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How the Internet Is Changing the Way Humans Communicate in the 21st Century

Updated on September 4, 2017
Luke Holm profile image

Luke works as a middle school English, ELD, social justice, and mindfulness teacher in the sanctuary city, San Jose, CA.

Methods of Communication: Then and Now

The methods and modes of communication are changing. Our ancestors formed relationships much differently than we do today. Conversations were based solely on verbal cues and interactions expressing vocalics (the tone of voice), proxemics (interpersonal distance), and kinesics (gestures). Verbal cues allowed people to form impressions and develop relationships with their communicators as they spoke; conversations were colloquial, and feedback was given instantly by the person to whom you were speaking.

Essentially, before the 21st century, relationships were formed in the present tense. As people socialized face-to-face, chronemic cues, “how people perceive, use, and respond to issues of time in their interaction with others” (Griffin 143), helped anticipate future interactions, and the rate of information conversed was fluent and steady.

Communication in the 21st Century

Will online communication have an adverse or positive effect on relationships being formed?

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How Social Interaction and Communication is Changing

Recently, the rise of technology has developed a new form of communication “through computer mediated communication (CMC)” (138), and beginning in the 1990's, it was shared by many. CMC creates a new form of communication which no longer allows for or requires the physical aspects of conversation. Verbal cues are replaced by nonverbal cues, and the sensations of “physical context, facial expression, tone of voice, interpersonal distance, body position, appearance, gestures, touch, and smell” (139), have become obsolete.

With these cues filtered out, scholars feared the loss of a communicative norm. “Social presence theory suggests that CMC deprives users of the sense that another actual person is involved in the interaction” (138). “Media richness theory purports that CMC bandwidth is too narrow to convey rich relational messages” (138), and a theory concentrating on the lack of social context cues in online communication claims that, “CMC users have no clue as to their relative status, and norms for interaction aren’t clear, so people tend to become more self absorbed and less inhibited” (138).

Physical cues are lost when dealing with CMC, but in place of these missing attributes, comes a new mental formation of how to perceive the related information...

Joseph Walther's Social Information Processing Theory

As sociologists study the effects of CMC (computer mediated communication) and its relation to a new age of communication, will they find that it has an adverse change on the conversations and relationships being produced through CMC, or will it have a motivating effect on future interactions in a quickly changing world?

Before it is suggested that verbal conversation is coming to an end, “remember that prior to electronic communication, people developed pen-pal relationships by discovering similarities and expressing affection through the written word alone” (Walther, Griffin 140).

The social information processing theory, which was created by Joseph Walther, allows for relationships to grow as the parties first gain information about each other, and use the new information to create an interpersonal impression of who they are. The theory realizes that physical cues are lost when dealing with CMC, but in place of these missing attributes, comes a new mental formation of how to perceive the related information, “which exerts influence by directing attention to certain new aspects of the environment, thus increasing their saliency” (Fulk, Social Construction of Communication Technology). The new aspects of the online environment spread out the time frame of which the social information is conveyed. The new aspects allow for selective self presentation through social identity-deindividuation (SIDE), and they precipitate the anticipation of once again coming into contact with the communicative partner.

How Technology and the Internet Affects the Way Humans Interact and Communicate

Since finding time for communication can be a hard thing to do for those of tight schedules, or conflicting schedules, CMC allows “the opportunity to interact relationally without having to attend to each other at the same time” (147). This elapsed rate of time is what Walther refers to as “an asynchronous channel of communication, meaning the parties can use it non-simultaneously” (147). The “rate at which the social information accrues through different media” (148) may be a bit slower, but Walther insists that this will just boost the closeness of the relationship over time; many times creating a deeper relationship than if it was initiated socially.

