BY SHARON A. ANGLEMAN
ARKANSAS STATE UNIVERSITY, JONESBORO, DECEMBER 2000
A Project Presented to Dr. O Dr. O. Amienyi, Professor of Radio/TV, and the ASU College of Communications in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements of Theory of Mass Communications, November 2000
Some researchers identify social presence as the degree to which a medium is viewed as warm and sociable, and to what extent it is perceived as personal and sensitive when users interact with each other. Social presence means that there is a sense of other people with or around you. The greater this feeling, the more the environment is believed to be real. When interactions or connections take place, you perceive a social existence. Acknowledgement by others even further validates your own existence. Media richness theory (Rice, 1993) and social presence theory (Short, Williams & Christie, 1976) help researchers explain the phenomena of presence and provide a framework for increasing efficiency and gratification within the media. It is important to understand the elements at work because of the ways in which media differ in overcoming time and geographical constraints and in how they convey communication cues and information (Lombard & Ditton, 1997). There is a general belief that a direct relationship exists between a person’s perception of presence and the degree to which their human senses are stimulated by a medium (Anderson & Casey, 1997). The degree of stimulation necessary, however, is not the same for each one of the human senses. Research by Short, Williams and Christie (1976) suggests that visual stimuli create more social presence than audio stimuli, which in turn creates more social presence than text material. In general, the greatest degree of presence is created through a combination of visual and audio stimuli. Depth perceptions, dimension presentation, color, camera movement (equilibrium), image size and quality all have an influence on the degree of presence.
McLeod and Chaffee (1972) describe the "construction of social reality" as a process whereby interpersonal and media communications within a society or culture provide members their perception of what is real. Groups collectively define what is real. If everyone agrees that something exists, then it is decreed real. The Cyberspace environment follows this same process of construction, just as "real" societies do. The sense of presence created during this process provides the beginning of a sense of communality.
The minimal level of presence occurs when users feel that a "form, behavior, or sensory experience indicates the presence of another intelligence," (Biocca, 1997). Biocca writes, "The amount of social presence is the degree to which a user feels access to the intelligence, intentions, and sensory impressions of another." Our senses convey to us the intelligence, presence and impression of others connected online with us. Biocca writes also that the senses are "portals to the mind." Sekuler and Blake contend that the human senses are "communication channels to reality."
Albert Benschop (1997) writes that people who meet online interact in a way that is actually "more real" than physical meetings. We are human creatures who make and exchange symbols and messages, and the Internet effectively allows this, thus enabling us to become "more human." He writes: "These symbolic interactions occurring in virtual worlds are not more nor less realistic than those occurring in the "real" world. [The] communication of human symbols …generates a feeling of social presence in the participants."
In a discussion about entertainment platforms used in online, Carrie Heeter (1992) provides a basic concept defining the three dimensions of presence users must experience if they are to fully appreciate their environment. The factors proposed here are not merely part of a formula for a successful game. They can also be used to describe the basic elements necessary for humans to experience themselves and the world around them. Heeter writes:
The three presence elements in a virtual reality game can be used to provide a filtered insight into the effects of CMC. The less aware the user is of the physical interface separating them from the other person, the more invisible that interface becomes. Consequently, the less visible the interface is, the richer and more interactive the experience becomes since the elements and effects of the interaction are perceived to be more vivid and real (Lombard & Ditton, 2000). If the elements of the interaction reach a sufficient level of vividness and reality, the user will experience the illusion that the interface is not there at all. In this case Lombard writes, the border between "this side" and "that side" disappears and users become part of each other’s immediate environment.
The effects of presence are just as varied as the elements of presence. They can include arousal, pleasure and even parasocial tendencies. Experiencing expressive physical behaviors such as smiling, blushing or gesturing are especially helpful in creating a sense of presence online. Intimate reactions such as these enhance closeness even though the other person does not internalize them. No doubt that this influenced the creation of emoticons.
In his study of interpersonal relationships online, Walther (1996) discusses the potential for rich meaningful relationships originating in this environment. He concluded that this was not only possible, but also probable that some relationships would acquire more quality and substance than non-mediated relationships.
In essence, the examination of the social presence theories might transform Descartes’ proclamation, "I think, therefore I am" into "You think I am, therefore I must be." It would be difficult to say whether validation of your existence depends on your belief of being, or whether your belief depends on your validation. The more submerged one becomes with their environment, the more difficult that discernment becomes, especially when events are internalized and physically or emotionally reacted to.