Computer-mediated communication (CMC) includes electronic mail, group discussion systems, and real-time chat systems through which people send messages to others, either to a defined individual or set of recipients, or to a messaging space where many people may read and reply to others’ messages. Much CMC is used for professional work and to facilitate commerce; within this application, much CMC that accompanies professional pursuits features personalizing features that help users relate to one another, which may enhance both the instrumental and interpersonal aspects of such communication. In addition, a great deal of CMC is used specifically for personal goals and activities. In some ways CMC is a simple alternative to other forms of communication, with some socio-technical features that alter communication dynamics. In other ways CMC offers significant opportunities that enhance communication in personal settings by allowing users to contact a large field of potential communication partners, reducing aspects of human interaction that impede communication effectiveness in conventional interaction. CMC can enhance personal communication by allowing users to enhance messaging in ways that conventional interaction does not as readily afford, facilitating new relationships and relational maintenance.
CMC developed in several domains: in the development of government and industrially sponsored inter-computer information relay systems such as those that became the Internet, through interest-based discussions that traversed such networks (such as Usenet), and through individually or organizationally sponsored electronic bulletin board systems. In all cases, accompanying the ability to send messages to other users about instrumental aspects related to file-sharing or about users’ topic-related experiences, communication about off-topic interpersonal information often accompanied the use of ostensibly instrumentally focused systems. Research focusing on the ability of CMC to foster personal information became popular in the 1980s, driven by concerns that written communication transmitted via computer networks could not foster social and interpersonal cues, predicting and often demonstrating that CMC would feature impersonal interactions. Further, without nonverbal cues with which to emit and detect personal characteristics such as charisma or personality, interpersonal dominance or professional status, or the ability to manage conversations and facilitate turn-taking, CMC was often expected to be ineffective for instrumental group discussions or interpersonal functions.
This view was predominant in much research in the fields of social psychology, management, and communication, and was largely based on experimental research using ad hoc groups. However, less frequent reports from other domains depicted successful, personal exchanges using similar systems in situ, such as cross-sectional studies in organizations and hospitals where CMC was used over long periods, as well as from hobbyists and non-professional bulletin board discussions, reflecting variation in the task vs social nature of CMC, or depicting organic, emergent communities of users whose information-sharing online led to deeply personal and emotional associations. The 1993 publication of journalist Howard Rheingold’s The virtual community: Homesteading on the electronic frontier, describing relational, social, and psychological dynamics observed in amateur networks, did much to bring the personal use of CMC to the public’s attention, despite the limited network access and awareness that the public had at that time.
The 1990s fostered further applications and new understanding of CMC and its personal applications. The early years of the decade saw the increased popularity of proprietary CMC networks such as Prodigy, Compuserve, and America Online, which were used for both professional applications and semi-anonymous chatrooms, in which communicators could exchange help and support, or make friends or flirt with people whom they did not see and could either involve in their personal lives or easily keep away. The removal of funding by the US National Science Foundation for the major educational and scientific network cleared the way for commercial activity over the Internet. This rapidly propelled activity via for-profit Internet access providers, including the existing and new proprietary networks. The Internet evolved into a social space for worldwide discussions of any topic, personal relationship seeking or support, even anonymous, virtual-only flirtation, relationships, virtual marriage, and sexual simulation. One researcher whose 1980s work depicted CMC as negatively impacting interpersonal dynamics came to characterize the 1990s Internet as a field of “atheism, sex, and databases” (Sproull & Faraj 1997).
As it became clear that CMC was being used effectively for personal as well as task communication, new theories were developed that accounted for such use. Social influence theory (Fulk et al. 1990) argued that the expressive potential of a medium like email was not a deterministic result of specific technological attributes alone. Rather, people use media in accordance with their perception of the media’s capabilities, which is shaped, in turn, through the media perceptions and uses of the individuals in one’s communication network. Social information-processing theory held that CMC users may have the same relational goals as those who communicate offline, but must adapt to the characteristics of CMC in order to affect the level of impressions and interpersonal relations. Rather than relying on nonverbal cues for the expression of affective and social messages, as do face-to-face communicators, CMC users translate such meanings into verbal behaviors.
Several studies established that this translation takes place fluidly, but requires more time and/or message exchanges to reach the level of development that face-to-face communicators achieve more readily. Further research has shown that the timing of messages and responses interacts with verbal cues in determining the social meanings of text-based messages in CMC. It has been well established that communicators use language and paralinguistic cues other than the nonverbal cues conveyed by space, voice, and body in CMC so that, even in task-oriented as well as personal contexts, personal impressions are made and managed; the alternative forms of meta-communication CMC allows facilitate impressions and relational communication (for review see Walther 2006).
