SOCIAL INFORMATION PROCESSING THEORY
What is Social Information Processing Theory?
Social information processing theory (SIP) was initially developed by Joesph Walther to explain how people build relationships over communication technologies, such as email, in the early 1990’s. Since the development of this theory the options for computer-mediated communication (CMC) have changed dramatically. With additional communication technologies being developed, Walther’s theory still holds strong and “the theory remains one of the most helpful explanations for why and how people form relationships online” (Griffin, Ledbetter & Sparks, 2015, p. 121). Social information processing theory makes the claim that people engaging in CMC can effectively develop relationships online by adapting to the lack of nonverbal communication that occurs in face-to-face interactions. In Walther’s mind there is equal motivation in establishing and maintaining online relationships as there is in face-to-face relationships. “This desire is satisfied in spite of absence of nonverbal communication through the substitution of messages that carry impression-formation and expression-delivery information with those suitable for and available through CMC” (Heinemann, 2011, p. 183-184). According to social information processing theory, with enough time online relationships can be constructed and maintained just as effectively as face-to-face relationship.
Timeline of Social Information Processing Theory
How a Social Information Processing Theorist Thinks
A communication theorist needs to look critically at a theory to assess its positive aspects and limitations. Some of the limitations of social information processing (SIP) theory are listed below, so I would like to point out some of the positive aspects that influence how a SIP theorist thinks. The theory holds all the criteria of a good social science theory. “It offers specific, quantitatively testable hypothesis about a relatively simple set of variables” (Griffin et al., 2015, p. 130). SIP theory has been able to predict behavior we see throughout media that was not even invented when the theory was developed. Communication scholars have found the social information processing theory to hold up and be useful for understanding why people use texting, social media, and other online media sources to build relationships (Griffin et al., 2015, p. 122).
A social information processing (SIP) theorist also looks for how the theory can be applied to real life interactions and situations. These interactions can be seen as CMC users create impressions of another person solely based on the linguistic content of an online message (Griffin et al., p. 123). The use of verbal linguistic cues replace the missing non-verbal cues that occur in face-to-face communication. Even though communicators form impressions at a slower rate through text-only CMC, there is no reason to believe that these interactions are any weaker than those impressions developed with the benefit of nonverbal cues (Griffin et al., p. 123). SIP theorists note that humans have a need for affiliation and this does not change nor weaken when communicating online. People can adapt their communication to build connections when they lack face-to-face interaction by utilizing the written word to convey emotion. The interchangeability of verbal and non-verbal cues allows relationships to strengthen and build online. “SIP claims that CMC users can get to know each other and develop a mutual affinity by using the medium’s available cues to manage relational development. The process will probably take longer than face-to-face bonding, but there’s no reason to believe the relationship will be any less personal” (Griffin et al., 2015, p. 126). Any theorist with an email address, social media or Pinterest board can witness their own relationships being built online.
Walther’s hyperpersonal perspective claims that “CMC relationships are often more intimate than those developed when partners are physically together” (Griffin et al., 2015, p. 127). As a theorist evaluates SIP, I think it is crucial to look at the ethical elements of online relationships. Self-presentation allows people to put forth a positive self-image. The time and space provided by CMC can be a great benefit if someone is revealing a positive part of their personality they may hide in face-to-face communication, but it can also bring about the question of authenticity. “Attribution is the perceptual process whereby we observe what people do and then try to figure out what they’re really like” (Griffin et al., 2015, p. 127). Communicators use whatever cues are available to develop impressions of others and often these impressions are confirmed by the senders response through self-fulfilling prophecy.
Here is the simple breakdown of the process and helps us understand how a theorist thinks:
“Senders self-select what they reveal, receivers create an idealized image of their partner, and the channel lets users express themselves the way they want, when they want” (Griffin et al., 2015, p. 129).
Theorists can also explain the SIP theory and online interactions by using the classic communication model of sender-receiver-channel-feedback. When critically assessing a theory, it is important to find ways to connect a theory to overarching communication methods and understandings. SIP is can be connected to communication concepts by the ways the theory applies cues (verbal for non-verbal), models of communication (sender-receiver-channel-feedback) and written language.
