Context Collapse: The limitations of online networks vs. natural networks
Context collapse describes the disconnect between natural social networks and online social media networks. Natural social networks are usually mediated face to face and can exist in parallel. Think family, friends, hobby club, etc. Natural social networks are typically smaller and richer in communication (tone, context, audience).
Online networks offer an unlimited number of connections, but on a platform visible to all, where communication is still cruder. They are now regulated by social media algorithms too.Worse still: We are also bombarded by a gigantic, yet still rising, quantity of content.
Dunbar’s Number, the maximum amount of real-life relations
The maximum amount of connections that anyone can sustain in real life is estimated around 150. Dunbar’s number is a socio-cognitive limit to the maximum amount of individuals with whom we can maintain social relationships. Social relationships are defined as differing in intensity but still meaningful and stable. Also, they require not just knowing “of” someone, but knowing “someone”. Meaning context, memories, relationship role, tone, intimacy, and contextual awareness of how they relate. A connection on Twitter who you never met, do not know emotionally or intellectually is not one in that sense. The number was extrapolated in the 1992 by the anthropologist based on primate brain size and average social group size. It seems to hold true of most eras and cultures.
Context collapse issues arise from having large or very large online networks. Even if our social networks operate to some extent as echo chambers. Large connections networks will invariably gather contacts from both ends of say, the political spectrum. Or liberal/conservative philosophies.
And posting content can become problematic.
Your presence online effectively collapses to that of a series of pictures of your kids.
I know, mine does look like that.
Privacy and intimacy in social media communication
It is also related to a parallel trend, that of a diminishing sense of privacy and intimacy as our social networks grow. You can read an interesting blog on this here, hyperlink to one of the charts they used.
It’s the simple but vital, and easily understood concept that we self-censor enormously now on social media.
We are dimly aware that our contacts hail from a different side of the political/sociological/cultural spectrum. And that they will clash often if you were more actually authentic on social media.
People tend to conform naturally and usually dislike conflict. They dare not express dissent much, let alone to a large part of their audiences of friends. And so there are whole social networks effectively that are born and get very rarely challenged.
What you end up with is myriads of self-sustaining, closed networks, rather than one gigantic one linking up everyone. Well, to a lesser extent anyway that is required for sound sociological debate.
Context collapse and fake news
Context Collapse is not the same thing as “fake news” but an important corollary. Content collapse and the formation of echo chambers are fantastically fertile ground for fake news.
The term originally “coined” by Trump to refer to mainstream media quickly mutated to include any news article that ran a bad story against him.
The very term Fake News is itself a context collapse. Having so many different meanings to many different political groups without actually being any of those.
It is also a conundrum to untangle “fake news” precisely because outlandish claims forming the basis of modern value systems go unchallenged. One end of the spectrum accuses the other of a litany of “fake news” and vice-versa. Ironically there is very little contact between the two sets of claims.
For the closet-geeks among us, there is in dialectical terms, no stasis point. A stasis point in rhetorics is that contact area between two claims so that debate can take place. With stasis point claim and counter-claim circle each other without finding room for actual common exchange or rebuttal. Another classic example of debates made difficult by the absence of stasis point would be the abortion debate. In the US one camp accuses largely the other of infanticide whilst the other side claim centers around the right of women to their body.
Context collapse, echo chambers and Russian FB ads combined
“Russian Facebook” is fast becoming a trending keyword. It’s one of these moments where you do not know whether to cry or sigh of relief.
As these allegations keep gathering steam and turn to hard convictions, one can wonder if it’s not a bit too little too late.
If you imagine the power of some cheap, ultra-well targeted (typically effectively inside a favourable echo chamber) set of political ads, that go unchallenged… And that keep reinforcing, unverifiable that they are, the most outlandish beliefs of an enormous tract of your population… One might even wonder how things haven’t gone much worse yet by now.
With the rise of echo chambers has led to the production and proliferation of articles specifically espousing their political opinions.
Of course, such biased media has always been the case since the printing press. But there is a different more untrustworthy tone to it, higher targeting and an ever-moving ubiquitous fleetingness that makes it harder to address.
Also, there is a more brutally commercial aspect to it. Targeted social media advertising can be extremely cheaper than traditional media to procure. No need anymore to carpet bomb an entire electorate through print, direct mail, TV ads or radio jingles. That older, outbound option is a) Way more expensive and b) Way more traceable.
Much better, at a fraction of the price to fly under the radar while building fanatical, unchallenged belief in half of it.
At the scale of government budgets, social media advertising is brutally effective whilst remaining extremely affordable.
Context collapse, confirmation bias, and post-modern truth
Traditional appeals to the notion of truth in a claim become moot with context collapse. The key process is convincing an audience through repetition and social attachment to your network and your network values. Truth is not really sought.
It is where context collapse relates to what is called in psychology Confirmation bias. We have a tendency to parse and recall information that confirms existing beliefs.
A debate also depends on emotions. Individuals hate admitting to a better opinion naturally. Let alone when it is in “public” in a friendly echo chamber.
In any case, it is apparent that truth-seeking is not necessarily an inbuilt function. Or that social media helps.
The big lie, the great irony
… is that social media had (and still has) all the potential to instill more authenticity in our professional lives at least. It forces the individuals at work to show their colours.
Being authentic works.
To attract more easily people who simply like the cut of your jib. Wouldn’t that be amazing to refine business culture so that individuals are more authentic?
What a bitter irony that the monetisation of social media threatens its original raison d’être. And may split and threaten the very societies it meant to reconnect.
The industry needs to mutate towards ever better safeguards to ensure that users derive value from social media use.
Social media platforms themselves may need to evolve towards a more structured representation of society in their network building suggestions.
The culture needs to evolve to foster a more open online conversation and tolerance towards opposite opinions. Social media have grown at a dizzying rate and if they are here to stay, we must stay on track as to its future mutations.