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Framing and Context Collapse

written May 8, 2021 // 7 min read

Abstract illustration of a blob framed by two picture frames

The content I throw on Twitter is not something I would readily post on LinkedIn. I also wouldn’t post LinkedIn-style business content to my Facebook timeline. To an extent, my social presence across these platforms is incongruent. The core tenet is that different apps curate different types of communities and thus social contexts. As a result, we try to separate these contexts in the best way we know how to: by acting differently, and that’s ok.

It is not ‘inconsistent’ for us to want to frame ourselves differently on Twitter than on Facebook, and in fact, a lot of key aspects of human behaviour point to why we default to doing so.

The problem comes when these spaces start bleeding into each other, and the boundaries between the different audiences on each of them start amalgamating. The overlap in target audience between these spaces then becomes very large and all of these different social contexts ‘collapse’ and it becomes increasingly difficult to maintain these separate personalities.

What’s (not) in the frame

In this vlogbrothers video from March, John Green talks about the metaphorical frame in which people present themselves. We tailor and adjust our behaviour depending on the environment we’re in, or the audience we find ourselves in front of. However, in doing so, we inadvertently portray an incomplete picture – we frame only the parts we want them to see.

“I mean of course the central trick of the social internet, is that whenever you make something, you choose what’s inside the frame, but as viewers the rest of us can’t help but believe what’s inside the frame, because it’s literally all we can see”

An unfortunate side effect of this is that it starts setting expectations for the audience as to how we ‘normally’ behave. This ‘audience’ of people can be friends, followers, or strangers. They are a group of people that pay attention to what you have to say because of your thoughts, opinions, and general persona. So what happens when we change?

If we’re expected to keep growing as people, these thoughts and opinions will obviously change over time. So why does it feel so weird, for both the audience and ourselves, to deviate from these set identities that we’ve become used to portraying in certain scenarios?

Context separation

Abstract illustration of a blob framed by two picture frames

In order to answer that question, let us make a brief foray into the realm of psychology. Why do humans tend to act differently in different environments? I think three key aspects of behaviour play a role here:

People are unique

No one individual has the exact same interests, goals, values, and identity as you. We have different friends and environments, so we create different contexts in which we can exercise different aspects of ourselves. People find spaces where they can authentically express all the dimensions of themselves. If a situation only exercises one axis of our self-identity, we will actively seek out places to exercise other axes.

Behaviour is sticky

It is easier to travel along a path well-travelled than one covered in weeds and bush – if you do something once, it becomes easier to do it again. Similarly, doing something with a certain context once means it becomes easier to repeat that same behaviour in that context again. If I use Twitter as my social media of choice to post memes, I’m likely to continue using it like so.

In some ways, this is Newton’s First Law but applied to behaviour: if you do something one way, you are likely to keep doing things in that way unless encouraged to do otherwise.

Individuals tend to conform to group norms

In 1951, Solomon Asch conducted an experiment to investigate the extent of which social pressures can affect a person’s behaviour. In this experiment, he asked, “Which line is the longest out of the three given?”. In an individual setting, 99% of people answered correctly. However, when put in a room of actors instructed to answer incorrectly, nearly 75% of all participants gave at least one incorrect answer throughout 12 trials.

People conform for two main reasons:

  1. They want to fit in with the group (normative influence)
  2. They believe the group is better informed than they are (informational influence)

Historically, having different behaviours in different contexts may have been evolutionarily beneficial, helping us to better collaborate and form connections with each other without causing undue conflict.

Even as children, when we get hurt, we look to authority figures around us to see how to react. If our mother comes to us expressing worry and concern, we cry. If everyone around us continues to play as if everything is normal, we will brush aside the injury and continue to play with the group.

Our ability to ‘frame’ ourselves different depending on the social situation likely stemmed from this behaviour too.

Why context collapse is bad

Abstract illustration of a blob framed by two picture frames

When experiencing context collapse, talking to your audience beyond a surface level becomes very difficult. Smaller groups, by nature, have more commonalities to relate to, whether that be interests, music taste, place of study, or lived experiences. These groups provide the chance for individuals to have intimate conversations and exercise different facets of themselves that they otherwise wouldn’t get the chance to. A queer person may be out to a close group of friends but not to their family; a budding writer can have a safe place to explore potential ideas without alienating the rest of their friend group.

When we experience context collapse, these social groups and audiences become massive, and the amount of overlap in interests or values of the collective group is miniscule. How are you supposed to have any sort of meaningful connection when the only thing you share in common on the platform is that you ‘know’ each other?

Centrifuging contexts

I’ve noticed three main strategies individuals, companies, and platforms have adopted in trying to tackle context collapse.

  1. Lowest Common Denominator. Only making posts that anybody will be able to understand and relate to, staying away from controversial or overly personal topics. This approach places an emphasis on quantity of impressions over quality of impressions.

  2. Realtime. Platforms and individuals are leaning more towards ephemeral content, like stories or streaming. The ‘live’ aspect of it means that the audience is encouraged to interact immediately, creating a tighter feedback loop with the audience.

  3. Fragmentation. Purposefully having conversations in places where your audience is smaller, like group chats, direct messages, or small closed communities. In these cases, the specific context and audience is well-defined. More users are also turning to ‘finstas’ which are accounts focused for a closed group of friends and family rather than the entire public internet.

I don’t think there is a single ‘right’ approach, and in part that’s why so many types of social networks exist today: they each have their own merits that incentive different approaches to communication. But one part I do want to emphasize is the tradeoff of depth and breadth in these approaches.

Social bandwidth

I think in part, this is why nobody has been successful in creating a single social network to replace all of the existing apps. As humans, we want the ability to closely connect with people, and context collapses makes that exceedingly difficult. We have limited social bandwidth – there’s only so much attention we can give to everyone. By increasing the breadth of our audience, we reduce the depth at which we can communicate with each individual. As app developers rush to combine all of these platforms into one, maybe we should step back and think whether this is really necessary.

On these larger social media apps where I’m ‘connected’ to hundreds of people, I don’t feel like I can have very insightful conversations or thoughts. Those conversations almost exclusively happen in communities like nwPlus and reboot where there is enough alignment of values and interests that we can scrape past the surface level chit chat and get to really exploring ideas and knowing people.

Because we’re so actively a part of all of these different contexts, we are forced to be excessively general on these platforms to try to cater to everyone. We should have platforms where it’s ok to engage with different elements of who you are. We have different groups of friends to cater to different aspects of who we are, so why should social media platforms be any different?

Different social contexts call for different social behaviours, and that’s ok.

Special thanks to Anson, Ivan, Rishi, Joss, Jasmine, Kat, and Anh for helping read over and edit this piece! Wouldn’t be possible without y’all :)


I'm always happy to have follow up conversations or hear your thoughts! Shoot me an email at j.zhao2k19@gmail.com or yell at me on Twitter.

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