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Social presence theory
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Social presence theory was developed by John Short, Ederyn Williams, and Bruce Christie,
although its main thesis and major points would appear to have been first described twenty years
previously in the 1956 Isaac Asimov novel: "The Naked Sun".
2 Emergence of the Social Presence Theory
6 See also
8 External links
Social presence theory classifies different communication media along a one-dimensional continuum
of social presence, where the degree of social presence is equated to the degree of awareness of
the other person in a communication interaction (Sallnas, Rassmus-Grohn, & Sjostrom, 2000).
According to social presence theory, communication is effective if the communication medium has
the appropriate social presence required for the level of interpersonal involvement required for a
task. On a continuum of social presence, the face-to-face medium is considered to have the most
social presence, and written, text-based communication the least. It is assumed in social presence
theory that in any interaction involving two parties, both parties are concerned both with acting out
certain roles and with developing or maintaining some sort of personal relationship. These two
aspects of any interaction are termed interparty and interpersonal exchanges (Short, Williams, &
Emergence of the Social Presence Theory
As computer-mediated communication has evolved a more relational view of social presence has
emerged. Social presence has come to be viewed as the way individuals represents themselves in
their online environment. It’s a personal stamp that indicates that the individual is available and
willing to engage and connect with other persons in their online community. Social presence is
demonstrated by the way messages are posted and how those messages are interpreted by others.
Social presence defines how participants relate to one another which in turn affects their ability to
communicate effectively (Kehrwald, 2008).
Seldom, if ever, do traditional curriculum designers intentionally consider social presence in course
design. Face-to-face (F2F) courses with their groupings of people in the same place at the same
time, their reliance on communication skills used in daily life, and their delivery of sight, sound, smell
(and maybe touch – let’s hope not taste) awareness of others sharing space inherently provide an
awareness of the presence of others among members. While in itself this produces awareness of
others, we may only loosely call it social presence. However, for most, it suffices. For online courses,
the opposite is generally true.
The lack of cues for the physical presence of others in an online classroom and the lack of passive
connection between users brought about by technology that facilitates discussion but not connection
across distances requires designers and teachers to account for and construct replicates of these in
an online classroom. And while there still exists F2F curriculum wherein the development of social
presence is left to happenstance, there is no room between success and failure in an online course
when it comes to the need to develop social presence. Studies have found that academic
performance can actually be inhibited due to lack of social presence in online classrooms. Without
social presence learning interaction suffers, which has negative effects on learning performance
(Wei, Chen, & Kinshuk, 2012).
However, more recent developments in online education combine the use of both asynchronous
(preproduced content accessed individually by students on the web) and synchronous (real -time,
simultaneous live connections of students together) components. Depending on the technology
used, synchronous sessions can provide both audio and video connection, allowing an interchange
involving both sight and sound, and all the rich nonverbal communication inherent in tone of voice
and facial expression. While smell, taste and touch remain inaccessible still, the look, actions and
sound of one's colleagues now readily are. And as result, a much more full social interchange is
possible with the potential to greatly increase social presence.
Trying to define social presence is a difficult matter as researchers are not in agreement themselves
over what this phenomenon encompasses. There is no consistent definition for social presence
within research literature yet. Social presence has been defined as “a measure of the feeling of
community that a learner experiences in an online environment” (Tu and McIssac, 2002). Other
researchers have defined social presence as the awareness of others in an interaction combined
with an appreciation of the interpersonal aspects of that interaction (Short, Williams, and Christie,
1976; Rice, 1993; Walther, 1992). Gunawardena (1995) argued that social presence varied in
perception and was a subjective issue based upon objective qualities. Yet in spite of these
variations, the role of social presence in the success of students is agreed upon and the need to
design for it is in agreement.
Looking deeper in to the definitions and explanations of social presence, researchers have offered
that social presence is more of a combination of factors that present themselves in a way so as to
develop greater intimacy within a group that has a positive effect on the individual’s affective filters.
Several researchers have suggested that intimacy and immediacy are contributing factors to social
presence with intimacy defined as a measure of communication involving eye contact, proximity and
body language (Argyle and Dean, 1965; Burgeoon, et al., 1984) and immediacy defined as the
psychological distance between two parties that is conveyed through verbal and nonverbal cues in
speech (Walther, 1992).
Social presence was originally studied in connection with F2F, audio and interactive television
encounters. The emergence of computer-mediated communication (CMC) in education and training
provided an entirely new series of variables and characteristics to already existing social presence
models that hitherto had not been encountered. How this new medium of connection and
communication interacted with existing models and how the understanding of social presence up to
that point played into providing quality in distance learning opened new research as the century
turned. Our understanding of what it is and what its role is continues to grow. Yet in spite of our
growing understanding of social presence, we do know that its role in distance learning is significant,
its ignorance can be catastrophic, and its effective incorporation in online learning remarkable.
Social presence is a significant feature for improving instructional effectiveness in any setting, and
one of the most significant features of distance education. Tu (2000,2001) argued that within
distance learning, social presence rests upon three dimensions, social context, online
communication, and interactivity. Social contexts contribute to a predictable degree of perceived
social presence. Social contexts involve task orientation (Steinfield, 1986), privacy (Steinfield, 1986),
topics (Argyle and Dean, 1965; Walther, 1992), social relationships (Walther, 1992) and social
process (Walther, 1992). As an example, when a conversation is task based and public without a
sense of community being in place, the perception of social presence is low and affective filter (a
communication blockage brought about by negative emotional feelings) is high.
