The “Social Turn,” Social Networking, “Context Collapse,” and Kurt Vonnegut

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Kurt Vonnegut at Work

Amber Buck’s “Examining Digital Literacy Practices on Social Networking Sites” connects the “social turn” in composition studies and the social aspects of new media. This is a connection that seems natural, but I don’t know that I’ve actually heard it spelled out before. I do know that I have heard the period characterized by the “social turn” and the period characterized by new media discussed as if they are discrete periods.

Buck discusses how these two lenses—composition as social and composition as digitally networked—overlap. She asserts that when we talk about new-media writing, we are talking about activity rather than artifact, connection rather than reception. These are all terms that are familiar from socio-cultural theorizing of composition. Activity theory discusses the importance of the situatedness of intellectual activity. And the “social turn” as a whole downplays the individuation of composers and emphasizes their connectedness through communities and discourses.

Social network discourse further levels individuation. Status updates on Facebook, and vlogs on YouTube, level the distinctness of the audience—making it much more difficult to get a handle on the contours of the rhetorical situation. This is referred to as “context collapse” by Buck and by Michael Wesch in his video essay “An Anthropological Introduction to YouTube” (14). On Facebook, you send out the same message (or “status update”), written in a one-size-fits-all (or not) register, to people you have radically different relationships with. On YouTube, you send out your digital missive to absolutely everybody. This is why it is so difficult to determine how to appropriately speak to a web cam while making a vlog (something that Wesch discusses and, being a cultural anthropologist, publicly experiences himself).

It strikes me that extremely popular authors have always been in a somewhat similar situation. Your audience is amorphous in the extreme, and a number of people will probably quote you to back up ideas you yourself do not hold. Wesch discusses how by putting yourself out on YouTube, you are opening yourself up to all sorts of appropriation and remix that may not exactly jibe with your original intent.

Kurt Vonnegut, who was a super popular novelist and cultural icon during the sixties and seventies, said, in an interview with The Paris Review, that the way he dealt with the problem of “context collapse” (he did not call it this) was to write his work for an audience of one (his sister, who also happened to be his first real-life audience). He’d just write novels to please his sister. Luckily for him, a lot of readers of fiction turned out to have tastes similar to hers.

In Wesch’s video essay, students in his YouTube anthropology class discuss their desire to personalize the vlogging experience. One student remarks that maybe she should put an image of a face on her screen so she can address something with some personality. Vonnegut’s strategy is one way to do this.

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2 comments on “The “Social Turn,” Social Networking, “Context Collapse,” and Kurt Vonnegut

  1. This also relates to what Wesch was saying in his video. I thought Wesch’s video was interesting, because he approached this super technological topic from a humanistic perspective. He was analyzing social networking sites, specifically YouTube, as a progression of human interaction. The aspect that makes this new type of analysis so interesting is that this is not something that anthropologists typically analyze. Anthropologists are known for analyzing artifacts and things that have already happened, but this refreshing take on analyzing the here and now, was very enlightening. While both Buck and Wesch emphasize the point that new media writing is more “connection rather than reception”, I’d argue that reception is an integral component, as well. People will connect to something if they are moved by its reception, so they are, in a way, dependent upon each other.

  2. Your post raises interesting questions about a few situations. One being context, and what it means to have a diversified view of contexts that occur as a natural extension of mass (or semi-mass) communication. What does it mean for an author of one to communicate a message to many? One might say that the context is automatically established and supported by each act of reading or receivership, creating a multiplicity of contexts, each with its own distinct nuances and subtleties but still connected in some way to the original message. This makes it really difficult to graph or create models for, but I think it might be less of a collapse as Buck and Wesch maintain and more of an ongoing growth situation. ‘Context collapse’ as a term seems to assume a bandwidth for a single message, which might exist, but audiences are clever and build context around messages where clues or schema might be missing. I’m curious how this fits into other theories of meaning, especially ones that propose reading/interpreting meaning as being a collaborative act.

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