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10.1.4: Theories of Computer-Mediated Communication

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    Learning Outcomes
    1. Describe uses and gratifications theory and how it helps us understand CMC behavior.
    2. Describe social presence theory and how it helps us understand CMC behavior.
    3. Describe media richness theory and how it helps us understand CMC behavior.
    4. Describe social information processing theory and how it helps us understand CMC behavior.

    Most of the early work in computer-mediated communication from a theoretical perspective was conducted using mediated-communication theories that have been developed to discuss the differences between print, radio, and television, and applying them to the Internet. As such, we don’t see the proliferation of theories. In this section, we are going to explore four theories and their implications for CMC.

    Uses and Gratifications Theory

    The first major theory used to explain CMC is the uses and gratifications theory. Uses and gratifications theory was originally devised in the mid-1970s to explain why people use the types of mass media they do.55 The basic premise of the theory is that people choose various media because they get something out of that media, or it makes them happy in some way. From this perspective, people choose various media because they have specific goals that they want to fulfill. Zizi Papacharissi and Alan Rubin were the first scholars to apply the uses and gratifications theory to how people use the Internet.56 They found five basic reasons people were using the Internet: interpersonal utility (allows people to interact with others), pass time (helps people kill time), information seeking (people look for specific information they want or need), convenience (it’s faster than FtF or even a phone call), and entertainment (people enjoy using the Internet). In this first study, the researchers found that people who used the Internet for interpersonal utility were less satisfied with life and more anxious in FtF communication interactions when compared to those who did not. Please remember that this study was conducted in 2000, so times are quite different now, so the finding from the Papacharissi and Rubin may be different if conducted today.

    In a 2008 follow-up study, the picture of Internet socializing was quite different, so it’s not surprising that the results were indicative of changes in public consumption.57 The researchers found when people try to substitute FtF interpersonal interactions for CMC interactions, they do not find their CMC interactions as rewarding. Conversely, when people supplement their FtF interpersonal interactions with CMC interactions, they are fulfilled by those CMC interactions.

    Social Presence Theory

    The second major theory that has been used to help explain CMC is social presence theory. Social presence theory was created by John Short, Ederyn Williams, and Bruce Christie.58 Presence is a psychological state of mind and how we relate to technology. When we are truly present, we forget that we are actually using technology. Presence is “at the heart of humans’ desire to use media to move beyond the limits of body and the sensory channels.”59 Often the term “presence” when used in this contact refers to the physical world and how technology mimics the physical world. For example, when you put on a virtual reality helmet, how does your mind and body react? People who experience high levels of presence in a virtual reality simulation will experience real physiological effects. In one study, Dino Krupić, Barbara Žuro, and Philip Corr examined whether a virtual environment could stimulate fear responses in individuals who have a fear of heights.60

    In this study, individuals wore a virtual helmet and “walked the plank” To measure fear response, participants wore a moodmetric ring which measures electrodermal activity, which is a physiological indication of stress responses. Can VR be used to create physiological stress responses? Yes. We should also mention that the study also examined whether mindfulness practices could help decrease stress responses in VR settings, which it did.

    Social presence then is “the degree to which we as individuals perceive another as a real person and any interaction between the two of us as a relationship.”61 Our perceptions of social presence are largely based on the degree to which we have the ability to interpret nonverbal cues from the people we are interacting with.

    When it comes to CMC, various technologies will elicit varying degrees of perceptions of presence from people. For example, reading information on a website probably is not going to make you forget that you are reading text on a screen. On the other hand, if you’re engaging in a conversation with your best friend via text messaging, you may forget about the technology and just view the interaction as a common one you have with your friend. In essence, people can vary in how they perceive social presence. One of our coauthors regularly has students in a CMC course spend time in a couple of virtual worlds like SecondLife and World of Warcraft. SecondLife is a virtual world where people can create avatar and interact in a 3D simulated environment. However, it’s not a game – it’s a 3D virtual world. There is no point system and there is no winning or beating the system. Instead, it’s a place for people to socialize and interact. On the other hand, World of Warcraft (WOW) is first and foremost a game. Although there are definitely highly interactive components involved in WOW and people make lifelong friends in WOW, WOW is a virtual world that has a specific end result focused on winning.

    These different worlds have different purposes, but people can feel highly present in either or both. When students who are not familiar with these virtual worlds enter them, they often have a hard time understanding how people can spend hours upon hours interacting with others within these virtual worlds. The students view this as a “strange” experience and experience no social presence at all. Conversely, people who “live” in these virtual worlds regularly experience high levels of social presence. We do know that those individuals who report higher levels of social presence tend to have more rewarding online interpersonal interactions and are more likely to perceive themselves as competent communicators within these mediated environments.62

    Media Richness Theory

    The third major theory that has been applied to CMC is media richness theory. Media richness theory was first proposed by Richard L. Daft and Robert H. Lengel.63 Richness is defined as “the potential information carrying capacity of data.”64 In Lengel’s doctoral dissertation, he proposed that media varied in richness depending on how much information is provided through the communication.65 For example, in print media, all we have is text. As such, we don’t have nonverbal behaviors of the author to help us interpret the words we are reading. With FtF communication, on the other hand, we have the full realm of nonverbal behaviors that we can attend to in an effort to understand the sender’s message. As such, Lengel argued that media escalates in richness in the following order: computer output, formal memos, personal memos, telephone conversations, and FtF interactions. You’ll notice that this analysis of media was originally designed to help individuals understand the media choices organizational members have in the workplace.

