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Chapter 13—Media Multiplexity Theory
- 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
- 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.
- Perhaps even more important, the theory calls attention to the number of media we use with an interpersonal partner.
- 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.
- II. Mapping our social networks
- Scholars in the cybernetic tradition think we can map out what our relationships look like in a social network.
- Social network scholars call bonds weak ties if they don’t consume much time or energy, like acquaintances, classmates, and distant relatives.
- 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.
- 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.
- Cybernetic theorists want to understand how the structure of a network shapes the flow of information and resources between people.
- When are strong ties weak, and when are weak ties strong?
- With strong ties, we experience acceptance, intimacy, and enjoyment.
- Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter claimed he wasn’t so sure that strong ties are always better than weak ties.
- 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.
- According to Granovetter, quick access to diverse information is one strength of weak ties.
- Among weak ties, bridging ties serve a particularly powerful role. They’re the ties that connect one strong tie group to another.
- 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.
- Media multiplexity: Tie strength involves the channels we use.
- 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.
- 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?”
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- The basic claim of media multiplexity theory: Tie strength drives use of multiple media.
- Claim #1: Communication content differs by tie strength, not by medium.
- Earlier theories of communication technology suggested some channels can’t effectively facilitate the ambiguous messages common in close relationships.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- In her research, Haythornthwaite has found that the medium partners use doesn’t change the topic of their talk.
- 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.
- 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.
- Claim #2: The hierarchy of media use depends on group norms.
- According to multiplexity scholars, this allocation of different channels for different kinds of ties creates a hierarchy of media use expectations.
- In such a hierarchy, members of the group use some media to communicate with all relational ties, whether weak or strong.
- But pairs with a strong tie often feel they need more private channels to sustain their relationship.
- 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.
- Claim #3: Adding and subtracting media access influences weak ties.
- Haythornthwaite would argue that the launch of Facebook created latent ties, or “connection[s] available technically, even if not yet activated socially.”
- She thinks the impact of a loss of a communication medium would depend on the strength of your tie.
- 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.
- Because strong ties tend to communicate through several media, they have built-in redundancy that can withstand the loss of a channel.
- 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.
- Are media use and tie strength always associated with each other?
- 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.
- 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.
- One such factor is medium enjoyment, or one’s preference for a specific medium, driven by the belief that it is fun and convenient.
- 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.”
- Critique: Strong on simplicity, weak on explanation and prediction.
- 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.
- “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.”
- One of the theory’s greatest strengths is its relative simplicity.
- These hypotheses are testable, and as scholars have conducted quantitative research, the numbers have tended to support the theory’s claims.
- Where the theory falters is its explanation of the data.
- Haythornthwaite seems to emphasize that tie strength drives channel expansion. Yet at other times, she acknowledges that increased communication probably strengthens the tie.
- Additional research on the theory’s causality claims could enhance the theory’s ability to predict future events.
- Despite the need for better prediction and explanation, the theory has demonstrated its practical utility.
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