Conversations in the Global Village.
Welcome back, friends. Last week, we talked about amputations. Not of literal parts of the body, but related to how our use of any technology to extend ourselves “cuts off” some of the parts we are extending. We left our time on a notion of self-examination: we are often blind to the ways that we have amputated parts of ourselves. We are unaware of how the extensions of ourselves through technology have changed the content delivered through the extensions.
In our everyday lives, when speaking to friends and family that understand us, it’s a norm to expect that we should be able to voice our thoughts and opinions, but we typically hold back a bit as the context of face-to-face interaction serves as a filter. We can see the person we’re talking to right in front of us.
When we get into online interactions, things change a bit. We become more willing to speak our every thought and feeling, and can perhaps get a bit more defensive when someone disagrees with us. It’s not that we don’t ever do this with in-person conversations, but on the whole, it seems easier to lose ourselves in an online or other text-based conversation.
Our text-based online interactions suffer from a key difference: all the context is stripped away.
There’s no such thing as any type of global speech norms. It’s not a thing that exists. There’s no global community….A community is defined by… the norms that it has and how it enforces them, and you don’t have that in a global community just because… we’re just really not that global yet.1
So when we use Facebook (or Twitter or TikTok or whatever) to talk, we are writing from a specific context typically to an imagined context in our mind, and sometimes we do so without taking the time to make it clear what the context we are addressing even is. Even in a one-to-one online interaction, compared to a face-to-face conversation, we have so little information to go on about what the other person is experiencing in a typical conversation.
Beyond even the base level of context, we forget that the means we use to express ourselves is the technology itself: language. When we’re in an in-person conversation, it’s much easier to track along to make sure the person we are speaking with is understanding us. If they are not, and it’s a comfortable enough situation, they can easily ask. We lose this ability with online interactions, as the person we are speaking to, if they don’t know what we are talking about, typically falls back to Googling our words to figure it out. We lose the opportunity to define a shared meaning for those words.
Even deeper than language is the knowledge of the metaphors and linguistics structures that have meaning beyond the words on the screen or page.
As an elementary example, I grew up in an Evangelical religious tradition, so the phrase “born again” has deep meaning to me without any explanation. Those words evoke the notion of the words of Jesus from the Gospels at the beginning of the New Testament and have a rich narrative around them in my mind. There is then the cultural context for how the phrase “born again” came to be used in Evangelical churches over the back half of the Twentieth Century.
By evoking the notions of the Gospel, the New Testament, and the greater cultural context in the US around the rise of the modern Evangelical movement, I have created a barrier to understanding the full context I have around the phrase “born again.” I know all of this context, but to someone outside of particular faith background, it’s hard to understand the full meaning that is has when I speak about it.
In our online communications, as we interact with people in a “sterile” feeling environment, we can forget that these people are not our actual neighbors. In the Global Village, regardless of the dreams of McLuhan, messages aren’t universal.
While we can share content very easily, that content is devoid of most context. When content is separated from its context, it’s not just free-floating in a spirit world: It inherits the context where it’s being interpreted. As it turns out, messages are hardly universal in their explicit forms.2
The thing about these problems is that they always feel easy to solve. But we have the benefit of all the context we carry around our own messages. “Of course, my message didn’t mean that,” we can think to ourselves. “Others should have thicker skin and be able to take it.” But then, when the tables are turned, we are quick to latch on to a message that we don’t really understand. We take the content from others outside of our context, interpret it through our lens, become outraged, and feel attacked.
This cycle plays out over and over again, increasingly upping the stakes of our interactions and drives us further into extremes. If our goal is to galvanize our audience further, this may be our winning strategy. However, if our goal is to engage others to form a community, we must choose a different path.
Some questions to ponder:
How can we be more mindful of our own contexts, the context we bring to a piece of content, and anticipating the contexts of the people we’re addressing?
If our goal is to create community and invite others into conversations, how should we think differently about how we have meaningful conversations?
What are the types of conversations we should always move offline?
With that, thanks for reading.
We’re taking off next week, so we’ll see you back in a couple of weeks. Happy July 4 from the Context&Content team!
This is the core problem with content moderation in online communities as well. A message that may seem totally reasonable in one context or culture, when shared without context and interpreted somewhere else, takes on a completely different meaning. Just as I’m writing this, the Facebook Oversight board is commenting on how Facebook should overhaul its “so-called satire exception,” ruling that a Facebook takedown of a meme was unwarranted.