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Media Multiplexity Theory
Caroline Haythornthwaite

INTERPERSONAL COMMUNICATION: RELATIONSHIP MAINTENANCE


Chapter Outline 11th Edition

  1. Introduction.
  1. Caroline Haythornthwaite found that the number of media we use in a relationship often reveals the kind of bond we have with that person.
  2. Media multiplexity theory rests on a consistent empirical finding: the stronger the relational tie we have with a person, the more media we use with that person.
  3. Haythornthwaite took a cybernetic approach to understanding how and why we use different communication channels
  1. 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 deep friends demand that we make a significant investment in the relationship.
  4. Sociologist Mark Granovetter offered a more formal definition of tie strength, claiming it is 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.
  1. 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.
  1. The five propositions of media multiplexity theory.
  1. Proposition #1: Tie strength is positively associated with media multiplexity.
  1. 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?”
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  1. Proposition #2: Communication content differs by tie strength, not by medium.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Earlier in her research, Haythornthwaite has found that the medium partners use doesn’t change the topic of their talk.
  4. With many more and varied channels, some scholars think this proposition may not always hold true.
  5. Samuel Hardman Taylor speculates this allocation may occur due to the affordances of the channel, or the properties of the channel that enable or constrain certain actions.
  1. Proposition #3: Tie strength and media use cause one another over time.
  1. According to media multiplexity theory, media use and tie strength cause each other.
  2. Weak ties are uncomplicated and don’t need many channels to sustain them. Stronger ties require more media to orchestrate their varied and interdependent connections.
  1. Proposition #4: Changes in the media landscape particularly influence weak ties.
  1. Media multiplexity thory recognizes that sometimes we lose the ability to communicate through a channel.
  2. 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.”
  1. Proposition #5: Groups have hierarchies of media use expectations.
  1. Allocation of different channels for different kinds of times creates a hierarchy of media use expectations.
  2. To Haythornthwaite, there is nothing sacred about the hierarchy of media use.
  3. Andrew Ledbetter and Samuel Hardman Taylor found that changes in media channel usage is viewed as a violation by family members.
  1. Ethical reflection: Turkle’s reclaiming conversation
  1. Media multiplexity theory treats channels as interchangeable—what we can communicate across one medium, we can find a way to communicate in another.
  2. What matters is the number of channels used, not the nature of those channels.
  3. Sherry Turkle is concerned that the connectivity provided by mobile technologies has unanticipated negative consequences for the health of interpersonal relationships.
  4. She is convinced the continuous distraction of mobile technology deflects from that which makes us truly human—conversation, intimacy, and empathy.
  5. The devices that allow us to talk to people everywhere may hinder our ability to connect with those who are right here, right now.
  1. 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. Another concern about explanation of the data involves the theory’s boundary conditions. Media multiplexity might not occur in certain types of relationships.
  8. Additional research on the theory’s causality claims could enhance the theory’s ability to predict future events.
  9. Despite the need for better prediction and explanation, the theory has demonstrated its practical utility.

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resources. Read more





VIDEOS








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


Chapter Outline 11th Edition

  1. Introduction.
  1. Caroline Haythornthwaite found that the number of media we use in a relationship often reveals the kind of bond we have with that person.
  2. Media multiplexity theory rests on a consistent empirical finding: the stronger the relational tie we have with a person, the more media we use with that person.
  3. Haythornthwaite took a cybernetic approach to understanding how and why we use different communication channels
  1. 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 deep friends demand that we make a significant investment in the relationship.
  4. Sociologist Mark Granovetter offered a more formal definition of tie strength, claiming it is 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.
  1. 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.
  1. The five propositions of media multiplexity theory.
  1. Proposition #1: Tie strength is positively associated with media multiplexity.
  1. 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?”
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  1. Proposition #2: Communication content differs by tie strength, not by medium.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Earlier in her research, Haythornthwaite has found that the medium partners use doesn’t change the topic of their talk.
  4. With many more and varied channels, some scholars think this proposition may not always hold true.
  5. Samuel Hardman Taylor speculates this allocation may occur due to the affordances of the channel, or the properties of the channel that enable or constrain certain actions.
  1. Proposition #3: Tie strength and media use cause one another over time.
  1. According to media multiplexity theory, media use and tie strength cause each other.
  2. Weak ties are uncomplicated and don’t need many channels to sustain them. Stronger ties require more media to orchestrate their varied and interdependent connections.
  1. Proposition #4: Changes in the media landscape particularly influence weak ties.
  1. Media multiplexity thory recognizes that sometimes we lose the ability to communicate through a channel.
  2. 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.”
  1. Proposition #5: Groups have hierarchies of media use expectations.
  1. Allocation of different channels for different kinds of times creates a hierarchy of media use expectations.
  2. To Haythornthwaite, there is nothing sacred about the hierarchy of media use.
  3. Andrew Ledbetter and Samuel Hardman Taylor found that changes in media channel usage is viewed as a violation by family members.
  1. Ethical reflection: Turkle’s reclaiming conversation
  1. Media multiplexity theory treats channels as interchangeable—what we can communicate across one medium, we can find a way to communicate in another.
  2. What matters is the number of channels used, not the nature of those channels.
  3. Sherry Turkle is concerned that the connectivity provided by mobile technologies has unanticipated negative consequences for the health of interpersonal relationships.
  4. She is convinced the continuous distraction of mobile technology deflects from that which makes us truly human—conversation, intimacy, and empathy.
  5. The devices that allow us to talk to people everywhere may hinder our ability to connect with those who are right here, right now.
  1. 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. Another concern about explanation of the data involves the theory’s boundary conditions. Media multiplexity might not occur in certain types of relationships.
  8. Additional research on the theory’s causality claims could enhance the theory’s ability to predict future events.
  9. Despite the need for better prediction and explanation, the theory has demonstrated its practical utility.

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