Context Collapse

After watching my presentation on YouTube, several people have asked me for a specific definition of “context collapse.”  Here is an excerpt taken from the middle of a paper called “YouTube and You: Experiences of Self-Awareness in the Context Collapse of the Recording Webcam” that I recently submitted for peer-review.   (Skip to the fourth paragraph for the definition of context collapse):

In face-to-face communication events we carefully assess the context of the interaction in order to decide how we will act, what we will say, and how we might try to construct and present ourselves. As Erving Goffman has demonstrated, we continuously and often unconsciously take note of the physical surroundings, the people present, and the overall tone and temper of the scene among many other things (1959). As social beings, we have become remarkably adept at sizing up such situations, often performing herculean social calculations almost unconsciously in the micro-second gaps of conversation or even occasionally in a more conscious and deliberate manner even as the conversation continues to buzz along. When engaged in social interaction, a person is not only evaluating the situation, but also his own self and how it fits into the situation. Such evaluation is necessary for the person to engage in the conversation effectively. In Goffman’s terms, he must develop a “line” presenting his version of the situation, others, and his own self (1967, p.5). The image he portrays of himself (his “face”) is constantly being negotiated, a process Goffman calls “face-work” (p.12). And while the individual takes an active role in presenting, preserving, and sometimes adjusting his face, it is not an object of solo authorship. Face is not simply defined by the person’s actions, but how those actions are perceived and judged by other participants in the flow of the encounter. Face-work is a complex collaborative dance in which all participants and their every word, wink, gesture, posture, stance, glance, and grunt take part. In short, how we present ourselves (and by extension, who we “are”) depends a great deal on context; where we are, who we are with, and what we are doing, among many other factors.

Now look carefully at a webcam. That’s there. That’s somewhere else. That’s everybody. On the other side of that little glass lens is almost everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you have ever heard of, and even those you have never heard of. In more specific terms, it is everyone who has or will have access to the internet – billions of potential viewers, and your future self among them. Some have called it at once the biggest and the smallest stage – the most public space in the world, entered from the privacy of our own homes. Through it we can reach out to a next door neighbor or across the world … to people we love, people we want to love, or people we don’t even know … to share something deep or something trivial, something serious or something funny, to strive for fame or to simply connect. That seemingly innocuous and insignificant glass dot is the eyes of the world and the future.

What does one say to the world and the future? Faced with such a daunting question, it is not surprising to find many would-be first-time vloggers perplexed by the webcam, often reporting that they spent several hours transfixed in front of the lens, trying to decide what to say.

The problem is not 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 blackhole sucking all of time and space – virtually all possible contexts – in upon itself.

The would-be vlogger, now frozen in front of this black hole of contexts, faces a crisis of self-presentation. In Goffman’s terms, the would-be vlogger is “out of face” with no “line” to present, unable to size up the context and situation (1967, p.14). Like a building collapse, context collapse does not create a total void but a chaotic version of its once ordered self. The would-be vlogger sits stultified as his imagination races through the nearly infinite possible contexts he might be entering, all of which pile up as parts, pieces, and pieces of parts, a rubble that becomes the ground on which he must struggle to get his footing. The familiar walls that help limit and define the context are gone. He must address anybody, everybody, and maybe even nobody all at once.

 … the paper continues with an analysis of the implications for self-awareness – how we understand ourselves in relation to a “generalized generalized other” (building from Mead 1934) – and the significance of deep and profound but loose and sometimes even anonymous social connections.  Hopefully it will get favorable reviews and be published soon!


Associate professor of cultural anthropology. Ed Traceur. Hacker. Car-free.

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28 Responses

  1. Hi Mike, great stuff. Assume you make the distinction for video (as compared to our words and pictures in blogs, forums and social networks) because of the lack of ‘facework’ in those contexts?

    I guess the same weight of history sits upon the words I type right now, but the process of writing has been one we are used to performing without direct and realtime feedback?

    Out of interest, have you done a comparison with how people reacted to home video (ie video that was never likely to be shared with history?)

