Order, Authenticity, and Context Collapse: Life in virtual space

The first time I put on a virtual reality headset, and entered an AltspaceVR “room,” it frightened me a little. Much like Second Life, a pioneer of virtual sociality, you create an avatar and teleport into a shared space. But AltspaceVR feels much more present. Human voices chatter in a cacophony of conversations, like a conference coffee break, except a human avatar is having a full conversation with a bee avatar. With the VR headset on, and just a modicum of suspended belief, I was in that room.

The idea that virtual space is a space is much easier to grasp in immersive worlds such as VR, but is that possible when looking at a flat screen with images and text? When you are in a digital conversation with friends or strangers, one-on-one or in a group, supportive or combative, does it feel like a space is holding you all there?

Since before the dawn of the World Wide Web we have employed multiple, and mixed, metaphors to describe digital experience. We surfed to web pages, that existed in cyberspace, by logging in. We went to chat rooms, and message boards, and if you were really into it, multi-user dungeons. Pretty soon we were uploading to YouTube, posting on walls in Facebook and to the stream on Twitter. Language is always a reflection of our minds, and if internet culture is a mess today, the jumble of language we have created for it might show us why.

In the mid 2000s, researchers started to conceive of social media spaces in terms of “context collapse.” Researching YouTube and the webcam, Michael Wesch offered a clear and helpful definition of the idea: “Like a building collapse, context collapse does not create a total void but a chaotic version of its once-ordered self. The would-be vlogger sits stultified as his or her imagination races through the nearly infinite possible contexts he or she might be entering, all of which pile up as parts, pieces, and pieces of parts, a rubble that becomes the ground on which the vlogger must struggle to get his or her footing.”

Context collapse does not just refer to loss of cues from physical interactions (I can’t see your facial expressions when you call me names on Twitter!), but it is also a collapse of time and location. I might be on a bus heading to London at midnight in winter while you are on the back porch, soaking in the Colorado sun in May, when our social media avatars interact. We also do not know who else is in the “room,” because it is not defined in the familiar dimensions.

Why does that matter?

Because it is in shared space that we gain a foothold in reality. We need others for this most basic human feat—to define and navigate what is real. One of the most important political philosophers of the 20th century, Hannah Arendt, says the public realm, “gathers us together and yet prevents our falling over each other, so to speak.”

This made more sense after I did a study on job “settings” via social space. My co-author, CSU College of Business career counselor Lorie Humphrey (yes, relation) examined the ways journalism students might imagine a career in a newsroom through the lens of Twitter. What we found was that when you search via hashtags or terms (#journalism, #journalists), you find the ugly, the bad, and the good, in that order. Ugly in the sense that attacks on media are pervasive these days, making the setting look dystopian and mean. On the other hand, when you look through the lens of journalists who are good at Twitter (we closely studied a Denver Post reporter with exceptional skills on that platform), the setting takes on a certain order. You recognize that journalists are in the community regularly and also are on their smartphones a lot, scanning for the latest information about the world, their beats, and the journalism industry. You see times when the job is a fantastic privilege, a stultifying bore, and a challenge to one’s humanity. We determined that the way to understand setting via a digital space is through the eyes of a human being, someone like the Denver Post reporter, whose cohesive narrative helps avert some of the context collapse we found in looking through hashtags and search terms.

That, however, brings me to the question I am asked the most as a researcher of life narratives on social media: Is anyone really telling their authentic story there? This is also a question about space, at least to some degree. When we meet in physical space, we also perform the self, as Erving Goffman described in the 1950s , but it is harder to control all of the cues we put out in face-to-face interactions. Social media affords us more control for self-presentation than a physical space, and so sure, many people will post about their success, and leave out the failures, crop the photo to leave out the mess, basically be their own publicist team.

Whether we immerse ourselves in digital spaces or digital data immerses itself in the physical world, we will soon have a new set of visual and textual cues to navigate... I suspect one day we will understand digital life not as a virtual space or even an augmentation of reality, but as an embedded part of our nature"

But I have a question back: Why do you have the sense that something inauthentic is afoot in social media spaces? Is it because you are not being fully authentic there? Maybe. Is it because you know that life cannot be as perfect as some people present theirs to be? Probably. Might it also be that we are gaining skills in rebuilding this collapsed context in digital space, starting to recognize a new kind of frontier, not thinking in space-time continuum, but using another form of orientation?

That brings me back to the next iteration of digital space, immersion. Whether we immerse ourselves in digital spaces (Virtual Reality) or digital data immerses itself in the physical world (Augmented Reality), we will soon have a new set of visual and textual cues to navigate. One of the reasons I love digital spaces is that they regularly bend and break my own preconceived notions. I suspect one day we will understand digital life not as a virtual space or even an augmentation of reality, but as an embedded part of our nature, much like language or the “infosphere” as philosopher Luciano Floridi calls it. If we realize it is a meaningful space in which to live, a space in which we must gain a foothold in reality, how would we treat our time there differently?

About the author

Michael HumphreyDr. Michael Humphrey researches how life stories emerge on social media. He attended William Jewell College in Liberty, Missouri where he earned his B.A. in Communication and Philosophy. Before receiving his M.A. in Magazine Journalism at New York University, Dr. Humphrey wrote feature stories for The Kansas City Star and founded 1000 Stories, a life story writing program sponsored by KC metro area libraries that reached more than 2,000 adult students. Following that, Dr. Humphrey pursued his Ph.D. in Public Communication & Technology at CSU and now teaches Digital Storytelling & Audience Engagement, Entrepreneurial Journalism and Analytics in the Department of Journalism and Media Communication.