Context Collapse

What it is, and how the pandemic has amplified it.

Posted Dec 01, 2020

Andrew Neel/Pexels
Source: Andrew Neel/Pexels

Context collapse has been discussed in the technology-sphere, specifically as it relates to social media usage, for quite a while. Considering how our lives are so intertwined with our devices, a consideration of how context collapse can influence our relationships, especially as boundaries are blurred during the pandemic, is warranted.

Context collapse occurs when different detached spheres of a network combine, and boundaries are burred (Gil-Lopez, Shen, Benefield, Palomares, Kosinski, & Stillwell, 2018). As social media users’ networks get larger, the potential for context collapse increases, as does the nature of self-disclosure (Gil-Lopez et al., 2018). For example, when logging on to a social media app, you may have disparate networks consisting of friends, family, co-workers, etc. Sometimes these networks overlap, but in many cases, they are separate. When these different spheres collide and are present in the same space (i.e., a social media platform), the nature and likelihood of what one shares may change.

A study of 6,378 Facebook users, with a mean age of 25.31, was conducted to examine how context collapse influences how and what a user discloses (Gil-Lopez et al., 2018). It has been thought that the larger and more diverse a person’s social sphere is, the less likely a person is to share personal information, as it may reach those that it is not intended for. Therefore, it is believed that as networks increase in size, people are more likely to censor themselves. However, the researchers found that having a large and heterogeneous network were both associated with a greater number of status updates.

The researchers also found that network size was positively correlated to the number of positive emotions shared and negatively associated with the number of negative emotions a user shared. Conversely, network heterogeneity was correlated with more negative emotional disclosures and fewer positive postings. Heterogeneity of the social media audience was associated with “...increased use of words reflecting personal concerns and first-person singular pronouns” (Gil-Lopez et al., 2018, p. 138). Therefore, having a diverse audience/following did not stop users from sharing personal information.

The results contradict the commonly held idea that people with larger networks are less likely to disclose. The researchers posit that “…large and diverse audiences may generate more chances to communicate, and posting to such audiences is rewarding given increased chances for audience feedback, interaction with distant others, or access to novel information” (Granovetter, 1973, as cited in Gil-Lopez et al., 2018, p 138).

The research showed that not only do people consider how much they disclose, but what they disclose and the way in which they share it. Social media users varied their linguistic style less when there were a greater number of disparate audiences on the site and when their networks were larger. The researchers note that this suggests that self-presentation may be influenced by the audience, and as such, people may have adopted a “one-size-fits-all approach” to sharing messages that would not put their image at risk (Gil-Lopez et al., 2018). The more people present in your social media sphere, the more discerning you may need to be about how information is shared, and self-image may become a larger concern. For example, talking in a negative manner about work may not be the best idea when many co-workers are members of that network.

What is interesting is that people’s mental representations of their audience can also influence their likelihood to share something negative. As an audience becomes increasingly large and diverse, the specific individuals that make up that audience may seem more distant. In such a case, people may be relying on their mental representations of their intended audience (Gil-Lopez et al., 2018).

While with a large audience, a user may be more likely to share positive information, surprisingly, a more diverse audience may lead a person to share negative information. A user may share negative disclosures when there are varied subgroups in the network, as it is more likely that it would lead to greater support. Specifically, the researchers share, “heterogeneous audiences may foster sharing more in general, and more negative emotions specifically, which may be a means to draw on audience diversity to gain social support. Thus, whereas large network size is associated with a more positive self-image and fewer opportunities for seeking social support, audience fragmentation may have an opposite effect" (Gil-Lopez et al., 2018, p. 139).

Context Collapse in the Pandemic

So how might this study relate to our current experience during the pandemic? After a recent conversation with a friend in which we were discussing the joys and perils of working from home for months on end, I realized that while our meetings, obligations, and social networks may have largely remained the same, the context in which we connect has changed dramatically. Once meeting with officemates in workplace kitchens around the coffeemaker, we are now connecting virtually from our makeshift offices. Therefore, our co-workers are getting a different, more personal view of us and our lives. Many virtual meetings consist of pop-ins from children, animals, etc., as boundaries have blurred.

In this way, varied social groups are existing in one space, as they are all accessing you as you work from home. Another example of dealing with this context collapse and self-disclosure is that a colleague of mine recently commented about one of the pieces of artwork behind me during a video call. The particular piece she commented on was one that I had drawn. While this may seem innocuous (and it certainly is), this person, who knows very little about my personal life, now had a deeper insight into my world, my hobbies, and interests. It’s interesting to think about how this little exchange may have shifted our relationship. A collapse of contexts gave us an entry point into infusing more personal aspects of our lives.

I am not categorizing the context collapse in this new work-from-home situation as positive or negative; it varies with each individual and their unique circumstances. Different people choose to create boundaries in different ways. However, simply being aware of our various audiences, what we present to them, and how the pandemic has changed things is quite enlightening. Perhaps you can take some time to reflect on your relationships, how they have changed, and how you may want them to going forward.

References

Gil-Lopez, T., Shen, C., Benefield, G. A., Palomares, N. A., Kosinski, M., & Stillwell, D. (2018). One size fits all: Context collapse, self-presentation strategies and language styles on Facebook. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 23(3), 127-145.