Steinfield (1986) found that task complexity, interdependence, uncertainty and perceived need to
communicate over distances were positively associated with increasing online communication.
Walther (1992) argued that social relationships could stimulate changes in discourse as well. In
examining text-based CMC (e-mails) of conference participants, Walther found that participants
began developing impressions of other participants from their communications. These impressions
developed into visual interpretations of the other, developed a sense of intimacy and identification
between participants, which led to greater perceptions of social presence.
Gunawardena (1991) argued that a purely text-based communication system (e-mail, discussion
boards and chat) rests upon the assumption that people using such a system have already
developed a level of comfort with the technology that allow the person to effectively use it. This
assumption repeatedly proves to be a false assumption to all online instructors. Gunawardena
argued further that text-based communications should account for not all users having a level of
comfort in its use. Courses or conferences that will rely heavily on such a system for communication
should begin with light and casual conversation in areas that the user has a lot of familiarity and can
devote more resources to gaining a comfort level with the technology. Later work by Palloff and Pratt
(1999, 2003) validated Gunawardena’s recommendation in their call for establishing learning
communities among online users at the very beginning of courses. In doing so, Palloff and Pratt
argue that affective filters are lowered. While not in the same words, they hint to the building of
Finally, interactivity involves the activities and communication styles online users engage in. Norton
(1986) identified eleven communication styles that can be associated with online communications
(impression-leaving, contentious, open, dramatic, dominant, precise, relaxed, friendly, attentive,
animated, and image). What style participants use in communicating, especially the style teachers
use, will impact social presence. Too much rigidity to one style alone or poor use of all styles in the
facilitation of conversations will have a negative effect on social presence.
In their 2002 study on social presence, Tu and McIssac declared, “Social presence positively
influences online instruction; however, frequency of participation does not represent high social
presence.” In both a quantitative and qualitative analysis of 51 volunteers ’ interactions, Tu and
McIssac found that social context was more qualitative (a learned skill set rather than a prescriptive
set of actions) to achieve positive impact, online communication was more strongly related to
quantifiable and organizational skills of participants, and that interactivity was a combination of skill
sets and communication styles used in combination. As a result, Tu and McIssac identified the
following variables that had strong positive effects on the fueling or perception of social presence.
Variables Identified in Data from Tu and McIssac (2002)
Variables I. Social Context
1 Familiarity with recipients
Use of emoticons and
Characteristics of real-time
Length of messages
4 Trust relationships
Social relationships (love and
Language skills (writing
Type of tasks (planning,
creativity, social tasks)
Psychological attitude toward
Size of groups
7 Access and location Communication strategies
8 User characteristics
While research in social presence is ongoing, researchers are confidently recommending designing
online and e-format courses for its presence along the three dimensions we have discussed. By
building trust online, providing social “hand holding” support up front in any course usin g CMC and
promoting informal relationships, teachers and instructors can provide a strong sense of social
presence, increase sense of community, and in turn increase interaction among
participeditSocial Presence Theory
Posted by Time Barrow on March 9th, 2010
Categories: communication, Communication Media, dissertation
This theory is foundational to my own research, with my current working dissertation title bei ng: “The
Online Video Conversation: Social Presence in the Asynchronous Online Classroom.” I will detail this
much further later. However, I am now giving this overview, since I am discussing Junghyun Kim’s
2003 article this/last week, and he addresses this theory therein.
Basically, developed by John Short, Ederyn Williams, and Bruce Christie in 1976, social presence
theory measures communication media based on the degree of awareness of the other person in a
communication interaction. In most cases, the higher the social presence level, the better the
understanding of both speaker and message. The level is altered with the removal or addition of
each communication modality, such as speech, non-verbal cues, and immediacy of exchange or
Kim discusses the theory, citing Walther and Burgoon (1992) in that the theory assumes that “the
fewer are the channels or codes available within a medium, the less attention is paid by the user to
the presence of other participants.” Also, “CMC, with its paucity of nonverbal elements and feedback
cues, is said to be low in social presence in comparison to FtF communication. When social presence
is lower, messages are more impersonal and unemotional.” An assumption that social presence
theory and media richness (as well as media synchronicity and perhaps media naturalness) make is
that the more cues received, the better the communication enjoyed. However, communication
quality cannot be evaluated only from quantitative data. As noted, there can be internal and external
distracters, various effects due to setting, timing, etc. Also, the cues may be false or misleading,
inaccurate, or empty.
Kim, Junghyun. “Interpersonal Interaction in Computer Mediated Communication (CMC) : Exploratory
Qualitative Research based on Critical Review of the Existing Theories” Paper presented at the annual
meeting of the International Communication Association, Marriott Hotel, San Diego, CA, May 27, 2003.
In relation to what? Are you wanting a definition?
The social presence theory relates to how much intimacy or closeness we can achieve using technology.
It argues basically that the more physical contact we have, the greater the "presence". Greater presence
causes greater intimacy, immediacy, warmth and inter-personal rapport. As a consequence of social
presence, social influence is expected to increase.
Kind of a no-brainer really. The less personal the communication, the less social value it has. Examples:
email, text messaging, chat rooms or text-based interaction will have less value than the phone which has
less value than sitting across the table from someone.