Context Collapse on Facebook

Facebook went from being a place to share things with select friends to a place to connect to everyone. A user’s friend list went from being a list of close friends to communicate with, to a bloated address book. In doing so the network gradually became more impersonal, a phenomenon referred to as ‘context collapse’. 1

Scale and the unknown audience

As a users connections grow, posts are exposed to a growing audience with different sensitivities which need to be considered. This can lead to some level of self censorship. We might feel some of our connections are not interested in our personal updates and maybe others are not interested in our politics, or sport etc. 2. This has been described as the ‘multiple audience problem’ (Darley & Fleming 1991)3 A paradox emerges where the weaker the connection is, the more likely we are to be unsure about how they will perceive us.

The issue affects not just posts but comments on the posts of others. It is not always clear who can read those comments and this inhibits engagement, more so for sensitive issues such as politics, ideology, philosophy etc ; the very areas which could potentially make such a sharing space interesting.

Poor understanding of features

This issue is further compounded by lack of understanding many users have for privacy settings and ways to control a posts audience. Privacy breaches may occur often as users are exposed to the weakest link in the community. Non technical users may be put off from using the network.

Many tools have been put forward to deal with context collapse such as lists, groups and individual post privacy but adoption of these features is relatively low.

Regaining Context

I am spending less time with Facebook and more time using groups which form naturally around interest areas.

  1. Facebook is worried about users sharing less – but it only has itself to blame Guardian

  2. at: DOI: 10.1177/1461444810365313 New Media Society published online 7 July 2010 Alice E. Marwick and danah boyd the Imagined Audience I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately:

  3. Multiple audience problem: a strategic communication perspective on social perception.