Social presence theory

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Social presence theory was developed by John Short, Ederyn Williams, and Bruce Christie, although its main thesis and major points would appear to have been first described twenty years previously in the 1956 Isaac Asimov novel The Naked Sun.


Social presence theory classifies different communication media along a one-dimensional continuum of social presence, where the degree of social presence is equated to the degree of awareness of the other person in a communication interaction (Sallnas, Rassmus-Grohn, & Sjostrom, 2000). According to social presence theory, communication is effective if the communication medium has the appropriate social presence required for the level of interpersonal involvement required for a task. On a continuum of social presence, the face-to-face medium is considered to have the most social presence, and written, text-based communication the least. It is assumed in social presence theory that in any interaction involving two parties, both parties are concerned both with acting out certain roles and with developing or maintaining some sort of personal relationship. These two aspects of any interaction are termed interparty and interpersonal exchanges (Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976).


As computer-mediated communication has evolved a more relational view of social presence has emerged. Social presence has come to be viewed as the way individuals represents themselves in their online environment. It's a personal stamp that indicates that the individual is available and willing to engage and connect with other persons in their online community. Social presence is demonstrated by the way messages are posted and how those messages are interpreted by others. Social presence defines how participants relate to one another which in turn affects their ability to communicate effectively (Kehrwald, 2008).

Seldom, if ever, do traditional curriculum designers intentionally consider social presence in course design. Face-to-face (F2F) courses with their groupings of people in the same place at the same time, their reliance on communication skills used in daily life, and their delivery of sight, sound, smell (and maybe touch – let's hope not taste) awareness of others sharing space inherently provide an awareness of the presence of others among members. While in itself this produces awareness of others, we may only loosely call it social presence. However, for most, it suffices. For online courses, the opposite is generally true.

The lack of cues for the physical presence of others in an online classroom and the lack of passive connection between users brought about by technology that facilitates discussion but not connection across distances requires designers and teachers to account for and construct replicates of these in an online classroom. And while there still exists F2F curriculum wherein the development of social presence is left to happenstance, there is no room between success and failure in an online course when it comes to the need to develop social presence. Studies have found that academic performance can actually be inhibited due to lack of social presence in online classrooms. Without social presence learning interaction suffers, which has negative effects on learning performance (Wei, Chen, & Kinshuk, 2012).

However, more recent developments in online education combine the use of both asynchronous (preproduced content accessed individually by students on the web) and synchronous (real-time, simultaneous live connections of students together) components. Depending on the technology used, synchronous sessions can provide both audio and video connection, allowing an interchange involving both sight and sound, and all the rich nonverbal communication inherent in tone of voice and facial expression. While smell, taste and touch remain inaccessible still, the look, actions and sound of one's colleagues now readily are. And as result, a much more full social interchange is possible with the potential to greatly increase social presence.


Trying to define social presence is a difficult matter as researchers are not in agreement themselves over what this phenomenon encompasses. There is no consistent definition for social presence within research literature yet. Social presence has been defined as "a measure of the feeling of community that a learner experiences in an online environment" (Tu and McIssac, 2002). Other researchers have defined social presence as the awareness of others in an interaction combined with an appreciation of the interpersonal aspects of that interaction (Short, Williams, and Christie, 1976; Rice, 1993; Walther, 1992). Gunawardena (1995) argued that social presence varied in perception and was a subjective issue based upon objective qualities. Yet despite these variations, the role of social presence in the success of students is agreed upon and the need to design for it is in agreement.[citation needed]

Looking deeper into the definitions and explanations of social presence, researchers[who?] have offered that social presence is more of a combination of factors that present themselves in a way so as to develop greater intimacy within a group that has a positive effect on the individual's affective filters. Several researchers have suggested that intimacy and immediacy are contributing factors to social presence with intimacy defined as a measure of communication involving eye contact, proximity and body language (Argyle and Dean, 1965; Burgeoon, et al., 1984) and immediacy defined as the psychological distance between two parties that is conveyed through verbal and nonverbal cues in speech (Walther, 1992).

Social presence was originally studied in connection with F2F, audio and interactive television encounters. The emergence of computer-mediated communication (CMC) in education and training provided an entirely new series of variables and characteristics to already existing social presence models that hitherto had not been encountered. How this new medium of connection and communication interacted with existing models and how the understanding of social presence up to that point played into providing quality in distance learning opened new research as the century turned.


Social presence is a significant feature for improving instructional effectiveness in any setting, and one of the most significant features of distance education. Tu (2000,2001) argued that within distance learning, social presence rests upon three dimensions, social context, online communication, and interactivity. Social contexts contribute to a predictable degree of perceived social presence. Social contexts involve task orientation (Steinfield, 1986), privacy (Steinfield, 1986), topics (Argyle and Dean, 1965; Walther, 1992), social relationships (Walther, 1992) and social process (Walther, 1992). As an example, when a conversation is task based and public without a sense of community being in place, the perception of social presence is low and affective filter (a communication blockage brought about by negative emotional feelings) is high.

More recently Social Presence has been used as a concept in exploring interpersonal communication. This work appears to suggest that experiences of Social Presence during acts of communication are directly associated with feelings of Closeness (Gooch and Watts, 2015).