As the Internet became more pervasive, news media, advertising, schools, and word of mouth led to great diffusion and public awareness of the commercial and personal uses to which it was being put. Anecdotal accounts of people making friends online, or having closer friends online than in offline contexts, were met with skepticism. More disconcerting were accounts of romantic relationships that began as meetings in CMC chatrooms. Research followed such trends, charting the course of successful romantic couples who had met and courted via CMC, or describing how friendships began in public, topically based online discussion groups, evolved to dyadic electronic media, traversed telephone contact, and culminated in face-to-face meetings a significant proportion of the time. Both sets of research found that relationships quite simply began in online venues that facilitated the meeting of and conversation among individuals who held common interests, as often or more than in chatting venues specifically oriented toward partner seeking per se. Toward the start of the twenty-first century, deliberate online dating and matchmaking systems provided another CMC venue for initiating relationships (Gibbs et al. 2006).
New research and theoretical models emerged that attempted to account for conflicting predictions and findings that had been accruing in the burgeoning CMC research literature in the 1990s. While many experiments and research accounts continued to show social deficits from CMC, others showed more normal relational states, while other accounts again documented superior or more intimate encounters online than in comparable offline contexts. A 1996 article attempted to summarize the extant findings as well as to introduce a new model: “Computer-mediated communication: Impersonal, interpersonal, and hyperpersonal interaction” (Walther 1996). This model offered contingencies with which to understand how each type of interaction could be fostered by CMC.
Impersonal CMC seemed to be most likely when interaction time and/or interpersonal familiarity were restricted, either by the demands of an experiment, by the organic shortterm context in which some (but not all) CMC exchanges take place, or by the imposition of software such as group decision support systems that are designed to enhance anonymity and minimize interpersonal effects in online interaction. Interpersonal CMC is facilitated by sufficient time for ongoing exchanges and by conditions such as anticipated relational longevity that prompt interpersonal interest, with users then deploying CMC in ways described by social information-processing theory to effect these goals.
Hyperpersonal communication represents more intimate, satisfying communication and interpersonal evaluations than are typical in comparable offline settings, and was hypothesized to arise due to systematic variations in basic communication processes that are facilitated by CMC. (1) Selective self-presentation, exploitation of the editing and timing capacities of the medium, and the ability to reallocate cognitive activity from ambient surveillance and physical self-monitoring to message construction all facilitate the construction of highly intentional, deliberate, and self-serving expressions of self, attitudes, and emotion in CMC messages. (2) The receiver is idealized through exaggerated interpretation of messages with respect to the person’s similarity or complementarity of social category memberships or personal characteristics. (3) CMC removes the time that is allocated to message construction and editing from the real-time flow of traditional conversational demands. (4) Reciprocal interaction involves the previous elements, which escalate positive perceptions of senders and receivers. The intentional breadth of the hyperpersonal model has allowed it to be applied to a variety of CMC field settings, from collaborative work groups and distance education settings to online social support systems and self-presentation in online dating systems, among others. Many elements of the framework have been supported in experimental research as well (see Walther 2007).
Mainstream Use And Special Advantages
CMC has by this point become a mainstay of the maintenance of personal relationships, although less research has focused specifically on maintenance than on relationship initiation and formation. Several surveys of American Internet users report that people – women in particular – frequently use email for staying in touch with friends and family members. Beyond the convenient capacity of email to send messages any time and store them for retrieval, the written nature of CMC appears to lend itself to facilitating more delicate and frank exchanges among family members than they may feel comfortable undertaking by other media, such as telephone or face-to-face conversations. Research has found that CMC facilitates more, and less superficial, self-disclosure and personal question-asking than does face-to-face communication. Although a recent hybrid form of CMC – Internet blogs, or web logs – have become better known for fostering political commentary and citizen journalism, surveys show that blogs most often take the form of individuals’ personal diaries describing life events and observations. When there is an intended audience for blogs, it is usually the blogger’s friends and family (Lenhart & Fox 2006), reinforcing the role of CMC in relational maintenance processes.
The abilities provided by CMC for users to compose messages carefully, and to maintain physical and psychological distance while still offering potentially immediate exchange, in combination with the potential of the Internet to connect to vastly greater social networks than previously possible, have also been connected to CMC’s utility in fostering social support, facilitating relationships for individuals with social skill deficits, and reducing threats to self-esteem from rejections in online mate-seeking. Online social support networks have arisen spontaneously and purposefully in a variety of Internet venues.
