Social information processing (theory)

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For the information processing that occurs in large-scale and typically networked groups, see Social information processing.

Social information processing theory, also known as SIP, is an interpersonal communication theory and media studies theory developed in 1992 by Joseph Walther.[1] Social information processing theory explains how people interact with other people online without nonverbal cues and develop and manage relationships in a computer-mediated environment.[1][2] While the term has traditionally referred to those communications that occur via computer-mediated formats (e.g., instant messages, e-mails, chat rooms), it has also been applied to other forms of text-based interaction such as text messaging.[3] In computer-mediated environments, interpersonal relationship development may require more time to develop than traditional face-to-face (FtF) relationships.[4] Social information processing theory argues that online interpersonal relationships may demonstrate the same relational dimensions and qualities as FtF relationships. These online relationships may help facilitate interactions that would not have occurred face-to-face due to factors such as geography and intergroup anxiety.


Beginning in the 1990s, after the advent of the Internet and the World Wide Web, interest grew in studying how the Internet impacted the ways people communicate with each other. Walther claims that CMC users can adapt to this restricted medium and use it effectively to develop close relationships. Joseph Walther, a communication and media theorist, understood that to describe the new nature of online communication required a new theory.[1] Social information processing theory focuses on the social processes that occur when two or more people are engaged in communication, similar to theories such as social presence theory, social penetration theory, and uncertainty reduction theory. What makes SIP different from these theories is its distinct focus on communication mediated solely by information and communications technologies. While other media theories exist, such as media richness theory and uses and gratifications theory, SIP specifically focuses on relationships entirely mediated online.[5]

Hyperpersonal model[edit]

Social information processing theory describes computer-mediated communication as a process including three phases: impersonal, to interpersonal, and finally to hyperpersonal.

In the impersonal phase, due to the lack of nonverbal cues, CMC is believed to be more task-oriented than traditional face-to-face communication. Since the content is not influenced by social and emotional influence, it can avoid overly personal interpersonal interaction, promote rationality by providing essential discipline, facilitate the efficiency of group work through getting rid of peer pressure and hierarchy, and ultimately, create a more "democratic" atmosphere within organizations.[6]

In the interpersonal phase, the nonverbal cues are lean and as the communication time increases, the exchange of social information increases accordingly. The anticipation of future communication may make communicators to look for more information about the other. This mechanism leads to similar immediacy, similarity, composure, and receptivity as in FtF communication.

In the hyperpersonal phase, The sender uses the process of selective self-presentation. People who meet online have a better opportunity to make a favorable impression on the other. This is because the communicators can decide which information they would like to share about themselves by controlling their self-presentations online,[7] giving them the power to disclose only their good traits. Selective-Presentation is not as likely to occur in FtF communication due to the ability to observe all the obvious traits in person.[5] The receivers may idealize the senders based on making attributions from available paralingual cues found in the message. This process is enhanced with asynchronous exchanges, letting both sender and receiver have ample time to consider the messages sent and received. In the absence of FtF contextual cues, the likelihood of over-attributing given information of the sender is increased, often creating an idealized image of the message sender. This is also known as social-identity-deindividuation (or SIDE).[8] For example, over-attribution is also found in online dating. While reading a perspective date's profile, the reader is likely to see themselves as similar to one another and therefore become more interested than they originally would have been. Finally, the feedback process addresses the reciprocal influence of the senders and the receivers. They develop impressions and intimacy as a result of their interaction.



Walther and Parks notice a phenomenon that people often meet offline after having first met online. Sometimes these experiences are positive, and other times negative. They are dissatisfied with existing theories' ability to explain these phenomena. To fill in the theoretical gap, Walther and Parks adopt the original concept of warranting presented by Stone, describing connections between one's self and self-presentation as a continuum rather than a binary, moderated by anonymity. They suggested that the potential for anonymity resulted in the potential for a discrepancy along this continuum. The greater this potential discrepancy, the more compelling it is for observers to be skeptical of information provided by the individual about the self. Warrants, as described by Walther and Parks, are perceived reliable cues that observers use to gauge how one's true identity matches that which is presented online.

