Social information processing (theory)
Social information processing theory, also known as SIP, is an interpersonal communication theory and media studies theory developed in 1992 by Joseph Walther. Social information processing theory explains online interpersonal communication without nonverbal cues and develop and manage relationships in a computer-mediated environment. 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. In computer-mediated environments, interpersonal relationship development may require more time to develop than traditional face-to-face (FtF) relationships. 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.
- 1 Overview
- 2 Key concepts and features
- 3 Research and applications
- 4 Criticisms
- 5 New technologies
- 6 See also
- 7 References
- 8 Further reading
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. 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.
The cues filtered-out theories
Unlike some theories that are rooted in other theoretical perspectives from various fields of study, SIP was conceptualized, in part, by addressing the shortcomings of other theories that addressed communication mediums. These theories are termed cues filtered-out theories. Cues filtered-out theories refer to theories that address the lack of nonverbal cues as being detrimental to online relationship development. Walther's research critiqued past methodological and conceptual problems with theoretical thinking. He subsequently worked toward establishing an interpersonal communication theory that more accurately reflected the intersection among communication, online environments, the self and relationships. Two of those theoretical perspective that influenced Walther's theory are social presence theory and media richness theory. Walther believes that both SPS and MRT suffer from a limited understanding of relational life online. He argues that if interactants communicate enough times and with sufficient breadth and depth, nonverbal communication does not remain paramount in relationship development.
Social Information Processing researchers like Joseph Walther are intrigued by how identities are managed online and how relationships are able to move from one of superficiality to one of intimacy. Three assumptions related to the SIP theory are listed below:
- Computer-mediated communication provides unique opportunities to connect with people.
The first assumption rests on the premise that computer-mediated communication is a unique opportunity to build interpersonal relationships with others. The CMC systems are vast and almost always text based. It has been identified as "an organic setting" and it can be both synchronous and asynchronous. CMC is clearly different than face-to-face communication, but it offers an unparalleled opportunity to meet someone whom you would never meet FtF. Moreover, relationships established via CMC systems also prompt emotions and feelings we find in all relationships. Finally, since CMC systems are available around the globe, the uniqueness of being able to cultivate online relationships with someone who is very far away cannot be ignore.
- Online communicators are motivated to form (favorable) impressions of themselves to others.
The second assumption alludes that impression management is essential in online relationships and participants undertake efforts to ensure particular impressions. Researchers have found that social networking sites (SNS) like Facebook are filled with people who wish to provide a number of different self-presentations to others. Thus, how others present and manage themselves online remains important on various SNS and on numerous CMC system platforms.
- Online interpersonal relationships require extended time and more accumulated messages to develop equivalent levels of intimacy seen in FtF interpersonal relationships.
The third assumption of SIP states that different rates of information exchange and information accrual affect relationship development. Social information processing theory is suggesting that although the messages are verbal, communicators "adapt" to the restrictions of online medium, look for cues in the messages from others, and modify their language to the extent that the words compensate for the lack of nonverbal cues.This third assumption reflects Walther's contention that given sufficient time and accrual of messages, online relationships have the same capacity to become intimate as those that are established face to face. In addition, online comments are usually delivered rather quickly and efficiently. Further, these messages "build up" over time and provide online participants sufficient information from which to begin and develop interpersonal relationships.
Key concepts and features
Three phases of CMC
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.
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, giving them the power to disclose only their good traits. SIP has, at its core, impression management. Communication Scholars define impression management as either a strategic or unconscious effort to influence another's perception. Much of the earlier research on impression management focused on FtF communication and the nuances with meeting someone. A person's self-image was viewed as important in relational development. Later applications of impression management were undertaken once online communication began.
Selective-Presentation is not as likely to occur in FtF communication due to the ability to observe all the obvious traits in person. 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). 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.
Four elements of hyperpersonal model
The hyperpersonal perspective is more than saying that an online relationship is intimate. Walther, in a number of different scholarly venues, articulated its complexity and some other scholars elucidate the four components he studied: senders; receivers; channel; and feedback. These four also constitute many of the models of communication.
