Computer-Mediated Communication: Hyperpersonal – Walther
Walther, J. B. (1996). Computer-mediated communication: Impersonal, interpersonal, and hyperpersonal interaction. Communication Research, 23(1), 3-43.
In the last few posts, I discussed this Walther article and the ways in which computer-mediated communication (CMC) can be more impersonal than face-to-face (FtF) communication and the ways in which it can been as interpersonal as FtF. In this third (and final) post on this Walther article, I look at his consideration of the hyperpersonal perspective of CMC. This idea refers to the way in which CMC is even more personal than (surpassing the affection and emotion level of) FtF communication. He states that these situations in which we find CMC more desirable than FtF is generally in a recreational setting and relate to four different elements of the communication process: receivers, senders, characteristics of the channel, and feedback processes.
Receiver – Idealized Perception
“[U]nder certain common circumstances, CMC message receivers inflate the perceptions they form about their partners” (17). This condition is due to the fact that CMC (in the era in which Walther is writing) has no audio or video element, that is to say that the participants cannot experience each other in any live setting in which they get immediate feedback via both verbal and non-verbal cues, so they take whatever information they have and participate in an “overattribution” process in which they manufacture their own idea of the conversation participant(s) and generally do so in a positive or even idealized manner.
“Lea and Spears (1992) predict that, in the absence of FtF cues and prior personal knowledge about one’s partners, whatever subtle social context cues or personality cues are do appear in CMC take on particularly great value” (18).
Clearly at play in this formula is also what sort of information, albeit generally limited, that participants send through this media. “Not only do CMC senders overcome the limits of the media to express personal cues, they may actually do so in ways that FtF communicators cannot” (19).
Sender – Optimized Self-Presentation
When we are in a communication setting with participants we do not know, we generally try and convey the elements of ourselves in the best light possible, including personality, accomplishments, and even appearance. This is done based on a general feeling that we want people to like and appreciate us. This is not to say we communicate falseness, but rather tend to share the more positive side. “The nature of these self-presentations are, in general, socially favorable” (19). When the modes of audio and video are introduced, participants no longer question what co-participants look or sound like. However, the information that individuals share about themselves generally continues to be of a more positive nature. For example, the information that students (in the class in which I used the OVC) shared in their introduction videos and personal examples shared in weekly videos were favorable.
Walther also references the research of Chilcoat and DeWine (1985) who examined the personal perceptions of participants communicating through three different synchronous systems with varying number of cues presented (FtF, video conferencing, and audio conferencing). They found that, consistent with the cues-filtered out approach, “the fewer the number of cues in a medium, the less positive these perceptions should be. … In fact, audioconferencing partners produced higher rating of their partners’ attitude, similarity, social attractiveness, and physical attractiveness than did those using video or FtF” (21).
Communicating without video and audio (without the physical/non-verbal cues), we are also able to communicate without having to focus on all of the physical aspects of our appearance and mannerisms that must be maintained in most FtF social settings. “In CMC, there is no need physically to backchannel, hold in one’s waist, nod, smile, remember to “look interested,” and so on” (22).
Characteristics of the Channel
In this section, Walther refers to the characteristics of the asynchronous channel of communication. A concern about communication, particularly task-oriented communication is one of temporality. In the workplace, academic setting, and in general, people are busy. We all have limited time and attention to interact with others. One feature of the asynchronous communication channel is a temporal benefit. “When communication does not require partners’ simultaneous attention, individuals take part in their group’s activities at time intervals of their own convenience” (24). However, a point to note of this condition, which has both positive and negative consequences, is that in an asynchronous setting, participation can become discretionary. When individuals are allowed to contribute at their own convenience, such participation does not always occur. This is beneficial if the conversation is, for example, a meeting for which the attendance of a particular individual might not have been essential. However, it also increases the ease with which an individual might decide not to communicate. Conversely, when one is expected to be somewhere at a specific time to meet with others, such as with a workplace meeting or FtF class meeting, there is a greater amount of pressure to attend and generally to participate.
Another benefit of asynchronous communication, as I have discussed in the past, is that participants can take more time to respond. FtF communication requires “heightened levels of psychic, sensory, and emotional involvement and arousal, increased cognitive load, competing conversational and relational demands, differential salience of context cues (Burgoon & Walther, 1990, p. 258). … Alternatively, in asynchronous interaction one may plan, contemplate, and edit one’s comments more mindfully and deliberatively than can in more spontaneous, simultaneous talk (Hiemstra, 1982)” (25-26).
In concluding the article (look back to this and my two previous posts on Impersonal and Interpersonal interaction), Walther comments on when mediated interaction is impersonal, interpersonal, or hyperpersonal. Essentially, mediated interaction is rarely impersonal; while it is generally lacking non-verbal cues, participants can still communicate in a personal manner. When it is impersonal, it is usually intentional and has its benefits. Mediated interaction is interpersonal when “users have the time to exchange information, to build impressions, and to compare values,” which is true of FtF communication as well. Mediated interaction is hyperpersonal when “users experience commonality and are self-aware, physically separated, and communicating via a limited-cues channel that allows them to selectively self-present and edit” (33).