Social presence theory

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Social Presence Theory was developed by social psychologists John Short, Ederyn Williams, and Bruce Christie, co-authors of the 1976 book The Social Psychology of Telecommunications, where they defined Social Presence Theory as the ability communication media have to transmit social cues.[1] The theory arose from noticing the differences in apparent physical proximity inherent in using various communications media.[1]

Lombard and Ditton, in 1997, interpreted Social Presence Theory as a multi-dimensional and flexible concept that classifies media according to how well they convey intimacy and warmth between users, and by their ability to help form personal relationships.[2][3] Social presence consists of psychological processes such as social orientation, identifying motivations, groupthink, and what inspires the feeling of being together, even through a screen. The theory explains the first responses to social cues.[3] Social presence theory not only studies how social cues are transmitted, but also how desirable personal, social, and psychological traits facilitate building trust. A study conducted by Baozhou, Weiguo, and Zhou, published in 2015, social presence builds trust between individuals, which is crucial to our interactions in person or online environments[4]

Emergence and definition[edit]

The main thesis and major points of the theory were first described in 1956 in The Naked Sun, a novel by Isaac Asimov.

Social Presence Theory is defined by the different apparent physical proximities produced by various media,[1] the two more popular media being face-to-face communication and online interaction.[2][5] Social presence is measured by the ability to project physical and emotional presence and experience it from others in interactions.[6][7] As computer-mediated communication has risen in recent years, Social Presence Theory has been adapted to the new medium, to explain how we portray ourselves, to make personal connections with others on the internet.[8][9] Effective communication is measured by the parties' interpersonal involvement while considering the constraints of the communication medium used.[10]

Definitions of Social Presence are inconsistent, as scholars attempt to pinpoint what the phenomenon encompasses, and how it can be adapted as new media of interpersonal communication arise. Social Presence in recent years has been defined as the feeling of community a learner experiences in an online environment.[11] We have developed multiple non-verbal intimacy behaviors in the online community that enhance our relationships with people when we communicate in a medium where there is no real-life contact.[12]

According to Patrick R. Lowenthal,[13] definitions of Social Presence Theory are on a continuum. On one side of the continuum there are perceptions of a person's being or existence, which focus on whether one projects themselves into the environment or if other people can recognize them. On the other side of the continuum, the focus is on whether or not there is a positive interaction, interpersonal, or emotional connection between the communicators. Lowenthal also says that most definitions of SPT remain in the middle of this continuum, where very little focus is placed on emotional or interpersonal connection.[14]

Other research has defined social presence as the awareness of others in an interaction, combined with an appreciation of the interpersonal aspects of that interaction.[15][16][17] In 1995, Gunawardena argued that social presence varied with perception and was a subjective issue based upon objective qualities.[18] We are social beings, and we crave socialization, and social presence explains how we form relationships and how beneficial and necessary they are to our lives.[19]

The definitions and interpretations of social presence—given by multiple sources after the original work conducted by Short, Williams, and Christie—have offered a more unobstructed view 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.[12][20][4] 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[21][22] and immediacy defined as the psychological distance between two parties that is conveyed through verbal and nonverbal cues in speech.[17]

Communicators face different challenges to communicate more effectively. In a world that revolves around multi-communication, communicators must adapt and evolve to reach audiences.[23] Social presence was originally studied in connection with face-to-face (F2F), audio, and interactive television encounters.[1][20] 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.[20] In the context of electronic learning (e-learning), it was redefined as the learners' ability to portray themselves as "real" members of a community in social and emotional ways.[24][25]

In 2000–2001, Tu[9] 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,[26] topics,[21][17] social relationships, and social process.[17] A closely related theory, electronic propinquity, also examines this quality of human connection through technology.[7]

Key concepts[edit]

Social Presence Theory—per Short, Williams and Christie in 1976[1]—is primarily composed of intimacy[21] and immediacy.[27][28] Non-verbal communication and efficiency are two sub-terms that are relevant to the theory.[1]


Intimacy is defined as the feeling of closeness and belonging that two people may feel with each other.[29] In 1965, Argyle and Dean defined the interpretation of intimacy in interaction as something that is influenced by several factors, such as physical distance, eye contact, smiling, body language, and potential conversation topics. We create intimacy by interpreting non-verbal cues, whether it is in person or online.[12]


Immediacy is defined as giving urgency or importance to an exchange.[12][20] The interpretation of immediacy was brought, by Wiener and Mehrabian in 1968, into Social Presence Theory; and it was paraphrased and further explained by Cobb as a measure of the psychological distance between the communicator and the recipient of that exchange.[28] The urgency we indicate when communicating with others gives them a sense of closeness and importance to the relationship.[12]

Non-Verbal Communication[edit]

In exchange, participants share a multitude of additions to verbal communication, such as eye contact, posture, physical distance, and facial expressions.[30] When engaging in computer-mediated interactions, the non-verbal cues can be more ambiguous, such as emoticons, the urgency of response, and personal topics within the conversation.[12]


