Long before I stumbled upon the phrase “context collapse,” I witnessed the paradigm shift of younger users abandoning social media stalwarts like Facebook or Twitter for, at the time, smaller, more “artisanal” platforms like Instagram and Snapchat. Facebook soon became the site used to check-in with your parents or post an important announcement like a pregnancy or new home.
What caused the exodus? Was it just the typical lifecycle of a social media site, and Facebook was going the way of Friendster and Myspace? I don’t believe so.
Enter Context Collapse
Context Collapse is a concept that describes the effects of social media; it explains what happens when an infinite number of social groups exist in one place.
The best example of real-life context collapse is a wedding. During my Wedding in 2015, I had an audience composed of my friends, family, coworkers, and people on my wife’s side that were essentially strangers to me.
Before social media, we spoke to different audiences in different ways. The way we talk to our close friends, parents, colleagues, and strangers is different — moving from group to group, we adjust our presentation to fit the context. However, online, with lists of followers in the thousands, our audience becomes challenging to address as a whole — leading to social anxiety, less engagement, and eventually leaving the platform.
Although context collapse is not exclusive to social media, in a time that many are working from home and spending more time in our digital personas, the balance is tipped in its favor. The best example of real-life context collapse is a wedding. During my Wedding in 2015, I had an audience composed of my friends, family, coworkers, and people on my wife’s side that were essentially strangers to me. It was tiring, to say the least, determining at every interaction how my actions and mannerisms would be perceived by a mixed audience.
The main difference between context collapse at my Wedding and context collapse online — when I wake up the next morning, the experiment is over.
Context Collapse and Social Media
In the early days of social media, context collapse was not a problem like it is today. If you were interested in cars, you joined a forum dedicated to cars and had conversations with other car-lovers. You commented on a friend’s MySpace page, posted on their Facebook wall or sent them an instant message on AIM. These methods were direct, and for the most part, still within our online walled gardens until Facebook introduced a controversial new feature: The Newsfeed.
“You have one identity. The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly.”
The News Feed changed everything. Before, if you commented on John’s wall, it was only visible if someone visited John’s page. With the News Feed, every interaction between users was displayed for all to see. The audience of a small group of friends quickly exploded to include everyone.
Context collapse of social media leveled the exchange of information, allowing for the announcement of a presidential campaign to carry the same weight as a picture of a cat and dog cuddling or meme. As the content leveled, so did our ability to interact with it. The “like” button is the same response to all of the above.
In a 2010 interview, Mark Zuckerberg put it bluntly: “You have one identity. The days of you having a different image for your work friends or coworkers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly.”
The New Class
After the explosive growth of Facebook, in which everyone from your parents and boss to your great-grandparents became active users, many users started to rebel. Most did not abandon the platform altogether, but many focused their time with more private applications such as Snapchat and Instagram. Platforms that featured a narrower audience without the anxiety of determining how your boss will perceive you “liking” your friend’s drunken bar photo.
The differences between Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat became blurred as the apps were homogenized — copying and sharing essentially the same features — 24-hour stories, disappearing messages, and fun camera filters.
For a time, these platforms offered an outlet to restore the old social boundaries within a new arena. These platforms connected close friends in different ways. Instagram, by allowing you to curate your life with your friends and the ability to direct message each other. Snapchat introduced the disappearing message, which allowed for even more privacy and fueled the growth early among younger users.
This was a new era for social media, an exciting time when users had distinct options in their social media apps that were unique and served different purposes. However, it did not last long. Instagram was acquired by Facebook in 2012 for a then-unheard-of $1 billion, and Snapchat’s flood of venture capital eventually lead to them succumbing to context collapse as well. The differences between Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat became blurred as the apps were homogenized — copying and sharing essentially the same features — 24-hour stories, disappearing messages, and fun camera filters. All of a sudden, these users faced the same predicament — their audiences have grown to be all-encompassing.
How do we emulate our interactions in real-life, online? Social media is here to stay, but the future is segmented. Facebook is one of the most powerful and influential companies in the world and will likely remain this way; however, individuals will continue to spend more time on platforms that allow them to connect on a smaller scale more easily.
People are spending their time now, in many ways, similar to how we did in the early social media days — forums and direct messaging. Reddit and its curated, near-infinite library of subreddits have replaced the forums of the past. iMessage and WhatsApp for AIM instant messages. Have you noticed the resurgence of email newsletters and platforms such as Medium and Substack? These are platforms that allow users to address the audience of their choice — within context.
As we are spending more of our time in our digital persona, we need to understand the sociology involved with social media. When context collapses, the platform controls the only gate for information. It is an important lesson learned, and one that allows us to be mindful of our presence online and work to be a more accurate representation of our authentic self.