- Sender: Selective Self-Presentation
According to Walther, senders have the ability to present themselves in highly strategic and highly positive ways. This self-presentation is controlled and it serves as a foundation for how CMC users get to know one another. The fundamental underpinning of this component of the hyperpersonal perspective is affinity seeking. That is, senders provide information online that prompts affinity in others.
- Receiver: Idealization of the Sender
T the core of this component in the hyperpersonal perspective is attribution. Attributions are those evaluations and judgements we make based on the actions or behaviors of others. The receiver tends to attribute and , according to the theory, the receiver may "overattribute", which means that a receiver is likely to think that a sender has more similarities than differences. Further, a receiver may experience an overreliance on the minimal cues available online and forget that the relationship he or she has with a sender is based on words.
- Channel Management
The asynchronous nature of CMC allows online participants to think about texts or emails before sending them. Further, prior to sending messages, you can rewrite them for clarity, sense, and relevancy. Online asynchronous experiences allow for "optimal and desirable" communication, ensuring that the messages are of high quality. Walther contends that the more relational the affection or more desirable the other communicator is, the more editing in message composition.
Walther interprets feedback as behavioral confirmation, which is a "reciprocal influence that partners exert". In communication theory, we refer to this as self-fulfilling prophecy. This prophecy essentially is a tendency for an individual's expectation of a target person to evoke a response from that person which, in turn, reaffirms the original prediction. Walther's hyperpersonal perspective acknowledges a feedback system this way: "When a receiver gets a selectively self-presented message and idealizes its source, that individual may respond in a way that reciprocates and reinforces the partially modified personae, reproducing, enhancing, and potentially exaggerating them". Because cues in an online environment are limited, the feedback that does occur is often exaggerated or magnified.
The four components—sender, receiver, channel, and feedback—suggest that the hyperpersonal perspective is a process which is ongoing and dynamic. Walther concludes that SIP is a "process" theory because both information and interpersonal meaning is accumulated over time, providing online partners an opportunity to establish a relationship.
Two researches were carried out by Walther and his colleagues from 1992 to 1994, focusing on the channel management of the computer-mediated communication. Summary of the two experiments are as followed.
Around the time in 1992 when Walther produced and published the Social Information Processing theory, he and his colleagues conducted an experiment, examining the effects of time and communication channel—asynchronous computer conferencing versus face-to-face meetings—on relational communication in groups. Prior research on the relational aspects of computer-mediated communication has suggested strong depersonalizing effects of the medium due to the absence of nonverbal cues. Past research is criticized for failing to incorporate temporal and developmental perspectives on information processing and relational development. In this study, data were collected from 96 subjects assigned to computer conferencing or face-to-face zero-history groups of 3, who completed three tasks over several weeks' time. Results showed that computer-mediated groups increased in several relational dimensions to more positive levels and that these subsequent levels approximated those of face-to-face groups. Boundaries on the predominant theories of computer-mediated communication are recommended, and principles from uncertainty reduction and social penetration are discussed.
Later, Walther and his colleagues did follow-up research. Previous research on the interpersonal tone of computer-mediated communication shows different effects using longitudinal computer-mediated groups than are found in research using one-shot groups, even before the developmental aspects associated with time can accrue. One factor distinguishing these approaches is the anticipation of future interaction experienced by longitudinal groups. This research reports an experiment assessing the relative effects of anticipated future interaction and different communication media (computer-mediated versus face-to-face communication) on the communication of relational intimacy and composure. Asynchronous and synchronous computer conferencing and face-to-face groups were examined. Results show that the assignment of long-term versus short-term partnerships has a larger impact on anticipated future interaction reported by computer-mediated, rather than face-to-face, partners. Evidence also shows that anticipation is a more potent predictor of several relational communication dimensions than is communication condition. Implications for theory and practice are identified.
Evaluation of SIP: Intimacy
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.
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. 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.
Meanwhile, Walther, with his colleagues, has also did investigation which examined how computer-mediated communication (CMC) partners exchange personal information in initial interactions, focusing on the effects of communication channels on self-disclosure, question-asking, and uncertainty reduction. Unacquainted individuals (N = 158) met either face-to-face or via CMC. Computer-mediated interactants exhibited a greater proportion of more direct and intimate uncertainty reduction behaviors than unmediated participants did, and demonstrated significantly greater gains in attributional confidence over the course of the conversations. The use of direct strategies by mediated interactants resulted in judgments of greater conversational effectiveness by partners.
