Paper Abstract- Gemma Richardson

Blurring Boundaries: Viewing Context Collapse and Surveillance Capitalism on Social Media through the Work of McLuhan

Marshall McLuhan's concept of the "global village" and the "tribalization" that occurs through electronic media provides a useful starting point when analyzing social media. Specifically, McLuhan's work can be used as a theoretical framework to understanding a recent shift that has taken place in the scope and nature of how people communicate through these platforms. The interconnected spaces created by social media platforms like Facebook have in some ways created a global village, but this space has become increasingly uncomfortable for a number of participants who wish to avoid the blurring of boundaries between disparate audiences.

McLuhan talks about this very occurrence, where the "aloof and dissociated role of the literate man [sic] of the Western world is succumbing to the new, intense depth participation engendered by the electronic media and bringing us back in touch with ourselves and well as with one another.... Particularly in countries where literate values are deeply institutionalized, this is a highly traumatic process, since the clash of the old segmented visual culture and the new integral electronic culture creates a crisis of identity" (Norden, 1969).

This phenomenon on social media is referred to as context collapse (boyd, 2002; Litt, 2012; Davis & Jurgenson, 2014) and has been, in part, responsible for diminishing amounts of personal disclosures made on a voluntary basis on public social media platforms. Accompanied by highly publicized data breaches and privacy concerns that regulators continue to grapple with, the blurred boundaries created in a globalized village on social media can be seen as a catalyst to the recent announcement by Facebook's CEO, Mark Zuckerberg, that a "pivot to privacy" is the future of social media. It is clear from recent online trends that value is being placed on semi-private, "private" and ephemeral communications over open platforms and public disclosures. Yet this so-called pivot certainly does not provide a reprieve for regulatory bodies who must now address the increasing prevalence of data harvesting and algorithmic tracking through techniques such as biometrics and geo-location data tagging. The targeted advertising at the heart of the surveillance capitalist business model will continue despite this supposed shift to private communications, continuing to blur the space between public and private.

The notion of context collapse, the techniques of surveillance capitalism underpinning major social media platforms, and the struggle for regulatory measures to address these proprietary techniques is discussed in this paper through the framework provided by McLuhan's theories.


boyd, d. (2002). Faceted id/entity: Managing representation in a digital world. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Davis, J. L., & Jurgenson, N. (2014). Context collapse: Theorizing context collusions and collisions. Information, Communication & Society, 17(4), 476-485.

Litt, E. (2012). Knock, knock. Who's there? The imagined audience. Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, 56(3), 330-345.

Norden, E. (1969). Playboy interview: Marshall McLuhan: A candid conversation with the high priest of popcult and metaphysician of media. Retrieved from: