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 were first described twenty years prior in the 1956 Isaac Asimov novel The Naked Sun. Social Presence Theory is defined as "The degree of salience[disambiguation needed] of the other person in an interaction."[1]

Lombard & Ditton (1997) describe social presence as a multi-dimensional and flexible concept which includes properties of communication such as the feeling of closeness in interpersonal communication.[2][3] Social presence serves as a measure for psychological processes such as social orientation, identifying motivations, and group think.[2]

Social presence is measured by the ability to project physical and emotional presence, and experience it projected from others in interactions.[4][5] With the rise of computer-mediated communication, social presence theory also includes how individuals represent themselves online.[6] Effective communication is measured by the parties' interpersonal involvement, while considering constraints of the communication medium used.[7]

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 and privacy,[8] topics,[9] [10] social relationships and social process. [10]

A closely related theory, electronic propinquity, also examines this quality of human connection through technology.[5]


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.[7]

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.[citation needed]

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.[11] Inter-party and interpersonal exchanges are two aspects of interactions identified by Short, Williams, & Christie (1976). It is assumed in social presence theory that in any interaction involving two parties, both parties are concerned with acting out certain roles and developing or maintaining some sort of personal relationship.[12]

Emergence in Computer-Mediated Communication[edit]

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 represent themselves in their online environment.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] Social presence defines how participants relate to one another which in turn affects their ability to communicate effectively.[6]

Social presence theory provides a foundation for communication systems designers and serves as a main principle in computer-mediated communication studies.[2] Aragon (2003), Gorham & Cristophel (1990), and Tu & McIsaac (2002) place high importance on using engagement tactics in online classrooms geared towards increasing social presence and reducing distance (Kendall & Kendall, 2017). These tactics include ways to humanize the interactions between instructor and students.[13] Asynchronous (pre-produced content accessed individually by students on the web) and synchronous (real-time, simultaneous live connections of students together) components combined can enliven online interactions.[citation needed] 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.

Accepted as a major design priniciple, designers have used social presence theory to gain insight into user behavior when developing web-based applications and social computing technologies.[14] They use social communication tools to enhance the student experience and to overcome the challenges of forming interpersonal relationships in a virtual space.[15] Designers seek to provide a high-quality experience for the users by encouraging meaningful interactions between users and the development of interpersonal relationships.[14]

Research related to the importance of social presence in the success of students points to the need to design social communication tools to enhance users’ experience of one another.[16] Social presence affects different aspects of a learner’s experience such as, their "success (Russo & Benson, 2005; Zhan & Mei, 2013), satisfaction (Gunawardena & Zittle, 1997; Richardson & Swan, 2003; So & Brush, 2008; Zhan & Mei, 2013), and performance (Lomicka & Lord, 2007; Richardson & Swan, 2003)."[15] A positive social presence enables students to engage on another with ease while a negative social presence has been shown to increase disappointment in users which decreases cognition and familiarity with the material.[17] Without social presence learning interaction suffers, which has negative effects on learning performance.[18]


The definition of social presence remains inconsistent as scholars attempt to pinpoint what the phenomenon encompasses. Social presence has been defined as "a measure of the feeling of community that a learner experiences in an online environment."[19] 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. [12] [20] [10] Gunawardena (1995) argued that social presence varied in perception and was a subjective issue based upon objective qualities.

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 [9][21] and immediacy defined as the psychological distance between two parties that is conveyed through verbal and nonverbal cues in speech.[10]

Social presence was originally studied in connection with face-to-face (F2F), audio, and interactive television encounters.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] In e-learning context, it was redefined as learners' ability to portray themselves as "real" members of a community in social and emotional ways. [22] How CMC interacted with existing models alongside the quality of social presence in distance learning opened new research as the century turned.[citation needed]


Social presence is critical in improving instructional effectiveness in any setting especially in distance education. Tu (2000,2001) argued that within distance learning, social presence rests on three dimensions: social context, online communication, and interactivity. Social contexts contribute to a predictable degree of perceived social presence. Social contexts involve task orientation, privacy, topics, social relationships, and social process.[8][9][10] 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. In addition, social presence research sheds light on the relationship between a shared learning space and participants' satisfaction and encourages to build up a shared learning space for a better e-learning environment. [23]

More recently Social Presence has been used as a concept in exploring interpersonal communication suggesting a direct association between Social Presence with feelings of closeness.[3] Recent research highlights the importance of social presence in educational settings when delivering feedback on marked assessments.[24]


Steinfield (1986) found that task complexity, interdependence, uncertainty, and the 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 discovered participants formed impressions of other participants from their communications. These impressions developed into visual interpretations of the other, and 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. 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.[citation needed] 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.

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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

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. ^ Short, John, Ederyn Williams, and Bruce Christie. "The social psychology of telecommunications." (1976).
  2. ^ a b c Shen, Yu, & Khalifa 2010, p. 338
  3. ^ a b Gooch & Watts 2015.
  4. ^ Krish 2012, p. 101-102.
  5. ^ a b Westerman 2015, p. 95
  6. ^ a b Kehrwald 2008.
  7. ^ a b Sallnas, Rassmus-Grohn, & Sjostrom 2000.
  8. ^ a b Steinfield 1986.
  9. ^ a b c Argyle & Dean 1965.
  10. ^ a b c d e Walther 1992.
  11. ^ Biocca, Harms, & Burgoon 2003.
  12. ^ a b Short, John, Ederyn Williams, and Bruce Christie 1976.
  13. ^ Kendall & Kendall 2017, p. 64.
  14. ^ a b Shen, Yu, & Khalifa 2010, p. 339.
  15. ^ a b Kilic Cakmak, Cebi, & Kan 2014, p. 764
  16. ^ Kilic Cakmak, Cebi, & Kan 2014, p. 765.
  17. ^ Kilic Cakmak, Cebi, & Kan 2014.
  18. ^ Wei, Chen, & Kinshuk 2012.
  19. ^ Tu and McIssac, 2002
  20. ^ Rice, 1993
  21. ^ Burgeoon, et al., 1984
  22. ^ Garrison, D. R.; Anderson, T. (2003). E-learning in the 21st century: A framework for research and practice. London: RoutledgeFalmer. ISBN 041526345X.
  23. ^ Johnson, R. D., Hornik, S., & Salas, E. (2008). An empirical examination of factors contributing to the creation of successful e-learning environments. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies,66(5), 356-369.
  24. ^ 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.


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