According to Walther, "Warranting pertains to the perceived legitimacy and validity of information about another person that one may receive or observe online."[9] Over the years, individuals have come to learn a lot about each other through online discussion groups or online role-playing games.[10][11] Many have also started to gain an understanding of another person through "personal homepages and other forms of online interaction and self-presentation, including online dating sites."[12] However, with the introduction of many online social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, there are many opportunities for people to interact using CMC. As such, there are many factors – photographs, videos, and the ability to build your own profile – that set social media apart from the text-only CMC that Walther originally studied. For example, if a person describes him or herself as a quiet, reserved person but friends add pictures of him or her out at a bar with a large group of people. These two ideas contradict each other. How the person processes this contradiction is the main idea of Walther's Warranting Theory.[5]

"If the information we're reading has warranting value, then it gives us reason to believe it is true."[5] This value is defined as the extent to which the cue is perceived to be unaltered by the target. Warrants that are very difficult to manipulate by the user are considered high in warranting value. They are more likely to be accepted as truth. An example of this is information added to your profile by others because the owner cannot easily change it (Others-generated warrants). Partial warranting is another example. It is information that, though provided by the user, contains easily verifiable facts. The numerical information, such as height, weight, age, or address constitutes as partial warranting, as these figures are easily checked and provide little room for gray area. Low warrant information is easily manipulated and therefore less believable. It is much more questionable in terms of accuracy (Walther & Parks, 2002). An example of this is information self-reported on personal profile pages. These can range from interests and hobbies, to other personal details (also known as constraining information, which is not easily verified but restricts identity).


Walther, Van Der Heide, Kim, Westerman, and Tong (2008),[13] wanted to explore if the attractiveness of friends, as well as what these friends said on an individual's profile, had an effect on social attraction. They investigated the topic by assigning random participants to view fake Facebook pages.

This experiment had two phases. In the first phase, researchers displayed two comments from friends of a profile with neutral content. The small profile pictures of commenting friends were either attractive or unattractive, and the comments suggested either socially desirable or socially undesirable behaviors. It was found that social attractiveness was positively correlated with the physical attractiveness of commenting friends (Walther et al., 2008). This indicates that the simple observable presence of others in one's social network may be enough to make social judgments. In the second phase, researchers tested the effects of self-generated information against information generated by others. Walther et al. (2009) compared subjects reactions to fake Facebook profiles and their judgments of extroversion and introversion. Profiles contained either self-generated information suggesting the profile owner was introverted or extroverted, and others-generated statements suggesting the owner was introverted or extroverted. Information suggesting introversion was considered negative while information suggestion extroversion was considered to be positive. Walther et al. (2009) found that while others-generated statements do indeed have an effect on observer judgments, the effect did not override self-generated information or negativity effects.

His experiments confirmed that people value high warrant information.[5] It found that credibility levels and attractiveness were swayed by comments made on the profile by people other than its owner.[5] It also confirmed his beliefs by comparing high and low warrant information and finding that friends' remarks were valued higher than the owner's claims in regards to physical attractiveness and outgoingness. These studies have found that, unlike email, communication comes from both the owner and other users of social media and viewers do not give these two opinions equal value.[5]

Evaluation of SIP: Intimacy[edit]

Several theorists have explored the differences in intimacy developed through CMC versus face-to-face communication. Walther is convinced that the length of time that CMC users have to send their messages is the key factor that determines whether their messages can achieve the same level of intimacy that others develop face-to-face. Over an extended period the issue is not the amount of social information that can be conveyed online; rather, it is the rate at which the information builds up. Any message spoken in person will take at least four times longer to communicate through CMC. When comparing 10 minutes of face-to-face conversation with 40 minutes of CMC, there was no difference in partner affinity between the two modes. Anticipated future interaction is a way of extending physiological time, which gives the likelihood of future interaction and motivates CMC users to develop a relationship. Relational messages provide interactants with information about the nature of the relationship, the interactants' status in the relationship, and the social context within which the interaction occurs.[14]

