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Chapter 32Context Collapse


  1. Introduction.
  1. Technology destroys the boundaries between contexts.
  2. The blurring of contextual boundaries especially happens on social networking platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
  3. Boyd and Marwick use the term “context collapse” to describe how technology flattens multiple audiences into one.
  4. Members of marginalized or stigmatized communities may especially struggle with performing an identity that is acceptable across all contexts reached by technology.
  5. In one sense, crossing contextual boundaries isn’t new, but context collapse via social media ramps that up to a much higher degree.
  6. Communication technology is more than a hammer that knocks a hole in the wall between two contexts; it’s a bomb that can turn all contextual walls to dust.
  7. boyd and Marwick’s theory explores how communication technology does this, explains why social media alters how we think about our identities, and describes strategies people use to navigate it all.
  1. Technological features that collapse contexts
  1. In describing context collapse, boyd and Marwick draw from the insights of communication scholar Joshua Meyrowitz.
  2. In 1985—before the creation of web browsers in the early 1990s and well before the social media revolution of the 2000s—Meyrowitz described the plight of public speakers in the television broadcast age.
  1. He pointed particularly to the example of Stokely Carmichael, a civil rights leader in the mid-twentieth century.
  2. When speaking in an auditorium, sanctuary, or lecture hall, Carmichael adapted his style to his audience, using either Caucasian American or African American language and mannerisms depending on who was in the crowd.
  3. Broadcast television brings vast, diverse audiences together through a medium that lacks immediate feedback.
  4. The television camera collapsed otherwise separate contexts into a single communicative space.
  5. It amplified the reach of Carmichael’s message, but also made his identity so much more difficult to perform.
  1. Today, many people have access to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, or other technologies that connect us to far-flung audiences.
  2. boyd and Marwick are convinced social media makes context collapse much more common and powerful.
  3. They point to the affordances of the technology, or characteristics of technology design that encourage (and discourage) actions.
  4. boyd identifies six affordances of modern communication technology that roll our social groups into one big audience.
  1. Persistence. What’s posted online stays online—seemingly forever.
  2. Scalability. “Often the funny, the crude, the embarrassing, the mean, and the bizarre” tend to circulate rapidly through social media.
  3. Searchability. Wherever and whenever things happened, you can search for them.
  4. Profiles. To use many sites, you need to create a profile that contains information for other users to view.
  5. Networks. The ability to build visible connections with other users is the heart of platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
  6. Feeds. When you open many social media apps, you’re greeted with a stream of information.
  1. According to boyd and her colleague Nicole Ellison, those last three affordances are particularly crucial.
  2. In combination, they are the recipe for social networking sites—platforms with unique user profiles, publicly viewable connections between users, and streams of user-generated content.
  3. Scholars use the term social media as a more general phrase that refers not only to social networking sites, but also to any platform that shares user-generated content.
  4. Offline, boundaries of time and space tend to separate our social groups.
  5. The affordances of persistence, scalability, searchability, profiles, networks, and streams are the dynamite that demolishes the walls of those boxes.
  6. As context collapses, it becomes harder to perform your identity for all audiences at the same time.
  1. Performing identity frontstage and backstage
  1. Erving Goffman described social interaction as a dramaturgical performance, divided between the frontstage and the backstage.
  2. The frontstage is analogous to Mead’s me where performances are carefully managed to satisfy the audience.
  3. The backstage is analogous to Mead’s I where performances are less tidy and more authentic.
  1. Invisible and imagined audiences
  1. The theory of context collapse claims that a public post is a giant frontstage. What’s more, it’s a frontstage where the performer often can’t see who is viewing the performance.
  2. Someone might like, favorite, or comment on a post, revealing themselves as a member of the audience, while others will lurk in the background and not respond in any detectable way.
  3. boyd refers to this as the invisible audience.
  4. According to Marwick and boyd, when people can’t be certain who is in the audience, they imagine the audience.
  5. The imagined audience may not correspond to the actual invisible audience.
  6. Goffman warned, “the impression of reality fostered by a performance is a delicate, fragile thing that can be shattered by minor mishaps.”
