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.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Impersonal, Interpersonal or Hyperpersonal?

Hyperpersonal communication

A couple of days ago, we looked at some research relating to the development of intimacy among virtual strangers in cyberspace. At that time we mentioned a term, Hyperpersonal. This term was coined by Joseph Walther (1996) to describe a particular type of communication which seems to take place in text-based communication.

Walther identified three types of communication which take place online: impersonal, interpersonal, and Hyperpersonal. Impersonal communication is communication which simply takes care of business. This is like when you receive an e-mail from your boss reminding you that your quarterly reports are due in next week. At one time, researchers viewed all online communication as being essentially impersonal. (Short and Christie, 1976; Parks and Floyd, 1996). Especially in the early days of e-mail, when it was used primarily in business and academic settings, much of computer mediated communication to focus primarily on business and was in personal in nature. Researchers also based their assessment of online communication on traditional studies of relationship development which often emphasized physical presence as an element essential to the development of a relationship.( Nardi and Whittaker, 2002)

However, while researchers were denying the development of relationships online, people were developing them. At first, these were considered to be anomalous. They were considered to be the exception rather than the rule. And, in the early days of the Internet, this is probably true. But as the anecdotal evidence began to emerge, researchers could no longer ignore second type of computer mediated communication which was interpersonal in nature.

Online interpersonal communication is "more socially oriented" (Turner, Grube, and Meyers, 2001). No longer were employees merely sending e-mails to invite other employees to face-to-face meetings or to check on how a certain report is coming along. People began to use e-mail to share personal information like the birth of a child, buying a new car, seeking advice about marital problems, and it just chatting socially. This interpersonal communication online took place with both individuals with whom the person had a face-to-face relationship as well as those with whom they did not. One's social circle began to include people whom the individual had never met in person. Thus the Internet became a medium for developing interpersonal relationships.

Indeed, relationships can develop very quickly and very intimately online. The lack of visual cues believes individuals to asking more intimate questions earlier in a relationship than they would in face-to-face settings. (Hian, Chuan, Trevor & Detenber, 2004). This is one aspect of what Walther (1996) calls Hyperpersonal communication. According to Walther Hyperpersonal communication occurs when “users experience commonality and are self-aware, physically separated, and communicating via a limited-cues channel that allows them to selectively still present and edit; to construct and reciprocate representations of their partners and relations without the interference of environmental reality" (p. 33).”

Walter (1996) sets forth four elements that define Hyperpersonal communication. First, we create an idealized perception of the receiver. Secondly, because we are able to sell select what we reveal to the other individual we create an idealized image of ourselves for them. Third, the asynchronous channels of communication allow us to self-edit to a greater extent than does the more spontaneous face-to-face environment. And, finally, a feedback loop is created reinforcing our idealized perceptions of the other and of ourselves. This reciprocal process which occurs in all relationships, according to Walther, is intensified in minimal-cue interaction.

What Hyperpersonal communication produces is an intense, and sometimes overly intimate relationship with the other individual. Similarities between the two individuals are magnified and the differences are minimized. One experiences in intense sense of commonality with the other.

On the plus side, such identification can provide a very powerful therapeutic tool when used in conjunction with an online support group. Many people facing physical or emotional challenges today turned to the Internet for information, education, and support. The Hyperpersonal nature of such groups lets the person know that they are not alone, and that their experience is not unique. This can contribute greatly to learning to cope with or overcome challenges in one's life.

However, the downside of this is that we may create a false image of the other. Turner, et al. put it this way:

This exaggerated sense of the relationship is built on social
identity-deindividuation (SIDE) theory. SIDE theory predicts that in the
absence of face-to-face cues and prior personal knowledge, social context cues present in CMC take on particular value and may lead over attribution of similarity (Walther, 1996).

One of the obvious dangers of Hyperpersonal communication online has to do with online predators. After only a few e-mail exchanges or a few minutes in a chat room, an individual can begin to believe they know more about the person at the other end than they really do. This might lead them to reveal more personal information that would be safe to do, or it might lead them to meet with an individual in a less than safe manner.

Children and teens in particular need to be educated about this aspect of the Internet. However, even adults can be at risk. A woman who met a man in a bar might not even consider accepting a ride with him after only one encounter. Yet that same moment, after a few days of interacting through e-mail and instant messaging might give out her home address because she feels a strong connection with the individual.

There is no doubt that the Internet is no longer limited to impersonal communication. Certainly, it can be a powerful tool for building relationships both business and personal with individuals around the world. It can also be a powerful tool for helping individuals work through personal challenges in online support groups. And, by exercising reasonable caution, online relationships may lead to satisfying face-to-face relationships. I know two women who met their husbands online. However, there is a real danger that the Hyperpersonal nature of some types of online communication may put the incautious individual at risk.


Nardi, B., & Whittaker, S. (2002). The role of face-to-face communication in distributed work. In P. Hinds & S. Kiesler (Eds.), Distributed work (pp. 83–112). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Parks, M. R., & Floyd, R. (1996). Making friends in cyberspace. Journal of Communication, 46(1), 80-96.

Short, J., Williams, E., & Christie, B. (1976). The social psychology of Telecommunication. London: John Wiley

Turner,J., Grube,J. and Meyers, J. (2001) Developing an optimal match with in online communities: an exploration of CMC support communities and traditional support. Journal of communication, 51 (2), 231-251.

Walther, J. B. (1996). Computer-mediated communication: Impersonal, interpersonal and hyperpersonal interaction. Communication Research, 23(1), 3-43.


Blogger maxmollon said...

Old article (2006…) but nice one! Clear and precise.

10:46 AM PDT  

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