Twitter and Context Collapse

I’d like to begin my post with a reference to ‘context collapse,’ which is a concept that Alice E. Marwich and Dana Boyd expound upon in “I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience” (here’s a link to the abstract). Basically, context collapse refers to the phenomenon in which multiple audiences collapse into a single audience that is diverse and ‘faceless,’ so to speak. Marwich and Boyd refer to various personal uses of Twitter and other microblogging platforms, but I would like to extend and apply part of their discussion to libraries.

I’ve been playing around with Twitter. I already had an account, but I had never actually used it before. This week I added individuals and organizations to follow (such as the author Jeanette Winterson and Publishers Weekly) and attempted to post some interesting tweets, myself. After this brief experience I’ve realized a few things about the basic nature of Twitter.

To me, the most salient of these realizations relates to my Twitter audience. I received three follower requests over a very short period of time—one from a friend I actually know, one from a ‘friend’ I’ve never met (and who only posts in German, a language I don’t speak) and one from an organization. These are three representative audiences (i.e. contexts) for my Twitter self. In other words, when I tweet I perform for multiple audiences.

Not only that, but if I change my account setting from private to public (which seems to be a reasonable thing to do if I want to extend my outreach/presence and to interact) my audience will collapse entirely to include anyone who chooses to visit and/or engage with my posts. A library’s (presumably public) Twitter account has the potential to reach a vast variety of different audiences beyond its own particular (often geographically centered, but sometimes geographically distributed) community of users.

In his piece about some of the ways libraries can implement Twitter to interact with users, David Allen Kelly mentions Twitter search as a function that can be employed to find uses of a given word (i.e. library) within a given geographic radius. This use of Twitter search could be a good idea, but when I read about it my initial reaction was “what about users who are part of a geographically distributed community and who tweet outside a given radius”? Could it be possible that under some circumstances a library becomes the Library (i.e. many libraries functioning collectively to connect users with information) on Twitter as a consequence of context collapse? I’m not sure.

Marwich and Boyd describe Twitter’s networked audience as a combination of the definable group that composes the writer’s audience, and the unidentifiable mass that is the broadcast audience so that “the networked audience is unidentified but contains familiar faces; it is both potentially public and personal” (129). A library tweets for a given community of users, but there can be other followers outside of that community who may engage with a library through Twitter (for example, I’m currently following the Toronto Public Library even though I do not live in Toronto). A library can tweet with reference to multiple other potential communities/contexts with varying information needs. Then, the Library communicates with an extremely diverse community of users, indeed.

I’d like to briefly mention two other observations I’ve made throughout the course of my very recent Twitter dabbling. I’ve noticed that much of the activity on my (admittedly diminutive) Twitter account involves single tweets and single retweets, but very few extended interactions that could be identified as conversation. I’ve also noticed that many tweets contained hyperlinked text to connect me to another resource from Twitter.

These two observations cause me to realize that although Twitter is often termed an informal communication network, it is actually quite formal in some ways. Colloquialisms may be common in tweets, but communicating via Twitter is a calculated affair involving crafting a 140 character (or less) message and/or embedding appropriate links into a message that will not be overlooked by followers as ‘just more stuff.’ Active Twitter users should not engage this medium, which  connects a (potentially collapsed) community of users with information, without considering how Twitter transmits and transforms that information.

Marwich, Alice E. and Dana Boyd. “I Tweet Honestly, I Tweet Passionately: Twitter Users, Context Collapse, and the Imagined Audience.” New Media and Society 13.1 (2010): 114-133.

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One Response to Twitter and Context Collapse

  1. Pam Saliba says:

    Great post, and great blog in general! It’s really interesting to think about the way we “perform” for different audiences when we tweet to many people…

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