Social Penetration Theory (Altman and Taylor, 1973): Interpersonal relationships are like an onion--they keep unfolding, layer upon layer.



Week 2: Lecture - Interpersonal Communication in an Online Environment

Let's begin with a few concepts:

Social Penetration Theory (Altman and Taylor, 1973): Interpersonal relationships are like an onion--they keep unfolding, layer upon layer. Key ideas here are the DEPTH of disclosure and the BREADTH of disclosure (so how much private information is revealed and the variety of subjects addressed). Self-disclosure is usually associated with the idea of reciprocity, so typically as we reveal more so does the other person. Relationships need to go through a series of stages. At first, interchanges are cautious and tentative, ruled primarily by social conventions (imagine meeting a stranger at a party). Then the exchange becomes exploratory and is marked by the disclosure in some more depth, often in response to questions. Next, the exchange becomes open, barriers break down, and people disclose freely. A final stage might be called a "stable exchange" and is marked by continued openness and a mutual understanding between partners that goes beyond the verbal exchange (imagine a close friend's silence and your ability to understand what they "mean" by that).

Uncertainty Reduction Theory (Berger and Calabrese, 1975): The initial stage of an interpersonal relationship is marked by high degrees of uncertainty. We don't fully "get" the other person and we don't know a lot about them. This uncertainty typically makes us uncomfortable and we want to resolve the discomfort. So we use strategies for information seeking, specifically interactive strategies (i.e. we ask questions, we observe reactions). Studies show that lower levels of uncertainty allow for higher levels of intimacy and liking. Another factor, which reduces uncertainty between communicators, is the degree of similarity individuals perceive in each other (in background, attitudes, and appearance). EMC environments often bring together "similar types" (meaning those interacting are after all visiting the same site, whether it be World of Warcraft, a particular Facebook page, etc.). Because of this, various EMC settings might have a lower level of uncertainty to begin with; hence, a greater level of intimacy and liking.

Hyperpersonal Communication – Hyperpersonal Communication is an EMC-based phenomenon, that might be a short-term effect which (perhaps?) gives way to real interpersonal connections; conversely the "personal" effect might simply end abruptly. For some, EMC feels very "impersonal" but there are just as many others who report that EMC allows them to go beyond the personal connections they can make in the "real world." This has been labeled as "hyperpersonal" communication. Why does this happen? Possibly because we project what we want onto our online partner, we idealize him/her (especially in terms of physical attractiveness, an area we typically have no real cues to evaluate against when online without video). Also, we selectively reveal only those parts of ourselves we consider ideal. We would feel more attractive online let’s say because we don’t reveal our bad posture or our problematic complexion. So we're feeling more attractive and we're assuming the other person is more attractive. Finally, there is much less risk online for feeling judged, especially by a relative stranger. We don't have to deal with their facial expressions of dismay, or sighs of boredom, and should they verbally condemn some sort of disclosed information, we could simply "turn them off." So many people feel more open about online disclosure--it seems to be consequence-free, which in reality, it is not. All together, online we have a recipe for instant intimacy. For some people, self-disclosure in EMC environments is easier than in face to face (F2F or FtF) environments, and so it is possible to the stages of the relationship to progress more quickly. The real world fear of future consequences do not exist for many people with relative "strangers" who are "far away."  

How Communication Needs Drive Technology and Vice Versa

Two definitions to consider:

1.      Media Richness: The channel can transmit multiple cues (visual, sound, etc.), which allows for immediate feedback, and supports "natural" (conversational?) behaviors. Which EMC channels are "rich" and which are "lean"? Are there advantages to each?

2.     Social presence: Also termed "immediacy." Does communication allow for a sense of intimacy? Can you "feel" the other person's presence? Face to face is obviously strong in this area--we see facial expressions, we get eye contact, we can feel a touch. Which EMC channels allow for strong social presence?

And a theory, too:

Uses and Gratification Theory: A mass media theory that says people use media to accomplish specific tasks and gratify specific needs. For example:

·         Escape and Entertain — Some media allow the user to escape from reality. Other media allow the user to relax, to experience aesthetic pleasure, sexual arousal, or emotional release. Some media experiences simply allow the user to fill time.

·         Social interaction — People create personal relationships with the characters in various media. This supports social empathy and the understanding of others. Also, it can serve as the basis for conversation (cultural touchstones). Another possibility is that these substitute for real-life companionship. Finally, the media can allow people to connect with "actual" family, friends and society.

·         Inform and educate — The audience gains an understanding of the world around them by consuming media. They can find out about relevant events, seek advice on practical matters, satisfy curiosity, and educate themselves.

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