Impression Management in Chat Rooms: A Grounded Theory Model
Becker, Jennifer A. H., Stamp, Glen H., Communication Studies
Impression management, the process by which individuals attempt to control others' perceptions, is pervasive in social interaction (Leary, 1995; Leary & Kowalski, 1990). It may at times involve misrepresenting and presenting fronts that are deviant from one's "true self." Although misrepresentation can hold a pejorative connotation, it is sometimes necessary for smooth social interaction (Bromley, 1993). Misrepresentation is not only prevalent but can be an expectation in social interaction (Goffman, 1959).
Most impression management research focuses on face-to-face (FtF) interaction. However, impression management behaviors are not confined to FtF social interaction. Through computer-mediated communication (CMC), social information can be exchanged to form and manage impressions and to develop relationships (Lea & Spears, 1993; O'Sullivan, 2000; Reid, 1993; Walther, 1992, 1993, 1996). Most CMC impression management research has employed quantitative methods, focusing on empirical trends of behaviors and psychological processes. Less is known about how CMC users understand their online encounters.  The purpose of this research is to explore the understandings and experiences of individuals who regularly engage in chat room discussions (a form of CMC) with regard to impression management behaviors, including misrepresentation of self.
Review of Related Literature
Although impression management occurs for many reasons, its primary purpose is to create and maintain a stable and favorable impression of the self (Arkin, 1986). The ability to project a desirable image to others also enhances self-image and increases psychological comfort.
Impression management is particularly salient in initial interactions, though strangers may be uncertain as to which behaviors would form an optimal impression (Berger & Calabrese, 1975). In FtF interaction, strangers rely initially on the cultural and sociological levels of information to form and cast impressions, then move toward the psychological level (Miller & Steinberg, 1975). Cultural information cannot typically be masked in FtF interaction, but some sociological information (e.g., religion, marital status) can be concealed. Psychological information (i.e., beliefs, values, and attitudes) can also be camouflaged to create a maximally favorable impression.
Impression Management in Computer-mediated Communication
Impression management may be especially salient in chat rooms, where interaction often is characterized by fleeting instances of communication between strangers.  Considering their popularity, the study of impression management in chat rooms is especially important. A study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 29 million people had engaged in a chat room discussion, with five million doing so on a daily basis (Madden, 2003).
Recent research on impression management in CMC focuses on how users rely upon reduced cues in a lean medium. O'Sullivan's (2000) impression management model, the social identification/deindividuation model (SIDE model; Lea & Spears, 1992), and social information processing theory (SIPT; Walther, 1992) focus on how CMC users adapt cognitive and communicative processes in light of reduced social information.
O'Sullivan's (2000) model specifies factors influencing self-presentation in non-mediated and mediated communication. O'Sullivan positions self-concept as the key factor influencing impression management activities, including goal formulation and interactional strategies. He found that threats to self-presentation lead individuals to select mediated communication channels. This model supports past research suggesting that CMC offers individuals opportunities to strategically manage ambiguity.
The SIDE model focuses on the impact of social and personal identity as well as social categorization (Spears & Lea, 1992, 1994). …