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Social Information Processing Theory
Joseph Walther

INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION: RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT


  1. Introduction.
    1. Rapid changes in communication technology over the past several decades have frustrated communication scholars seeking to understand what all of this means for interpersonal relationships.
    2. Walther initially developed SIP to understand how online communication shapes the development of interpersonal and group relationships.
    3. His experiments suggest that people can indeed form relationships online that are just as satisfying—in fact, sometimes even more satisfying—than their offline interactions.
  2. Online versus face-to-face: A sip instead of a gulp.
    1. Walther labeled his theory social information processing (SIP) because he believes relationships grow only to the extent that parties first gain information about each other and use that information to form impressions.
    2. It’s a chain of events that occurs regardless of the medium we’re using to communicate: we get information, we form an impression, and then the relationship grows.
    3. SIP focuses on the how the first link of the chain looks a bit different when communicating online.
    4. Although we can use these technologies to communicate with images and video, SIP focuses on online communication that is textual.
    5. Before SIP, many communication theorists shared a cues filtered out interpretation of online messages. They believed the lack of nonverbal cues would disrupt the process of gaining information and forming an impression.
    6. Flaming is use of hostile language that zings its target, creating a toxic climate for relationship development and growth.
    7. Walther doesn’t think the loss of nonverbal cues is necessarily fatal or even injurious to a well-defined impression of the other or the relational development it triggers.
    8. Two features of online communication provide a rationale for SIP theory.
      1. Verbal cues: CMC users can create fully formed impressions of others based solely on linguistic content of messages.
      2. Extended time: Though the exchange of social information is slower online versus face-to-face, over time the relationships formed are not weaker or more fragile.
  3. Verbal cues of affinity replace nonverbal cues.
    1. Based on Mehrabian’s seminal research on inconsistent messages, people gave nonverbal cues more weight when interpreting messages where verbal and nonverbal channels clash.
    2. Nonverbal cues become less powerful when they don’t conflict with the verbal message or when we’re conveying facts.
    3. Walter claims we can replace nonverbal cues with verbal messages that convey the same meaning.
    4. This ability to convert nonverbal cues into verbal meaning isn’t new; earlier examples include pen-pal relationships.
  4. Experimental support for a counter-intuitive idea
    1. Walther isn’t content to rely on anecdotes for support of his theory.
    2. Walther and his colleagues ran studies to test how online communicators pursue their social goals and if affinity can be expressed through a digital medium.
      1. In their study, the participants discussed a moral dilemma with a stranger via either online or face-to-face. The stranger was in actuality a research confederate told to pursue a specific communication goal. Half the confederates were told to interact in a friendly manner and the remaining pairs were told to interact in an unfriendly manner.
      2. The method of communication made no difference in the emotional tone perceived by the participants.
      3. Self-disclosure, praise, and explicit statements of affection successfully communicated warmth.
      4. In face-to-face interactions, participants relied on facial expression, eye contact, tone of voice, body position, and other nonverbal cues to communicate affiliation.
    3. Compared to visually-oriented channels, building warmth over texting might take longer.
  5. Extended time: The crucial variable in online communication.
    1. According to Walther, online communicators need a lot of time to build close connections.
    2. Rather than drinking a glass by taking big gulps, smaller sips will take more time.
    3. Over an extended period, the issue is not the amount of social information that can be conveyed online; rather, it’s the rate at which that information mounts up.
    4. Messages spoken in person take at least four times as long to say them online. This differential may explain why online interactions are perceived as impersonal and task-oriented.
    5. Since online exchanges convey messages more slowly, Walther advises users to send messages more often.
    6. Anticipated future interaction and chronemic cues may also contribute to intimacy on the Internet.
      1. People will trade more relational messages if they think they may meet again and this anticipated future interaction motivates them to develop the relationship.
      2. Walther believes that chronemic cues, or nonverbal indicators of how people perceive, use, or respond to issues of time, are never filtered out completely when communicating online.
