Email, IM's, chatrooms, blogs, discussion boards. Today much of our communication takes place online. From MySpace to Yahoogroups to Blogspot many of us have relationships with people we may never meet in person. The researchers call this Computer-Mediated Communication. This blog will explore in laymens terms the findings of this research.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Getting to Know You in Cyberspace

Whenever you meet someone new, you're faced with an unknown quantity. You don't know if this person is going to be someone you're going to like or dislike. You don't know if they are honest or dishonest. You don't know whether they are interesting or boring. You don't know is building a relationship with them is going to be worth the effort.

So in your early encounters with a new person you try to find out more about them. You employ what social psychologists call uncertainty reduction strategies. The strategies can be roughly divided into two categories: passive and interactive. Passive strategies include such things as assessing their appearance, watching their behaviors, gestures, facial expressions, listing to their tone of voice, etc. Interactive strategies are "direct and obtrusive exchanges with targets." (Tidwell and Walther, 2002, p. 322) Basically, this means asking them questions and clarifying their answers.

Traditional uncertainty reduction theory (URT) assumes the physical presence of the individuals when meeting each other. Nonverbal cues are considered to be factors involved in the process of getting to know the other person. Tidwell and Walther (2002) have called this a "unstated boundary condition" (p. 321) for the interactions to take place. In other words, traditional URT assumes that the initial contact with another individual will take place in a face-to-face setting. However, in today's world, we often have our first initial contact with another person online in a text based environment.

In CMC we have a communication setting which is stripped of nonverbal cues which are present in face-to-face encounters. Consequently, most of the passive uncertainty reduction strategies are unavailable to us. So, then, how do we get to know each other online is the question.

Tidwell and Walther (2002) explore this question in a study which compared people getting to know each other in face-to-face settings versus online settings. They found that in face-to-face settings people tended to ask peripheral questions while paying attention to nonverbal cues. Online, the subjects tended to ask more significant questions and conversely they provided a higher levels of self-disclosure in their responses. In the absence of the nonverbal cues the subjects tended to ask questions which would be considered obtrusive or impolite in a face-to-face setting. However, online, this boldness was expected.

The researchers theorize that human beings adapt their communication techniques based on what they have available. They put it this way:

The social information processing theory (SIP) of CMC (Walther 1992) argues that without nonverbal cues, communicators adapt their relational behaviors to the remaining cues available in CMC such as content and linguistic strategies, as well as chronemic (Walther and Tidwell, 1995) and typographic cues (Walther and D'Addario, 2001).

What that means is that when people don't have certain tools available to them to communicate in a certain way, they will find alternative means of achieving the same result.

This should not come as a surprise to anyone. Consider the development of the deaf culture. Unable to hear not only words but tone of voice, deaf people develop their own language using hand signals and exaggerated facial expressions to achieve the same ends that hearing people achieved through spoken language. Today, we do not consider this means of communication to be inferior to spoken language. We simply see it as part of the miraculous adaptability of the communicative capability of human beings.

Likewise, visually impaired individuals cannot read facial expressions or gestures. They depend on tone of voice or touch to reduce uncertainty. In some ways, the visually impaired person communicates in a way similar to that of the individual communicating online. Of course, the visually impaired individual does have tone of voice, but the visual nonverbal cues are missing. This leads to a difference in how the visually impaired evaluate others.

My mother is visually impaired. Several years ago, back in the 1960s, a young man came to our church and told about how his conversion to Christianity helped him overcome drug addiction. The young man had a beard and long hair, and the church was a fairly conservative church. The next day, my mother received a phone call from someone in the church complaining about this young man's long hair and beard. My mother, on the other hand, have been really blessed by this individual's testimony. Her comment to the other person was, "I don't know. I was blessed by him. But I had to judge him on the words he spoke not on the beard he wore." In other words, she depended on a different criteria for reducing her uncertainty about the individual. And that was a criteria very much like the criteria that individuals in online settings apply.

One of the observations of the researchers in this study related to communication research in general. It was stated in technical terms, but the essence of the observation was that as new communication technology emerges we need to develop new research models to accommodate those technologies. Frequently, when reading many of the research articles about CMC, I find researchers referring to communication theories formulated in the 1970s and early 80s when computer mediated communication made up an infinitesimal portion of daily communication.

As the Times change, as the technologies change, and as the comfort level of the individual with the technology changes, we may need to see the theoretical models of communication also change. But, isn't that one of the things that makes research so exciting. It is never finished.


Tidwell, L. and Walther, J. (2002) Computer-mediated communication the effects on disclosure, impressions, and interpersonal evaluations: getting to know one another a bit at a time. Communication Research, 28, 317 -- 346.

Walther, J. (1992) Interpersonal effects in computer mediated interaction: a relational perspective. Interpersonal effects in computer mediated interaction: a relational perspective. Communication Research, 19, 52-90., 52-90.

Walther, J. and D'addario, K. (2001) The impacts of emoticons on message interpretation in computer-mediated communication. Social Science Computer Review, 19, 323-345.

Walther, J. and Tidwell, L. (1995). Nonverbal cues in computer mediated communication, and the effect of chronemics on relational communication. Journal of Organizational Computing, 5, 355-378.


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