Context Matters in Social Media

I’ve been thinking for a while that the real barrier to entry on Twitter is the layers of context you need to have in order to be able to navigate it well. I believe the reason you can have deep conversations in 140 characters aren’t because it’s easy to make deep and meaningful statements in 140 characters (though some people are masters at this), but rather because there are layers of contexts behind each 140 character statement, such that someone who is aware of the context gets so much more than 140 characters.

For example, this tweet by Jesse Stommel on plagiarism:

There are layers of history and context behind this discussion on plagiarism. Even though the tweet stands alone, has meaning on its own, if you know Jesse and know what he has previously said about plagiarism and know his pedagogical stance and ethical views, it will mean so much more to you.

Another example is a discussion of openness in education. A large number of tweeters, not all of whom know each other, and after some time we needed to step back and make explicit what each of us meant when we said “open”. David Wiley, possibly having one of the broadest views of the contexts we were each coming from, Tweeted this (comparing open practice vs open educational content):

In The Essential Elements of Digital Literacies, Doug Belshaw writes:

We’re surrounded by ambiguity in everyday life. Words not only have multiple meanings, but the context in which we use words can greatly change their meaning. Even words that both sound the same and are spelled the same way can be understood very differently depending upon context.

So think of a Twitter chat (and how difficult it would be for someone new to a community to handle the following):

  • Acronyms/Abbreviations: Someone uses the abbreviation “fb”. Usually, in contexts I use, this could either mean “feedback” or “facebook” and isn’t always clear

  • Jargon: Someone uses the term MOOC. Most people I communicate with on Twitter are fully aware of what a MOOC is. Occasionally, someone has no idea what it is and bravely asks. Poor soul gets 10 different replies because everyone else knows what a MOOC is and is trying to be helpful. It could get embarrassing

  • Background: sometimes knowing who someone is can help you understand a conversation much better. For example, if someone doesn’t know I am in Egypt and makes a generalization about higher ed and expects me to agree or understand, it can get tricky. Even within the Western world, the UK and US contexts can differ, and probably even within the US. I will never forget this: working at an American institution but doing my PhD in the UK, the use of the term “faculty” in my dissertation was tricky. On Twitter it can be more difficult to pick the most appropriate word as you struggle to make your sentence fit the 140 characters (how often do you use gr8 instead of awesome?)

  • Culture: jokes? Sometimes so culturally-specific that it’s even difficult to Google them to understand what someone means. Same for lots of pop culture references that go way over my head during Twitter chats especially (when stopping to ask interrupts the flow of the conversation)

  • Inadvertent insults: These are the worst. You say something that sounds pretty innocent and straightforward to you, and someone else takes offense at it – and you don’t always get the opportunity to “make it right” (sometimes because you’ve upset someone so much they won’t even tell you what you did wrong in the first place).

Visuals, by the way, are not universal – as I have explained before (see infographic below)

Of course, context matters (heavily) outside of social media. Sean Michael Morris recently wrote a post about the upcoming MOOC MOOC Instructional Design and starts the post with a set of learning outcomes you will get from the post. Might someone take that joke/sarcasm seriously? Or is it obvious to people who don’t know about Sean, MOOC MOOC or Hybrid Pedagogy.

Which brings me to my last point. I am very excited to be hosting the first international version of the Digital Pedagogy Lab Institute - a Cairo version that I am organizing inshallah this March, with participants from Europe, Africa and Asia, as well as Egypt. The facilitators of this event will be people with whom I have worked closely over the past couple of years – we understand each other well, we think along similar lines,we are familiar with each other’s values and work. I met them all through Twitter, and we learned about each other’s context and thinking through our writing and online interactions, and so we can have conversations over Twitter and understand each other pretty quickly. Hopefully this transfers well into face-to-face. Participants in the event, however, will be mostly strangers to all of us, and possibly strangers to our approach to digital pedagogy, and coming to us from a variety of contexts. This will be both challenging and exciting, and I look forward to it. Now how often do we consider audience context in so-called “international” conferences? I’ll talk about that in another post.

What role has context recently played in your professional or teaching relationships? Please share in the comments.

[CC-licensed Flickr photo by infomatique]

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