Jonathan Fields, on Twitter, transparency, and the problem of context:

In an odd way, it seems channels known as the protectors of transparency, authenticity and truth have created a dynamic where people are increasingly scared to be transparent and speak the truth, because of the risk of being taken “the wrong way by the wrong people.”

The fear of being taken out of context is, in my opinion, very understandable.

Part of the problem is Twitter itself. Twitter’s 140-character limit is ingenious in many ways. But brevity isn’t always a virtue. Some ideas – particularly controversial ones – don’t fit well into the space of one tweet. And, given the sheer volume of content flowing through Twitter, anything not contained within one tweet is almost guaranteed to become disconnected from its foundation of context.

Sometimes I do wonder whether communicating in short tweets has made us shallower.

Another part of the problem is potential audience.

When I talk to a group of friends or peers in person, I know exactly my potential audience is – that is, who might be listening. Because I know my audience, I know we share the same context.

But on Twitter, I don’t know who is following me, who might start following me, and who might retweet me to an unknown list of their followers. So, by default, my potential audience on Twitter is everyone. That’s a scary thought, because establishing a shared context for everyone on Twitter is pretty much impossible.

How do people respond to this? Either they say, “Screw it, I don’t care who’s listening in,” (which is actually a very difficult attitude to maintain) or they start thinking very hard about what things ought to be kept private.

Before the social media explosion, most personal information and most personal interactions were, by default, private. Making things public required time and effort – you had to get on radio, or TV, or organize a meeting, etc.

Now the situation is reversed. Many interactions and pieces of personal information are public by default. Making these things private takes time and effort and forethought.

So it’s not so much that people have turned against transparency or authenticity; it’s that the default setting has changed, and thus the kind of pressure people have to deal with has also changed.

When you’re on Twitter, how do you handle the context problem?

Inspired by Danah Boyd’s SXSW 2010 keynote address.