In Social Presence Theory, one medium may be more reliable to get the message across. The communicator is the judge when it comes to picking a medium, and getting across their message to the desired audience in the most efficient way possible. There is never a clear answer when it comes to saying what is the most efficient way.[1][23]

Classification of media[edit]

Social Presence Theory classifies different communication media on 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.[10]

Social Presence Theory in communication is effective if the communication medium has the appropriate social presence required for the level of interpersonal involvement required in an engagement, which is one of the challenges communicators have at the time of engaging their audience.[23]

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.[31] Inter-party and interpersonal exchanges are two aspects of interactions identified by Short, Williams, and Christie. 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.[15]

Face-to-face interactions[edit]

The most basic of interactions are done face-to-face; and the participants exchange, in addition to verbal communication, a set of non-verbal cues, such as facial expression, direction of gaze, posture, dress, and body language.[1] In the work about Kinesics done by Birdwhistell in 1970,[30] there were two types of functions identified for non-verbal cues.[30] One of the functions is directly related to the message that is being sent from one individual to another is concerned with the communication process and the integrational aspects.[30][1]

The integrational activity includes the behavior that keeps the interaction in process, and the comprehensibility that goes in the exchange between individuals. Argyle, in 1969, identified the functions of six non-verbal cues and the role they play in the communications process.[32] There are three that are integrational and three that are informational.[32]

The integrational functions[32] are:

  1. Mutual attention and responsiveness: eye-gaze, head nods, and gestures.[1]
  2. Channel control: head nods and eye movements.[1][33]
  3. Feedback: This is mainly for the speaker to know how the audience is receiving the message.[1]

The informational functions[32] are:

  1. Illustrations: Hand gestures to paint a picture or an object.[32][1]
  2. Emblems: Gestures being used instead of a word, like moving your head up and down to signify "yes."[1][32]
  3. Interpersonal attitudes: eye-gaze, gestures, proximity, and facial expressions.[1][32]

Computer-mediated interactions[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.[12] 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.[20] Social presence defines how participants relate to one another, which in turn affects their ability to communicate effectively.[8]

Social Presence Theory provides a foundation for communication systems designers and serves as a main principle in computer-mediated-communication studies.[3] Gorham & Cristophel (1990), Tu & McIsaac (2002), and Aragon (2003) place high importance on using engagement tactics, in online classrooms, geared towards increasing social presence and reducing distance.[34] These tactics include humanizing the interactions between instructor and students.[35] 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.[5] Depending on the technology used, synchronous sessions can provide both audio and video connections, allowing an interchange involving both sight and sound, and all the rich nonverbal communication inherent in tone of voice and facial expressions.

Designers have accepted Social Presence Theory as a major design principle, to gain insight into user behavior when developing web-based applications and social computing technologies.[36] They use social communication tools to enhance the student experience and to overcome the challenges of forming interpersonal relationships in a virtual space.[37] Designers seek to provide a high-quality experience for the users by encouraging meaningful interactions between users and the development of interpersonal relationships.[36][38] In a study conducted by Jahng and Littau in 2016,[25] it was found that the importance we give to computer-mediated communications in order to trust the people we communicate with is reinforced. Their study describes how important it is for journalists to be active on social media in order to create a bond of trust with their audiences. Individuals do not feel comfortable when professionals are not as active on social platforms as is the established norm.[25]

Research related to the importance of social presence to the success of students points to the need to design social communication tools to enhance users' experience of one another.[39] 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)."[37] A positive social presence enables students to engage with each other with ease, while a negative social presence has been shown to increase disappointment in users, which decreases cognition and familiarity with the material.[40] Without social presence learning interaction suffers, which has negative effects on learning performance.[41]


Social presence is critical in improving instructional effectiveness in any setting, especially in distance education. In 2000–2001, Tu argued that within distance learning, social presence has 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.[26][21][17] 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 filtering (a communication blockage brought about by negative emotional feelings) is high. In addition, research sheds light on the relationship between a shared learning space and participants' satisfaction and encourages the building up of a shared learning space for a better e-learning environment.[42]

Recent research highlights the importance of social presence in educational settings when delivering feedback on marked assessments.[5]


There hasn't been general agreement on how to measure Social Presence Theory, but there are three major instruments that can be used to give a better understanding of the theory.[28]

  • The Social Presence Scale was developed by Gunawardena and Zittle in 1997.[28] The test measures immediacy, which is one of the two main components of this theory. This measurement has been proven reliable and is continually used in research.[20]
  • The Social Presence and Privacy Questionnaire was developed by Tu in 2002.[28] This measurement has been developed along three different dimensions: social context, online communication, and interactivity. The test contains 17 social presence items and 13 privacy items on a five-point rating scale.[28]
  • The Self-Reporting Social Presence Scale, was developed by Krejins, Kirschner, Jochems, and Buuren in 2011. It is a scale that consists of five items with an internal consistency.[28]


In 1986, Steinfield found that task complexity, interdependence, uncertainty, and the perceived need to communicate over distances were positively associated with increasing online communication. In 1992, Walther argued that social relationships could stimulate changes in discourse as well. In examining text-based computer-mediated communication (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 perception of social presence.

