Context Collapse and Mastodon

2 minute read

Facebook assumes we have only one identity, but that’s never been true. Social media has to allow for multiple selves.

One of the reasons Facebook has been such a problematic platform is because it forces its users into something social scientists have called context collapse. Context collapse has been built into how Facebook works right from start, apparently because Mark Zuckerberg has some weird ideas about how people’s social relations work and has been forcing those weird ideas on everyone that uses Facebook.

For as long a humans have been social, they have presented different selves to different audiences. When I meet my parents, my friends or my students, they all meet a different me. All those contexts have different expectations about what is appropriate or inappropriate behavior and knowing those expectations is part of being well-adapted human being. We are all host to multiple selves that we present at different times and occasions, as appropriate. This is all perfectly normal, and enables us to build a working society where most of us are strangers to each other.

This is much harder online, where we can’t be sure who our audiences are going to be. My Facebook profile is a weird combination of professional contacts, some of whom I have never met, family members and childhood friends. All of them know a different me, so when I post something to Facebook, they are all going to read the post in a different context. One way Facebook enforced this context collapse was by insisting that everyone have one personal profile that uses their “real name”, defined in a way that is convenient for them but divorced from the reality of their users. They finally walked back on that decision when users reacted in the only way then can: they stopped sharing so much personal information on Facebook, which is catastrophic to Facebook’s business model.

I have been lately thinking about context collapse when trying out a new social media, Mastodon. Mastodon is federated, meaning it consists of a bunch of different servers that all talk to each other, like email. You create an account on one of these servers, which is your home instance. But like with email, your account can still talk with any account on the federated network. This creates many smaller contexts, where users who identify as artists or writers or LGBTQ+ people can have their own instances. It also makes it possible to have multiple accounts, one for each aspect of your identity that you want to keep separate from others.

I have so far tried creating a couple of different accounts, following different users from each. I’m not trying to keep them hidden, so somebody trying to find the different accounts would find them easily, but it gives me some power over context collapse. The downside is that checking and managing multiple accounts is more work than managing one account.

You can find the details of my active Mastodon accounts on my About page.