Context collapse

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Context collapse
7 Min Read

The flow of posts in social media. Do you really have to take issue with everything posted?

There are around 397 million users on Twitter (as of January 2022), 2.9 billion on Facebook (2021), and 1.3 billion on Instagram (2020). With that many people occupying one space, with access to almost every corner of those platforms, it would be a bold assumption to think everyone is going to get along or have the same opinions.

So what happens when you have that many different views in one place?

It’s easy for a tweet to be seen by someone other than the intended audience. So how does the unintended audience react to seeing it? If they aren’t seeing the underlying context, sometimes they can view the tweet (or post, or whatever means of social media communication) in a more negative way.

Of course, that person could simply read it and move on if it doesn’t align with their own values– especially if the post wasn’t directly intended for them– but social media doesn’t often work like that. An argument or stream of harassment can come from a simple, out-of-context moment and snowball.

It’s partially due to a phenomenon tech researchers refer to as “context collapse”.

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. Context collapse "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. [X]

Twitter is arguably the place where it can happen the easiest. Things like the Trending Now section, or even retweeted is a door to possible context collapses. While you might say something you know your followers or friends will understand, as it makes its way through the grapevine it can evolve and reach an audience that has no idea what you meant and might take an issue with it.

Since social media can be so vast, and our circles of friends so broad, it can be awkward and slightly difficult at times to navigate conversations on an online platform. A repost on Facebook about the latest protest might be a hit with your pals, but you already know the one uncle you have is going to write a scathing reply to it.

So is it worth it?

I suppose it depends on the kind of person you are. You never have to engage with the other person, just like they have a choice to keep scrolling past your posts! There’s also the possibility that with a proper conversation (I don’t mean just a stream of accusations and angry-faced emojis) about the topic you could both come out the other end with a more educated view on the subject.

Of course, context collapse doesn't happen exclusively online.

A wedding is a perfect example of its application in real-life. The different personalities you have attending a wedding can be extremely vast, and we’ve all heard stories of the delicate balancing act performed at them. The blessing about a wedding is that, at the end of the night, you’re done and can move on past the event.

Online, it isn’t quite as easy. Unless you’re regularly culling your posts and tweets, or sorting through your followers and friends, what happens online… kind of stays online. It becomes much harder to disconnect when something from 5 years ago could be easily dredged up and rehashed once more.

There are some ways to handle this phenomenon:

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.

Of course, in an ideal situation, we would all focus more on the “keep scrolling” if it doesn’t align kind of action, and we can hope that it becomes the norm one day.

This also brings to light the thing we seem to be missing, even with the world at our fingertips: genuine, human connection. Our social circles keep growing, but the things we share seem to become more and more curated. It’s important to cultivate relationships where we can engage in interesting conversations, be ourselves, and feel recharged from the encounter. Z Form is here to help.