Computer-Mediated Communication: Impersonal – Walther

Walther, J. B. (1996). Computer-mediated communication: Impersonal, interpersonal, and hyperpersonal interaction. Communication Research, 23(1), 3-43.

This 1996 article is quite dated in many of its discussions, including its characterization of Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC). While Walther never directly defines CMC in this article, he uses the term largely to refer only to text-based communication, such as email and chat. However, we now communicate online through other methods that offer various levels of modality, such as audio and video. Yet, within this article, Walther puts forth many ideas that are foundational to both my study and to the current state of CMC.

The article seeks to identify whether CMC constitutes Impersonal, Interpersonal, or Hyperpersonal Interaction (areas I discussed in the review of Interpersonal Interaction in Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) ). If you’re not familiar with these terms, take a peek at that post, since it gives an overview of the terms in regard to how each is measured in “personalness” relative to Face-to-Face (FtF) communication.
Furthermore, the article considers that if CMC can be represented by more than one of these terms, what characteristics allow for this and what elements draw it to that concept at that time.

Impersonal
The early research on CMC suggest that it was impersonal, since it was largely about connecting large computers to each other and to communicate simple or emergency textual information across large distances. With the acknowledgement that it could be used in this way, it was questioned “…whether CMC could replace travel to meetings by group members and whether CMC might provide meetings as effective as, or even more effective, than FtF meetings (Turoff, 1991)” (5). Such an application was put into practice and it was determined that CMC is more task-oriented than is FtF communication.

However, that CMC is impersonal is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact it is quite positive when applied to a fitting setting. “According to Phillips and Santoro (1989), computerized communication steers users away ‘from consideration of irrelevant interpersonal and theoretical issues by focusing attention on the process and content of problem-solving discussion’ (p. 152).” (7). While this may have been true at the time, we are, of course, now deep in the social media era and use CMC for a variety of reasons. The online video conversation (OVC) for example, is really about conversational-level communication and understanding/learning; it is not necessarily task-oriented, although it certainly can be and is sometimes.

Walther also references studies that show higher participant involvement than comparable FtF discussions. “Whereas communicators with greater status or social power maintain a larger proportion of floor time in FtF conversations, participation equality has emerged in many investigations using CMC” (7). This is an important point to make of asynchronous communication in general. Without competition for floor time (speaking time), participants can each be granted a chance for participation. In a FtF setting, only one individual can really speak at a time; there must be turn-taking, and the dominant personalities and individuals get the most floor time, even to the extent that they can, knowingly or not, prevent some individuals from speaking at all. This is apparent in the FtF classroom. Conversely, in the asynchronous setting, there is no vying for such floor time, and since it is recorded/archived (there is not an example of asynchronous communication that does not have some recorded element), it allows other participants to peruse the conversation and to then have an opportunity to respond.

That CMC was thought to be impersonal was partly explained as being due to its lack of non-verbal cues, which “convey personal and emotional information” and its frequent reduced interactivity level. As support of such thinking, Walther references Social Presence theory:

Social present theory (Short, Williams, & Christie, 1976) predicts that the fewer channels or codes available within a medium, the less attention that is paid by the user to the presence of other social participants in an interaction. As social presence declines, messages are more impersonal. …According to Kiesler (1986), “without nonverbal tools, a sender cannot easily alter the mood of the message, communicate a sense of individuality, or exercise dominance or charisma…. Communicators feel a greater sense of anonymity and detect less individuality in others” (p. 48; see also Kiesler et al., 1984).”

Social presence is also about participants’ awareness of each other. Therefore, extending Walther’s points, the less one is aware of a conversational participant, such as with email and other forms of textual communication (those lacking non-verbal cues), the more impersonal the conversation is. Through such communication, it is often difficult to glean emotion and attitude; in this way, such elements are often misconstrued. Participants feel and sense a greater level of anonymity because there really is far less ability to convey individuality without the non-verbal cues. This is to say that it is still possible to convey such individuality, but it takes more effort to both establish that to a co-participant and to decipher it when receiving it. When in a FtF conversational setting, the non-verbal cues help establish the emotional meaning and individuality for more quickly.

Walther also references the “cues-filtered-out_ perspective, which I discussed here . He states that “As CMC necessarily and always constrains the number of cues, communication should always be impersonal when it is computer mediated, according to this perspective” (8). In this discussion, it is again clear that Walther is bound, or at least severely affected, by the technology of the time. At the time he wrote this article, video conferencing exists, but there is virtually no personal online video, WebCams, YouTube, etc.

In my review and a general comment on the time of this article, I am perhaps looking for a (re)definition of CMC, because the term can be applied to far more communication methods than existed fifteen years ago). According to Denis McQuail (2005), CMC refers to any communicative transaction that occurs through the use of two or more networked computers. Therefore, with the OVC and other multimodal communication tools and methods, the term is still fitting (no new term is necessary), but the breadth of what constitutes CMC needs to be updated. For the purposes of my study (and perhaps a larger suggestion for public/common use of the term for our current era), I am retaining McQuail’s definition of CMC, noting that it also refers to any the use of online audio and video.

I’ll continue this article review in the next post.

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