Communication, Leadership and Social Information Processing Theory
Communication and leadership are deeply intertwined. Clear, concise and accurate communication is necessary for leadership. Leaders will struggle if they lack communication skills. When applying the social information processing theory (SIP) to leadership, there are several aspects of the theory that can be applied. The benefit of communicating on your own time allows a leader the space they need to respond not react. In a face-to-face interaction, sometimes words can be said in the heat of the moment that may cause a leader to lose credibility due to a lack of self-control. Online computer-mediated communication (CMC) allows the time and space for the communicator to carefully craft their message and possibly pause before hitting send on an email. When face-to-face interaction is removed, time is allotted for a respectful and beneficial response to confrontation.
Options for connecting online have vastly changed over the past decade. Online opportunities for leadership have also increased on social media platforms. For example, the more followers an Instagram account has the more influence is created, but with the influence and followers comes great responsibility. Not every online leader uses their platform for good, but there are many who feel the weight of their leadership role. The online influencers who lead well often project an authentic, thoughtful persona. The influencers I personally follow choose to expose the glamorous things of life along with the mundane and real parts of life. When I see authenticity, I find the online influencer more credible. They are crafting a message and often times trying to sell something, whether it be a product or a brand, and in doing so they apply communication theory. As online influencers communicate through text and pictures, they are able to “engage in SIPT’s knowledge-generating strategies by compensating for a lack of nonverbal cues with linguistic content that expresses nonverbal communication” (Heinemann, 2011, p. 185). Carefully crafted words and the addition of emojis can add impact when building online relationships. The challenging part of online relationships today, especially on Instagram, is the one-sided aspect of the relationship. As someone who desires to build authentic relationships online, I must be aware of this aspect and consider how I can also connect with followers so there is a mutual relationship being built.
Evidence & Data
How evidence and data are used to support the social information processing theory
What are the limitations of the social information processing theory?
Applying the Social Information Processing Theory to Life: A case study
One of my goals and dreams is to speak and write. My dream job would be to travel to different events and preach from the Bible and then write books about my life experiences and what God is teaching me through the Bible. An online presence is a key aspect to building credibility, exposure and followers. For years I have blogged off and on, but I never put out consistent content and did not put much effort into finding followers. As I want to push my goal forward, I can see how applying the social information processing theory will be of benefit to me as I build online relationships.
My audience is primarily women and I have the most experience speaking at events for women. I can apply social information processing (SIP) theory to my website that I have developed. I believe apply the overarching concept of SIP that deep relationships can be built online that I can increase my exposure beyond my current city. One of the advantages to online communication is anyone can access your website or social media anywhere in the world. I desire that my website be a place where people can screen me as a potential speaker and get to know who I am as a person. I have re-created my “about” page that currently sits on my website. You can find my entire website at ruthzylka.com if you would like to take a look at what I have up now. For the purpose of this project, I wanted to focus on specific elements of my profile page that I believe apply SIP theory. The profile page is my homepage and ways to engage with me online. Click the link below to view my profile page and a link will be provided at the end of the profile page to bring you back to my main project page.
I believe that social information processing theory and its claim of beneficial online relationship development can be an encouragement to me as I build my website. In my self-presentation, I need to ensure that I am being authentic in the blog posts I write, the pictures I post on Instagram and the information I post on my website. The information I have learned from researching SIP has given me confidence as I work to build relationships online. I desire to expand my online network so I can increase my visibility as a speaker and book more speaking engagements.
Below is an interview of Joesph Walther by Em Griffin, author of A First Look at Communication Theory. The video can be found at https://www.afirstlook.com/theory-resources/by-type/videos and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rOXbYj0I1cE and was retrieved on July 10, 2019.
Farrer, J., & Gavin, J. (2009). Online dating in Japan: A test of social information processing theory. Cyberpsychology & Behavior: The Impact of the Internet,
Multimedia and Virtual Reality on Behavior and Society, 12(4), 407-12.
Griffin, E. [A First Look at Communication Theory]. (2014, January 29). Joseph Walther on social information processing theory [Video File]. Retrieved from
Griffin, E. A., Ledbetter, A., & Sparks, G. G. (2015). A first look at communication theory. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.
Heinemann, D. (2011). Using You’ve Got Mail to teach social information processing theory and hyperpersonal perspective in online interactions.
Communication Teacher, 25(4), 183–188. https://doi.org/10.1080/17404622.2011.601720