How Real is Communication in the Virtual World of Cyberspace?

Rick Dietrich, Jill Grear, & Amber Ruth

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     Throughout the years, humans have used many different means in order to communicate with others. Face to face speaking, letter writing, telegram, and telephone are just several examples of these different media. The latest method that has emerged, though, is computer mediated communication, or CMC. This could be carried out through e-mail, listserves, usenet groups, chat rooms, MUDs, or MOOs. Because of all of these different modes of communication by way of computers, Steve Jobs labels them "interpersonal computers" rather than "personal computers" (Walther & Burgoon, p.51). Clearly, there are many factors of CMC that cause it to be different from face to face (FtF) communication, and it has been debated whether or not these differences render the communication more or less personal. Some of these aspects of CMC are the absence of context cues, the recordability of conversation, the rate of exchange, the level of formality, and the anonymity of the users. The main controversy surrounding CMC is whether these differences can help to improve communication and make it more personal, or whether they serve to diminish the level of intimacy that can be achieved.

    The absence of social context cues, called the Cues Filtered Out Approach, is a major distinction that separates CMC from face to face communication. Because participants cannot see others' facial expressions, gestures, voice intonations, appearance, or physical adornments; it is harder to interpret statements and responses they might make (Walther & Burgoon, p.53). Joseph Walther of Northwestern University explains this phenomenon by the Social Presence Theory, which contends that the personal nature of a relationship is determined by the salience of the participants. Because CMC has this lack of non-verbal elements or feedback cues, participants are less able to get to know the person with whom they are conversing, thus leading to a less personal conversation. Also, according to this theory, people pay less attention to the other participants because their interest can be absorbed elsewhere without the presence of the other person to restrain them. Even when participants do become absorbed in the conversation, they are more likely to "flame" or insult other users, to focus more on themselves, and to equalize each other's status because of the lack of cues to show them what is appropriate (Walther & Burgoon, p.53). This can produce a relationship in which intimacy is impeded and a basis of trust is more difficult to form, directing participants to the kind of impersonal communication that is expected of CMC (Walther & Burgoon, p.58 & 62).

    However, according to many studies, these effects of the Cues Filtered Out Approach are restricted to only the beginning period of a CMC relationship. When studies are extended to examine longer amounts of time, it has been observed that many of these impersonal aspects disappear as participants exchange a greater number of messages. It seems that CMC groups can and do develop in relationally positive directions, as long as they are allotted sufficient time to mature (Walther & Burgoon, p.76-77).

    One of these elements that takes time to ripen is the receptivity and trust felt among participants, which is expressed through the vulnerability of people's revelations and their self-disclosing opinions on different issues. When people feel more trust in another person, they are more likely to reveal personal details about themselves. Another aspect of communication is the composure or relaxation of the conversant. In other words, what is the intensity of the message? How many misspellings does he or she allow to pass by, and what is the nature of his or her punctuation and capitalization? Obviously, when the participants feel more comfortable communicating with each other, they will not be as worried about catching mistakes. This also carries over into the formality of the messages. The form of address a writer chooses, as well as the figures of speech he or she employs, are evidence of the amount of formality he or she is aiming for. Next, the dominance displayed in a message can be revealed by the proportion of communication each participant exhibits, and the depth of a conversation can be measured by the private symbols writers include or the verbal shortcuts they utilize. All of these factors can be used to determine the personal nature of communication (Walther & Burgoon, p.56).

    When applying these guidelines, though, it is important to take into consideration the rate of information exchange that is taking place in CMC. Obviously, when more messages are sent, the personal relation will increase as participants grow more comfortable with each other and interesting topics of conversation are brought up. In the same way, at the beginning stages of any relationship, whether it be CMC or FtF, the communication will be more formal and less personal. The theory that describes this phenomenon is called the Social Penetration Theory because as the communication spans a greater amount of time, more of a personal nature is able to penetrate to the other person (Walther & Burgoon, p.57).

Continued on next page.

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Rick Dietrich      Jill Grear      Amber Ruth

This project was produced for Psy380, Social Psychology of Cyberspace, Spring 1998, at Miami University.

This document was created April 26, 1998 and last modified on Tuesday, March 11, 2014 at 17:34:14.
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