How I deal with “context collapse”

First an admission: this piece came to me after reading this article here but particularly after someone highlighted this paragraph below:

On Twitter, people say things that they think of as ephemeral and chatty. Their utterances are then treated as unequivocal political statements by people outside the conversation. Because there’s a kind of sensationalistic value in interpreting someone’s chattiness in partisan terms, tweets “are taken up as magnum opi to be leapt upon and eviscerated, not only by ideological opponents or threatened employers but by in-network peers.”Anthropologists who study digital spaces have diagnosed that a common problem of online communication is “context collapse.” This plays with the oral-literate distinction: When you speak face-to-face, you’re always judging what you’re saying by the reaction of the person you’re speaking to. But when you write (or make a video or a podcast) online, what you’re saying can go anywhere, get read by anyone, and suddenly your words are finding audiences you never imagined you were speaking to.”

And now a story: a while back a grew disenchanted with my blog. It was a handful. I had to worry about servers, making sure the plug-ins were working, every now and then my theme would stop showing stuff properly, people felt the need to send me a bunch of advice on how to make it more professional. One thing that really annoyed me though were people leaving random comments on year-old articles. Once, someone spotted an article I had written 6 years ago and held me to account for a sentence in which, in all honesty, I was making a rather approximate description of what I thought AdWords was. 6 years on, I had been working for Google and they thought it was pathetic that 5 years previous to my getting that job I was not a Google specialist.

This is where “context collapse” comes in, particularly the part which interests me and which we tend to see with any interaction we have on social media. The part that says that online your words operate without context so they can be given any context. Saussure had this incredible challenge to semiotics students, which was that any sentence placed in the right context could be made to make sense. By that logic, any sentence outside of its given context could be given another context and made to make different sense. That’s context collapse for you, words you write in a certain context, interpreted by people on the other side of the world in their context.

Now to be completely honest, my story above is not an example of context collapse, because that guy was just being mean, he could see the article was really old and could’ve cut me some slack. We all live and learn, bla bla, and all that. But back to my point, there seems to be an inherent risk with every statement one makes on social media these days. If it’s a statement, as opposed to a question, or, even worse, an exclamation, proof of nerves and passion, things we say, when looked at in a sort of temporal suspension seem definitive and defining for who we are. Saying “Trump, what a dick!” in a very charged time in American politics can be a death sentence even though you might have just seen that Megan Kelly comment and be PMSing yourself and in a normal conversation would nuance your point altogether. But in the vacuum of context that the Timeline is your point defines what you think about American politics and can get you punched in Minnesota for sure.

It’s funny, the name Timeline. Because while it’s mean to describe a progression, a flow, it actually shows a number of statements frozen in time at any given time. It generates minute self-portraits of people at the time other people are watching. And it’s not a given that these people see eye to eye or have similar contexts.

How to deal? I’ll tell you what I’ve been doing lately: I think of most of my posts on social media as if they were small statements I was making on the record, as if I was running for office and what I said was being recorded, forever to be held onto and hell against me if necessary. So I refrain from criticism, moaning, whingeing, confrontation, sarcasm in favor of observation, questions, positive statements and praise. I post limited images of my family and friends, I post about my more generic interests, post details rather than the big picture, engage only when I am really pissed off and never, never, never directly engage with people I disagree with.

And it works.

I have, in the past years, received multiple emails from people congratulating me on my new found balance and happiness. I am no more and no less happy than I used to be. I am simply more aware of the context I can put around me and my social persona.

Digital Strategist. The Internet will save the world (pending verification). Views expressed here are my own/should not be construed as coming from my employer.

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