Social Media and Communication

Human Communication and Social Media

Group of young people sitting at table in cafe and using smartphones in silence, copy space

“What is communication?” is a question that scholars from different domains have been trying to answer for centuries, and that has guided human progress since the emergence of language.

Ross Buck1 refers to communication as “the process by which the behavior of one animal, the sender, influences the behavior of another, the receiver” and considers the displays of motivation and emotion as the basic form of communication inherent in all social species.

While most animals communicate with each other in unique ways, such as bees dancing to indicate direction and whales using sounds as social cues,2 humans have the most recognizably developed cognitive aptitude among all animals, as evidenced by the development of spoken and written language (e.g., clay tablets of the Sumerians from circa 3500 BC), which became the integrating operator of the social system.” 3

Although there are several definitions of communication—“the sharing of experience4 ; “process or act of transmitting a message from a sender to a receiver”5 ; “a process through which persons create, maintain and alter social order, relationships and identities6 — the majority of definitions share the meaning of “transmission of messages from senders to receivers.

Since there are several definitions, it is better to look at the communication model that is widely cited in communication books.4 According to this model, any communication activity involves at least one sender and one receiver who code (create) and Decode (interpret) a message respectively.

Messages are usually sent by a channel, and the recipients send feedback upon receipt of the message. If we apply the model to YouTube, a video creator would be the sender, people who watch the video are receivers, the Internet and YouTube are the channels, video is the message form, and likes/comments or flags are the feedback.

Figure 5.1 Interactive Communication Model. Source: Tubbs & Moss (2008)

An important part of this model is noise. Ideally there should be less noise than messages the recipient intends to receive; in other words, the signal-to-noise ratio should be high.

However, in today’s social media platforms this ratio may be very low. More importantly, there may be all different kinds of noise. Semantic noise is quite common since language used online is not natural and can be confusing (e.g., brb for “be right back”, lol for “laughing out loud”, etc.).

Psychological noise may come in different forms including having a preference for videos with higher view counts and overlooking unpopular videos, even though view count may not always measure quality. Examples of physical or technical noise may include problematic audio or low broadband speed impeding users from watching a YouTube video.

Motivations for Communication 

The purpose of human communication varies according to the respective schools of thought in the communication discipline. This purpose2 has variously been described as:

  • “reduction of uncertainty,”
  • “creating and managing social knowledge,”
  • “increasing sense of self efficacy,”
  • “pleasure,”
  • “releasing tension and escaping from reality,”
  • “strengthening of information, knowledge and understanding of environment (cognitive),”
  • “strengthening aesthetic, pleasurable and emotional experiences (affective),”
  • “strengthening credibility, confidence, stability and status of the individual (personal integrative),” and
  • “strengthening contact with family, friends and the world (social integrative).”

All of these purposes and desires may actually be reduced to four basic communication needs:

  • inclusion (we all want to belong to groups),
  • affect (we want to be liked by the members of our group),
  • control (we want to control our environment, including our social circle), and
  • pleasure (we want to enjoy our interactions with our social group).7

Beyond these reasons, we can also suspect that the need for communication is inherent and driven by survival instincts, such as reading the emotional cues of our family members to learn about our environment or exchanging information with our group members to get protected from predators.

Perhaps that is why kids all around the world start pointing at objects around the age of one,8 start speaking around two years of age,9 and may never be able to speak a language if they do not talk to anyone before the age of twelve.10

The biological need to communicate can also be applied to social media use. A study11 argued that there are six sociobiological reasons we use social media, as shown in the following table:

Social Grooming: Supporting group cohesion and reassuring others’
Gossip & Phatic Talk: Gossiping or phatic conversation (communicating
just to maintain social relationship, not with a clear purpose, e.g. —Hi!,
Future Collaboration: Building friendship and gaining future
cooperation by using any opportunity to add people to their online social
Reputation Building: Acting more pro-socially while being watched
because of a desire to build a good reputation (Those with a good
reputation will be more likely to get help from others in the future.)
Survival: Presenting ourselves on different social networks to enhance
our survival and reproductive options
Mating: Finding prospective mates (Men are more likely to show profiles
that show status, such as cars or spending money, while women are more
likely to show their relationship status and family-related info.)
Table 5.1 Sociobiological Reasons for Social media Use

Communication is a goal-driven activity and once we decide what we expect from others we send out messages. We always seek information and try to reduce the anxiety that is driven by uncertainty over the future.