In these virtual settings, groups ranging in size from teens to thousands exchange information, emotional support, sympathy, and coping strategies with members experiencing various illnesses, psychological issues, legal problems, or other personal problems. The Internet allows and invites people with similar concerns to connect around a topic, and its potential global reach and weak tie facilitation provide the means for people to find others who share similar experience and first-hand expertise with respect to the issue of focus. Users of online social support systems often report that the mere discovery of so many other individuals with experiences and feelings like their own, often not the case in their offline personal networks, provides strong emotional benefit. Similarity of experience lends particular credibility to the information and personal advice exchanged in these venues. In addition, online social support users value the social distance, anonymity, message management, and discretionary access that online support provides.
Although the Internet opens numerous possibilities for forming relationships, those individuals with skill deficits affecting face-to-face communication appear to find particular gratification or further deterioration in conducting personal relationships online. Depression, loneliness, shyness, or other similar syndromes lead some individuals to withdraw from face-to-face social interaction, preferring instead the message management and distance that CMC interaction allows in the conduct of meeting and chatting online. In some cases, awareness of the capabilities of CMC to foster self-disclosure and friendship development can lead to interpersonal success online. In other cases, Caplan (2003) demonstrated that problematic Internet use, comprised of online interaction durations exceeding a user’s intention, accompanied by guilt over apparent inability to control such use, reinforces and exacerbates psychosocial problems.
The same properties of distance and message management that reduce the anxiety and risk of meeting and initiating relationships with others appear to have made online mateseeking a valuable CMC process. Several aspects of commercial online dating sites such as Match.com seem to routinize and depersonalize a communication process otherwise fraught with anxiety, uncertainty, and risk of rejection. Online dating sites typically collect demographic, preference, and personality information from users, in order to allow other users to screen their databases of candidates and select among a subset of potential mates that meet desired criteria; this replaces the discovery process that might otherwise necessitate a good deal of interactive communication with a stranger in order to make preliminary compatibility judgments. There may be systemenabled, impersonal ways to signal prospective interest in conversing with another individual, such as the communication of words and graphics depicting a wink, but obviously doing so in a generic, stylized manner that is the same across the many users who wish to initiate this signal of interest. A recipient may then accept the symbolic token and initiate a CMC conversation, or select to reply with an automated “no thank you,” an impersonal, generic, stock reply that may be less deflating to receive than an individual rejection. Research on online dating services has focused primarily on the presentation of self online and on how individuals idealize their online profiles; future research will undoubtedly focus on communication using a range of new, system-provided symbols indicating interest/disinterest, availability/receptivity, and particularly authenticity, which is at this writing the primary concern of online daters.
CMC is also a mainstay of personal communication among individuals who use any number of text messaging systems. Such systems include short message service (SMS), a method of “texting” or sending alphanumeric messages to other users who have mobile phones that are equipped for this purpose. Likewise, instant messaging using AOL Instant Messenger, ICQ, and other systems providing real-time, dyadic chat are popular, particularly among individuals in their teens and twenties, but increasingly in professional settings as well. These systems are useful in maintaining a feeling of presence, or connectedness, among individuals. The ad hoc messages common to these systems tend to be informal, and they are often intended to be amusing or humorous; they facilitate banter. Most such messaging takes place among people who have personal relationships offline, although a significant proportion of teens report meeting online someone they did not previously know, by using such systems. Interaction using instant messaging may be less stressful than face-to-face interaction, and meeting strangers via such systems has been found to induce greater happiness than meeting strangers face to face, possibly because individuals need not worry about their appearance or awkward pausing, and because such systems are associated with socializing and fun (Green et al. 2005). Communication stress may also be reduced as individuals commonly segregate their personal relationships from familial or fraternal audiences by the use of different pseudonyms and accounts by which they represent themselves online.
Other research concerning personal CMC has examined the implications of CMC in the presentation of the self online, with respect to language and identities. These studies include whether deception is facilitated or better detected in online, verbal-only discourse, and what linguistic markers are associated with lying in CMC environments (typically, real-time chat). The study of linguistics and identity in CMC has also focused on gendered language, alternatively finding that individuals’ online discourse reinforces offline gender stereotypes, or that people accommodate to the linguistic patterns of desirable CMC interaction partners as they communicate online. Concern over online self-presentations also encompasses the potential for individuals to enact alternative identities online. These efforts may include minor distortions in age and status, as well as performance as a fictitious person of the gender opposite to one’s own in certain Internet spaces that occlude discovery of participants’ offline characteristics. Research has suggested that such radical behavior occurs less frequently than popular accounts suggest; that it is most often driven by simple curiosity rather than pathology or malicious intent, and that its duration is fleeting. Others have suggested that identity play in CMC provides therapeutic opportunities to enhance perspective-taking abilities (Herring & Martinson 2004).
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