The "Shadow of the future" motivates people to encounter others on a more personal level. A chronemic cue is a type of nonverbal cue not filtered out of CMC and indicates how one perceives, uses, or responds to issues of time.[5] Unlike tone of voice, interpersonal distance, or gestures, times is the one nonverbal cue that cannot be filtered out of CMC. For example, a person can send a text message at a certain time of the day and when a response is received he or she can gauge how much time elapsed between messages. Social Information Processing theory says that a prompt reply signals deference and liking in a new relationship or business context. A delayed response may indicate receptivity and more liking in an intimate relationship; partners who are comfortable with each other do not need to reply as quickly.[15]

Others, such as Dr. Kevin B. Wright, examined the difference in developing and maintaining relationships both exclusively and primarily online.[16] Specifically, Wright has found the effectiveness of "openness and positivity" in online communication versus avoidance in offline relationships.[16]


Social information processing theory has been used to study online relationships in a variety of contexts. Since the late 1990s, the Internet has increased the amount of totally-mediated interactions making the possibility of developing and sustaining an entire relationships online more possible. Some early studies looked at e-mail discussion groups[17] while more contemporary research has found a great deal attention placed on social media networks such as Facebook[18][19] and online dating sites.[20] These situations are significant to observing SIP and the hyperpersonal perspective in action. In business contexts, social information processing has been used to study virtual teams[4][21] as well as the ways viral marketers influence the adoption of products and services through the Internet.[22] SIP has also been used to study learning in entirely-online classes examining the ways that students develop relationships with the instructor and with each other.[23]


Despite the fact that Social Information Processing theory offers a more optimistic perspective through which to perceive of and analyze online interactions, the theory is not without its criticisms. Even though Walther[1] proposed that users of computer-mediated communication (CMC) have the same interpersonal needs met as those communicating face-to-face (FtF), he proposed that the lack of visual cues inherent in CMC are disadvantages to be overcome over time.[24] Thus, more time is needed for interactants to get to know one another, although he maintains that the same intimacy can be reached, just over a longer amount of time.[1] In their research on social cues and impression formation in CMC, Martin Tanis and Tom Postmes found that when initial impressions in CMC are negative, it is questionable and not guaranteed that people will pursue future interaction which negates the idea that more personal and positive relationships will develop over time in CMC relationships.[25]

Many of Walther's initial hypotheses relied on the assumption that positive social behaviors would be greater in face-to-face interactions than those in CMC. In a 1995 study, Walther used this hypothesis but added that any initial differences in socialness between the two media would disappear in time.[26] Walther was surprised to find that his results turned out to be contrary to this prediction. The results showed that, regardless of time-scale, CMC groups were rated higher in most measures of relational communication than those participating in the FtF condition.[26]

