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Sociologists agree that the advent of the Internet has allowed people to be in contact with others whom they would not likely have met under other circumstances due to geographical distance or perceived "out-group" status. The Social Information Processing theory is one model that has been developed to explain the nature of these interactions. According to this theory, people are motivated to develop interpersonal relationships regardless of the medium and will develop strategies for overcoming the apparent lack of nonverbal cues typically found in Internet-based communication. This theory contrasts other models that suggest computer-mediated communication leads to depersonalization.
The Social Information Processing theory examines the nature of online relationships formed through work, school or social settings. Research that supports this theory indicates that even if the initial contact between individuals is task-oriented, such as in the case of an online group project for school, members will in time also develop social bonds. These bonds may take longer to develop than offline relationships, but some research indicates that the resulting emotional and social connection is no less significant.
In face-to-face interactions, people intuitively make judgments about one another through nonverbal cues, such as body language, tone of voice, and even clothing or personal appearance. Naturally, in online interactions, these particular nonverbal cues are not present, so other strategies are developed. On the Internet, factors such as word choice, frequency of communication, emoticons, etc., provide clues to the nature of a relationship and help people to develop friendships.
Online relationships, according to the Social Information Processing theory, may also involve higher levels of self-disclosure than offline relationships. For instance, a person might tell highly emotionally significant information about the death of a spouse over the Internet, whereas he or she might be less inclined to do so offline. One reason is that anonymous, online relationships are low-risk; if something goes wrong in an online relationship, it is less likely to affect the person's offline life. Secondly, people may disclose more information on the Internet to facilitate the growth of relationships in the absence of nonverbal cues. This is known as "hyperpersonalization."
Critics of the Social Information Processing theory argue that the anonymity of computer-mediated communication leads people to depersonalize both themselves and others. Anyone who has seen "trolling" — making inappropriate or offensive comments on the Internet simply for the sake of being inappropriate or offensive — can attest to the fact that this can and does happen. Some research also indicates that people do not automatically form relationships online, but that their attitude toward the medium will determine the level of relationship formed. Someone who is skeptical about computer-mediated communication will naturally not be as likely to form bonds over the Internet as someone who has a favorable attitude toward it.
I had never heard of the social information processing theory, but I think it's important that sociologists are studying the impact of social media on human relationships. It has changed us forever in good and bad ways. It's great that people can stay in touch constantly, and get to know people that they otherwise may have never had the chance to meet. On the other hand, in a way, social media has eliminated a lot of in-person, human contact which is unfortunate.