Social presence theory

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Social Presence Theory was developed by social psychologists John Short, Ederyn Williams, and Bruce Christie. All three contributed to The Social Psychology of Telecommunications where they defined Social Presence Theory as the ability communication mediums have to transmit social cues.[1] The theory came together by the appearance of difference in the physical proximity that was produced by different mediums.[1] In a study conducted by Baozhou, Weiguo, and Zhou, social presence builds trust between individuals, which is crucial to our interactions in person or online.[2]

Lombard & Ditton [3](1997) interpreted Social Presence Theory as a multi-dimensional and flexible concept that identifies mediums depending on how intimate, personal, warm, and sensible they are when helping form personal connections between individuals.[4][5] Social Presence serves as a measure for psychological processes such as social orientation, identifying motivations, and group think. Social Presence Theory inspires the feeling of being together, even through a screen. The Theory explains primitive responses to social cues.[4]

Definition and emergence[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 physical proximities produced by different mediums,[1] the two more popular mediums being face-to-face communication and online interaction.[3][6] Social presence is measured by the ability to project physical and emotional presence, and experience it from others in interactions.[7][8] Computer-mediated communication has risen in the recent years, which has forced Social Presence Theory to be adapted to the new medium, and how we portray our persona in order to make connections with others on the internet.[9][10] Effective communication is measured by the parties' interpersonal involvement, while considering constraints of the communication medium used.[11]

The definition of Social Presence remains inconsistent as scholars attempt to pinpoint what the phenomenon encompasses, and how it can be adapted as new mediums of interpersonal communication arise. Social Presence in recent years has been defined as the feeling of community a learner experiences in an online environment.[12] We have developed multiple non-verbal intimacy behaviors in the online community that develop our personal relationships with people when we communicate in a medium where there is no real life contact.[13]

According to Patrick R. Lowenthal definitions of SPT 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][15]

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.[16][17][18] Gunawardena (1995) argued that Social Presence varied in perception and was a subjective issue based upon objective qualities.[19] 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.[20]

The definitions and interpretations of Social Presence given by multiple sources after the original work conducted by Short, Williams, and Christie, have offered a clearer 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.[13][21][2] 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 [22][23] and immediacy defined as the psychological distance between two parties that is conveyed through verbal and nonverbal cues in speech.[18]

Communicators face different challenges in order to tap into the necessities of the people they are trying to communicate with in a world that revolves around multicommunication, communicators must adapt and evolve to reach audiences.[24] Social Presence was originally studied in connection with face-to-face (F2F), audio, and interactive television encounters.[1][21] 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.[21] In e-learning context, it was redefined as learners' ability to portray themselves as "real" members of a community in social and emotional ways.[25][26]

Tu (2000,2001)[10] 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,[27] topics,[22][18] social relationships, and social process.[18] A closely related theory, electronic propinquity, also examines this quality of human connection through technology.[8]

Key concepts[edit]

Social Presence Theory, per Short, Williams and Christie in 1976,[1] is primarily composed of Intimacy[22] and Immediacy.[28][29] 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.[30] Argyle and Dean (1965) defined the interpretation of intimacy in an interaction as something that is influenced by a number of 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.[13]


Immediacy is defined as giving urgency or importance to an exchange.[13][21] The interpretation of immediacy was brought up 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.[29] The urgency we indicate when communicating with others gives them a sense of closeness and importance to their relationship.[13]

Non-Verbal Communication[edit]

In an exchange participants share a multitude of additions to the verbal communication, like eye contact, posture, physical distance and facial expressions.[31] When engaging in computer - mediated interactions the non-verbal cues can be more ambiguous such as, emoticons, urgency of response, and personal topics within the conversation.[13]


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][24]


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.[11]

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 the correct audiences.[24]

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.[32] 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.[16]

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 just as facial expression, direction of gaze, posture, dress, and body language.[1] In the work about Kinesics done by Birdwhistell in 1970[31] there were two types of functions identified for non-verbal cues.[31] One of the functions is directly related to the message that is being sent between one individual to another, and the is concerned with the communication process and the integrational aspects.[31][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 six functions of six non-verbal cues and what role they play in the communications process.[33] There are three that are integrational and three that are informational.[33]

The integrational functions[33] are:

  1. Mutual attention and responsiveness: eye-gaze, head nods and gestures.[1]
  2. Channel control: head nods and eye movements.[1][34]
  3. Feedback: This is mainly for the speaker to know how the audience is receiving the message.[1]

The informational functions[33] are:

  1. Illustrations: Hand functions to paint a picture or an object.[33][1]
  2. Emblems: Gestures being used instead of a word, like moving your head up and dow to say "yes."[1][33]
  3. Interpersonal attitudes: eye-gaze, gestures, proximity and facial expressions.[1][33]

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.[13] 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.[21] Social Presence defines how participants relate to one another which in turn affects their ability to communicate effectively.[9]

Social Presence theory provides a foundation for communication systems designers and serves as a main principle in computer-mediated communication studies.[4] 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.[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.[6] 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 principle, designers have used Social Presence Theory 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[26] 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 present and 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 it has been established to be the norm.[26]

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.[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 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.[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. 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.[27][22][18] 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.[42]

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.[5] Recent research highlights the importance of Social Presence in educational settings when delivering feedback on marked assessments.[6]


There hasn't been a general agreement on how to measure Social Presence Theory, but there are three major instruments that can be used to have a better understanding of the Theory.[29]