Robert Tokunaga has presented a cultural value flaw in the SIP theory. An additional support for this claim is that there is research on intercultural communication that suggests the amount of exchange of self-disclosures in CMC is shaped by cultural values.[27] Also, Tokunaga's study found that individualistic cultural values were able to fit inside the SIP theory while collectivist cultural values did not.[27]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e Walther, Joseph B. (1992). "Interpersonal effects in computer-mediated interaction: A relational perspective.". Communication Research 19 (1): 52–90. doi:10.1177/009365092019001003. 
  2. ^ Olaniran, Bolanle A. "Social Information Processing Theory (SIPT): A Cultural Perspective for International Online Communication Environments." IGI Global (2011): 45-46. IGI Global, 2011. Web. 25 Nov. 2011.<>.
  3. ^ Thurlow, C., Lengel, L. & Tomic, A. (2004). Computer mediated communication: Social interaction and the internet. London: Sage.
  4. ^ a b Jarvenpaa, Sirkka L.; Leidner, Dorothy E. (1998-06-01). "Communication and Trust in Global Virtual Teams". Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 3 (4): 0–0. doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.1998.tb00080.x. ISSN 1083-6101. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h Griffin, Em. "Social Information Processing Theory of Joseph Walther". A First Look at Communication Theory 8th Ed. McGraw Hill. Retrieved 3 April 2012. 
  6. ^ Walther, J. B. (1996). Computer-mediated communication: Impersonal, interpersonal, and hyperpersonal interaction. Communication Research, 23, 3-43.
  7. ^ O'Sullivan, B. (2000). What you don't know won't hurt me. Human Communication Research, 26, 403-431
  8. ^ POSTMES, T.; SPEARS, R.; LEA, M. (1 December 1998). "Breaching or Building Social Boundaries?: SIDE-Effects of Computer-Mediated Communication". Communication Research 25 (6): 689–715. doi:10.1177/009365098025006006. 
  9. ^ Walther, Joseph B., and Eun-Ju Lee. "23. Computer-mediated Communication." Interpersonal Communication (2014): n. pag. Web
  10. ^ Parks, M. R., & Roberts, L. (1998). Making MOOsic: The development of personal relationships on line and a comparison to their off-line counterparts. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 15, 517–537
  11. ^ Parks, M. R., & Floyd, K. (1996). Making friends in cyberspace. Journal of Communication, 40, 80–97
  12. ^ Ellison, N. B., Heino, R. D., & Gibbs, J. L. (2006). Managing impressions online: Self-presentation processes in the online dating environment. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 11(2), Article 2. Retrieved January 30, 2007, from
  13. ^ Walther, Joseph (January 2008). "The Role of Friends' Appearance and Behavior on Evaluations of Individuals on Facebook: Are We Known by the Company We Keep?". Human Communication Research 34 (1): 28. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2958.2007.00312.x. 
  14. ^ Jones, Susanne (March 2009). "Relational Messages". Encyclopedia of Human Relationships 3. Retrieved 3 April 2012. 
  15. ^ GRIFFIN, E. M. (2009). A first look at communication theory. (seventh ed., p. 486). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.
  17. ^ Parks, Malcolm R.; Floyd, Kory (1996-03-01). "Making Friends in Cyberspace". Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 1 (4): 0–0. doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.1996.tb00176.x. ISSN 1083-6101. 
  18. ^ Walther, Joseph B.; Van Der Heide, Brandon; Kim, Sang-Yeon; Westerman, David; Tong, Stephanie Tom (2008-01-01). "The Role of Friends' Appearance and Behavior on Evaluations of Individuals on Facebook: Are We Known by the Company We Keep?". Human Communication Research 34 (1): 28–49. doi:10.1111/j.1468-2958.2007.00312.x. ISSN 1468-2958. 
  19. ^ Tong, Stephanie Tom; Van Der Heide, Brandon; Langwell, Lindsey; Walther, Joseph B. (2008-04-01). "Too Much of a Good Thing? The Relationship Between Number of Friends and Interpersonal Impressions on Facebook". Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 13 (3): 531–549. doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.2008.00409.x. ISSN 1083-6101. 
  20. ^ Ellison, Nicole; Heino, Rebecca; Gibbs, Jennifer (2006-01-01). "Managing Impressions Online: Self-Presentation Processes in the Online Dating Environment". Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 11 (2): 415–441. doi:10.1111/j.1083-6101.2006.00020.x. ISSN 1083-6101. 
  21. ^ Chudoba, Katherine; Maznevski, Martha (2000). "Bridging Space over Time: Global Virtual Team Dynamics and Effectiveness". Organization Science 11 (5). 
  22. ^ Subramani, Mani R.; Rajagopalan, Balaji (1 December 2003). "Knowledge-sharing and influence in online social networks via viral marketing". Communications of the ACM 46 (12): 300. doi:10.1145/953460.953514. 
  23. ^ Arbaugh, J. B. (2000-02-01). "Virtual Classroom Characteristics and Student Satisfaction with Internet-Based MBA Courses". Journal of Management Education 24 (1): 32–54. doi:10.1177/105256290002400104. ISSN 1052-5629. 
  24. ^ Walther, J. B., & Parks, M. (2002). Cues filtered out, cues filtered in. Handbook of interpersonal communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  25. ^ Tanis, M. "Social Cues and Impression Formation in CMC". Journal of Communication 53 (4): 676–693. doi:10.1093/joc/53.4.676. 
  26. ^ a b Joinson, Adam. (2003). Understanding the psychology of Internet behavior. Palgrave Macmillan.
  27. ^ a b Tokunaga, Robert (2009). "High-Speed Internet Access to the Other: The Influence of Cultural Orientations on Self-Disclosures in Offline and Online Relationships". Journal of Intercultural Communication Research 38 (3). 

Further reading[edit]