From context collapse to content collapse

When social media was taking shape fifteen-odd years ago, the concept of “context collapse” helped frame and explain the phenomenon. Young scholars like Danah Boyd and Michael Wesch, building on the work of Joshua Meyrowitz, Erving Goffman, and other sociologists and media theorists, argued that networks like Friendster, MySpace, YouTube, and, later, Facebook and Twitter were dissolving the boundaries between social groups that had long shaped personal relations and identities. Before social media, you spoke to different “audiences” — family members, friends, colleagues, and so forth — in different ways. You modulated your tone of voice, your words, your behavior, and even your appearance to suit whatever social “context” you were in (workplace, home, school, nightclub, etc.) and then readjusted the presentation of yourself when you moved into another context.

On a social network, the theory went, all those different contexts collapsed into a single context. Whenever you posted a message or a photograph or a video, it could be seen by your friends, your parents, your coworkers, your bosses, and your teachers, not to mention the amorphous mass known as the general public. And, because the post was recorded, it could be seen by future audiences as well as the immediate one. When people realized they could no longer present versions of themselves geared to different audiences — it was all one audience now — they had to grapple with a new sort of identity crisis. Wesch described the experience in suitably melodramatic terms in an influential 2009 article about the pioneering vloggers on YouTube:

The problem is not a lack of context. It is context collapse: an infinite number of contexts collapsing upon one another into that single moment of recording. The images, actions, and words captured by the lens at any moment can be transported to anywhere on the planet and preserved (the performer must assume) for all time. The little glass lens becomes the gateway to a black hole sucking all of time and space — virtually all possible contexts —in on itself. The would-be vlogger, now frozen in front of this black hole of contexts, faces a crisis of self-presentation.

As everyone rushed to join Facebook and other social networks, context collapse and the attendant crisis of self-presentation became universal. In a 2010 interview with the journalist David Kirkpatrick, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg put it bluntly: “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.” Zuckerberg praised context collapse as a force for moral cleanliness: “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.” Facebook forces us to be pure.

But just as Zuckerberg was declaring context collapse an inevitability, the public rebelled. Desiring to keep social spheres separate, people began looking for ways to reestablish the old social boundaries within the new media environment. We decided — most of us, anyway — that we don’t want all the world to be our stage, at least not all the time. We want to perform different parts on different stages for different audiences. We’re happier as character actors than as stars.

The recent history of social media isn’t a story of context collapse. It’s a story of its opposite: context restoration. Young people led the way, moving much of their online conversation from the public platform of Facebook, where parents and teachers lurked, to the more intimate platform of Snapchat, where they could restrict their audience and where messages disappeared quickly. Private accounts became popular on other social networks as well. Group chats and group texts proliferated. On Instagram, people established pseudonymous accounts — fake Instagrams, or finstas — limited to their closest friends. Responding to the trend, Facebook itself introduced tools that allow members to restrict who can see a post and to specify how long the post stays visible. (Apparently, Zuckerberg has decided he’s comfortable undermining the integrity of the public.)

Context collapse remains an important conceptual lens, but what’s becoming clear now is that a very different kind of collapse — content collapse — will be the more consequential legacy of social media. Content collapse, as I define it, is the tendency of social media to blur traditional distinctions among once distinct types of information — distinctions of form, register, sense, and importance. As social media becomes the main conduit for information of all sorts — personal correspondence, news and opinion, entertainment, art, instruction, and on and on — it homogenizes that information as well as our responses to it.

Content began collapsing the moment it began to be delivered through computers. Digitization made it possible to deliver information that had required specialized mediums — newspapers and magazines, vinyl records and cassettes, radios, TVs, telephones, cinemas, etc. — through a single, universal medium. In the process, the formal standards and organizational hierarchies inherent to the old mediums began to disappear. The computer flattened everything.

I remember, years ago, being struck by the haphazardness of the headlines flowing through my RSS reader. I’d look at the latest update to the New York Times feed, for instance, and I’d see something like this:

Dam Collapse Feared as Flood Waters Rise in Midwest
Nike’s New Sneaker Becomes Object of Lust
Britney Spears Cleans Up Her Act
Scores Dead in Baghdad Car-Bomb Attack
A Spicy New Take on Bean Dip

It wasn’t just that the headlines, free-floating, decontextualized motes of journalism ginned up to trigger reflexive mouse clicks, had displaced the stories. It was that the whole organizing structure of the newspaper, its epistemological architecture, had been junked. The news section (with its local, national, and international subsections), the sports section, the arts section, the living section, the opinion pages: they’d all been fed through a shredder, then thrown into a wind tunnel. What appeared on the screen was a jumble, high mixed with low, silly with smart, tragic with trivial. The cacophony of the RSS feed, it’s now clear, heralded a sea change in the distribution and consumption of information. The new order would be disorder.

The collapse gained momentum after Facebook introduced its News Feed in 2006. To a dog’s breakfast of news headlines, the News Feed added a dog’s breakfast of personal posts and messages and then mixed in another dog’s breakfast of sponsored posts and ads. It looked, smelled, and tasted like the meal Brad Pitt feeds his pitbull in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. After a brief period of complaining, with the usual and empty #deletefacebook threats, the public embraced the News Feed. The convenience of getting all content of interest through a single stream — no need to jump from site to site anymore — overrode the initial concerns. Now, everything would take the form of an “update.”

In discussing the appeal of the News Feed in that same interview with Kirkpatrick, Zuckerberg observed, “A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.” The statement is grotesque not because it’s false — it’s true, actually — but because it’s a category error. It yokes together in an obscene comparison two events of radically different scale and import. And yet, in his tone-deaf way, Zuckerberg managed to express the reality of content collapse. When it comes to information, social media renders category errors obsolete.

The rise of the smartphone has completed the collapse of content. The diminutive size of the device’s screen further compacted all forms of information. The instant notifications and infinite scrolls that became the phone’s default design standards required that all information be rendered in a way that could be taken in at a glance, further blurring the old distinctions between types of content. Now all information belongs to a single category, and it all pours through a single channel.

Many of the qualities of social media that make people uneasy stem from content collapse. First, by leveling everything, social media also trivializes everything — freed of barriers, information, like water, pools at the lowest possible level. A presidential candidate’s policy announcement is given equal weight to a snapshot of your niece’s hamster and a video of the latest Kardashian contouring. Second, as all information consolidates on social media, we respond to it using the same small set of tools the platforms provide for us. Our responses become homogenized, too. That’s true of both the form of the responses (repost, retweet, like, heart, hashtag, fire emoji) and their content (Love! Hate! Cringe!). The software’s formal constraints place tight limits on our expressiveness, no matter what we’re talking about.

Third, content collapse puts all types of information into direct competition. The various producers and providers of content, from journalists to influencers to politicians to propagandists, all need to tailor their content and its presentation to the algorithms that determine what people see. The algorithms don’t make formal or qualitative distinctions; they judge everything by the same criteria. And those criteria tend to promote oversimplification, emotionalism, tendentiousness, tribalism — the qualities that make a piece of information stand out, at least momentarily, from the screen’s blur.

Finally, content collapse consolidates power over information, and conversation, into the hands of the small number of companies that own the platforms and write the algorithms. The much maligned gatekeepers of the past could exert editorial control only over a particular type of content that flowed through a particular medium — a magazine, a radio station, a TV network. Our new gatekeepers control information of all kinds. When content collapses, there’s only one gate.