Context Collapse

danah boyd

Context collapse or ‘the flattening of multiple audiences into a single context’ is a term arising out of the study of human interaction on the internet, especially within social media.

It ‘generally occurs when a surfeit of different audiences occupy the same space, and a piece of information intended for one audience finds its way to another’ with that new audience or audiences’ understanding being all the stronger for failing to understand the original context.

The term grew out of the work of sociologist Erving Goffman and professor of communication Joshua Meyrowitz. In his book ‘No Sense of Place’ (1985), Meyrowitz first applied the concept to media like television and the radio. He claimed that this new kind of technology broke barriers between different kinds of audiences as the content being produced was broadcast widely. The term was first used in print by communications scholars danah boyd and Alice Marwick, and Media ecologist Michael Wesch. boyd is attributed with coining the term ‘collapsed contexts’ in the early 2000s in reference to social media sites like MySpace and Friendster.

The concept of context collapse has become much more prominent with the rise of social media because many of these platforms, like Twitter, restrict users from specifically identifying and determining their audience. On Twitter, context collapse is seen with the retweeting functionality. When a public user posts a social media post known as a ‘tweet,’ it can be retweeted by anyone, thus introducing the content to a new audience. To avoid any unwanted attention, some users may resort to the ‘lowest common denominator’ approach. This is when a user may only post content online they know would be appropriate for all of their audience members.

There are two main types of context collapse: collusions and collisions. Context collusions are considered to be intentional while context collisions are considered to be unintentional. An example of context collusion offline may be a wedding where different social circles are purposefully combined. Online, context collusion is seen on social media sites like Facebook where one may create a post to garner attention from various social groups.

Context collision is seen in the case where someone makes a joke about someone else, not realizing they are also listening. On the web, an example of context collision is when companies accidentally make private information about their users available.

2 Comments to “Context Collapse”

  1. so interesting. I’ve noticed this on my ‘next door’ site, where a neighborhood/section of a city has their own site, and people complain about each other, not thinking that those they complain about may also be on the sight. they are looking for neighbors to commiserate with them about the other neighbor, without considering the fact the neighbor may be reading right along.

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