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!