  7. Context collapse scholars have devoted focused attention to how people with marginalized or stigmatized identities navigate social media.
  8. Stefanie Duguay identifies two overarching approaches to navigating the reality of context collapse. They are not exclusive; people can and do use several at the same time.
    1. Strategy 1: Tailoring performances to please the audience.
  1. When people engage in tailoring performances on social media, they seek to execute a performance suitable for all audiences.
  2. Self-censorship.     
  1. Some people handle context collapse by choosing their words very carefully.
  2. This is also referred to as the lowest common denominator approach.
  1. Monitoring and scrubbing information. 
  1. The very nature of social media is that it is social.
  2. That means our identity performance also depends on other people supporting the role we are trying to play.
  1. Balanced presentation.
  1. Because different audiences are interested in different things, some people make sure they post about a variety of topics.
  2. This is particularly important for those whose social media use mixes personal and business concerns.
  1. Encoded signals
  1. Some people communicate in a way that sends a subtle message recognizable to specific groups but goes over the heads of the general audience.
  2. A community could recognize it while others dismiss it. 
    1. Strategy 2: Segmenting audiences to avoid context collapse.
  1. Performing identity for a diverse and invisible audience can be tough. Some people avoid that challenge by trying to control the size and scope of the audience and rebuilding the walls between contexts.
  2. Privacy settings
  1. Social networking sites have extensive settings that allow savvy users to limit the audience for content.
  2. Jessica Vitak found that those with larger and more diverse Facebok networks made greater use of the site’s privacy settings.
  1. Limiting connections
  1. You may not need privacy settings if you never establish a social network tie with someone in the first place.
  2. If you regret forming a social media connection, unfriending or blocking cuts people out of the audience.
  1. Secondary profiles and alternate accounts
  1. Some people create a secondary account known only to close friends.
  2. In Goffman’s terms, it’s a backstage place for authentic identity performance in contrast to the frontstage Instagram account followed by a wider variety of people.
  1. Different audiences on different social media
  1. Some social media afford greater privacy than others.
  2. Because Snapchat involves quickly disappearing messages and Reddit involves anonymous user handles, they could facilitate backstage performances in a way that other platforms do not.
  1. Private messaging.
  1. Most major social media platforms afford users the ability to send a private message to a specific person.
  2. It’s like pulling them out of the frontstage crowd in order to have a backstage conversation in a side room.
  1. Critique: Whose interests does context collapse serve?
  1. A good interpretive theory pushes us to reconsider things we have taken for granted and context collapse does that.
  2. It offers new understanding of what people are doing when they post on social media; they’re performing their identity.
  3. The theory has earned a broad community of agreement among scholars in several disciplines.
  4. Although qualitative research forms the core of most context collapse studies, the community includes quantitative researchers who have gathered statistical evidence to support the theory’s claims.
  5. The aesthetic appeal of context collapse articles exceeds the norm for academic journals as scholars vividly describe the tensions, challenges, and opportunities of digitized life.
  6. Some of the most recent work considers reform of society by highlighting how members of co-cultural groups particularly struggle with online identity performance.
  7. Although context collapse provides novel insight into what’s happening online, it could go further in clarifying the values behind the development and refinement of these technologies.
  8. Brooke Erin Duffy critiques the ideological forces that glamorize social media, particularly for those who want to make a living from it.
  9. Aspirational labor involves the work of social media influencer hopefuls who produce media content for free in the hope of the future payoff.
  10. Duffy doesn’t think it’s an accident that many aspiring social media laborers are female.
  11. In addition to gendered labor expectations, social media facilitates a broader shift to a gig economy where people receive pay for one-time jobs rather than ongoing employment.
  12. Laborers experience unrelenting pressure to develop and refine self-branding which Marwick defines as “a series of marketing strategies applied to the individual… a way of thinking about the self as a salable commodity that can tempt a potential employer.”
  13. The affordances of communication technology can collapse many contexts into one.
  14. It would be a shame if they also collapsed our understanding of human value to the number of likes, comments, and retweets a person can generate.   