Others, such as Dr. Kevin B. Wright, examined the difference in developing and maintaining relationships both exclusively and primarily online. Specifically, Wright has found the effectiveness of "openness and positivity" in online communication versus avoidance in offline relationships.
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." Over the years, individuals have come to learn a lot about each other through online discussion groups or online role-playing games. 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." 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.
"If the information we're reading has warranting value, then it gives us reason to believe it is true." 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), 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. It found that credibility levels and attractiveness were swayed by comments made on the profile by people other than its owner. 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.
Research and applications
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.
Application in online dating
Some early studies looked at e-mail discussion groups while more contemporary research has found a great deal attention placed on social media networks such as Facebook and online dating sites. These situations are significant to observing SIP and the hyperpersonal perspective in action.
In relation to romantic relationships, several studies and subsequent theories have stemmed from SIP, combining it with theories such as Social Penetration Theory (SPT) or Relational Dialectics to further examine how modern day relationships are formed and sustained. Scholars Nicole Ellison, Rebecca Heino, and Jennifer Gibbs conducted such a study and formed their own theory in their article Managing Impressions Online: Self-Presentation Processes in the Online Dating Environment which utilized both SIP and SPT to examine the development of modern relationships from online acquaintances to intimate partners.
Scholars James Farrer and Jeff Gavin from Sophia University in Japan examined the online dating process and dating relationship development to test the SIP theory. This study examines the experiences of past and present members of a popular Japanese online dating site in order to explore the extent to which Western-based theories of computer-mediated communication and the development of online relationships are relevant to the Japanese online dating experience. Specifically, their study examines whether social information processing theory is applicable to Japanese online dating interactions, and how and to what extent Japanese daters overcome the limitations of CMC through the use of contextual and other cues. Thirty-six current members and 27 former members of Match.com Japan completed an online survey. Using issue-based procedures for grounded theory analysis, they found strong support for SIP. Japanese online daters adapt their efforts to present and acquire social information using the cues that the online dating platform provides, although many of these cues are specific to Japanese social context.
Application in online marketing
In business contexts, social information processing has been used to study virtual teams as well as the ways viral marketers influence the adoption of products and services through the Internet.
Mani R. Subramani and Balaji Rajagopalan pay special attention to the SIP applied to real-world online marketing and promotion activities. The background which stimulate their academic interests is that online social networks are increasingly being recognized as an important source of information influencing the adoption and use of products and services. While the potential of viral marketing to efficiently reach out to a broad set of potential users is attracting considerable attention, the value of this approach is also being questioned. Social information-processing theory provides a useful lens to examine the interpersonal influence processes that are the hallmark of viral marketing since it views the social network as an important source of information and cues for behavior and action for individuals. Prior studies examining the diffusion of innovations and the transmission of ideas in social networks have viewed the interpersonal influence as occurring largely from face-to-face interactions. However, interpersonal influence in viral marketing occurs in computer-mediated settings and is significantly different from that occurring in conventional contexts in several ways.
There needs to be a greater understanding of the contexts in which this strategy works and the characteristics of products and services for which it is most effective. What is missing is an analysis of viral marketing that highlights systematic patterns in the nature of knowledge-sharing and persuasion by influencers and responses by recipients in online social networks. To this end, they propose an organizing framework for viral marketing that draws on prior theory and highlights different behavioral mechanisms underlying knowledge-sharing, influence, and compliance in online social networks.
Application in online education
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. Dip Nandi, Margaret Hamilton, and James Harland from RMIT University did research on asynochronous discussion forums in fully online courses. Their study focuses on the online discussion process between the students and the instructors, as both senders and receivers, through the CMC channel with the asynchronous nature.