    7. Walther claims that sometimes, online exchanges actually surpass the quality of relational communication that’s available when parties talk face-to-face.
  6. Hyperpersonal perspective: Closer online than in person.
    1. Walther uses the term hyperpersonal to label online relationships that are more intimate than if partners were physically together.
    2. He classifies four types of media effects that occur precisely because communicators aren’t face-to-face and have limited nonverbal cues.
      1. Sender: Selective self-presentation
        1. Through selective self-presentation, people who meet online have an opportunity to make and sustain an overwhelmingly positive impression.
        2. As a relationship develops, they can carefully edit the breadth and depth of their self-disclosure to conform to their cyber image, without worrying that nonverbal leakage will shatter their projected persona.
      2. Receiver: Overattribution of similarity
        1. Attribution is a perceptual process where we observe people’s actions and try to figure out what they’re really like.
        2. In the absence of other cues, we are likely to overattribute the information we have and create an idealized image of the sender.
      3. Channel: Communicating on your own time
        1. Many forms of online communication are asynchronous channels of communication, meaning that parties can use them nonsimultaneously—at different times.
        2. A benefit is the ability to edit when dealing with touchy issues, misunderstandings, or conflict between parties.
      4. Feedback: Self-fulfilling prophecy
        1. A self-fulfilling prophecy is the tendency for a person’s expectation of others to evoke a response from them that confirms what was anticipated.
        2. Self-fulfilling prophecy is triggered when the hyperpositive image is intentionally or inadvertently fed back to the other person.
        3. Beyond online dating, Walther suggests hyperpersonal communication may improve relationships between groups with a strong history of tension and conflict, such as Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims.
        4. Based on his research, Walther suggests that in order to ease tensions, communicators should focus on common tasks rather than group differences, allowing plenty of time for communication, and exclusively using text-only channels.
  7. The warranting value of information: What to trust?
    1. Hyperpersonal effects aren’t likely to occur when people don’t trust each other.
    2. Walther and his colleagues have examined how people evaluate the credibility of others through social media.
    3. Social media sites display two types of information—that controlled by the profile owner and that beyond the owner’s direct control.
    4. Walther’s investigation of the warranting value of personal information, or what he describes as “the perceived validity of information presented online with respect to illuminating someone’s offline characteristics,” examined what information is believed when posted online.
    5. Information is believed if it has warranting value. Does their online profile match their offline characteristics?
      1. Like email messages, whose content is under the sole control of the sender, information posted by a profile owner is low warrant information because he or she can manipulate it with ease.
      2. Since the profile owner can’t as easily manipulate what’s posted by friends, we’re more likely to accept such high warrant information as true.
    6. Walther’s experiments confirm that people trust high warrant information.
  8. Critique: A good objective theory in need of update.
    1. Because technology changes so rapidly, it’s difficult to craft and defend enduring theories of online communication.
    2. Yet in this train of high-tech innovation, SIP remains popular among communication scholars because it stacks up well against all the criteria for a good social science theory.
    3. However, the invention of smartphones and the subsequent explosion of social media may reduce the scope and validity of Walther’s theory.
    4. In contrast, the qualitative research of Sherry Turkle, Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, suggests that the connectivity provided by mobile phones has unanticipated consequences that Walther hasn’t addressed in the two decades since he crafted his theory.
    5. She’s convinced this continuous distraction [by mobile technology] deflects us from that which makes us truly human—conversation, intimacy, and empathy.
      1. Turkle claims that for those brought up with Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp and other smartphone social apps, face-to-face conversation is becoming a lost art.
      2. In their increasing flight from conversation, people who log on to social media constantly give up the possibility of closeness or intimacy with a special few in order to make weak connections with hundreds of “friends.”
      3. Turkle believes the ability to feel what others feel is developed through face-to-face conversations, not through social media.


CHANGE TO View by Type

Resources
by Theory














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).


