how “context collapse” was coined: my recollection

Various academic folks keep writing to me asking me if I coined “context collapse” and so I went back in my record to try to figure it out. I feel the need to offer up my understanding of how this term came to be in an artifact that is more than 140 characters since folks keep asking anew. The only thing that I know for certain is that, even if I did (help) coin the term, I didn’t mean to. I was mostly trying to help explain a phenomenon that has long existed and exists in even more complicated ways as a result of social media.

In 2002, I wrote a thesis at the MIT Media Lab called “Faceted Id/entity” that drew heavily on the works of Erving Goffman and Joshua Meyrowitz. In it, I wrote an entire section talking about “collapsed contexts” and I kept coming back to this idea (descriptively without ever properly defining it). My thesis was all about contexts and the ways of managing identity in different contexts. I was (am) absolutely in love with Meyrowitz’s book “No Sense of Place” which laid out the challenges of people navigating multiple audiences as a result of media artifacts (e.g., stories around vacation photos).

Going back through older files, I found powerpoints from various talks that I gave in 2003 and 2004 that took the concept of “collapsed contexts” to Friendster to talk about what happened when the Burners and gay men and geeks realized they were on the site together. And an early discussion of how there are physical collapsed contexts that are addressed through the consumption of alcohol. In a few of my notes in these, I swapped the term to “context collapse” when referring to the result but I mostly used “collapsed contexts.”

Articles that I was writing from 2005-2008 still referred to “collapsed contexts.” (See: Profiles as Conversation and Friends, Friendsters, and Top 8, and my dissertation.) My dissertation made “collapsed contexts” a central concept.

In 2009, Alice Marwick and I started collaborating. She was fascinated by the arguments I was making in my dissertation on collapsed contexts and imagined audiences and started challenging me on aspects of them through her work on micro-celebrity. She collected data about how Twitter users navigated audiences and we collaborated on a paper called “I tweet honestly, I tweet passionately: Twitter users, context collapse, and the imagined audience” which was submitted in 2009 and finally published in 2011. To the best that I can tell, this is the first time that I used “context collapse” instead of “collapsed contexts” in published writing, but I have no recollection as to why we shifted from “collapsed contexts” to “context collapse.”

Meanwhile, in 2009, Michael Wesch published an article called “YouTube and You: Experiences of Self-awareness in the Context Collapse of the Recording Webcam” that goes back to Goffman. While we ran in the same circles, I’m not sure that either one of us was directly building off of the other but we were clearly building off of common roots. (Guiltily, I must admit that I didn’t know about or read this article of his until much later and long after Alice and I wrote our paper. And I have no idea whether or not he read my papers where I discussed “collapsed contexts.”)

When I refer to context collapse now, I often point back to Joshua Meyrowitz because he’s the one that helped that concept really click in my head, even if he didn’t call it “collapsed contexts” or “context collapse.” As with many academic concepts, I see the notion of “context collapse” as being produced iteratively through intellectual interaction as opposed to some isolated insight that just appeared out of nowhere. I certainly appreciate the recognition that I’ve received for helping others think about these issues, but I’m very much hand-in-hand with and standing on the shoulders of giants.

If others have more insights into how this came into being, please let me know and I will update accordingly!

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1 thought on “how “context collapse” was coined: my recollection

  1. Brian O' Hanlon

    As I recall, we used to worry about things like walled gardens, and these things can be important. Danah and by others I read were working on these questions. In technology, so many things thrive when they are confined into a space.

    Technology is full of examples of boundaries, which work from a social point of view, or a commercial point of view.

    It is funny, because they talk about it too in the history of urbanism, and what the idea of a wall around a city might have meant to occupants of that city, if it didn’t actually perform a defensive kind of function for long lengths of time.

    In cities, even where those walls have long gone, they still can exist in some kind of outline, and inform our perceptions of where the city ends and begins, without actually seeing the physical wall there.

    Something did happen though, in the 2003-04 period, which Danah mentions, in relation to her lecture slides.

    The walls sort of fell down I remember around 2003-ish, or shortly thereafter. That was a real cause of concern for a lot of people. Many of us assumed that at least some walls could continue to exist just a little bit longer than they did.

    It was quite simple actually, in that many researchers observed that the glue that had previously held online based communities together was the lack of a searchable network. Once everyone got a free travel space, to go wherever they wished to go on the network, it altered everyone’s perception of what it meant to have a network, and what it might mean to have a community that existed on that network.

    The walls suddenly lost their value.

    At the same time as walls disappeared suddenly without any warning, there was a scramble to look around for what could carry out a similar function, in a networked world which was defined more by superhighways, than by walled enclosures where different tribes could share something together in the same space.

    Like the earlier history of the network though, its continued development seemed to rely on boot strapping, in which an ecosystem was created and then destroyed, or superceded. Long time observers of the network have commented on this, and how pieces of social networking infrastructure which had been essential to communities at one time, then suddenly disappeared into history, as if leaving no trace behind at all.

    And in all of that story, it is often hard to no where the technological ends and the social begins.

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