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Ways to stay connected: Harnessing, managing, and preventing context collapse on social media


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Social media sites, such as Facebook, present the potential for people to organise connections with acquaintances from all walks of life within a single site. This can lead to context collapse, a flattening of the boundaries that generally separate audiences for self-expression. Drawing on literature about young people’s social media use and my research with LGBTQ early adults, I will discuss how context collapse is experienced as an event through which individuals can intentionally redefine themselves across audiences or manage identity expressions received by unintended audiences. Possible strategies for reinstating contexts on social media will also be explored in this presentation.

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Ways to stay connected: Harnessing, managing, and preventing context collapse on social media

  1. 1. Ways to stay connected: Harnessing, managing, and preventing context collapse on social media Stefanie Duguay, PhD Student, Digital Media Studies, @DugStef Creative Industries Faculty, Queensland University of Technology Presentation for QUT CYRC Keyword Seminar “Connections” 9 October 2014 Image from Mario Tome
  2. 2. Facebook as a networked public a) Persistence b) Replicability c) Scalability d) Searchability (boyd, 2011) Image from Bruno Girin
  3. 3. Context collapse (boyd, 2011) A flattening of the spatial, temporal, and social boundaries that otherwise separate audiences Redefines the situation (Goffman, 1959) Image from Susan Williams
  4. 4. Stigma (Goffman, 1968) Normative expectations ≠ identity LGBTQ people still experience stigma. Image from Diego Sevilla Ruiz They often manage stigma by deciding when and how to ‘come out’ to others
  5. 5. Methods Interviews with 27 LGBTQ students, ages 18-25, from diverse universities in the United Kingdom
  6. 6. Context collusions (Davis & Jurgenson, 2014) Intentionally flattening contexts “I don’t want to run the risk of having a confrontation in real life so if I have it on Facebook, they can take it in, deal with it themselves, and then it’s over and done with and I never had to say anything.” - Robert Has the potential to help people manage disclosure of stigma but doesn’t remove stigma altogether. “I think people were like, ‘Yeah, I don’t care if you’re gay, don’t like shove it down my throat.’” - Matt Image from Consumerist Dot Com
  7. 7. Context collisions Unintentional overlapping of audiences “And then I was like, who fucking cares? To give that much power to other people and a program seems crazy.” - Nate “[Having] waved the big lesbian flag, I was really embarrassed when I started to slip up and accidentally have one night stands with men, and I definitely remember editing what was visible on my profile page.” - Elizabeth “I suppressed [it] on Facebook before I was ready to talk about that level of complication.” - Elizabeth Image from Michele Bighignoli
  8. 8. Tailoring Performances “It doesn’t say, ‘I am gay’. It says, ‘I support gay rights.’” - Ana “A lot of my family members who wouldn’t approve are the kind of people who don’t really recognise homosexuality as something that exists.” - William Picture from HRC Blog Picture from One Direction Music Social steganography (boyd and Marwick, 2011) and/or civil inattention (Goffman, 1966)
  9. 9. Separating audiences Privacy Settings/Friending “Things like Margaret Thatcher dying are extremely useful.” - Elizabeth Other social media “If someone saw something on here then they’d be more likely to think that it was just a political statement rather than actually sort of who you are.” - Holly Pseudonymous settings “My Tumblr’s like a retreat almost, it’s kind of like —sometimes I think it’s who I want to be on Facebook … It’s not a secret life because I know that I can be quite vocal about [my sexuality] on Facebook but in terms of actually expressing it and like, looking at images of things that to me are erotic, it’s almost like this is where my sexuality is—where no one can find it …” - Jessica
  10. 10. Summary and implications Context collapse as a recurring event that: a) Can be harnessed to voluntarily redefine identity across multiple audiences; b) Can be experienced unintentionally, leading either to involuntary redefinition or actions to save face; c) May be prevented through tailoring identity performances or separating audiences to rebuild contexts. Digital media literacy Privacy policy and platform approaches Other stigmatized populations
  11. 11. Questions? For references and more information: Duguay, S. (2014). ‘He has a way gayer Facebook than I do’: Investigating sexual identity disclosure and context collapse on a social networking site. New Media & Society. Published online before print: September 4, 2014, doi: 10.1177/1461444814549930 @DugStef