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.

Friday, June 16, 2006

Hyperpersonal Communication: CMC and the Development of Intimacy among Strangers

When I first proposed teaching interpersonal communication online almost five years ago, I was met with skepticism from several members of the curriculum committee. They considered the internet as a medium to be impersonal in nature. The only way I could appease these old fuddy---- er --- esteemed senior members of the committee was to add four face-to-face meetings. Eventually, over time, we were able to reduce the number of meetings to a voluntary orienation meeting.

This perception of the internet as being an impersonal medium comes from the text-based nature of most online communication. This type of communication strips out the nonverbal cues human beings have long depended on to read emotion, mood and the unspoken nuances of interaction. This is called the "cues filtered out" (CFO) model (Hian, Chuan, Trevor & Detenber, 2004). This theory assumes that because online communication lacks nonverbal cues, such as facial expression, posture, gestures and tone of voice, it is necessarily impersonal and, thus, resistant to the development of intimate relationships.

However, a study by Lee Bee Hian and associates found that, in fact, "relational intimacy" developed more quickly online than in face-to-face relationships. In the study subjects worked on projects online and in face-to-face settings. While the intimacy level remained mostly the same for the face-to-face group over the course of the project, the intimacy level grew significantly in the online group. There appeared to be no difference based on gender or the type of task as regards the results.

The researchers theorized that online one creates an idealized image of the other person and, for their part, can take more time to present themselves in the best possible light. We have the ability to edit what we say more completely before we say it. Additionally, the absence of non-verbal cues reduces the risk of judging other individuals on appearance or nonverbal behavior which is often misinterpreted. In this case "rich context" communication may actually slow down the process of development of intimacy.

The researchers also point out that "emotive" nonverbal cues are present in online communication. These include emoticon such as the smiley :-) or frowney :-( and the abreviations such as LOL (laugh out loud) which take the place of nonverbal cues.

The implications of this research include both positives and negatives. On the positive side, online relationships can develop a degree of intimacy comparable to online ones. Also, online collaboration in a work setting can improve the bonding of co-workers even if they are in different locations. However, there is a dark side to this. In social online settings individuals may reveal too much personal identifying information too quickly online putting themselves at risk. Also, online communities can make implicit demands on an individual to reveal more about themselves than they would be likely to do in other social settings. I have found myself chastised at times for not telling more personal information in certain online communities I belong to. There has emerged in some places online an expection of intimacy among strangers which can be disturbing and dangerous.

Yes, intimacy is possible online. But the warning is that it may develop so rapidly that reasonable caution is ignored.


Hian, L., Chuan, S., Trevor, T. and Detenber, B. (2004) Getting to know you: Exploring the development of relational intimacy in computer-mediated communication. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 9 (3), April. . Retrieved June 12, 2006.


Blogger JoeDeVito said...

Terri--your blog is sensational!
I will visit it regularly. Thanks.

1:56 PM PDT  

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