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Media Multiplexity Theory
Caroline Haythornthwaite

INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION: RELATIONSHIP MAINTENANCE


  1. Caroline Haythornthwaite is the chief theorist behind media multiplexity theory, which originally took a cybernetic approach to understanding how and why we use different communication channels
    1. The theory claims that our social networks powerfully influence the media we use, including why we might choose one medium over another to send a greeting such as happy birthday.
    2. Perhaps even more important, the theory calls attention to the number of media we use with an interpersonal partner.
    3. Media multiplexity scholars are convinced of one simple fact: The stronger the relational tie we have with a person, the more media we will use with that person.
  2. II. Mapping our social networks
    1. Scholars in the cybernetic tradition think we can map out what our relationships look like in a social network.
    2. Social network scholars call bonds weak ties if they don’t consume much time or energy, like acquaintances, classmates, and distant relatives.
    3. In contrast, strong ties such as romantic partners, immediate family, and BFFs (best friends forever) demand that we make a significant investment in the relationship.
    4. Sociologist Mark Granovetter offered a more formal definition of tie strength, claiming it’s a “combination of the amount of time, the emotional intensity, the intimacy (mutual confidence), and the reciprocal services” exchanged in the relationship.
    5. Cybernetic theorists want to understand how the structure of a network shapes the flow of information and resources between people.
  3. When are strong ties weak, and when are weak ties strong?
    1. With strong ties, we experience acceptance, intimacy, and enjoyment.
    2. Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter claimed he wasn’t so sure that strong ties are always better than weak ties.
    3. He affirmed the importance of close relationships for understanding our identity, but noted that strong ties feature a major weakness: They’re redundant when it comes to accessing information and resources.
    4. According to Granovetter, quick access to diverse information is one strength of weak ties.
    5. Among weak ties, bridging ties serve a particularly powerful role. They’re the ties that connect one strong tie group to another.
    6. Granovetter’s treatise on weak ties has inspired many scholars, including Haythornthwaite, who found his explanation of strong and weak ties particularly helpful for understanding the channels that sustain them.
  4. Media multiplexity: Tie strength involves the channels we use.
    1. Haythornthwaite sought to create maps of relationships in education contexts, with particular interest in courses that take place online—often with students located far apart from one another.
    2. At first, Haythornthwaite wanted to understand how online learners adapt to the computer-mediated environment: “What happens to such relationships when face-to-face contact is unavailable or severely limited?”
    3. But Haythornthwaite’s findings soon drove her into unexplored terrain: “Asking ‘who talks to whom about what and via which media’ revealed the unexpected result that more strongly tied pairs make use of more of the available media, a phenomenon I have termed media multiplexity.”
    4. What differentiated strong ties from weak ties was the number of media the pair employed. Greater tie strength seemed to drive greater numbers of media used.
    5. Although Haythornthwaite initially observed media multiplexity in educational and organizational groups, scholars in the socio-psychological tradition soon took her ideas and applied them to interpersonal contexts.
    6. The basic claim of media multiplexity theory: Tie strength drives use of multiple media.
      1. Claim #1: Communication content differs by tie strength, not by medium.
        1. Earlier theories of communication technology suggested some channels can’t effectively facilitate the ambiguous messages common in close relationships.
        2. Media multiplexity theory and social information processing (SIP) theory agree that those earlier theories weren’t quite right—people can and do maintain close ties online.
        3. SIP researchers have been most interested in the getting-to-know-you phase of relationship initiation, and they’ve pointed to the need for extended time during it.
        4. Media multiplexity theorists have been more interested in the maintenance of ongoing relationships, and they’ve pointed to the nature of the interpersonal tie itself.
        5. In her research, Haythornthwaite has found that the medium partners use doesn’t change the topic of their talk.
        6. University of Illinois professor John Caughlin noted that media multiplexity theory has much to say on what media interpersonal partners use, but not how they link all those media together.
        7. Thus it may not be quite right to say that partners never choose different media for different content, but rather that they may pay a relational price for that kind of segmentation.
      2. Claim #2: The hierarchy of media use depends on group norms.
        1. According to multiplexity scholars, this allocation of different channels for different kinds of ties creates a hierarchy of media use expectations.
        2. In such a hierarchy, members of the group use some media to communicate with all relational ties, whether weak or strong.
        3. But pairs with a strong tie often feel they need more private channels to sustain their relationship.
        4. Haythornthwaite would be quick to point out that there’s nothing sacred about any particular hierarchy of media use, because such hierarchies differ between groups.
      3. Claim #3: Adding and subtracting media access influences weak ties.
        1. Haythornthwaite would argue that the launch of Facebook created latent ties, or “connection[s] available technically, even if not yet activated socially.”
        2. She thinks the impact of a loss of a communication medium would depend on the strength of your tie.
        3. Where a weak tie, with few other channels, might be heavily impacted, on the flip side, Haythornthwaite thinks strong ties are relatively unaffected by the loss of a medium.
        4. Because strong ties tend to communicate through several media, they have built-in redundancy that can withstand the loss of a channel.
        5. Overall, then, “a central thesis of MMT is that . . . changes to the media landscape alter strong ties only minimally, but may change the nature of weak ties considerably.
  5. Are media use and tie strength always associated with each other?
    1. As you’d expect for an objective theory steeped in both the cybernetic and socio-psychological traditions, scholars haven’t taken the link between tie strength and media use for granted; they’ve gathered evidence to support that crucial belief.
    2. At the same time, their empirical detective work has found that the tie strength/media use link may depend on some other ingredients. If those factors aren’t present, tie strength and media use may not be so tightly linked—if they’re linked at all.
    3. One such factor is medium enjoyment, or one’s preference for a specific medium, driven by the belief that it is fun and convenient.
    4. As the study of medium enjoyment in family relationships concluded, “Effective media choice does not match medium to message so much as medium to person.”
  6. Critique: Strong on simplicity, weak on explanation and prediction.
    1. Media multiplexity theory is the youngest theory in this book, yet it has gained a sizable following among scholars within and outside the communication discipline.
    2. “To date, [the theory] represents the most comprehensive and systematic attempt to explain how the multimodality of social life influences, and is influenced by, the characteristics of interpersonal relationships.”
    3. One of the theory’s greatest strengths is its relative simplicity.
    4. These hypotheses are testable, and as scholars have conducted quantitative research, the numbers have tended to support the theory’s claims.
    5. Where the theory falters is its explanation of the data.
    6. Haythornthwaite seems to emphasize that tie strength drives channel expansion. Yet at other times, she acknowledges that increased communication probably strengthens the tie.
    7. Additional research on the theory’s causality claims could enhance the theory’s ability to predict future events.
    8. Despite the need for better prediction and explanation, the theory has demonstrated its practical utility.