You can access the Outline for a particular chapter in several ways:

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  • To quickly find a theory by chapter number, use the Table of Contents and link from there. It will take you directly to the theory with available options highlighted.
  • You can also use the Theory List, which will take you directly to the theory with available options highlighted.

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Theory Outlines
11th Edition

From the Instructors Manual

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Chapter 32Context Collapse


  1. Introduction.
  1. Technology destroys the boundaries between contexts.
  2. The blurring of contextual boundaries especially happens on social networking platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
  3. Boyd and Marwick use the term “context collapse” to describe how technology flattens multiple audiences into one.
  4. Members of marginalized or stigmatized communities may especially struggle with performing an identity that is acceptable across all contexts reached by technology.
  5. In one sense, crossing contextual boundaries isn’t new, but context collapse via social media ramps that up to a much higher degree.
  6. Communication technology is more than a hammer that knocks a hole in the wall between two contexts; it’s a bomb that can turn all contextual walls to dust.
  7. boyd and Marwick’s theory explores how communication technology does this, explains why social media alters how we think about our identities, and describes strategies people use to navigate it all.
  1. Technological features that collapse contexts
  1. In describing context collapse, boyd and Marwick draw from the insights of communication scholar Joshua Meyrowitz.
  2. In 1985—before the creation of web browsers in the early 1990s and well before the social media revolution of the 2000s—Meyrowitz described the plight of public speakers in the television broadcast age.
  1. He pointed particularly to the example of Stokely Carmichael, a civil rights leader in the mid-twentieth century.
  2. When speaking in an auditorium, sanctuary, or lecture hall, Carmichael adapted his style to his audience, using either Caucasian American or African American language and mannerisms depending on who was in the crowd.
  3. Broadcast television brings vast, diverse audiences together through a medium that lacks immediate feedback.
  4. The television camera collapsed otherwise separate contexts into a single communicative space.
  5. It amplified the reach of Carmichael’s message, but also made his identity so much more difficult to perform.
  1. Today, many people have access to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, or other technologies that connect us to far-flung audiences.
  2. boyd and Marwick are convinced social media makes context collapse much more common and powerful.
  3. They point to the affordances of the technology, or characteristics of technology design that encourage (and discourage) actions.
  4. boyd identifies six affordances of modern communication technology that roll our social groups into one big audience.
  1. Persistence. What’s posted online stays online—seemingly forever.
  2. Scalability. “Often the funny, the crude, the embarrassing, the mean, and the bizarre” tend to circulate rapidly through social media.
  3. Searchability. Wherever and whenever things happened, you can search for them.
  4. Profiles. To use many sites, you need to create a profile that contains information for other users to view.
  5. Networks. The ability to build visible connections with other users is the heart of platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
  6. Feeds. When you open many social media apps, you’re greeted with a stream of information.
  1. According to boyd and her colleague Nicole Ellison, those last three affordances are particularly crucial.
  2. In combination, they are the recipe for social networking sites—platforms with unique user profiles, publicly viewable connections between users, and streams of user-generated content.
  3. Scholars use the term social media as a more general phrase that refers not only to social networking sites, but also to any platform that shares user-generated content.
  4. Offline, boundaries of time and space tend to separate our social groups.
  5. The affordances of persistence, scalability, searchability, profiles, networks, and streams are the dynamite that demolishes the walls of those boxes.
  6. As context collapses, it becomes harder to perform your identity for all audiences at the same time.
  1. Performing identity frontstage and backstage
  1. Erving Goffman described social interaction as a dramaturgical performance, divided between the frontstage and the backstage.
  2. The frontstage is analogous to Mead’s me where performances are carefully managed to satisfy the audience.
  3. The backstage is analogous to Mead’s I where performances are less tidy and more authentic.
  1. Invisible and imagined audiences
  1. The theory of context collapse claims that a public post is a giant frontstage. What’s more, it’s a frontstage where the performer often can’t see who is viewing the performance.
  2. Someone might like, favorite, or comment on a post, revealing themselves as a member of the audience, while others will lurk in the background and not respond in any detectable way.
  3. boyd refers to this as the invisible audience.
  4. According to Marwick and boyd, when people can’t be certain who is in the audience, they imagine the audience.
  5. The imagined audience may not correspond to the actual invisible audience.
  6. Goffman warned, “the impression of reality fostered by a performance is a delicate, fragile thing that can be shattered by minor mishaps.”