  • The Social Presence Scale was developed by Gunawardena and Zittle in 1997.[29] The test measures immediacy, which is one of the two main components of this theory. This measurement has been proven reliable and it is continually used in research.[21]
  • The Social Presence and Privacy Questionnaire was developed by Tu in 2002.[29] This measurement has been developed on three different dimensions: social context, online communication, interactivity. The test contains 17 social presence items and 13 privacy items rated on a five-point rating scale.[29]
  • Self-Reporting Social Presence Scale, was developed by Krejins, Kirschner, Jochems and Buuren in 2011. It is a scale that consists on five items with an internal consistency.[29]


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.[13] 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 .[21]

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. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o Short, John; Williams, Ederyn; Christie, Bruce (1976). The Social Psychology of Telecommunications. London: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. ISBN 978-0471015819.
  2. ^ a b Baozhou, Lu; Weighou, Fan; Zhou, Mi (2015). "Social presence, trust, and social commerce purchase intention: An empirical research". Computers in Human Behavior. 56: 225–237. doi:10.1016/j.chb.2015.11.057 – via Elsevier Science Direct.
  3. ^ a b Lombard, Matthew; Ditton, Theresa (1997). "At the Heart of It All: The Concept of Presence". Computer Mediated Communication. 3.
  4. ^ a b c Shen, Yu, & Khalifa 2010, p. 338
  5. ^ a b Gooch & Watts 2015.
  6. ^ a b c 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.
  7. ^ Krish 2012, p. 101-102.
  8. ^ a b Westerman 2015, p. 95
  9. ^ a b Kehrwald 2008.
  10. ^ a b Tu, Chih-Hsiung (January 2000). "On-line learning migration: From social learning theory to social presence theory in a CMC environment". Network and Computer Applications.
  11. ^ a b Sallnas, Rassmus-Grohn, & Sjostrom 2000.
  12. ^ Tu and McIssac, 2002
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h Dixson, Marcia (2016). "Nonverbal immediacy behaviors and online student engagement: bringing past instructional research into the present virtual classroom". Communication Education. 66: 37–53. doi:10.1080/03634523.2016.1209222.
  14. ^ Cui, Guoqiang; Lockee, Barbara; Meng, Cuiqing (December 2013). "Building modern online social presence: A review of social presence theory and its instructional design implications for future trends". Education and Information Technologies. 18 (4): 661–685. doi:10.1007/s10639-012-9192-1. ISSN 1360-2357.
  15. ^ Lowenthal, Patrick. (2009). The Evolution and Influence of Social Presence Theory on Online Learning. 10.4018/9781605669847.ch010.
  16. ^ a b Short, John, Ederyn Williams, and Bruce Christie 1976.
  17. ^ Rice, 1993
  18. ^ a b c d e Walther 1992.
  19. ^ Gunawardena, C. N. (1995). "Social presence theory and implications for interaction collaborative learning in computer conferences". International Journal of Education Telecommunications: 147–166.
  20. ^ Wei, J; Seedorf, S; Lowry, P; Thum, C; Schulze, T (August 2017). "How increased social presence through co-browsing influences user engagement in collaborative online shopping". Electronic Commerce Research and Applications. 24: 84–99. doi:10.1016/j.elerap.2017.07.002.
  21. ^ a b c d e f g Cobb, Susan Copley (2009). "Social Presence and Online Learning: A Current View from a Research Perspective" (PDF). Journal of Interactive Online Learning. 8.
  22. ^ a b c d Argyle & Dean 1965.
  23. ^ Burgeoon, et al., 1984
  24. ^ a b c Turner, J (2018). "Options for the Construction of Attentional Social Presence in a Digitally Enhanced Multicommunicative Environment". Communication Theory. 28: 22–45. doi:10.1093/ct/qty002.
  25. ^ Garrison, D. R.; Anderson, T. (2003). E-learning in the 21st century: A framework for research and practice. London: RoutledgeFalmer. ISBN 978-0415263450.
  26. ^ a b c Jahng, M; Littau, J (2016). "Interacting Is Believing: Interactivity, Social Cue, and Perceptions of Journalistic Credibility on Twitter". Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly. 93: 38–58. doi:10.1177/1077699015606680.
  27. ^ a b Steinfield 1986.
  28. ^ Wiener, M; Mehrabain, A (1968). Language Within Language: Immediacy, a Channel in Verbal Communication. New York: Ardent Media.
  29. ^ a b c d e f g Services, A. T. (2018, September 27). Social Presence Theory (PDF) . Retrieved from Memorial Library:
  30. ^ "Chapter 2. Intimacy in Law", The Purchase of Intimacy, Princeton University Press, 2009, doi:10.1515/9781400826759.47, ISBN 9781400826759
  31. ^ a b c d Birdwhistell, R.L. (1970). Kinesics and Context. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press.
  32. ^ Biocca, Harms, & Burgoon 2003.
  33. ^ a b c d e f g Argyle, M (1969). Social Interaction. London: Methuen.
  34. ^ Argyle, M; Lalljee, M; Cook, M (1968). "The effects of visibility on interaction in the dyad". Human Relations. 21: 3–17. doi:10.1177/001872676802100101.
  35. ^ Kendall & Kendall 2017, p. 64.
  36. ^ a b Shen, Yu, & Khalifa 2010, p. 339.
  37. ^ a b Kilic Cakmak, Cebi, & Kan 2014, p. 764
  38. ^ Osei-Frimpong, K; McLean, G (March 2018). "Examining online social brand engagement: A social presence theory perspective". Technological Forecasting and Social Change. 128.
  39. ^ Kilic Cakmak, Cebi, & Kan 2014, p. 765.
  40. ^ Kilic Cakmak, Cebi, & Kan 2014.
  41. ^ Wei, Chen, & Kinshuk 2012.
  42. ^ 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.


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