Although early research maintained that computer-mediated communication (CMC) environments lacked elements necessary for attaining satisfying social interaction and by extension--relationships, recent research has clearly established the prevalence of social and personal relationships developed and maintained through means other than face-to-face (FtF) interaction (see Walther & Parks, 2002). Social information processing theory (SIPT; Walther, 1992) is commonly invoked as an explanation for these underlying processes, which contends that differences between relationships developed via CMC and FtF are a function of the rate of information exchange. Because mediation slows the rate and amount of information exchanged, more time is required to attain a level comparable to that achieved through FtF interaction over a shorter period of time.
Although SIPT has received strong support for its propositions, one area in particular has been the focus of recent studies. In its original form, SIPT assumed that individuals utilizing CMC to form relationships are driven to affiliate with others much in the same manner as are those doing so via FtF interaction (Walther, 1992). Subsequent testing led to the addition of boundary conditions and the identification of moderators qualifying this assumption, including relationship seeking behavior (Roberts, Smith, & Pollock, 1996), personal attitudes towards CMC (Utz, 2000), and the anticipation of future interaction (AFI; Walther, 1994, 1997; Walther, Slovacek, & Tidwell, 2001). It is this latter condition that the present study builds upon.
Previous research has established AFI as a potent determinant of communication behavior and relationship development in CMC (e.g., Walther, 1994, 1997). However, the present article proposes that, in socially oriented CMC, AFI motivates individuals to reduce initial uncertainty and to gather information about partners (Walther & Parks, 2002), which in turn influence the formation and valence of initial impressions and forecasting of predictions of future relational outcomes (Sunnafrank, 1986; Sunnafrank & Ramirez, 2004). It is this prediction based on an initial impression that determines how or even if relationships continue to develop beyond initial stages. The present article examines the proposition from the perspective of SIPT and reports on the results of an experimental study designed to assess its accuracy. In doing so, this research seeks to extend SIPT by further refining its predictive ability. In its present form, SIPT explains how relationships develop. Examining the predictive ability of initial impressions in CMC may provide SIPT with a more accurate explanation for why they continue to develop.]
Social Information Processing Theory
SIPT is based on five assumptions and six propositions directed at explaining relationship development in CMC (Walther, 1992). The theory contends that the reduced number of cues available in CMC, especially text-based formats, do not completely eliminate social information or inherently alter message content in predictable ways. Instead, SIPT proposes that message exchange via CMC is a slower process and one necessitating extended periods of time for messages to accrue. Because much of the social information that is readily apparent in FtF interaction must be made explicit (e.g., visual information), the use of computer-mediated systems requires an increased reliance on the affordances provided by a medium to compensate for its limitations (Ramirez, Walther, Burgoon, & Sunnafrank, 2002). Communicators utilize available cue systems and infuse their messages with both task-oriented and socially oriented information to achieve goals, to form impressions, and to develop relationships. In the case of text-based CMC, communicators rely on a single channel--the verbal channel--and accommodate temporal differences in the rate of message exchange to disclose personal information, to reduce uncertainty, and to convey relational messages needed for relationship formation (e. …