Furthermore, Walther suggests that because of this increased anticipation of the decreased information, it would be wise to make up for the missed time by sending messages more often. When it comes to forming new impressions through CMC, this may seem a bit more difficult than that of a physically social conversation. “The exchange of social information through CMC is much slower than it is face-to-face, so impressions are formed at a reduced rate” (139). However, as a conversation between two people begins, a mental image of who that person is, is formed. The person begins to give attributes to their partner based on their linguistic style of writing; and while the absence of physical cues may lead people to believe there will be a lack of informative conclusion, Walther states otherwise, as he is convinced people will most likely over attribute the person they are speaking to.

As people create these images in their heads, the “Social Information Processing Theory" posits that people engage in these mental processes over and over in real time during social interactions and that within particular types of situations, individuals develop characteristic patterns of processing cues of who they believe the person to be” (Psychiatry.healthse.com). As time between messages is ultimately infinite, this allows for the composer to more thoroughly think of what his or her goal of the conversation may be, and of who he or she wants to portray themself as.

Those caught in CMC type conversations often take the interpersonal information portrayed in the letters and composite them into a mental image of each other creating an impression formation...

How Technology and the Internet Facilitates Hyperpersonal Relationships

The goal of putting out a good image leads to selective self-presentation, where the person has “an opportunity to make and sustain an overwhelmingly positive impression” (144). Those caught in CMC type conversations often take the interpersonal information portrayed in the letters and composite them into a mental image of each other creating an impression formation, these mental images are influenced by the social norms they see in the physical world around them, further leading to the curiosity and wonder of their mysterious online pen pal. “According to this theory, perceptions of the the communication task requirements, and attitudes toward communication are influenced by social norms, by actions and statements of significant attitudes of characteristics” (Karahanna, Information & Management 237), ultimately leading to relationship development.

When the relationship develops under these positive self-presented terms, “a self fulfilling prophecy is triggered, and the image is intentionally or inadvertently fed back to the other, creating the CMC equivalent of the looking glass self. The person perceived to be wonderful starts acting that way” (147). Thus, the previous question asking about this new form of communication is answered, in the realization that it does not have an adverse effect on conversations or relationships, in fact, it has a very positive effect because not only does the person prosper from a self creation of better good, but a non-physical but fully emotional relationship develops.

The heightened sense of the newly flourishing relationship still progresses forward as there is not only anticipation for the next letter, but now, anticipation to meet physically. “When this excessively positive image of others is transferred through CMC and is paired with the anticipation of future interaction, virtual partners can move into a hyperpersonal relationship” (146). A hyperpersonal relationship is often more intimate than those who developed when the partners where physically together.

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How Technology and the Internet Distorts Relationships

However, a downfall is seen while communicating via CMC when the relationships form under false pretense. In the social identity-deindividuation theory (SIDE), the CMC users too quickly overestimate their similarity with others they meet in online interest groups. The over the top identifications get out of control, and the relationships start on common interests, problems, or passions, where the individual differences are absent cues that do not get discussed until they had already formed their impressions of each other.

The “basic premise for social information processing and other social cognitive models of situations influence the related behaviors is skewed” (Lemerise, An Integrated Model of Emotion Processes and Cognition in Social Information Processing 107-118). Fortunately though, if SIDE identification occurs in a CMC based relationship, generally it can be broken off quickly and easily due to the lack of physical communication between the persons.

Online communication brings forth a whole new meaning of give and take, and as time moves on. The CMC relationship quickly grows non-verbal bonds that a physical relationship could not achieve.

Methods and Definitions of Communication are Evolving

As portrayed, this verbal-only path can be seen as having both a good and a negative influence on society. Critical views stating that the reduced rate of time experienced between the two people communicating will have a negatively adverse effect on their relationship. Walther claims the opposite. He says that CMC relationships based over time end up deepening the bonds of the relationship’s experience.

Walther's studies have shown that through an online conversation, the users experience a whole new approach to communicating with others. Due to the increased lapse of time between messages, people can more fully think out what they would like to say, and how they would like to portray themselves. “This time independence allows students to fit their online discussions around their other commitments and responsibilities” (www.oucs.ox.ac.uk). Through their new social identities, they can become as confident as they want, and as the other person perceives them with this confidence, they actually become who they convey themselves to be in the physical world.