  2. Tim says:

    So here’s my question: How does context collapse affect our view of ourselves or maybe the way we present ourselves? As I grow older I’m learning to base my choices and personality less on outside perception and more on personal preference. Although I’m profoundly impacted and shaped by my surroundings in ways I’ll never know I’m curious about the webcam effect. Would someone become more like themselves because of lack of context or become more like how they perceive the entire collective of humanity would like to perceive them? It’s interesting to think about someone being shaped more by their youtube comments than by physical interaction.

  3. Prof Wesch says:

    @David, writing raises some interesting points. I don’t think context collapse is new. It is just broader, deeper, and more pervasive with new media. Context collapse is less dependent on form (e.g. writing vs. video) and more on distribution (how many people might receive the message) and time (synchronous vs. asynchronous). There are closed synchronous platforms for both writing and video (private chatrooms) in which the context can be much more clearly defined.

    @ Tim … the big question! From Mead’s (1934) perspective, the self *is* the internalization of the viewpoint of others (what he calls, the “generalized other”). One could argue that the idea that one can be “more like themselves” is a specific Western existentialist dilemma … brilliantly portrayed in this I Heart Huckabees clip:

    I don’t have an answer, but I have formulated 2 possibilities (largely in discussions with Adam Bohannon):
    1. we all create public personas suitable for the infinite contexts of context collapse
    2. the more pervasive reality of context collapse creates a culture that accepts the fact that people’s identities are fluid through different contexts and accept and expect multiple identities

    And I think we even came up with a 3rd possibility. Adam, are you reading this? Wanna jump in?

  4. adam says:

    I am, some great discussion going on here!

    @Tim – very interesting comment. Prof Wesch is right… it’s the big question. I think the high premium placed on authenticity among YouTubers has something to say about what you’re getting at. It’s a value held by many of those who participate on YouTube and thus is reflected among them and internalized by them (according to Mead). The interesting thing is, at its core, authenticity is a value of “being yourself,” yet in striving to do so (on YouTube at least) it could be said you are being everyone else. Another possibility, to bring in context collapse, could be that YouTubers are given the opportunity to fluidly switch between personae (since their context isn’t clearly defined) and maybe they (we) are settling on a persona they feel the most comfortable presenting. It feels more “authentic.”

    Convoluted stuff! Also, to comment on your mention of comments versus physical interaction, it’s interesting to think about how the two differ. Comments being propositional, clear cut, to the point, for the most part easily understood. Physical interaction (or interaction via a YouTube video) is more presentational, which is more ambiguous than the former. I don’t have anything conclusive to say about how each might shape identity differently, but would be fascinating to look into. This may be what Prof Wesch was referring to as the 3rd possibility, that different media will affect how we shape our identities because they alter our relationships with others and thus with ourselves (by affecting the reflections we get). E.g., Propositional media (such as text) vs. presentational media (such as photos).

    @Prof Wesch – In PNG how did you “negotiatie” yourself? I’d think some of the answers (or questions) we are looking for could be found in experiences of long-term foreign immersion. I mean, they don’t call culture shock a loss of the self for nothing, right?

  5. Nancy Riffer says:

    @Prof Wesch (David) – I find trying to blog to be difficult in the way that you describe. I find myself very confused about who I am writing to. Publishing done before the internet had an editor and screening by a publisher. With the internet, I have to check my own ideas without feedback on how they are perceived (as an editor would do). I wonder whether people who grew up writing on the internet feel less vulnerable. Do we come from different cultures that lead us to experience context collapse in different ways.

    (Tim) Is integrity ie, presenting ourselves with consistency, a name for what Tim is describing about being oneself. Can we have a persona rather than personas? If we try to be consistent regardless of audience, are we in danger of missing chances to grow and change? Flip-flopper is regulaly used to describe what might instead be called a response to gaining new information or insight.

    @Adam – I’m not sure I understand your distinction between propositional and presentational. Sometimes written statements are described as containing significantly less information, and thereby being more ambiguous, than f2f or videos/photos. Neither presentational nor propositional events include interaction. That lack leaves the individual “dancing collaboratively” with something in his imagination.

