How Social Media Erases Context

How Social Media Erases Context

Indiscriminate sharing has dissolved the boundaries between what we say and when and where we say it.

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It has become increasingly common to read about people getting fired, punished, or otherwise “canceled”—often with good reason—for something they said on Twitter. Some of these casualties become free speech warriors or the subjects of searching profiles on the blurry line between our imagined “right” to be who we are on the Internet and our ability to still retain a job. And then there’s the recent case of Erick Adame, a popular weatherman on NY1 who lost his job after being anonymously harassed with images someone stole of him performing sex acts on a private, noncommercial website. We’re faced with fast-evolving standards of appropriate conduct. But we’re also dealing with the dissolution of boundaries between who we are and what we say or do depending on where we are.

This “context collapse,” a term coined by researchers in a 2010 paper published in New Media & Society, explains how Twitter users conceive of their audience and “contend with groups of people they do not normally bring together, such as acquaintances, friends, co-workers, and family.” Twitter has effectively destroyed what social scientists call “variable self-presentation,” since tweets are viewable by a wide and diverse audience. The platform’s perpetually refreshing feed means that users’ self-presentation is constant, like a diary; tweets feel immediate and personal, except they’re open to a general public. Constantly “sharing,” as opposed to directing communication to a particular person or group, is now considered more authentic.

“The days of you having a different image for your work friends or coworkers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg declared over a decade ago, at the dawn of the social media era. “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

That just used to be normal life for anyone who wasn’t a dead-eyed android. You went to church or school or work and adjusted your speech depending on the context. There was nothing false about it. Calibrating conversation to different audiences was how you expressed ideas appropriate to that context. It’s what kept you from praying at work or talking about your sex life to the supermarket cashier. You could still be your “whole self,” just not all the time to everyone. Far from censorship, it reflected good judgment.

Lack of judgment is the through line that connects many Twitter-induced downfalls. But Adame’s firing represents a moral panic rather than any material damage to his employer. Unlike, say, a political editor at The New York Times tweeting that Representatives Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) aren’t really Midwestern, or a Washington Post reporter retweeting “Every girl is bi. You just have to figure out if it’s polar or sexual,” or the chair of psychiatry at Columbia calling a famously dark-skinned model a “freak of nature,” evidence of a sex life has no impact on Adame’s ability to credibly inform us if it’s going to be sunny or gray. There’s no real impact on his work. In the aforementioned examples, no one was even fired, merely suspended or demoted, and all of them apologized.

The same can’t be said of the former Levi’s executive claiming in a lawsuit that she didn’t get promoted to CEO because of “viewpoint discrimination.” Jennifer Sey defied repeated warnings about tweeting against public health guidance during the height of the pandemic, at a time when the company was trying to implement safety protocols across its stores and distribution centers. Her nonstop and often ridiculing challenges to federal policy earned her appearances on Naomi Wolf’s YouTube show and Fox News, undermining her leadership responsibilities at work. The ubiquitous disclaimer “Tweets do not reflect the views of my employer” does not apply when you are accountable to shareholders and employees or, in the case of journalists and mental health professionals, readers and patients. Sey now tweets from an account branded as “Sey Anything” (also the name of her new Substack), which is fine, but it’s absurd to demand that free speech remain consequence-free as well.

Adame arguably exercised good judgment when he confined himself to camming for a discreet audience on an adults-only website geared toward gay men. Although he posted a statement on Instagram detailing his “lapse in judgment,” he had a reasonable expectation of privacy according to the website’s own terms of service, which forbid disseminating content. It’s also illegal in New York City (and all 50 states) to nonconsensually distribute nudes, which makes Adame a crime victim. Far from reckless, his actions were in fact in line with guidance from NYC public health officials to minimize risk by taking our sex lives online during Covid. His employer doesn’t seem to see it that way, and Adame isn’t suing to get his job back, possibly because the terms of his contract likely included some kind of clause about unbecoming conduct. Toward the middle of his pleading post, he apologized to his employer, coworkers, friends, and family “for any embarrassment I may have caused you. You expected and deserved better from me.”

Except it’s not Adame who’s guilty of context collapse here.

Is there a lie in having a sexuality? As it turns out, Adame’s television audience was not in fact his only audience, but imagining his non-workplace identity as somehow misleading or sinister or reflecting a “lack of integrity” is simultaneously extremely Victorian and uniquely modern. The same goes for the various underpaid nurses and EMTs who’ve been fired for having OnlyFans accounts to supplement their income.

People are not always what they seem, either on the flattened existence of our screens or in any other particular context. Nor should they be. But context collapse has shattered our ability to separate public remarks that cause material damage from the fact that practically anyone’s private behavior can be rendered public by a bad actor more easily than ever in history. There’s nothing particularly authentic about that.

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