Waiting for the arrival of the next message heightens the anticipation of actual physical meetings. The relationship brings forth a whole new meaning of give and take, and as time moves on. The CMC relationship quickly grows non-verbal bonds that a physical relationship could not achieve. The users grow to learn more about each other in a genuine sense, and respond with a fuller idea of who they want to portray themselves as.

Overall, the social information process theory does not hinder the communication of persons conversations; instead, through CMC hyperpersonal perspectives, it allows for a more thought-out feedback approach, and wonderful relationships are developed.

Joseph Walther Discusses "Social Information Processing Theory"

Bibliography

Fulk, Janet. "Social Construction of Communication Technology." The Academy of Management Journal 5th ser. 36 (1993): 921-50.

"General Developmental Theories-Social-Information-Processing Theory." Current Medical Diagnosis & Treatment in Psychiatry. 8 Sept. 05. Psychiatry.HealthSE.com. <http://psychiatry.healthse.com/>.

Karahanna, Elena. Information & Management. 4th ed. Vol. 35. Holland: Elsevier Science B.V., 1999. 237-50.

Lemerise, Elizabeth A., and William F. Arsenio. "Child Development." An Integrated Model of Emotion Processes and Cognition in Social Information Processing. 1st ed. Vol. 71. Blackwell, 2000. 107.

"Online Teaching: Tools & Projects." Computer Mediated Communication (CMC). Oct. 2008 <http://www.oucs.ox.ac.uk/ltg/projects/jtap/reports/teaching/chapter3.html>.

Walther, Joseph. "Social Information Processing Theory." A First Look At Communication Theory. By Em Griffin. 7th ed. Wheaton: McGraw Hill. 138-49.

© 2017 Luke Holm

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    • Luke Holm profile image
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      Luke Holm 2 months ago

      Jay C, I tried to write is as clearly as possible, while keeping much of the research in tact. I completely agree that writing our ideas down does clarify our beliefs and makes it easier to express the when the time comes to talk face-to-face. The research doesn't suggest that social media is bad thing, but rather that it is changing the way we view each other and present ourselves :) Thanks for reading and commenting!

      DLayne, I agree that virtual reality can be/is/will be very helpful and effective for those struggling with intense phobias. I've also heard it can be used to treat PTSD. Also, I've heard of it being used as a remediation tool for people like child molesters and drug addicts. Thanks for sharing and reading :)

    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 2 months ago from Houston, TX USA

      We small minds cannot follow all this theory. In my personal experience, I have found Hubpages beneficial to my communication. Hubpages has allowed me to write down my ideas and share them with people around the world. By writing and discussing articles on line, I have verbalized better in person.

      We know a couple of couples who have met and married through on-line dating. That is good use of social media.

      The Internet, TV and land phone have been down in Houston. I am now writing from my in-laws.

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      DLayne Lawson 2 months ago from Cincinnati, OH

      I think that future virtual reality could also be beneficial in the health field, such as for people who have phobias, fears, and panic attacks from driving on an expressway or over bridges, riding on public transportation, and riding on airplanes. With virtual reality, a person could desensitize by using virtual reality over time when they may be too frightened to desensitize in reality.

    • Luke Holm profile image
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      Luke Holm 2 months ago

      Thank you, Royce!

    • Luke Holm profile image
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      Luke Holm 2 months ago

      John, an accurate and insightful summary. I wonder what will happen when we get really good virtual reality going. If I can communicate face-to-face (in virtual reality) with anyone around the world, I wonder if I'll have time/desire to interact in real life.

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      Royce 2 months ago

      This is awesome, I love the way your mind works

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      John Hansen 2 months ago from Queensland Australia

      Very interesting, Luke. There are both positive and negatives aspects. But I feel people can learn a lot more about each other another than they would in person, however it is also much easier to deceive or form a wrong opinion.