Media Naturalness TheoryPosted by Time Barrow on September 19th, 2009
Categories: media theory
Kock, Ned. “The Ape That Used Email: Understanding E-Communication Behavior through Evolution Theory.” Communications of AIS 5 3 (2001): 29.
In my last posts, I’ve discussed media richness theory and media synchronicity theory, the former being foundational for the latter. Another theory on communication, which stems as a response to (actually, an alternative to) media richness theory, is the media naturalness theory proposed by Ned Kock (2001). He details two problems with the media richness theory that make it insufficient. The first problem he finds is that there is no evidence that people prefer face-to-face (FtF) communication. The second problem is that there is no underlying explanation why people prefer FtF communication.
Therefore, he introduced the media naturalness theory based on the theory of evolution by natural selection of Darwin. During the vast majority of human evolution, we communicated FtF; we are built for it (our biological apparatus), both physically and mentally. Only vary late in the overall evolutionary process did we begin to communicate through any type of written method, including writing’s earliest form: cave paintings (pictorial representations).
Therefore, one can conclude that synchronous FtF communication, with the use of discrete sounds (which later developed into complex speech) and visual cues, has been the predominant mode of communication used by humans beings over millions of years of evolution, and that our biological communication apparatus has been optimized for it. (Kock, 2001. 11-12).
In this way, humans prefer face-to-face because it is the most natural form of communication. Any communication that is not face-to-face is less natural. Thus, every non-face-to-face communication requires more cognitive effort. The more natural a medium, the less individual cognitive effort it will require. This is the foundation of the media naturalness principle:
Media that incorporate all the elements of unencumbered FtF interaction (e.g., physical presence, ability to see and hear others, synchronicity) will be perceived as more natural for communication than other media. Therefore,… The extent to which a communication medium incorporates actual FtF interaction elements defines its degree of naturalness.” (12)
The theory uses this level of cognitive effort, ambiguity level, and the physiological arousal to determine if the information exchange is natural compared to face-to-face communication. So for example a decrease in the degree of media naturalness of a communication medium should lead to following outcomes in regard to a communication interaction: an increase in levels of cognitive effort, an increase in ambiguity levels, and a decrease in physiological arousal (DeRosa et al 2004).