Importance of shared context

Ed Vielmetti writes that shared context is important and that it is getting lost, particularly for people who are all-virtual-all-the-time.  He suggests that Memeorandum might be in the direction of a solution for the technology-leaning folk. Memeorandum and the culture of shared text

One of the things that people get when they are in a world where they read the same newspaper is a culture of shared text - you read it, I read it, we can both talk about it without having to go into a lot of backstory.
The blog world for all of its benefits does not generally have shared text as a starting point.

What is shared context?  Beyond the community-based context that Ed mentions, there is the shared context of what has happened in a group or organization.  There is the shared knowledge of "how things are done here" that frequently frustrates formal knowledge management systems, or that might frustrate newcomers to the organization.  As Ed mentions, newspaper and TV have provided this in the past.  As far as I can tell, newspaper readership and viewership of TV continues to drop as there are more sources to absorb people's attention.  Even the shared context over the latest Veronica Mars episode doesn't exist like it did for I Love Lucy.  Nonaka has the idea of "Ba" - a combination of shared knowledge and shared physical space - that is usually related to shared context.  And there is the general concept of culture and shared experiences that many, many researchers and thinkers have discussed.

What is it about shared context that is so important?  I think the key is that shared context facilitates discussions and conversations.  The greater the shared context between people, the easier it is to negotiate the interpersonal questions of trust and reputation.  The value of shared cultural activities (the big game last night, the company meeting) is in the shared experience and shared sense of togetherness that comes out of them.  How many company meetings have you attended that have later seemed more important?  Or how many have you skipped and then felt like you missed something?  And getting things done in a group setting is all about how much trust people have that the others will hold up their end of the bargain - that they understand what is expected without being explained in painstaking detail.

And blogs?  On an individual level, I have met people who I only know through their blogs -- through the interaction of our blogs -- and instantly feel a stronger connection because we've had some kind of connection.  Taken larger, when a group of people all read a specific blog (or set of blogs), they become familiar with the topics and language of that blog.  That group then have a shared context - possibly limited - under which they can begin communicating and working together.  This builds into a community (see Lilia).  This applies to other virtual communities as well.  In mailing lists and on Usenet groups, one can develop sense of community without ever having to meet.  Interestingly, I get the sense that many of these groups are limited in scope to their topic of interest - that they rarely call upon their shared context to work together outside of that defined boundary.

4 Comment(s)

Thanks Jack. (For a bit of shared context backstory, I met Jack through Meshforum, so we share some context around that event.)

I haven't thought through this yet, but I'm pretty sure that proximity leads to reciprocity. That is to say, if we're near each other in some way we'll start to respond to each other just by sheer force of gravity. My experiences with being a telecommuter who spent a week a month in the home office just so that I could be part of hallway conversations reinforces that impression - distance is a barrier to shared context in many ways.

You ask: "What is it about shared context that is so important?" - it provides for 1) common ground and 2)shared framework. Because you and I read many of the same blogs (or blogs that point to the same news), we could probably understand each other immediately with abbreviated references to information external to the conversation. (like quoting Monty Python or Sesame Street in some circles). No one in my f2f world reads these blogs, so an entire background is required to explain a simple point made informally.
It's like interdisciplinary team collaboration -- more than just jargon impedes information sharing ... actually whole world view.

"abbreviated references": good point, Christina. And not
only abbreviated, but also rough and fuzzy language, during the early stages of knowledge creation where notes to your community are similarly unclear as the notes to yourself, on the continuum depicted by M. Boettger that Jack linked to before: Magdalena also added to "the interpersonal questions of trust": "--> little amount of defense/justification neccessary", such that argumentation becomes easier.

» Blogs and shared context from Knowledge Jolt with Jack

Nancy White asked for clarification of my comments about shared context in some types of online communities. Read More

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