We do this by defining our environment (description), predicting what is likely to happen (prediction), and explaining why things occur (explanation).12 Although with our language abilities we can produce an unlimited number of speeches, there are only three types of statements we can make:

  • Declarative (any kind of informational content),
  • Interrogative (any kind of question), and
  • Imperative (any kind of request such as a command, recommendation, suggestion, etc.).13

Social media messages can also be classified according to these coding schemes. For instance, a study that coded Japanese and American college students’ Twitter messages found that Americans post more question-type tweets than do the Japanese.14

It was also found that Japanese Facebook users post fewer negative Declarative statements on brands’ Facebook walls compared to American Facebook users.15

Based on the gender communication literature we can also hypothesize that males will post more imperative statements than females.

According to the book Human Communication, the two major dimensions of communication that heavily impact how we communicate are relationship and context.4 The relationship dimension refers to the social roles and social power differences of the involved parties; for instance, a student may give exactly the same information to his or her teacher quite differently from how he or she shares it with friends.

The context dimension is about the spatial element of communication, meaning where the communication is taking place and what kind of “communication atmosphere/mood” is present.

Two acquaintances may talk to each other in different ways based on whether they are in class, at a birthday party, or at work. Formality and informality of conversation and the mood of the conversation change depending on the context.

In social media, the context becomes irrelevant because a person who shares information and the recipients do not have to share the same environment. The relationship dimension however, becomes a huge challenge on the Internet, because naturally people would not want to share the same info in the same way and in the same frequency with their inner circle, family members and distant friends.

To tackle this problem, people may create multiple accounts with pseudonyms,16 carefully use privacy settings, and use multiple platforms, in addition to limiting their information disclosure.

Similar to the relationship dimension of communication, our communication textbook4 emphasizes the importance of audience characteristics and identifies four different types of communication depending on who our audience is: intrapersonal, interpersonal, mass, and smallgroup communication.

  • Intrapersonal communication is communicating with oneself. For instance while writing a diary, we are communicating with ourselves; in this case we have no other audience members, so we can easily write down our secrets and deepest fears.
  • Interpersonal communication involves interacting with people with whom we share certain relationships. Talking to a friend, we can be honest and direct, but our communication will be influenced by the relationship level with him or her and our expectations from the conversation.
  • Smallgroup communication involves expressing ourselves in groups of between three and twenty people. In a group, our communication is heavily affected by social norms and group dynamics (e.g., taking more risks, or following the leader’s idea).
  • The last is mass communication, which refers to one-way communication between an information source and a large audience. While making a speech in front of an audience, we construct our messages differently, because what we are doing differs from a simple conversation with people we know.

Social media can be considered a combination of interpersonal (one-to-one) and mass (one-to-many) communication. It is neither purely because social media allows millions of people to interact with each other at the same time, nor purely mass communication because all audience members are presumed to be active and can actively respond to communication messages by liking, rating, commenting, and even changing or editing the original messages. Hence social media is called a many-to-many style of communication. 

Nonverbal & Computer-Mediated Communication

Human communication is not limited to spoken language only. Long before humans produced language, they communicated by nonverbal cues (sounds, gestures, facial expressions, etc.).16

As a matter of fact, a researcher in 1970 claimed that 65% of all messages we send are actually nonverbal. Mehrabian18 asserted that 93% of human communication is nonverbal (55% body language, 38% paralanguage such tone of voice, etc., and 7% spoken language), because we usually pay more attention and rely more on nonverbal than on verbal cues.

For instance, if a person has an unhappy facial expression but says positive things about his situation, we conclude that person is actually unhappy; conversely, if someone shows a happy facial expression but says negative things about his or her situation, we may believe that those negative statements do not matter that much and the person must be happy inside.

Figure 5.2 Nonverbal Expressions

According to Mehrabian, we wouldn’t believe that these statements reflect the inner feelings of the speaker because we always give priority to nonverbal messages. 

Nonverbal communication’s superiority over verbal communication is also explained by its long history in human civilization: before humans invented spoken language, they communicated with nonverbal cues such as gestures, facial expressions, and simple sounds.16

Another unique aspect of nonverbal communication is its continuity: in a conversation we may speak and utter words occasionally, but we constantly send nonverbal messages (our physical distance from the other party, facial expression, posture, etc.). Additionally, nonverbal communication is ideal for communicating human emotions and feelings, as this sort of communication is usually spontaneous and natural. Verbal messages, on the other hand, can be more effective to convey the meaning of things that don’t exist (e.g., dreams, imaginations, etc.).16 

Computermediated communication (CMC), that is, any kind of communication activity where messages are transmitted through electronic devices rather than face-to-face interactions, may cause serious communication problems because of its limits on the transmission of nonverbal cues.19

CMC also has two major aspects that make it a sensitive process: synchronicity (synchronous or simultaneous versus asynchronous or delayed messages) and anonymity (real versus hidden identities).19

Synchronous communication where both parties can receive messages simultaneously without any delay and confirm the receipt of their messages generates higher communication satisfaction.20

Anonymity on the Internet is a more complicated topic, as people in general expect others to present their real identities online, but conversely may not want to share their own identity and will self-disclose more information when their identities are anonymous.21 Based on all this information, we can predict that social media platforms that enable participants to be anonymous and utilize more nonverbal cues that can better transmit facial expressions and body language synchronously, such as enriched emoticons or video streaming, are more likely to be adopted by Internet users. 