  6. adam says:

    @Nancy – Sorry for the confusion! I was referring to the biases of propositional versus presentational media. I believe it was Neil Postman that pointed out that a picture can’t make a propositional statement (i.e. a statement that clearly affirms or denies something). They are inherently ambiguous. Their presentational bias makes them this way. Postman felt propositional media trained analytical thinking and reasoning, which he feared were being undermined by the deluge of presentational (visual) media. I was just toying with the idea that the biases of each kind of media affect how we relate to one another.

    And, just to play devil’s advocate, I would argue that interaction is possible through both propositional and presentational media. Your propositional response to my own propositional response was an action between you and I that in turn evoked this propositional response (I apologize for the redundancy). Video responses on YouTube are presentational interactions, although there is a mix if you consider comments (similar for Flickr).

    I definitely agree with you that propositional media can be extremely ambiguous (some anthropological theory leaves my head swimming!), but, I would argue they are less ambiguous than presentational media, and this is due to the biases inherent in each medium.

    What are your thoughts?

  7. Kevin says:

    I find the most fascinating part about the new media causing this degree of context collapse, and thus self-reflection, is that it forces us to think about our own identity. The question “Who am I?” is a wonderful portal into an inner dialog about some of the deepest aspects of ourselves. What I see online participation doing is causing many people to put themselves into these context divorced environments where they are being forced to ask this question (something they may not have otherwise asked at this point in their lives if it weren’t for the engagement in this media). Some of them express what seems to be a core identity. Some of them are very playful, realizing that they can be anyone (because there is no context tying them down to a certain identity). Some of them invent identities they think represent them. Think about screen names and website profiles. Just about every web service has you setup a user name and wants you to add a profile. This also forces the user to think directly about how to describe herself/himself. As time passes and that user comes back the her/his profile page, s/he finds that what s/he previously identified strongly with is no longer the case (graduated, moved, switched majors, plays a different sport, doesn’t watch that anymore, etc.).

    So what is it about ourselves that is consistent over time? Who am I? In Vedanta there is a Sanskrit phrase used, “neti neti”, which roughly translates as “not this, not this” or “neither this nor that”. It is used as a practice or meditation and is oriented toward the ultimate Truth, the reality of God/Brahman, and our own true identity. In the last case, the idea is to focus on the question “Who am I?” As this is done, I quickly find that my ultimate identity is not this, not that, “neti neti”. Through this process/meditation I find that I can’t say much, if anything, about who I really am. This leads to an ultimate point of aw, the point of surrender that we all know, the point that gives meaning to the idea that the purpose is to come up with the best question, not the best answer. I feel like the new media is forcing us to engage in our own meditation of neti neti precisely by presenting us with environments characterized by context collapse. The result is still a whole array of responses to this media that seemingly have no pattern. This array however, as Mike points out over and over, is highlighted by something really unique and authentic happening in many people just below the surface.

    @mwesch 1) On an individual level, if I create “public personas suitable for the infinite contexts of context collapse”, what is unique about me? What differentiates me from anyone else if we are all creating infinite personas for infinite contexts?

    2) Similarly, but on a cultural level, if “the more pervasive reality of context collapse creates a culture that accepts the fact that people’s identities are fluid through different contexts and accept and expect multiple identities”, what is it that unifies the person enough to have the same name across fluid identities, for instance? Is the only thing connecting our identities in the eyes of the culture our meatspace bodies?

  8. Gardner says:


    Fascinating stuff here. I’m eager to read your article and grateful you’ve shared part of it with us here.

    Three things come to mind immediately:

    1. The idea of “face-work” (great phrase) jibes interestingly with the arguments in Goleman’s “Social Intelligence.” Far from being opaque to each other, in f2f contexts we are almost comically transparent as our brains work below awareness to stimulate complex physical signals that share our subjectivity with each other. The sharing induces synchrony: heart rate, brain rhythms, etc. Massive social benefits emerge from this kind of synchrony, which blurs the lines between physiology, affect, and consciousness. But of course lower-bandwidth connections (webcams, writing, etc.) make these kinds of synchrony more difficult–though also more interestingly concentrated at times, a true paradox. (Call it the “stick-figure” paradox, in which a few bold suggestions of form can be more compelling than complexly realized CGI, perhaps because of the “uncanny valley” effect?)