    So, where does this leave us with CMC? Well, from the basic premise of media richness theory, we can ascertain that the richer the media, the less ambiguous a message is for a receiver.66

    Social Information Processing Theory

    Up to this point, the first three theories we examined that have been used to explain why people use CMC have all been theories originally designed to examine media before the proliferation of CMC. The first truly unique theory designed to look at CMC from a communication perspective came from Joseph Walther’s social information processing theory, in 1992.67 As someone with a background in communication, Walther realized that our impressions of those we interact with and our interpersonal interactions with them change over time, yet the previous three theories applied to CMC didn’t take into account how interpersonal relationships evolve as the interactants spend more time getting to know one another. For example, both media richness theory and social presence theory focus on the nonverbal aspects of CMC and assume that because of the lack of nonverbal cues in CMC, people will inherently find it inherently less rich and/or less present when compared to FtF interactions. Walther argues that the filtering out of nonverbal cues doesn’t hinder an individual’s ability to form an impression of someone over time in a CMC context. Walther asserts that over time, relationships formed in a CMC context can develop like those that are FtF. He does admit that these relationships will take more time to develop, but the relationships can reach the same end states as relationships formed FtF.

    Walther later expanded his ideas of social information processing to include a new concept he dubbed hyperpersonal interactions.68 Hyperpersonal interactions are those that go above and beyond those possible in traditional FtF interactions. For example, many people who belong to online selfhelp groups discuss feelings and ideas that they would never dream of discussing with people in an FtF interaction unless that person was their therapist. Furthermore, during CMC interactions an individual can refine their message in a manner that is impossible to do during an FtF interaction, which help them present a specific face to an interactant. I’m sure we’ve all written a text, Facebook post, or email and then decided to delete what we’d just written rather than post or send it because it was not in our best interest to put it out in the world. In CMC interactions, we have this ability to fine-tune our messages before transmitting, whereas in FtF messages, we don’t have the ability to sit and ponder our responses writing and rewriting them until we’re ready to orally communicate during a FtF interaction. Furthermore, in FtF interactions, there is an expectation that the interaction keeps moving at a steady pace without the ability to edit one’s ideas; whereas, with CMC we can take time to fine-tune our messages in a way that is impossible during an FtF interaction. All of this helps an individual create the public face that they want to be known by.

    Key Takeaways
    • Uses and gratifications theory helps explain why people use the types of mass media they do. Papacharissi and Rubin found that there were five reasons why people use the Internet: interpersonal utility (allows people to interact with others), pass time (helps people kill time), information seeking (enables people to locate specific information they want or need), convenience (it’s faster than FtF or even a phone call), and entertainment (people enjoy using the Internet).
    • Social presence theory helps us understand whether or not individuals using CMC technologies perceive the people they are interacting with as “real.” Our perceptions of social presence are largely based on the degree to which we can interpret nonverbal cues from the people we are interacting with.
    • Media richness theory helps us understand CMC behavior by examining the capacity that a type of media has for transmitting data. As media becomes richer and has more nonverbal content, the easier it is for a receiver to interpret the message accurately, which can, in turn, lead to more successful social interactions online.
    • Social information processing (SIP theory helps researchers understand the development of interpersonal relationships in CMC contexts. SIP argues that overtime relationships formed in a CMC context can develop like those relationships that develop FtF.
    • Uses and gratifications theory is one of the oldest theories in media, and continues to be one of the most commonly studied. For this exercise, find a research study conducted in the previous five years that examines gratifications theory as related to CMC. Look for the outcomes from that specific study and report them back to your class.
    • Compare and contrast social presence theory, media richness theory, and social information processing theory and their explanation of the importance of nonverbal communication in CMC relationships.
    • If you’ve experienced a hyperpersonal relationship online, think about that relationship as you answer the following questions. If you have not had a hyperpersonal relationship online, then talk with someone who has and answer the following questions.
      • How did this hyperpersonal relationship develop?
      • What was different about this relationship when compared to FtF relationships?
      • Do you still have this relationship today? Why or why not?

    10.1.4: Theories of Computer-Mediated Communication is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Jason S. Wrench, Narissra M. Punyanunt-Carter & Katherine S. Thweatt (OpenSUNY) via source content that was edited to conform to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.