strip from the user the social capital made possible by social network sites (Vitak 2012). Indeed, social network sites, though certainly presenting a threat to privacy, are also a means by which users can maintain weak ties, accessing an array of resources, novel ideas, and opportunities brought about by the bridges of a single large Network (Ellison, Steinfield, and Lampe 2007; Ellison, Steinfield, and Lampe 2011).
Like all social phenomena, one would expect context collapse and its consequences to affect different kinds of people differently. Although little work has been done on the differential affects of context collapse and/or its management techniques, there are indications that status and power differentials within the social structure will be reflected within these variations. First, if expanded networks result in bridging social capital (Ellison, Steinfield, and Lampe 2007; Ellison, Steinfield, and Lampe 2011) then those with the need to acquire such capital (e.g. those without jobs, in need of material resources from others etc.) have the most to lose by avoiding a large and diverse network (Rainie and Wellman 2012). At the same time, those who enact non-normative identities, or engage in socially reprimanded behaviors may need to keep their networks segmented in order to avoid social rejection, physical harm, or even institutionalization (Lim, Vadrevu, Chan, and Basnyat 2012). Finally, the ability to choose re-segmentation is largely dependent upon user skill level and technological comfort, which will vary by race, class, gender, and age.
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