In 1991, Gunawardena 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 allows 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 rely heavily on such a system for communication should begin with light and casual conversation in areas that the user has familiarity with, which helps them in gaining a comfort level with the technology.[12] Later work by Palloff and Pratt, in 1999 and 2003, validated Gunawardena's recommendation, and they called for establishing learning communities among online users at the very beginning of courses. In doing so, Palloff and Pratt argued that affective filters are lowered.

Interactivity involves the activities and communication styles that online users engage in. In 1986, Norton 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.[20]

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 the interactions of 51 volunteers, 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 constituted 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 along the three dimensions that have been discussed. By building trust online, providing social "hand holding" support up front in any course using computer-mediated communication, and promoting informal relationships, teachers and instructors can provide a strong sense of social presence, increase a sense of community, and in turn increase interaction among participants.

Attentional Social Presence[edit]

Attentional Social Presence is a theory developed by Sonja Foss and Jeanine Turner, professors at the University of Colorado Denver and Georgetown University, respectively. The theory suggests that there are new ways to study and understand social presence within an attention-scarce, multicommunicative environment. Attentional Social Presence is the ability to shift audience attention to the communicator in order to influence an interaction or communicative relationship.[23] Building on the concepts of Social presence theory, Attentional Social Presence discusses how communicators make themselves salient among an audience that is largely consumed by digital technologies and multicommunicating options.[23] Chad Harms and Frank Biocca outline this concept of "attentional allocation" as one of the six sub-dimensions of social presence, defining it as how much attention a person allocates to and receives from the person with which they are interacting.[43]


In today's interconnected society, it has become easy, and almost second nature to conduct multiple near-simultaneous conversations, both in person and in computer-mediated conversations. Multicommunicating is simultaneous and can overlap interactions with separate entities that divide a person's attention.[44]  This is compounded by the pressure individuals feel to remain connected and "plugged in" making it common for people to participate Multicommunicating by texting, emailing, talking, and scrolling through social media, all at the same time.[44] Research suggests a tension between what people desire to achieve and can achieve while participating in these types of multiple interactions. This tension, termed multicommunicator aspirational stress (MAS), can be created by a cycle of using technology to cope with demands of continuous and simultaneous interactions.[44]

Because of these pressures and availability of communicative media, individuals must make strategic decisions about how to construct their presence to maximize their perception, influence, and interaction with others.[23] Attentional Social Presence theory applies to both face-to-face interactions as well as computer-mediated communication.[23] Employing Attentional Social Presence concepts can help communicators construct invitational rhetoric and create salience in relationships and communicative interactions. This can be critical for teachers, managers, supervisors, doctors, as well as within intimate personal relationships. For example, in teaching, immediacy involves the nonverbal behaviors that reduce physical and/or psychological distance between teachers and students and increase their interpersonal closeness, with the ultimate goal of enhancing student learning.[45]

Core Elements[edit]

Attentional Social Presence theory focuses on how people use communication technologies to experience various types of presence, choose to engage with and influence audiences, and break through digital barriers to communicate. Research shows four options for the construction of social presence in order to enhance communication and secure audience interaction: budgeted, entitled, competitive, and invitational.[23]

  • Budgeted – communicators maximize own availability across multiple interactions.[23]

Since most people now carry a smart phone, tablet, or computer everywhere they go, they must make choices to allocate parts of their attention among multiple conversations or forms of communicative devices.[44] This requires juggling multiple messages, effectively apportioning their attention and social presence among various interactions. In managing their audiences, communicators evaluate the priority and relationship cost of audience interactions and engagement.[23]

  • Entitled – communicators focus on environment to limit competing messages.[23]

Demonstrating a position of privilege or importance, communicators can work to ensure their message is received by limiting the availability of other forms of communicating. In this way, communicators attempt to secure audience attention through power or coercion, either by limiting opportunities or removing access to other forms of competing media, messages, or communicative devices.[23] By asking for electronics to be put away, phones to be turned off, or direct requests to pay attention, entitled communicators can try to ensure the audience is focused on them and that their message is prioritized. This may be seen most in hierarchical or asymmetrical communicative relationships.[23]

  • Competitive – communicators place emphasis on making a compelling message.[23]

Communicators in lower-power positions are often forced to make their messages more interesting, appealing, and engaging to gain audience attention within multicommunicative environments.[23] Recognizing that the audience is likely faced with a number of other competing media demands, competitive social presence requires additional effort in compelling an audience's attention. Communicators may employ persuasive, engaging, or various tone techniques to shift the audience's attention to their message.[23]

  • Invitational – communicators focus on direct/dedicated audience interaction. See also Invitational rhetoric.

Rooted in feminist principles of equality, immanent value, and self-determination, this form of social presence provides an invitation for communicators to see another's perspective and create understanding.[46] Instead of attempting to persuade or establish power over an individual or audience, communicators remove judgement, hierarchy, and assumptions to create equal and open interactions. Information and opinions can change among both parties as a result of understanding and insights gained by sharing information and communicating on a level playing field.[46]

See also[edit]


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