Varying definations of online communication.

Running head: VARYING DEFINITIONS OF ONLINE COMMUNICATION 1

VARYING DEFINITIONS OF ONLINE COMMUNICATION 2

Abstract

This paper explores four published articles that report on results from research conducted
on online (Internet) and offline (non-Internet) relationships and their relationship to
computer-mediated communication (CMC). The articles, however, vary in their
definitions and uses of CMC. Butler and Kraut (2002) suggest that face-to-face (FtF)
interactions are more effective than CMC, defined and used as “email,” in creating
feelings of closeness or intimacy. Other articles define CMC differently and, therefore,
offer different results. This paper examines Cummings et al.’s research in relation to
three other research articles to suggest that all forms of CMC should be studied in order
to fully understand how CMC influences online and offline relationships.
Keywords: computer-mediated communication, face-to-face communication

VARYING DEFINITIONS OF ONLINE COMMUNICATION 3

Varying Definitions of Online Communication and
Their Effects on Relationship Research

Numerous studies have been conducted on various facets of Internet relationships,
focusing on the levels of intimacy, closeness, different communication modalities, and
the frequency of use of CMC. However, contradictory results are suggested within this
research mostly because only certain aspects of CMC are investigated, for example, email
only. Cummings, Butler, and Kraut (2002) suggest that FtF interactions are more
effective than CMC (read: email) in creating feelings of closeness or intimacy, while
other studies suggest the opposite. In order to understand how both online (Internet) and
offline (non-Internet) relationships are affected by CMC, all forms of CMC should be
studied. This paper examines Cummings et al.’s research against other CMC research to
propose that additional research be conducted to better understand how online
communication effects relationships.
In Cummings et al.’s (2002) summary article reviewing three empirical studies on
online social relationships, it was found that CMC, especially email, was less effective
than FtF contact in creating and maintaining close social relationships. Two of the three
reviewed studies focusing on communication in non-Internet and Internet relationships
mediated by FtF, phone, or email modalities found that the frequency of each modality’s
use was significantly linked to the strength of the particular relationship (Cummings et
al., 2002). The strength of the relationship was predicted best by FtF and phone
communication, as participants rated email as an inferior means of maintaining personal
relationships as compared to FtF and phone contacts (Cummings et al., 2002).

VARYING DEFINITIONS OF ONLINE COMMUNICATION 4

Cummings et al. (2002) reviewed an additional study conducted in 1999 by the
HomeNet project. In this project, Kraut, Mukhopadhyay, Szczypula, Kiesler, and Scherlis
(1999) compared the value of using CMC and non-CMC to maintain relationships with
partners. They found that participants corresponded less frequently with their Internet
partner (5.2 times per month) than with their non-Internet partner (7.2 times per month)
(as cited in Cummings et al., 2002). This difference does not seem significant, as it is
only two times less per month. However, in additional self-report surveys, participants
responded feeling more distant, or less intimate, towards their Internet partner than their
non-Internet partner. This finding may be attributed to participants’ beliefs that email is
an inferior mode of personal relationship communication.
Intimacy is necessary in the creation and maintenance of relationships, as it is

defined as the sharing of a person’s innermost being with another person, i.e., self-
disclosure (Hu, Wood, Smith, & Westbrook, 2004). Relationships are facilitated by the

reciprocal self-disclosing between partners, regardless of non-CMC or CMC. Cummings
et al.’s (2002) reviewed results contradict other studies that research the connection
between intimacy and relationships through CMC.
Hu et al. (2004) studied the relationship between the frequency of Instant
Messenger (IM) use and the degree of perceived intimacy among friends. The use of IM
instead of email as a CMC modality was studied because IM supports a non-professional
environment favoring intimate exchanges (Hu et al., 2004). Their results suggest that a
positive relationship exists between the frequency of IM use and intimacy, demonstrating

