Bad Idea: Context CollapseWhy misunderstandings multiply online.

Bad Idea: Context CollapseWhy misunderstandings multiply online.

  • Words Nathan Ma
  • Photograph Natalia Evelyn Bencicova

It is mortifying to be misunderstood. Politicians and celebrities know this well, crafting public statements with the care of a lace maker to avoid misapprehension. But what if we held each other’s statements up to such scrutiny, imbuing them with subtexts so unforgiving that the speaker can hardly recognize their own speech? Would we speak freely, or would we self-censor to avoid our words being misconstrued?

On social media, these misunderstandings happen more than in real life. The idea of “context collapse” helps explain why. Coined in the early 2000s by the researcher Danah Boyd, context collapse refers to the fact that social platforms rob users of the ability to differentiate between varying audiences. Each communiqué must be read and understood (or misunderstood) by every...

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