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by Theory






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MOVIE CLIPS





Instructors can get additional
resources. Read more

Archived chapters (PDF)
from previous editions
are available in
Resources by Type.
See list

New to Theory
Resources?

Find out more in this short
video overview (3:01).


Media Multiplexity Theory
Caroline Haythornthwaite

INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION: RELATIONSHIP MAINTENANCE


  1. Caroline Haythornthwaite is the chief theorist behind media multiplexity theory, which originally took a cybernetic approach to understanding how and why we use different communication channels
    1. The theory claims that our social networks powerfully influence the media we use, including why we might choose one medium over another to send a greeting such as happy birthday.
    2. Perhaps even more important, the theory calls attention to the number of media we use with an interpersonal partner.
    3. Media multiplexity scholars are convinced of one simple fact: The stronger the relational tie we have with a person, the more media we will use with that person.
  2. II. Mapping our social networks
    1. Scholars in the cybernetic tradition think we can map out what our relationships look like in a social network.
    2. Social network scholars call bonds weak ties if they don’t consume much time or energy, like acquaintances, classmates, and distant relatives.
    3. In contrast, strong ties such as romantic partners, immediate family, and BFFs (best friends forever) demand that we make a significant investment in the relationship.
    4. Sociologist Mark Granovetter offered a more formal definition of tie strength, claiming it’s a “combination of the amount of time, the emotional intensity, the intimacy (mutual confidence), and the reciprocal services” exchanged in the relationship.
    5. Cybernetic theorists want to understand how the structure of a network shapes the flow of information and resources between people.
  3. When are strong ties weak, and when are weak ties strong?
    1. With strong ties, we experience acceptance, intimacy, and enjoyment.
    2. Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter claimed he wasn’t so sure that strong ties are always better than weak ties.
    3. He affirmed the importance of close relationships for understanding our identity, but noted that strong ties feature a major weakness: They’re redundant when it comes to accessing information and resources.
    4. According to Granovetter, quick access to diverse information is one strength of weak ties.
    5. Among weak ties, bridging ties serve a particularly powerful role. They’re the ties that connect one strong tie group to another.
    6. Granovetter’s treatise on weak ties has inspired many scholars, including Haythornthwaite, who found his explanation of strong and weak ties particularly helpful for understanding the channels that sustain them.
  4. Media multiplexity: Tie strength involves the channels we use.
    1. Haythornthwaite sought to create maps of relationships in education contexts, with particular interest in courses that take place online—often with students located far apart from one another.
    2. At first, Haythornthwaite wanted to understand how online learners adapt to the computer-mediated environment: “What happens to such relationships when face-to-face contact is unavailable or severely limited?”
    3. But Haythornthwaite’s findings soon drove her into unexplored terrain: “Asking ‘who talks to whom about what and via which media’ revealed the unexpected result that more strongly tied pairs make use of more of the available media, a phenomenon I have termed media multiplexity.”
    4. What differentiated strong ties from weak ties was the number of media the pair employed. Greater tie strength seemed to drive greater numbers of media used.
    5. Although Haythornthwaite initially observed media multiplexity in educational and organizational groups, scholars in the socio-psychological tradition soon took her ideas and applied them to interpersonal contexts.
    6. The basic claim of media multiplexity theory: Tie strength drives use of multiple media.
      1. Claim #1: Communication content differs by tie strength, not by medium.
        1. Earlier theories of communication technology suggested some channels can’t effectively facilitate the ambiguous messages common in close relationships.