During the early years of the Internet, it was presumed that people just behave and communicate differently online compared to the real world because of the online disinhibition effect22 (reduced self-control) explained below.

Perhaps the biggest example of this difference would be introverts’ being more active than extroverts online because, according to the social compensation hypothesis, cyberspace is more rewarding for them. However, this proposition is not accepted by all scholars. It is also plausible that extroverts can reach even more people by using online communication technologies.

The following table summarizes the four common hypotheses about computer-mediated communication.

Dissociative Anonymity: Having an opportunity to be anonymous may subconsciously change us
Invisibility: When we are anonymous we conceal our identity.
Asynchronicity: Emails or text messages are not synchronous; there are delays in the feedback we get from people we talk with. This makes people think the online world must be different
Dissociative Imagination: Some people think the online world is completely different than real life with different rules.
Different Personal Dispositions: Introverts may be more active and some people may not want to disclose anything at all.
Table 5.2 Online Disinhibition Effect. Source: Suler (2004)
Displacement Hypothesis: The development of children and young people who communicate online is hindered because usually online communication reduces opportunities for offline communication. More time spent online means less time left for face-to-face communication
Increase Hypothesis: The Internet increases our chances to reach and communicate with more people because it eliminates time and location barriers.
Rich-Get-Richer Hypothesis: The Internet is more beneficial for those who already have a large (rich) social network and strong social connections. They can grow social networks exponentially and discover new opportunities.
Social Compensation Hypothesis: The Internet is more beneficial for those who don’t have a large social network. They can feel more comfortable online and build new social connections.
Table 5.3 Four Hypotheses of Online Communication. Source: Lee (2009)

Whether spending time on the Internet is good or not, studies confirm that communicating online and offline may be a bit different. It was found that when negotiating via email people are more likely to lie compared to negotiations where people use handwritten notes.24

By the same token, people who interact via email are less likely to cooperate compared to those who interact face-to-face. When people evaluate their peers’ performance using computers, their appraisals are more likely to be negative compared to those who do the evaluation in a paper-and-pencil format.26

On the other hand, some similarities to real-life verbal communication also exist. For instance, people who feel guilty usually send long messages and people who feel angry tend to send short messages.27 Similarly, females send long and more complex SMS messages than males;28 however, they don’t necessarily use emoticons more frequently even though they are known to be more emotionally expressive than males.29

Thurlow,19 author of the book Computer Mediated Communication suggests that nowadays the difference between online and offline worlds are blurred. This may be related tot he age of the Internet: when it first emerged, the Internet was totally new to everyone, but today where almost everyone owns a cell phone and a PC, communicating online is part of everyday life.

Supporting this argument, studies show that there are not many major differences between offline and online social networks.

For instance, a Pew study30 found that people have met 89% of their Facebook friends at least once. The same study also indicated that active Facebook users (those who interact with most other members) report higher life satisfaction and emotional support, the same effects of real-life friendships.

Lastly, according the Pew report, people tagged 6% of their Facebook friends in photos; if we presume that people are likely to tag their close friends, this percentage is very similar to Dunbar’s 150 network members with close friends numbering between 4 and 6. However, contrary to these findings, it was recently found that one’s life satisfaction can be successfully predicted by the person’s offline social network group, but not by one’s online social network group.31

Figure 5.4 Cyber World and Real World – Then and Now. Copyright SAGE (Thurlow et al., 2004)

Chapter References:

1. Buck, Ross. (1984), The Communication of Emotion, New York: Guilford Press. 

2. Heath, Robert and Jennings Bryant (1992), Human Communication Theory and Research; Concepts, Contexts, and Challenges, Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 

3. Habermas, J. (1987). The Philosophical Discoiirse of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press. 

4. Tubbs, S. L., Moss, S., & Papastefanou, N. (2008). Human communication: principles and contexts. New York: McGraw-Hill. Culture and Social Media 171 

5. Devito, Joseph A. (1986), The Communication Handbook: A Dictionary, New York: Harper & Row. 

6. Cronen, Vernon E., Barnett W. Pearce and Linda M. Harris (1982).The coordinated management of communication theory: A theory of communication. In Human Communication Theory: Comparative Essays (pp. 61-89). New York: Harper & Row. 

