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Relational Communication in Computer-Mediated Interaction

Walther, J.B. & Burgoon, J.K. (1992). Relational communication in computer-mediated interaction. Human Communication Research, 19, 50-88.

This comparison between computer conferencing and face-to-face communication found that CMC’s relational dimensions were similar to that of FTF, a finding that departed from previous research suggesting that CMC had depersonalizing effects on communication due to the absence of nonverbal cues (e.g., Hiltz, Johnson, & Turoff, 1986). This article points out that CMC, as a medium, is not inherently impersonal, but rather is affected by “specifiable conditions and kinds of partners? (p. 52).

Importantly, this research adopted an alternative theoretical perspective—social information-processing vs. “cues filtered out,? the dominant theory at the time. Cues filtered out theory explained CMC’s low SE by attributing the technology with a restrictive quality. Social information-processing, on the other hand, acknowledges time as a factor in relational development; because CMC groups typically require a longer time to communicate than FTF groups, CMC and FTF have differing rates of social information exchange. Addressing the shortcomings of time-limited experiments, which may not provide ample opportunity for development of interpersonal relations between users, the authors conducted a longitudinal study (as did Rice & Love, 1987, whose results also indicated greater levels of socioemotional content in CMC than previously reported).

Results offered mixed support for the study’s 13 hypotheses; however, it was found that “CMC groups do develop and evolve in relationally positive directions. Participants’ ratings of one another’s composure/relaxation, informality, receptivity/trust, and social (versus task) orientation became higher during their progressions; dominance became lower" (p. 76). In particular, the study found that the effects of time were stronger than the effects of medium—initial differences in relational communication between CMC and FTF tended to be eliminated over time. The authors conclude with suggestions that further research address not only the abilities of the medium, but the effects of users’ intentions, needs, and styles as determinants of relational communication in CMC.