        2. Media multiplexity theory and social information processing (SIP) theory agree that those earlier theories weren’t quite right—people can and do maintain close ties online.
        3. SIP researchers have been most interested in the getting-to-know-you phase of relationship initiation, and they’ve pointed to the need for extended time during it.
        4. Media multiplexity theorists have been more interested in the maintenance of ongoing relationships, and they’ve pointed to the nature of the interpersonal tie itself.
        5. In her research, Haythornthwaite has found that the medium partners use doesn’t change the topic of their talk.
        6. University of Illinois professor John Caughlin noted that media multiplexity theory has much to say on what media interpersonal partners use, but not how they link all those media together.
        7. Thus it may not be quite right to say that partners never choose different media for different content, but rather that they may pay a relational price for that kind of segmentation.
      2. Claim #2: The hierarchy of media use depends on group norms.
        1. According to multiplexity scholars, this allocation of different channels for different kinds of ties creates a hierarchy of media use expectations.
        2. In such a hierarchy, members of the group use some media to communicate with all relational ties, whether weak or strong.
        3. But pairs with a strong tie often feel they need more private channels to sustain their relationship.
        4. Haythornthwaite would be quick to point out that there’s nothing sacred about any particular hierarchy of media use, because such hierarchies differ between groups.
      3. Claim #3: Adding and subtracting media access influences weak ties.
        1. Haythornthwaite would argue that the launch of Facebook created latent ties, or “connection[s] available technically, even if not yet activated socially.”
        2. She thinks the impact of a loss of a communication medium would depend on the strength of your tie.
        3. Where a weak tie, with few other channels, might be heavily impacted, on the flip side, Haythornthwaite thinks strong ties are relatively unaffected by the loss of a medium.
        4. Because strong ties tend to communicate through several media, they have built-in redundancy that can withstand the loss of a channel.
        5. Overall, then, “a central thesis of MMT is that . . . changes to the media landscape alter strong ties only minimally, but may change the nature of weak ties considerably.
  5. Are media use and tie strength always associated with each other?
    1. As you’d expect for an objective theory steeped in both the cybernetic and socio-psychological traditions, scholars haven’t taken the link between tie strength and media use for granted; they’ve gathered evidence to support that crucial belief.
    2. At the same time, their empirical detective work has found that the tie strength/media use link may depend on some other ingredients. If those factors aren’t present, tie strength and media use may not be so tightly linked—if they’re linked at all.
    3. One such factor is medium enjoyment, or one’s preference for a specific medium, driven by the belief that it is fun and convenient.
    4. As the study of medium enjoyment in family relationships concluded, “Effective media choice does not match medium to message so much as medium to person.”
  6. Critique: Strong on simplicity, weak on explanation and prediction.
    1. Media multiplexity theory is the youngest theory in this book, yet it has gained a sizable following among scholars within and outside the communication discipline.
    2. “To date, [the theory] represents the most comprehensive and systematic attempt to explain how the multimodality of social life influences, and is influenced by, the characteristics of interpersonal relationships.”
    3. One of the theory’s greatest strengths is its relative simplicity.
    4. These hypotheses are testable, and as scholars have conducted quantitative research, the numbers have tended to support the theory’s claims.
    5. Where the theory falters is its explanation of the data.
    6. Haythornthwaite seems to emphasize that tie strength drives channel expansion. Yet at other times, she acknowledges that increased communication probably strengthens the tie.
    7. Additional research on the theory’s causality claims could enhance the theory’s ability to predict future events.
    8. Despite the need for better prediction and explanation, the theory has demonstrated its practical utility.


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