Social Information Processing Theory
Joseph Walther

INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION: RELATIONSHIP DEVELOPMENT


  1. Introduction.
    1. Rapid changes in communication technology over the past several decades have frustrated communication scholars seeking to understand what all of this means for interpersonal relationships.
    2. Walther initially developed SIP to understand how online communication shapes the development of interpersonal and group relationships.
    3. His experiments suggest that people can indeed form relationships online that are just as satisfying—in fact, sometimes even more satisfying—than their offline interactions.
  2. Online versus face-to-face: A sip instead of a gulp.
    1. Walther labeled his theory social information processing (SIP) because he believes relationships grow only to the extent that parties first gain information about each other and use that information to form impressions.
    2. It’s a chain of events that occurs regardless of the medium we’re using to communicate: we get information, we form an impression, and then the relationship grows.
    3. SIP focuses on the how the first link of the chain looks a bit different when communicating online.
    4. Although we can use these technologies to communicate with images and video, SIP focuses on online communication that is textual.
    5. Before SIP, many communication theorists shared a cues filtered out interpretation of online messages. They believed the lack of nonverbal cues would disrupt the process of gaining information and forming an impression.
    6. Flaming is use of hostile language that zings its target, creating a toxic climate for relationship development and growth.
    7. Walther doesn’t think the loss of nonverbal cues is necessarily fatal or even injurious to a well-defined impression of the other or the relational development it triggers.
    8. Two features of online communication provide a rationale for SIP theory.
      1. Verbal cues: CMC users can create fully formed impressions of others based solely on linguistic content of messages.
      2. Extended time: Though the exchange of social information is slower online versus face-to-face, over time the relationships formed are not weaker or more fragile.
  3. Verbal cues of affinity replace nonverbal cues.
    1. Based on Mehrabian’s seminal research on inconsistent messages, people gave nonverbal cues more weight when interpreting messages where verbal and nonverbal channels clash.
    2. Nonverbal cues become less powerful when they don’t conflict with the verbal message or when we’re conveying facts.
    3. Walter claims we can replace nonverbal cues with verbal messages that convey the same meaning.
    4. This ability to convert nonverbal cues into verbal meaning isn’t new; earlier examples include pen-pal relationships.
  4. Experimental support for a counter-intuitive idea
    1. Walther isn’t content to rely on anecdotes for support of his theory.
    2. Walther and his colleagues ran studies to test how online communicators pursue their social goals and if affinity can be expressed through a digital medium.
      1. In their study, the participants discussed a moral dilemma with a stranger via either online or face-to-face. The stranger was in actuality a research confederate told to pursue a specific communication goal. Half the confederates were told to interact in a friendly manner and the remaining pairs were told to interact in an unfriendly manner.
      2. The method of communication made no difference in the emotional tone perceived by the participants.
      3. Self-disclosure, praise, and explicit statements of affection successfully communicated warmth.
      4. In face-to-face interactions, participants relied on facial expression, eye contact, tone of voice, body position, and other nonverbal cues to communicate affiliation.
    3. Compared to visually-oriented channels, building warmth over texting might take longer.
  5. Extended time: The crucial variable in online communication.
    1. According to Walther, online communicators need a lot of time to build close connections.
    2. Rather than drinking a glass by taking big gulps, smaller sips will take more time.
    3. Over an extended period, the issue is not the amount of social information that can be conveyed online; rather, it’s the rate at which that information mounts up.
    4. Messages spoken in person take at least four times as long to say them online. This differential may explain why online interactions are perceived as impersonal and task-oriented.
    5. Since online exchanges convey messages more slowly, Walther advises users to send messages more often.
    6. Anticipated future interaction and chronemic cues may also contribute to intimacy on the Internet.
      1. People will trade more relational messages if they think they may meet again and this anticipated future interaction motivates them to develop the relationship.
      2. Walther believes that chronemic cues, or nonverbal indicators of how people perceive, use, or respond to issues of time, are never filtered out completely when communicating online.
