Social Presence Theory

Cues-filtered-out approach: A perspective on CMC that says the Internet is inferior as a channel for communication because of a lack of nonverbal cues. In this approach, there is less information exchanged between people, then, it is not surprising that some would find this medium more impersonal compared to the richness of face-to face interaction.


Initial research into interaction using computer networks seemed to confirm that this cues-filtered-out quality led to an impersonal perception of CMC. Social presence is the degree to which we as individuals perceive another as a real person and any interaction between the two of us as a relationship. Social presence theory suggests that different media convey different degrees of perceived substance to an interaction. The degree of the connection is based on the amount of nonverbal information available to the receiver through any particular channel.

Thus, you might feel a certain degree of social presence while listening to your favorite morning radio personality. The nonverbal qualities of his voice might suggest to you that this person is fun, sharp-witted, and engaging. You might even faithfully tune into his show, and only his show, because you want to maintain loyalty to him. Even though the two of you have never met, and he is certainly not physically present, you still have a sense, listening to him, that he is “there” with you. Consider how much more nonverbal information is available about your favorite television personality. Is it any wonder people begin to feel that they know the actors they watch on a weekly basis? In contrast, think of how much social presence you feel when reading your local newspaper. Few of us identify with our local journalists as strongly as we do with radio and television personalities, and according to social presence theory, that is because we lack sufficient cues to prompt us to perceive the reporters as “real” as we do the broadcasters.

In comparison to other media for interpersonal interaction, then, computer mediated channels would provide less presence than other channels. Rice found that people perceived that the appropriateness of using a channel such as e-mail corresponded to the amount of social presence required for successful completion of the task. Hence, users rated tasks like exchanging information and asking questions as a highly appropriate use of the computer network. Such tasks require less social presence than some others. On the other hand, users rated tasks like resolving disagreements and persuading others as inappropriate to communicate online. Because the participants apparently believed that these tasks require more of a perception of social presence in order to be effective, they would be more likely to choose another medium for exchanging these messages.

Further research corroborated the assertion that the quality of social presence factors into people’s choices among communication media. In a survey of college students, Lisa Flaherty, Kevin Pearce, and Rebecca Rubin (1998) conclude that people do not necessarily use computer-mediated channels for the same purposes as they do the face-to-face channel. Hence, they assert that the Internet and face-to-face communication are not functional alternatives. In the process of constructing their survey, they identified six commonly accepted motivations for human interaction: inclusion, affection, control, pleasure, relaxation, and escape. What they found was that there were statistically significant differences for people’s motivations when it came to choosing channels. Only the motivation of pleasure was rated as comparably high between the Internet and face-to-face communication, meaning that people turned to both of them for the enjoyment they derived from interacting with other people.

For the remaining motives, however, people chose one channel over another to fulfill specific needs, and generally people preferred face-to-face interaction to meet their other needs. For example, their research implied that a lonely worker is more likely to join his or her coworkers in the lunch room than to log onto a chat room in order to fulfill his or her need for inclusion. The results of this study suggest that the Internet and face-to-face communication are specialized channels, meaning, quite simply, that people choose them to fulfill particular needs. Consequently, a person might turn to the Internet if he or she wants to enjoy some conversation, but the same individual would seek out a physical presence for affection.

Social presence theory offers one possible explanation for why some people may find online communication impersonal. Because many computer-mediated channels provide fewer nonverbal cues to interpret the meaning of messages, the relatively “lean” messages they deliver can be perceived as less personal. People who prefer the nods, smiles, and touches that can accompany a face-to-face interaction would probably find little warmth in the phosphorescent glow of the computer screen. However, social presence is not the only theory that sides with an impersonal perspective on CMC.