Recent research highlights the importance of social presence in educational settings when delivering feedback on marked assessments.[1]


Steinfield (1986) found that task complexity, interdependence, uncertainty and perceived need to communicate over distances were positively associated with increasing online communication. Walther (1992) argued that social relationships could stimulate changes in discourse as well. In examining text-based CMC (e-mails) of conference participants, Walther found that participants began developing impressions of other participants from their communications. These impressions developed into visual interpretations of the other, developed a sense of intimacy and identification between participants, which led to greater perceptions of social presence.

Gunawardena (1991) argued that a purely text-based communication system (e-mail, discussion boards and chat) rests upon the assumption that people using such a system have already developed a level of comfort with the technology that allow the person to effectively use it. This assumption repeatedly proves to be a false assumption to all online instructors. Gunawardena argued further that text-based communications should account for not all users having a level of comfort in its use. Courses or conferences that will rely heavily on such a system for communication should begin with light and casual conversation in areas that the user has a lot of familiarity and can devote more resources to gaining a comfort level with the technology. Later work by Palloff and Pratt (1999, 2003) validated Gunawardena's recommendation in their call for establishing learning communities among online users at the very beginning of courses. In doing so, Palloff and Pratt argue that affective filters are lowered. While not in the same words, they hint to the building of social presence.

Finally, interactivity involves the activities and communication styles online users engage in. Norton (1986) identified eleven communication styles that can be associated with online communications (impression-leaving, contentious, open, dramatic, dominant, precise, relaxed, friendly, attentive, animated, and image). What style participants use in communicating, especially the style teachers use, will impact social presence. Too much rigidity to one style alone or poor use of all styles in the facilitation of conversations will have a negative effect on social presence.

In their 2002 study on social presence, Tu and McIssac declared, "Social presence positively influences online instruction; however, frequency of participation does not represent high social presence." In both a quantitative and qualitative analysis of 51 volunteers' interactions, Tu and McIssac found that social context was more qualitative (a learned skill set rather than a prescriptive set of actions) to achieve positive impact, online communication was more strongly related to quantifiable and organizational skills of participants, and that interactivity was a combination of skill sets and communication styles used in combination. As a result, Tu and McIssac identified the following variables that had strong positive effects on the fueling or perception of social presence.

Variables Identified in Data from Tu and McIssac (2002)
Variables I. Social Context II. Online Communication III. Interactivity
1 Familiarity with recipients Keyboarding and accuracy skills Timely Response
2 Assertive/Acquiescent Use of emoticons and paralanguage Communication Styles
3 Informal/formal Characteristics of real-time discussion Length of messages
4 Trust relationships Characteristics of discussion boards Formal/informal
5 Social relationships (love and information) Language skills (writing and reading) Type of tasks (planning, creativity, social tasks)
6 Psychological attitude toward technology Size of groups
7 Access and location Communication strategies
8 User characteristics

While research in social presence is ongoing, researchers are confidently recommending designing online and e-format courses for its presence along the three dimensions we have discussed. By building trust online, providing social "hand holding" support up front in any course using CMC and promoting informal relationships, teachers and instructors can provide a strong sense of social presence, increase sense of community, and in turn increase interaction among participants.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Grieve, Rachel; Padgett, Christine R.; Moffitt, Robyn L. (2016-01-01). "Assignments 2.0: The role of social presence and computer attitudes in student preferences for online versus offline marking". The Internet and Higher Education. 28: 8–16. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2015.08.002. 


  • Argyle, M., Dean, J.. (1965). Eye contact, distance and affiliation. Sociometry, 28(3), 289-304.
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  • Kehrwald, B. (2008). Understanding Social Presence in Text-Based Online Learning Environments. Distance Education, 29(1), 89-106.
  • Norton, R. W. (1986). Communicator style in teaching: Giving good form to content. In J. M. Civikly (Ed.), Communicating in college classrooms (pp. 33–40). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
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  • Palloff, R. M., Pratt, K. (2003). The virtual student. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
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  • Short, J. A., Williams, E., & Christie, B. (1976). The social psychology of telecommunications. London: Wiley.
  • Steinfield, C. W. (1986). Computer mediated communication in an organizational setting: Explaining task-related and socioeconomical uses. In M. L. McLaughlin (Ed.), Communication yearbook 9 (pp. 777–804). Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
  • Tu, C. H. (2000). On-Line learning migration: From social learning theory to social presence theory in CMC environment. Journal of network and computer applications 23(1), 27-37.
  • Tu, C. H. (2001). How Chinese perceive social presence: An examination of an online learning environment. Educational media international, 38(1), 45-60.
  • Tu, C. H., & McIssac, M.. (2002). The relationship of social presence and interaction in online classes. The American journal of distance education, 16(3), 131-150.
  • Walther, J. B. (1992). Interpersonal effects in computer-mediated interaction: A relational perspective. Communication research, 19(1), 52-90.
  • Wei, C., Chen, N., & Kinshuk. (2012). A model for social presence in online classrooms. Educational Technology Research And Development, 60(3), 529-545.
  • Wiener, M., & Mehrabain, A. (1968). Language within language: Immediacy, a channel in verbal communication. New York; Appleton-Century-Crofts.

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