    2. In some respects, what I do when I teach students how to write more effectively is not so much to teach them a set of self-correcting techniques (I do that too, sure) as it is to teach them what it means to do “face-work” in the medium of prose. Language is both highly supple and highly resistant in this regard, difficult to master but capable of intense synchronicities when writer and reader are well-practiced in the varieties of “face-work” available to prose. Sometimes the goal of this practice is called “finding your voice” (necessary for the reader as well as for the writer, I think) which of course is also a kind of “face-work,” one even more intimately connected with the magic land between deliberate action and upwelling response. (Much to say here as well with regard to aesthetic arrest and altruism.)

    3. It occurs to me that Mikhail Bakhtin’s seminal essay on “Speech Genres” could be mapped onto webcams/vlogging in interesting ways. I’ve always been haunted by his concept of “addressivity,” which he defines as “the quality of turning to someone.” Imagining addressivity, combining it with what he calls “internal dramatism” in which one might say the notion of “face-work” becomes part of the very dynamics of self-presentation and self-expression, a canny nod to the reader that generates not irony so much as a shared awareness of the heroic joint effort in that moment to create a context that, however provisional, will not collapse (at least for now), offers some philosophical/linguistic models that might prove useful.

    Thanks, as always, for the work you do.

  9. Marcus says:

    Hello, been pointed here by David. Interesting discussion – very reminiscent of Virilio (Open Sky) and Baudrilliard (Xerox to Infinity) with the latter springing directly to mind – specifically the notion of “The Telematic Man”.

    Good stuff this.

  10. Prof Wesch says:

    This is great. It seems that we are all finding different languages created by different great thinkers to talk about the same things. I was just reading Schopenhauer and finding that his ideas about the aesthetic experience tie in perfectly with Joyce’s aesthetic arrest (maybe that’s where Joyce got it? … which would also mean that there are some relevant ideas from Buddhism to bring in here). And as you guys mentioned Baudrilliard, Bakhtin and Goleman I felt the jolt of an “oh yeah!” rembembrance of how relevant they are to this discussion. I need to read them again.

  11. Hi mr. Wesch,

    Thanks for uploading your presentation. It was very inspiring to watch and freshed up a lot of ideas for me!

    It’s nice to see ideas similar to mine spreading all over the world even if we never heard of each other.

    I’m going to post your presentation on my blog (already post some of your students some time ago): (TiD)

    TiD is my collective from Holland/the hague. We’re busy with alot of the same things you are talking about! We won a price for a concept this year. Keep following our blog to see how it ends (it’s in Dutch though). The project is about getting the connections you see on youtube to the fysical space).

    Greetings from Holland. Berend van Geer

  12. The ideas here inspired me to invite anyone to contribute their ‘messages to the future’ on video. If you’d like to join in, the link is here:

  13. Tim 2 says:

    Dear Prof Wesch, Arrived here courtesy of regularly reading of the Communities Dominate Brands blog
    Alan and Tomi are always pointing readers in fascinating directions e.g. David Cushman, Admob etc.

    The question of “context collapse” is very probably set to grow and grow. This evening Google is reporting 1390 hits for “context collapse”. Kevin is right that not only context collapse but the whole experience of the web phenomena is challenging our own identities as we hold a mirror up to our “self” – what motivates me to engage with this media? It is my decision making that takes me on a journey. i.e. we raise ourselves to a higher level of consciousness to observe what we do, how and why.

    Another interesting realm to watch is the new global magazine Monocle which is trying to take an over arching view on myriad issues in Arts, Business, Culture, Design and Edit[orial]. This magazine suits a readership which operates with a global perspective and decries [I would suggest] nationalisms particularly those that create boundaries to connecting and communicating.

    A Facebook group exists for the magazine and you can see the battle joined between those still a little in the “local” and those in the “global” mindset. One commentator said of a recent report in the magazine on the best cities to live in “do we really need such a list?” The question I believe belies the fact that as a “consumer” of this extensive report you are inundated with(concise) information and if you are familiar with living in a world of “context collapse” your self has grown enough identity to feel secure in that environment and put the data in context.