7. Flaherty, L. M., Pearce, K. J., & Rubin, R. B. (1998). Internet and facetoface communication: Not functional alternatives. Communication Quarterly, 46(3), 250-268. 

8. Liszkowski, U., Carpenter, M., Striano, T., & Tomasello, M. (2006). 12-and 18-month-olds point to provide information for others. Journal of Cognition and Development, 7(2), 173-187. 

9. Shatz, M. (1994). A Toddler’s Life: Becoming a Person. Oxford University Press, Inc., 2001 Evans Road, Cary, NC 27513 (paperback: ISBN-0-19-509923-0, $14.95; hardback: ISBN-0-19-508417-9, $38). 

10. Jones, P. E. (1995). Contradictions and unanswered questions in the Genie case: A fresh look at the linguistic evidence. Language & Communication,15(3), 261-280. 

11. Lai, C. H., & E Katz, J. (2012). Are we evolved to live with mobiles? An evolutionary view of mobile communication. Social and Management Sciences,20(1), 45-54. 

12. Gudykunst, W. B. (Ed.). (1993). Communication in Japan and the United States. SUNY Press. 

13. Searle, J. R., Kiefer, F., & Bierwisch, M. (Eds.). (1980). Speech act theory and pragmatics (Vol. 10). Dordrecht: D. Reidel. 

14. Acar, A., & Deguchi, A. (2013). Culture and social media usage: Analysis of Japanese Twitter Users. International Journal of Electronic Commerce, 4(1), 21-32. 

15. Takamura, D. (2013). What Do People Tell Brands on Facebook? A Comparison of Japanese and American Facebook Users. Unpublished graduation thesis. Kobe, Japan. 

16. Reagle, J., & Cranor, L. F. (1999). The platform for privacy preferences.Communications of the ACM, 42(2), 48-55. 

17. Birdwhistell, R. 1970. Kinesics in Context. University of Pennsylvania Press. Philadelphia 

18. Mehrabian, A. (1971). Silent messages. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

19. Thurlow, C., Lengel, L., & Tomic, A. (2004). Computer mediated communication. London: Sage. 

20. Li, S., Zhang, Y., & Zhao, D. (2005). A longitudinal study: Does synchronous channel use affect the long-distance relationship. I 172 References Conference Paper-International Communication Association (pp. 1- 18). 

21. Qian, H., & Scott, C. R. (2007). Anonymity and SelfDisclosure on Weblogs.Journal of ComputerMediated Communication, 12(4), 1428-1451. 

22. Suler, J. (2004). The online disinhibition effect. Cyberpsychology & behavior,7(3), 321-326. 

23. Lee, S. J. (2009). Online Communication and Adolescent Social Ties: Who benefits more from Internet use?*. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 14(3), 509-531. 

24. Naquin, C. E., Kurtzberg, T. R., & Belkin, L. Y. (2010). The finer points of lying online: e-mail versus pen and paper. Journal of Applied Psychology, 95(2), 387. 

25. Naquin, C. E., Kurtzberg, T. R., & Belkin, L. Y. (2008). E-mail communication and group cooperation in mixed motive contexts. Social Justice Research,21(4), 470-489. 

26. Kurtzberg, T. R., Naquin, C. E., & Belkin, L. Y. (2005). Electronic performance appraisals: The effects of e-mail communication on peer ratings in actual and simulated environments. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 98(2), 216-226. 

27. Kato, Y., Kato, S., Scott, D. J., & Takeuchi, T. (2009). Analyzing Emotional Cue Transmission and Message Contents in Japanese Mobile Phone Email Communications. In World Conference on Educational Multimedia, Hypermedia and Telecommunications (Vol. 2009, No. 1, pp. 654-666). 

28. Ling, R. (2005). The sociolinguistics of SMS: An analysis of SMS use by a random sample of Norwegians. In Mobile Communications (pp. 335-349). Springer London. 

29. Huffaker, D. A., & Calvert, S. L. (2005). Gender, identity, and language use in teenage blogs. Journal of ComputerMediated Communication, 10(2), 00-00. 

30. Hampton, K., Goulet, L. S., Rainie, L., & Purcell, K. (2011). Social networking sites and our lives. Retrieved Dec. 26, 2013, from 

31. Rosen, D., Stefanone, M. A., & Lackaff, D. (2010). Culturally unique social patterns in computer-mediated social networking. In Interpersonal relations and social patterns in communication technologies, pp. 354-3

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