    7. Walther claims that sometimes, online exchanges actually surpass the quality of relational communication that’s available when parties talk face-to-face.
  6. Hyperpersonal perspective: Closer online than in person.
    1. Walther uses the term hyperpersonal to label online relationships that are more intimate than if partners were physically together.
    2. He classifies four types of media effects that occur precisely because communicators aren’t face-to-face and have limited nonverbal cues.
      1. Sender: Selective self-presentation
        1. Through selective self-presentation, people who meet online have an opportunity to make and sustain an overwhelmingly positive impression.
        2. As a relationship develops, they can carefully edit the breadth and depth of their self-disclosure to conform to their cyber image, without worrying that nonverbal leakage will shatter their projected persona.
      2. Receiver: Overattribution of similarity
        1. Attribution is a perceptual process where we observe people’s actions and try to figure out what they’re really like.
        2. In the absence of other cues, we are likely to overattribute the information we have and create an idealized image of the sender.
      3. Channel: Communicating on your own time
        1. Many forms of online communication are asynchronous channels of communication, meaning that parties can use them nonsimultaneously—at different times.
        2. A benefit is the ability to edit when dealing with touchy issues, misunderstandings, or conflict between parties.
      4. Feedback: Self-fulfilling prophecy
        1. A self-fulfilling prophecy is the tendency for a person’s expectation of others to evoke a response from them that confirms what was anticipated.
        2. Self-fulfilling prophecy is triggered when the hyperpositive image is intentionally or inadvertently fed back to the other person.
        3. Beyond online dating, Walther suggests hyperpersonal communication may improve relationships between groups with a strong history of tension and conflict, such as Israeli Jews and Palestinian Muslims.
        4. Based on his research, Walther suggests that in order to ease tensions, communicators should focus on common tasks rather than group differences, allowing plenty of time for communication, and exclusively using text-only channels.
  7. The warranting value of information: What to trust?
    1. Hyperpersonal effects aren’t likely to occur when people don’t trust each other.
    2. Walther and his colleagues have examined how people evaluate the credibility of others through social media.
    3. Social media sites display two types of information—that controlled by the profile owner and that beyond the owner’s direct control.
    4. Walther’s investigation of the warranting value of personal information, or what he describes as “the perceived validity of information presented online with respect to illuminating someone’s offline characteristics,” examined what information is believed when posted online.
    5. Information is believed if it has warranting value. Does their online profile match their offline characteristics?
      1. Like email messages, whose content is under the sole control of the sender, information posted by a profile owner is low warrant information because he or she can manipulate it with ease.
      2. Since the profile owner can’t as easily manipulate what’s posted by friends, we’re more likely to accept such high warrant information as true.
    6. Walther’s experiments confirm that people trust high warrant information.
  8. Critique: A good objective theory in need of update.
    1. Because technology changes so rapidly, it’s difficult to craft and defend enduring theories of online communication.
    2. Yet in this train of high-tech innovation, SIP remains popular among communication scholars because it stacks up well against all the criteria for a good social science theory.
    3. However, the invention of smartphones and the subsequent explosion of social media may reduce the scope and validity of Walther’s theory.
    4. In contrast, the qualitative research of Sherry Turkle, Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, suggests that the connectivity provided by mobile phones has unanticipated consequences that Walther hasn’t addressed in the two decades since he crafted his theory.
    5. She’s convinced this continuous distraction [by mobile technology] deflects us from that which makes us truly human—conversation, intimacy, and empathy.
      1. Turkle claims that for those brought up with Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, WhatsApp and other smartphone social apps, face-to-face conversation is becoming a lost art.
      2. In their increasing flight from conversation, people who log on to social media constantly give up the possibility of closeness or intimacy with a special few in order to make weak connections with hundreds of “friends.”
      3. Turkle believes the ability to feel what others feel is developed through face-to-face conversations, not through social media.


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