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Social Information Processing Theory (SIP) is an interpersonal communication theory developed by Joseph Walther in 1992 [1], explaining how people get to know one another online, without nonverbal cues, and how they develop and manage internet relationships in the computer-mediated environment. [1][2] However, online interpersonal interpersonal relationship development may require more time to develop than traditional face-to-face (FtF) relationships. Once established, online personal relationships may demonstrate the same relational dimensions and qualities as FtF relationships. Online relationships may help facilitate relationships that would not have formed in the face-to-face world due to intergroup differences, geographic challenges, etc.

A Theory of Online Communication[edit | edit source]

The nature of online interaction is a highly studied field that has experienced both positive and negative media ecology. While the earliest theories focused on the negative aspects of online communication - frequently depicting online communication as extremely impersonal - more recent theories have developed an increasingly optimistic view of online communication - explaining how those who interact online are highly capable of creating and maintaining impressions and relationships with others online.

Walther built SIP upon the larger notion of computer-mediated communication (CMC), or nonverbal communication transactions that occur through the use of two or more networked computers [3] While the term has traditionally referred to those communications that occur via computer-mediated formats (e.g., instant messages, e-mails, chat rooms), it has also been applied to other forms of text-based interaction such as text messaging.[4] Walther understood that the mediated nature of online communication required a new theory to describe it. [1]

CMC versus FtF[edit | edit source]

Social Information Processing Theory (SIP) endorses online communication. SIP proposes that despite the inherent lack of cues found in the nonverbal communication of online interactions, there are many other ways for people to create and process personal, or individualized, information.[5] Instead, people seek out and interpret cues that serve as substitutes of nonverbal communication, such as use of emoticons and time stamps.[6] Several comparable aspects - such as replaced cues, asynchronous communication, insightful interaction, desire for impression management, and maintained partner affinity - are all in support of SIP as a comporable, if not improved, alternative of FtF communication. One highlight of online communication is it’s asynchronous nature, in which one can carefully create and craft messages. Walther sites this as a key factor in both understanding the benefits of online interaction, as well as helping to determine whether their messages can achieve the level of intimacy that others develop face-to-face. Because the sender of a message does not exude natural nonverbal cues, one can manage attitudes omit in CMC. Another study compared 10 minutes of FtF conversation with 40 minutes of CMC and found no difference in partner affinity between the two modes.[7] Walther also found that, proportionately, CMC partners ask more questions and disclose more about themselves than do their face-to-face counterparts. In this way, CMC may actually improve or assist FtF interactions. [8] Finally, similarto FtF interaction, people motivated in online interactions with others also wish to "reduce interpersonal uncertainty, form impressions, and develop affinity."[1]

Example[edit | edit source]

  • A blind date: Imagine two people are being sent on a blind date by their friends. The date is scheduled three weeks in advance, so the friends give the two people going on the blind date each others' email addresses so they can get to know each other a little before the date. One initiates and sends the other an email, and after a couple of days they slowly begin to disclose information. Each person has the ability to carefully craft their message to the other, and to edit how much information to disclose to one another. With these initial conversations occurring over the internet, many of the initial uncertainties they have about meeting each other may be dissipated. Over the three week time period, the two people can grow close and be excited to meet each other, so when they do meet, the atmosphere will not be awkward but instead, the two people can feel like friends.

Criticisms[edit | edit source]

Despite the fact that social information processing theory offers a more optimistic perspective through which to perceive of and analyze online interactions, the theory is not without its criticisms. Even though Walther[1] proposes that users of computer-mediated communication (CMC) have the same interpersonal needs met as those communicating face-to-face (FtF), he proposes that the lack of visual cues inherent in CMC are disadvantages to be overcome over time.[5] Thus, more time is needed for interactants to get to know one another - although he maintains that the same intimacy can be reached, just over a longer amount of time.[1]

Furthermore, many of Walther's initial hypotheses relied on the assumption that positive social behaviors would be greater in FtF interactions than those in CMC. In a 1995 study, Walther used this hypothesis but added that any initial differences in socialness between the two media would disappear in time.[9] Walther was surprised to find that his results turned out to be contrary to this prediction. The results showed that, regardless of time-scale, CMC groups were rated higher in most measures of relational communication than those participating in the FtF condition.[9]

New Technologies[edit | edit source]

The label 'social media' has been attached to a quickly growing number of Web sites whose content is primarily user-driven.[10]. These communities are large-scale examples of SIP. Navigating the 'social' word of information online is largely a product of interpersonal connections online, and has prompted the creaton of aggregating or collaborative sources to help assist collective groups of people sort through inforamtion. Learning about others through the concept of "seamless sharing" opens another word for SIP. Some computer tools that facilitate this process are:

The process of learning from and connecting with others has not changed, but instead manifested to the internet. These resources allow for people to connect and relationships to develop in methods alternative to the traditional FtF-exclusive past.

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 Walther, Joseph B. (1992). Interpersonal effects in computer-mediated interaction: A relational perspective.. Communication Research 19 (1): 52-90.
  2. Olaniran, Bolanle A. "Social Information Processing Theory (SIPT): A Cultural Perspective for International Online Communication Environments." IGI Global (2011): 45-46. IGI Global, 2011. Web. 25 Nov. 2011.<>.
  3. McQuail, Denis. (2005). Mcquail's Mass Communication Theory. 5th ed. London: SAGE Publications.
  4. Thurlow, C., Lengel, L. & Tomic, A. (2004). Computer mediated communication: Social interaction and the internet. London: Sage.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Walther, J. B., & Parks, M. (2002). Cues filtered out, cues filtered in. Handbook of interpersonal communication. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  6. Walther, Joseph B. "Selective Self-presentation in Computer-mediated Communication: Hyperpersonal Dimensions of Technology, Language, and Cognition." Elsvier 23 (2007): 2538-557. Science Direct, 30 June 2006. Web. 27 Nov. 2011. <>.
  7. Griffin, Emory A. "Ch. 11: Social Information Processing Theory." A First Look at Communication Theory. 7th ed. Boston: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2009. 138-47. Print.
  8. Farrer, James, and Jeff Gavin. "Online Dating in Japan: A Test of Social Information Processing Theory." CyberPsychology & Behavior 12.4 (2009): 407-08. EBSCO Host. Web. 25 Nov. 2011. <>.
  9. 9.0 9.1 Joinson, Adam. (2003). Understanding the psychology of Internet behavior. Palgrave Macmillan.
  10. Lerman, Kristina Social Information Processing. Google. URL accessed on November 2011.

Further reading[edit | edit source]

  • Chi, Ed H., " Augmenting Social Cognition: From Social Foraging to Social Sensemaking," (video) (at Google), February 2007. (pdf), AAAI Symposium, March 2008, (video) (at PARC), May 2008.
  • Denning, Peter J., "Infoglut," ACM, July. 2006.
  • Nielsen, Michael, Kasparov versus the World. A blog post about a 1999 chess game in which Garry Kasparov (eventually) won a game against a collective opponent.
  • Smith, M., Purser, N. and Giraud-Carrier, C. (2008). Social Capital in the Blogosphere: A Case Study. In Papers from the AAAI Spring Symposium on Social Information Processing, K. Lerman et al. (Eds.), Technical Report SS-08-06, AAAI Press, 93-97.
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