    So to rework your comment and suggest a flipside to the debate: “…an infinite number of contexts collapsing upon one another into that single moment of …self-awareness.”

    Further: are we essentially dealing with Lacan’s Object a?

  14. Janne says:

    I find the discussion regarding the self very interesting. It seems to me the only accessible alternative when it comes to choosing an audience in the context of context collapse. Because how would you go about addressing anybody, everybody and nobody all at once? My answer is that you wouldn’t. Which leaves yourself.

    “Tim 2″ mentions the mirror held up to ones self. What I blog or vlog and what I write in my profile on MySpace does perhaps communicate more to myself than to anyone else, since these outlets becomes externalisations of myself that are capable of not only mirroring me, but also communicating aspects of my being to myself that only I can understand in a fundamental way.

    To an observer, these varying images of my “self” may appear like fluid identities, but to my “self”, they combine inte one.

    They are all me.

  15. Bob Calder says:

    Would you kindly elaborate on the contrasting situation regarding YouTube pieces intended for an audience of as few as one hundred individuals and contextual overload which presupposes awareness of a larger number of viewers.

  16. Commenting your performance: “And he scoresssss!” :)
    Wow, great flow of ideas, man. Thanks for sharing this!

    Here’s another web /& anthropology speech that gave me thrills:
    If you can’t see the video, you can read the text at “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus”,

    More about Clay Shirky,
    author of Here Comes Everybody

    I really see a community forming around almost every human endeavor:
    * anthropology (through this site and many others)
    * leagal studies (through Wiki Law sites)
    * medical studies
    and so on

    I have to say I found your youtube video and site through, the blog of a medical research fellow.

  17. neagrigore says:

    I had the same feeling as Bogdan watching your presentation, also reminding me of Clay and his gin :). Here is another piece on social networks by Why some social network services work and others don’t — Or: the case for object-centered sociality here

  18. Larry Irons says:

    Plan to listen to your presentation this weekend, but just read the excerpt of your paper. Are you saying that context collapse is the absence of context, or the recognition of its otherwise tacit importance to interaction?

  19. Just wanted to join the collapse in here :-)

    … with a thought about that “There is no Time” on the Internet.

    I am constantly looking for my own mails all over the place, many written years ago, where I managed to “get it right”.

    The collapse of context is maybe also a collaps of time, or the abolishon of sequence. Every screen is as digitally fresh today as any other day.

  20. Janne says:

    Erik: Your description of “time collapse” is very similar to the concept of time as a physical existance (or, rather, non-existance), which is presented by Julian Barbour in his book “The end of time”.

    Barbour claims that time is sort of a cognitive illusion, and that the universe – much like your screens – consists of innumerable configurations, all static. “Time” is the logical way for us to interpret the changes between these configurations, but is in reality just an illusion.

    Perhaps there is a logical way to travel/navigate between contexts, just as there is a logical/natural way to move between Barbour’s configurations to achieve the illusion of time?

  21. An Ephemeral Wiggle says:

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head… and I’ve come full circle. Five years ago I was naive, and the internet was simply a beautiful place: I blogged and posted videos without abandon. I was successful young adult in ‘real life’ and I felt no hesitancy about extending this persona to the internet. (One might say I had a public ‘self’ that I was confident projecting in any possible context.)

    But then I confronted corruption in a government office I worked in, and I did business in China. I met people who I realized I had to guard myself from, because they could hurt me… and my mind became filled with possible contexts to which ‘fear’ and ‘avoidance’ were my dominant reactions.

    And that’s when ‘context collapse’ hit in a big way. I’ve become a totally passive person online. it’s been 2-3 years now that I have been working towards blogging again, because I really love writing and meeting people, but I have yet to find a ‘self’ that I am confident displaying to an infinite audience that never forgets. One day I might have an idea for something to write, and the next day I’ll think about how that might limit my ability to achieve some other goal, how it will pigeon-hole me or make me vulnerable. I’m working through it, and I think I’m close to breaking through and forging a public persona that I’m confident in again. But it hasn’t been fast or easy.