  7. Context collapse scholars have devoted focused attention to how people with marginalized or stigmatized identities navigate social media.
  8. Stefanie Duguay identifies two overarching approaches to navigating the reality of context collapse. They are not exclusive; people can and do use several at the same time.
    1. Strategy 1: Tailoring performances to please the audience.
  1. When people engage in tailoring performances on social media, they seek to execute a performance suitable for all audiences.
  2. Self-censorship.     
  1. Some people handle context collapse by choosing their words very carefully.
  2. This is also referred to as the lowest common denominator approach.
  1. Monitoring and scrubbing information. 
  1. The very nature of social media is that it is social.
  2. That means our identity performance also depends on other people supporting the role we are trying to play.
  1. Balanced presentation.
  1. Because different audiences are interested in different things, some people make sure they post about a variety of topics.
  2. This is particularly important for those whose social media use mixes personal and business concerns.
  1. Encoded signals
  1. Some people communicate in a way that sends a subtle message recognizable to specific groups but goes over the heads of the general audience.
  2. A community could recognize it while others dismiss it. 
    1. Strategy 2: Segmenting audiences to avoid context collapse.
  1. Performing identity for a diverse and invisible audience can be tough. Some people avoid that challenge by trying to control the size and scope of the audience and rebuilding the walls between contexts.
  2. Privacy settings
  1. Social networking sites have extensive settings that allow savvy users to limit the audience for content.
  2. Jessica Vitak found that those with larger and more diverse Facebok networks made greater use of the site’s privacy settings.
  1. Limiting connections
  1. You may not need privacy settings if you never establish a social network tie with someone in the first place.
  2. If you regret forming a social media connection, unfriending or blocking cuts people out of the audience.
  1. Secondary profiles and alternate accounts
  1. Some people create a secondary account known only to close friends.
  2. In Goffman’s terms, it’s a backstage place for authentic identity performance in contrast to the frontstage Instagram account followed by a wider variety of people.
  1. Different audiences on different social media
  1. Some social media afford greater privacy than others.
  2. Because Snapchat involves quickly disappearing messages and Reddit involves anonymous user handles, they could facilitate backstage performances in a way that other platforms do not.
  1. Private messaging.
  1. Most major social media platforms afford users the ability to send a private message to a specific person.
  2. It’s like pulling them out of the frontstage crowd in order to have a backstage conversation in a side room.
  1. Critique: Whose interests does context collapse serve?
  1. A good interpretive theory pushes us to reconsider things we have taken for granted and context collapse does that.
  2. It offers new understanding of what people are doing when they post on social media; they’re performing their identity.
  3. The theory has earned a broad community of agreement among scholars in several disciplines.
  4. Although qualitative research forms the core of most context collapse studies, the community includes quantitative researchers who have gathered statistical evidence to support the theory’s claims.
  5. The aesthetic appeal of context collapse articles exceeds the norm for academic journals as scholars vividly describe the tensions, challenges, and opportunities of digitized life.
  6. Some of the most recent work considers reform of society by highlighting how members of co-cultural groups particularly struggle with online identity performance.
  7. Although context collapse provides novel insight into what’s happening online, it could go further in clarifying the values behind the development and refinement of these technologies.
  8. Brooke Erin Duffy critiques the ideological forces that glamorize social media, particularly for those who want to make a living from it.
  9. Aspirational labor involves the work of social media influencer hopefuls who produce media content for free in the hope of the future payoff.
  10. Duffy doesn’t think it’s an accident that many aspiring social media laborers are female.
  11. In addition to gendered labor expectations, social media facilitates a broader shift to a gig economy where people receive pay for one-time jobs rather than ongoing employment.
  12. Laborers experience unrelenting pressure to develop and refine self-branding which Marwick defines as “a series of marketing strategies applied to the individual… a way of thinking about the self as a salable commodity that can tempt a potential employer.”
  13. The affordances of communication technology can collapse many contexts into one.
  14. It would be a shame if they also collapsed our understanding of human value to the number of likes, comments, and retweets a person can generate.   


You can access the Outline for a particular chapter in several ways:

  • Switch to View by Theory, then select the desired theory/chapter from the drop-down list at the top of the page. Look in the list of available resources.
  • To quickly find a theory by chapter number, use the Table of Contents and link from there. It will take you directly to the theory with available options highlighted.
  • You can also use the Theory List, which will take you directly to the theory with available options highlighted.

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