VARYING DEFINITIONS OF ONLINE COMMUNICATION 5
that participants feel closer to their Internet partner as time progresses through this CMC
modality.
Similarly, Underwood and Findlay (2004) studied the effect of Internet
relationships on primary, specifically non-Internet relationships and the perceived
intimacy of both. In this study, self-disclosure, or intimacy, was measured in terms of
shared secrets through the discussion of personal problems. Participants reported a
significantly higher level of self-disclosure in their Internet relationship as compared to
their primary relationship. In contrast, the participants’ primary relationships were
reported as highly self-disclosed in the past, but the current level of disclosure was
perceived to be lower (Underwood & Findlay, 2004). This result suggests participants
turned to the Internet in order to fulfill the need for intimacy in their lives.
In further support of this finding, Tidwell and Walther (2002) hypothesized CMC
participants employ deeper self-disclosures than FtF participants in order to overcome the
limitations of CMC, e.g., the reliance on nonverbal cues. It was found that CMC partners
engaged in more frequent intimate questions and disclosures than FtF partners in order to
overcome the barriers of CMC. In their study, Tidwell and Walther (2002) measured the
perception of a relationship’s intimacy by the partner of each participant in both the CMC
and FtF conditions. The researchers found that the participants’ partners stated their
CMC partner was more effective in employing more intimate exchanges than their FtF
partner, and both participants and their partners rated their CMC relationship as more
intimate than their FtF relationship.

VARYING DEFINITIONS OF ONLINE COMMUNICATION 6

Discussion

In 2002, Cummings et al. stated that the evidence from their research conflicted
with other data examining the effectiveness of online social relationships. This statement
is supported by the aforementioned discussion of other research. There may be a few
possible theoretical explanations for these discrepancies. First, one reviewed study by
Cummings et al. (2002) examined only email correspondence for their CMC modality.
Therefore, the study is limited to only one mode of communication among other
alternatives, e.g., IM as studied by Hu et al. (2004). Because of its many personalized
features, IM provides more personal CMC. For example, it is in real time without delay,
voice-chat and video features are available for many IM programs, and text boxes can be
personalized with the user’s picture, favorite colors and text, and a wide variety of
emoticons, e.g., :). These options allow for both an increase in self-expression and the
ability to overcompensate for the barriers of CMC through customizable features, as
stated in Tidwell and Walther (2002). Self-disclosure and intimacy may result from IM’s
individualized features, which are not as personalized in email correspondence.
In addition to the limitations of email, Cummings et al. (2002) reviewed studies
that focused on international bank employees and college students. It is possible the
participants’ CMC through email was used primarily for business, professional, and
school matters and not for relationship creation or maintenance. In this case, personal
self-disclosure and intimacy levels are expected to be lower for non-relationship
interactions, as this communication is primarily between boss and employee or student

VARYING DEFINITIONS OF ONLINE COMMUNICATION 7
and professor. Intimacy is not required, or even desired, for these professional
relationships.
Instead of professional correspondence, however, Cummings et al.’s (2002)
review of the HomeNet project focused on already established relationships and CMC’s
effect on relationship maintenance. The HomeNet researchers’ sole dependence on email
communication as CMC may have contributed to the lower levels of intimacy and
closeness among Internet relationships as compared to non-Internet relationships (as cited
in Cummings et al., 2002). The barriers of non-personal communication in email could
be a factor in this project, and this could lead to less intimacy among these Internet
partners. If alternate modalities of CMC were studied in both already established and
professional relationships, perhaps these results would have resembled those of the
previously mentioned research.
In order to gain a complete understanding of CMC’s true effect on both online
and offline relationships, it is necessary to conduct a study that examines all aspects of
CMC. This includes, but is not limited to, email, IM, voice-chat, video-chat, online
journals and diaries, online social groups with message boards, and chat rooms. The
effects on relationships of each modality may be different, and this is demonstrated by
the discrepancies in intimacy between email and IM correspondence. As each mode of
communication becomes more prevalent in individual’s lives, it is important to examine
the impact of all modes of CMC on online and offline relationship formation,
maintenance, and even termination.

VARYING DEFINITIONS OF ONLINE COMMUNICATION 8

References

Cummings, J. N., Butler, B., & Kraut, R. (2002). The quality of online social
relationships. Communications of the ACM, 45(7), 103-108.
Hu, Y., Wood, J. F., Smith, V., & Westbrook, N. (2004). Friendships through IM:
Examining the relationship between instant messaging and intimacy. Journal of
Computer-Mediated Communication, 10(1), 38-48.
Tidwell, L. C., & Walther, J. B. (2002). Computer-mediated communication effects on
disclosure, impressions, and interpersonal evaluations: Getting to know one
another a bit at a time. Human Communication Research, 28(3), 317-348.
Underwood, H., & Findlay, B. (2004). Internet relationships and their impact on primary
relationships. Behaviour Change, 21(2), 127-140.

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