    It’s amazing that you have based some of this work on Goffman, because I stumbled onto his work by accident earlier this year and found it incredibly insightful — I think it pretty much redefined the way I understand my predicament.

  22. Michael Gambale says:

    Hello Prof Wesch,

    My name is Michael Gambale and we’ve been discussing through email my wish to use some of your anthropology of youtube work in my company. I wanted to post this so everyone else could read it as well but I may email you later to make sure you receive it.

    I wanted to post something I discovered in my recent learning theory class that is related to the notion of cultural inversion. I will copy the quotes here from (Merriam, Caffarella, Baumgartner, 2007) The reason why I am posting this is to show some indication/relevance that cultural inversion is deeply rooted in learning.

    As stated from (Merriam, Caffarella, Baumgartner, 2007, pg 166-167), “Usher, Bryant, and Johnston have proposed a “map” of experiential learning within the framework of postmodern thought. With this model, “learning does not simplistically derive from experience; rather, experience and learning are mutually positioned in an interactive dynamic”(p.107). In posing this model, these authors view the use of experience as part of the learning process as “inherently neither emancipatory nor oppressive, neither domesticating nor transformative. Rather…it is perhaps most usefully seen as having a potential for emancipation and oppression, domestication and transformation, where at any one time and according to context both tendencies can be present and in conflict with one another.”(p. 105)

    This excerpt from (Merriam, Caffarella, Baumgartner, 2007) describing Usher, Bryant, and Johnston(1997) is basically describing the notion of that cultural inversion or the experience of cultural inversion is a core principal of experience and learning. This is very closely related to the observation that often an “out of place” or uncomfortable situation can bring about a significant and memorable learning experience. This experience is much akin to the experiences of your students when they experienced the context collapse of being on a web cam trying to have a conversation with essentially no one and everyone at the same time.

    I truly believe there is something special going on here where we are discovering a connection between traditional learning theory, anthropology, sociology and psychology. The notion of creating an environment where a person feels uncomfortable so they have a memorable learning experience is an important topic. But even more so is to understand the questions we can ask to create this moment of being out of place or out of mind without having the person/learner feel threatened. The psychology slant is that our determination of what makes us feel comfortable is our own state of mind. I would bet that if cognitive psychologists took fMRI images of students experiencing the moment traveling away from home for the first time and compared them to the fMRI images of your students when they tried to create their first vlog, there would be almost identical patterns. Our sense of home, family and friends is at the root of understanding many things including learning, anthropology, sociology, and psychology.

    The reason why this is related to my job e-learning specialist is that we are finding it challenging to create an online collaborative environment where many people participate. A colleague recently commented that many of the people on Facebook and our own corporate social network get the most response when they appear to be vulnerable. This I think is also related to the concept you mentioned of aesthetic arrest where we are overwhelmed by the beauty of the person in front of us. I would say a reason why people respond to those that appear to be vulnerable is that we seek this aesthetic arrest, this beauty, in an environment, a digital environment, that is absent of the normal things we associate with the feeling of traditional humanity including home, family, friends, smiles, laughs and hugs.

    I am curious what you think of my observations. Thank you


  23. Jimmy says:

    Hi Dr. Wesch. I recently @replied you on Twitter to see if this article has been published. I have not been able to find it and I would like to use your definition of context collapse. For now I am going to cite this website, but I was wondering if you could point me to the journal that it was published in?

    If it hasn’t been published, I don’t believe it. I think it is extremely relevant given the discussion in this thread.
    I am looking at this from an organizational perspective myself. I am interested in how nonprofit organizations maintain their organizational identity in the social media landscape, or if they even think about it? :)

    Anyways, hope all is well.

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  27. Is this the clip from I Heart Huckabees? The link above no longer exists.

    How Am I Not Myself?

    BTW, Hi Adam! And thanks Mike for all your ongoing help. Our Black Girl YouTube Project is coming towards an end this semester and we should have some YouTube mini-mini-docs to share.