Social Information Processing Theory

SIPT explicitly assumes that individuals are motivated to form impressions and develop relationships of some kind, no matter what medium they are using (394).

Walther, Joseph B., Leslie A. Baxter, and Dawn O. Braithewaite. “Social Information Processing Theory.” Engaging Theories in Interpersonal Communication: Multiple Perspectives. Eds. Baxter, Leslie A. and Dawn O. Braithewaite. Thousand Oaks, CA US: Sage Publications, Inc, 2008. 391-404.

Earlier this year, I touched on the Social Information Processing Perspective (SIPP). However, this post delves a bit more into this theory of Joseph Walther.

In this 2008 article (Chapter), Walther references his 1992 Social information Processing Theory (SIPT) of Computer-Mediated-Communication (CMC) with special focus on the development of relationships online. “The SIPT of CMC explains how people get to know one another online, without nonverbal cues, and how they develop and manage relationships in the computer-mediated environment (Walther, 1992)” (391). Because the relationships he discusses are largely based on textual interaction, this work is not directly relevant to my research on online video conversation. However, it is not without relevance and worth.

He begins by noting that we all get first impressions of people we meet and those first impressions are confirmed or defined as something else through conversations and other paralinguistic cues such as posture, gesture, facial expression, and vocal cues. While some scholars (i.e. Short, Williams, and Christie’s social presence theory) suggest that the lack of nonverbal cues, such as exists in online textual communication, keep one from making these initial inferences about he characteristics of others. Conversely, the SIPT predicts that people do form these impressions and even deeper bonds, yet more slowly and through different mechanisms than we use in FtF communication.

One area in which online communication differs, according to Walther and the SIPT, is in the time and rate of communication. He references Ekman & Friesen, (1969):

In face-to-face communication, the concurrent exchange of verbal messages along with appearance, kinesics (body movement and facial expression), vocalics (quality and use of the voice), proxemics (increases, decreases, and uses of space), and haptics (touch) provide an abundance of information all at once. The various cues do not always duplicate one another in terms of meaning; the compliment, contradict, accentuate, or minimize verbal cues and other non-verbal expressions. (395-396)

If one or more of these elements is removed, we expect that less is getting communicated through the remaining mode(s), so they must work a bit harder to convey the message and are therefore slower. Considering further the conditions of asynchronous communication and the fact that in many cases, such as with email, each response or exchanges can take hours or even days to occur, one can see that relationship development can take even longer. “Thus, when communication goes slowly, relationships accrue slowly…” (397).

To place the online video conversation (OVC) in this structure, we can see that relationship development would likely occur much faster than with purely textual communication, yet not as fast as that of FtF. The OVC includes most, or all, of the nonverbal cues present in FtF (lacking true proximity and haptics); however, it is asynchronous and therefore the rate of exchange can take longer. It is also worth noting that while the number of exchanges is likely few than in FtF communication the OVC exchanges are longer–since participants have the opportunity and perhaps the need– to fit more in to each exchange, and they are in some ways more meaningful, since participants have the ability to review exchanges. As Walther references, “The work of Liu, Ginther, and Zelhart (2001), however, has shown that both the frequency as well as duration of messages–focusing on messaging rate, not history–affect impression development in CMC, in line with SIPT’s predictions” (398).

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