Fully online courses are becoming progressively more popular because of their "anytime anywhere" learning flexibility. One of the ways students interact with each other and with the instructors within fully online learning environments is via asynchronous discussion forums. However, student engagement in online discussion forums does not always take place automatically and there is a lack of clarity about the ideal role of the instructors in them. In their research, Dip Nandi and his colleges report on their research on the quality of discussion in fully online courses through analysis of discussion forum communication. They have conducted the research on two large fully online subjects for computing students over two consecutive semesters and used a grounded theoretic approach for data analysis. The results reveal what students and instructors consider as quality interaction in fully online courses. The researchers also propose two frameworks based on our findings that can be used to ensure effective online interaction.
Application in child development
Social information processing theory has also been used to examine the development of aggressive behavior in children in recent years. Theories of aggressive behavior and ethological observations in animals and children suggest the existence of distinct forms of reactive (hostile) and proactive (instrumental) aggression. Toward the validation of this distinction, groups of reactive aggressive, proactive aggressive, and nonaggressive children were identified. Social information-processing patterns were assessed in these groups by presenting hypothetical vignettes to subjects.
Kenneth A. Dodge and Nicki R. Crick from Vanderbilt University did research on the social information bases of aggressive behavior in children. In their study, the ways that basic theories and findings in cognitive and social psychology (including attribution, decision-making, and information-processing theories) have been applied to the study of aggressive behavior problems in children are described. Following an overview of each of these theories, a social information-processing model of children's aggressive behavior is outlined. According to this model, a child's behavioral response to a problematic social stimulus is a function of five: steps of processing: encoding of social cues, interpretation of social cues, response search, response evaluation, and enactment. Skillful processing at each step is hypothesized to lead to competent performance within a situation, whereas biased or deficient processing is hypothesized to lead to deviant social behavior Empirical studies are described in which children's patterns of processing have been found to predict individual differences in their aggressive behavior The implications of this body of work for empirically based interventions aimed at reducing children's aggressive behavior are discussed.
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 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. 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. 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.
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. 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.
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. Also, Tokunaga's study found that individualistic cultural values were able to fit inside the SIP theory while collectivist cultural values did not.
Another area of SIP that has received some criticism relates to its testability. Walther has been a self-reflective critic of his own theory. First, Walther acknowledges that SIP has not fully acknowledged nor clarified the role of the issue of time in CMC relationships. Second, in discussing the hyperpersonal perspective, Walther admits that not all of the theoretical components of his hyperpersonal approach have been researched sufficiently. Third, in examining the warranting hypothesis, Walther, Brandon Van Der Heide, Lauren Hamel, & Hillary Shulman accept the fact that high warranting value may exist on those matters that have strong social desirability. For example, physical attractiveness is a highly desirable trait in the United States, making it socially desirable. So, as Walther accepts, online communicators would seek corroboration for those qualities that society deems important or desirable. Whether or not other less socially desirable qualities are prone to warranting overtures is not fully explained.
To summarize, social information processing theory arrived in the communication discipline at the time that the rest of the research world was starting to examine the Internet for its possible influence on interpersonal communication and human relationships. Thus, Joseph Walther is somewhat of a scholarly prophet, forecasting the importance of looking at online relationships in the early 1990s. Although a few criticisms emerge in SIP, people cannot ignore the fact that Walther's theory remains a pivotal framework to consider as we envision future relationship development in an uncertainty technological time.
The label 'social media' has been attached to a quickly growing number of Web sites whose content is primarily user-driven. These communities are large-scale examples of SIP. Navigating the 'social' world of information online is largely a product of interpersonal connections online, and has prompted the creation of aggregating, or collaborative sources, to help assist collective groups of people sort through information. Learning about others through the concept of "seamless sharing" opens another word for SIP. Some computer tools that facilitate this process are:
- Authoring tools: e.g. blogs
- Collaboration tools: e.g. Wikipedia
- Tagging systems: Flicker
- Social networking: Facebook; Twitter; Instagram; SnapChat
- Collaborative filtering: Reddit; the Amazon Products Recommendation System; Yahoo Answer!
The process of learning from and connecting with others has not changed, but is instead manifested on the Internet. There are many different opinions regarding the value of social media interactions. These resources allow for people to connect and develop relationships using methods alternative to the traditional FtF-exclusive past, thus, making CMC more prevalent amongst social media users.
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